Every year the “heart” of the chedi (stupa) of Wat Chom Jaeng is taken for an excursion around the village. People vie for the chance to have the sacred object pass by or pause at their house. The return to the temple precincts is usually a major community event culminating in a festive procession involving units from neighboring villages. The heart is then reinstalled into the chedi.
When the new chedi at Wat Ta Pong was completed, the last formal ceremony was the installation of a heart in its upper region. The heart, I was told by the abbot, was a donation from the Supreme Patriarch of the Buddhist Sangha hierarchy in Bangkok. I understand the item looked like a crystal about the size of a child’s thumb, encased in a transparent, sealed glass case, very much like the one in Wat Chom Jaeng. As far as I know this heart is not going to be taken on any excursions.
That it not to say the heart of the chedi will not go on its own. It is widely believed that the heart of the chedi can depart to visit sacred places. I was eating lunch with a group of 6 women a few months ago when this subject came up. All 6 of them told me in no uncertain terms they believed this happened, and 5 of them insisted they had seen it with their own eyes. What they described was balls of light emerging from a temple in the vicinity of its chedi and then zooming away to pause here and there, including other temples.
An abbot confirmed this notion. “When I was a young novice I saw this happen. The ball of light rose from a temple in the distance. It was very beautiful. 5 or 6 of us saw it. The light rose out of the temple and split into three lights that soared in different directions. Sometimes they would disappear or dive down out of sight and then reappear.” The abbot repeated that the lights connected with sacred places.
Internet websites dedicated to paranormal phenomena describe balls of light sightings from all over the world. Some of them seem to be so predictable that groups gather to watch. In Thailand the most famous are balls of light that rise out of the Mekong River at Nongkhai, attributed to a Naga that resides in the river. Skeptics suspect a more human manufacture, but the skepticism has only increased the number of spectators.
Before we rush to conclude that the connection between these balls of light and a crystal from His Holiness the Supreme Patriarch is the imagination of simple folk, pause to consider three matters: (1) Buddhism in Thailand is composed of several realms of discourse, each based on its own set of propositions. (2) The issue of whether there is or is not a verifiable connection between evidence-based assumptions and significance of religious articles is tenuous as well as unnecessary. (3) Buddhist truth (Dharma) is philosophical, while the rest of Thai Buddhism is metaphorical or optional.
With regard to hearts of chedis being seen as balls of light, at least part of the concept is accepted as supernatural. One characteristic of the supernatural is that it is lightly held in some way. It may be an open question about whether the phenomenon exists or happened; uncertainty is implied. Even when people are sure of what they saw or experienced, its meaning may be uncertain; and since religion is always about meaning, it may have nothing to do with religion. Even if it is insisted the phenomenon has to do with religion it may be uncertain that it connects to any physical object, no matter how sacred that object may be held to be. Sacred objects, be they stones, statues, or relics, reveal their nature to those who are paying appropriate attention. In no case, however, is the significance of a metaphorical symbol impacted in the slightest by supernatural attributions or by denial of them. (This is a point which critics of religion ignore.)
It is instructive that people call the event at Wat Chom Jaeng “prapaynee song phra that” which could be literally rendered “the custom of accompanying the divine foot” or “foot-step”. Phra that is a designation for not only a mystic footprint of the Lord Buddha but also for a chedi. Every chedi represents the world mountain, an axial shaft between heaven and hell (associated with the mysteries of birth and death). The Lord Buddha stepped off the top of the world mountain to depart between reincarnations, as may be inferred from legends of the previous lives of the Lord Buddha. A Thai Buddhist temple that has been granted the honor of constructing such a chedi usually adds “phra that” to its name (e.g. Wat Phra That Doi Sutape).
Several things can be noticed about these random observations of the chedi and its heart:
1.A chedi is a reliquary containing bones of a person or a relic of the Lord Buddha.
2.A chedi is a monument, meant to be a permanent marker of a sacred place.
3.A chedi is a tradition based on earliest Buddhist structures.
4.A chedi is a metaphor symbolizing the world mountain as a stepping stone to eternity.
5.If a chedi is completed by installing a heart, it is a mystic (occult) action that links it to all chedis and to the Lord Buddha.
6.It is widely held that one derives blessing and makes merit by walking reverently around a chedi.
7.Similar blessings accrue when the heart of the chedi is taken on an excursion.
8.Most chedis have never been said to emit balls of light, so this is not an essential characteristic of a chedi, but it indicates that people believe that the sacred structure has an independent existence that may be more than symbolic.
A chedi is a sacred object. How any particular chedi is sacred is a mythic, mystic mystery.
Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.