What do you do if your parent doesn’t get to heaven? How do you even know?
The Wanna clan (Pramote’s father’s family and ancestors) have been living in the area of the Jom Jaeng temple for generations. Half the people in the village are relatives to some extent. One branch has just about all moved away, but their family homestead is still there at # 123 with one remaining daughter and her family. Their connection to Pramote is that they have the same great-grandfather.
A while back, a daughter who now lives in the North East section of the country had a dream in which she learned that her parents were part of a cluster of deceased ancestors who were hanging around the family home. They had not departed into heaven within 7 days after cremation as folklore said they should have done. That was ominous. Vagrant spirits can become vindictive. Anything to help them gain the spiritual power to move on would be good.
But a dream might be just a dream.
Quite independently Pramote’s younger brother, Yut, had a dream, too. In his dream his father, who died last September, appeared and told him that he was still in the area. He directed Yut to notice the house number where he said he was staying. The house was # 123. Paw instructed Yut to place a lottery bet on that number. Yut, naturally, did as he had been ordered, even though a dream might be just a dream. This dream turned out to be a winner, bringing Yut nearly a thousand dollars (30,000 baht, a record for the family).
When word got around about Yut’s good fortune, the story got back to the distant cousin. She was astounded. The fact that both cousins had had a dream about the family spirits could not be ignored. The family decided they should organize a merit-making event in behalf of their ancestors.
Songkran is the traditional New Year, a three day event. The first day, according to Northern Thai tradition is the last day of the old year. The second day, is a day to start over and move into the new year. It is a day of religious ceremonies, beginning at dawn with merit-making in behalf of the ancestors by name. Tissue paper banners are brought to be inserted in a symbolic mountain made of sand; these will wave in the breeze caused by spirits passing by, we are told. Bags of food are brought to the temple in behalf of departed parents and grandparents. There is then a tak bahtr ritual presentation of rice to priests. And in mid-morning, sacred water is used to wash Buddha images (and usually to bathe the monks). That is the day also to honor surviving elders of one’s parent’s generation. The third day is for traveling to visit distant religious sites where holy events took place involving primal parents and to honor patrons.
In other words, Songkran is very much focused on elders and ancestors.
The Wanna clan decided to hold a merit-making ceremony on the last day of the year, the first day of Songkran. The place, of course, was house #123. A chapter of 10 priests was recruited to chant stanzas for half an hour. The purpose of those stanzas was two-fold: to accrue merit as all chanting of Dharma does, and to transfer the merit magically to the credit of the ancestors. Chanting is very meritorious, and sponsoring such chanting is equally good. Then the family made offerings of rice to the monks, which is also meritorious. A lay leader recited a long, involved chant to relinquish the merit in behalf of ancestors whom he named, and also to those who might benefit from such added merit whose names had been overlooked. The clan then provided a real meal for the monks to eat and also for everyone in the village who had attended. Finally, a model house was removed to the temple grounds. This small house was fully loaded with things the ancestors might be attracted to. It symbolically reiterated a funeral arrangement in which such a model would be moved to the temple grounds while the deceased were being urged to seek their spiritual destiny away from the body they had inhabited. This was a scaled-down version of a funeral service, inasmuch as the previous ones had not fully succeeded.
No one can yet say whether this has been effective in getting the Wanna ancestors on to their next reincarnation. There is no set of principles about what to do if one’s parents haven’t departed for heaven as they were expected to, so they could then be reincarnated to accumulate merit toward enlightenment. Doctrinal Buddhism has little to say about that. Northern Thai folk faith fills in the gaps. The principle in supernaturalism is, if in doubt follow your hunch.
Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.