Thursday, July 27, 2006

Watt Pra That Phanom.... the Spiritual Center of Northeastern Thailand and Lao..

This Buddhist temple located northeastern Thailand is a royal temple and is considered extremely sacrid to the Thai people of this region as well as the people of Lao. I arrived in That Phanom, a small town situated on the banks of the Mekong River, on May 24th, 2006. I'd been invited by Phra Maha Wannachai, the Director of the Buddhist University in That Phanom, to come and teach English to the students. In addition to teaching English, I have also been studying meditation with the Abbot of this Royal temple. The first day I arrived at the temple, I accompanied Phra Maha Wannachia to the evening chanting. Following the chanting, the Abbot invited me to his residence where he was kind enough to patiently instruct me in meditation techniques.

Whether sitting in the second floor bedroom at the University that I was given to stay in during my time in That Phanom, or walking on the smooth, cool marble floor that surrounds the holy pagoda within the temple, I have thoroughly enjoyed practicing meditation here.

Legend has it that following the cremation of Lord Buddha in India, one of his disciples, Phra Maha Gassapa brought Buddha's clavical bone to That Phanom in Thailand. A special pagoda was built about 535 B.C. to house the holy relic. On August 11th, 1975, the pagoda collapsed and the current pagoda which stands 57 meters high, was built.

Whether looking at the towering pagoda by day or by night... it is truly spectacular!

A view of the outer wall of the second courtyard surrounding the pagoda which houses the sacrid bones of Buddha. The first small courtyard, with its wall that immediately surrounds the huge pagoda, is not accessable to the public. The brightly painted red doors on each of the four walls of the first courtyard are kept locked, and opened only for very special guests, i.e. the King of Thailand.

The four outer wall of the second courtyard are lined with gold Buddha statues. Behind the statues and set into the walls are small areas where the cremated remains of individuals can be placed.

This metal casket or vault, housed the sacrid bones of Buddha, in the pagoda which collapsed in 1975. Within the new pagoda, the sacrid relics, which consist of eight little bone fragments, have been placed initially in a glass container, which was then placed in a series of seven gold boxes. These gold boxes were subsequently placed inside a metal vault which was encased in cement. The series of glass, gold, metal and cement containers housing the sacrid relics are situated about 20 meters up in the large pagoda.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

A family places their Dad's "ashes" in the Mekong River...

For a week prior to the actual cremation, the family kept their father's body in an air conditioned casket at their home. Community members could come and pay their respects by lighting incense and saying prayers.

One week after the cremation, the family took a boat out into the Mekong River to place their father's ashes into the water.

With monks chanting, family members lit incense sticks as the boat moved up stream to the place where the man's ashes would be given to the Mekong River.

Arriving at the place in the River where the man's final remains would be thrown into the Mekong River, the Abbot poured perfume into the bag holding the man's ashes.

And with the chanting over and prayers having been given, the family threw their father's ashes into the mighty Mekong River...

Saturday, July 01, 2006

Ancient Buddhist-Hindu "Invisible Scaring" Ceremony at sunrise...

Knives slicing “invisible scares” across my bare back…ancient ritualistic chanting by a revered Thai Buddhist monk… a very long and uncomfortable ten hour drive through the dark Thai countryside …...a special early morning “mantra piercing” ceremony at a rural Thai temple near Cambodia, ….. the aromatic smell of incense filling the air…..flickering candles…..a special oil….. sword……all…. “to protect from dangerous” ….

Sound strange….? Verging on the weird you say? ….. Maybe even a tad bit bizarre? Well, let me tell you a tale about this unique side trip I made, while on my journey toward Enlightenment in Thailand! Were it not for the detailed pictures and dramatic video taken during this strange, surreal ceremony, I might have thought it was nothing more than a nightmarish dream. But it wasn’t a dream! It happened…. to me!

My back... hours after the bizzar ceremony...

The reality of this unique adventure hit me with the force of a Mac truck when I returned to Nongkai and watched in amazement, the utterly shocked faces of University students, as they looked at the video of the ceremony. When some of them grimaced, turned their heads and looked away from the video screen, I knew the pain I’d felt the day before during the ceremony had been real and not some figment of my imagination! The impact of what I’d experienced was further reinforced when one monk, after asking if he could see my back, lifted my shirt and gasped loudly….

Where to begin this tale!

A few days before, I’d being discussing with Phra Sanya, a monk at Sisaket Temple where I’m staying in Nongkhai, the whole process of Enlightenment. Somewhere along that winding conversational path we were on, Phra Sanya told me about a special ceremony involving what he termed…“invisible tattoos” made on one’s back. I think Phra Sanya saw the immediate intrigue that must have showed in my eyes… for he returned my look and asked “You want?” Without a moment’s hesitation… I said yes!

Only then did Phra Sanya go on to tell me that it involved knives! Dramatically, as if holding a large sword, he made powerful, rapid jabs and thrusts with his arms to give me an idea of what was involved to make these “invisible scares.” I must have shrunk away from Phra Sanya as I managed to ask….. “Any blood?” Followed immediately by my next question….. “Is it painful?” Negative response to my first question regarding blood, but with regard to the second one, I was not sure what to expect in terms of pain.

As I walked back to my room that night following this conversation, I felt extremely excited about the possibility of participating in this ceremony, as well as a little apprehensive. This apprehensiveness only grew as my mind began trying to sort through what this ceremony might actually involve. The next day, I knew my body had shifted into a new level of anxiety since my stomach, which up until then could eat anything that came along, had begun to feel rather queasy. My appetite was gone. I realized that my mind was playing tricks on me, but even through my meditation practice I could not control the growing anxiety… almost fear that was developing.

With the temple’s Abbot away in India, Phra Sanya informed me Saturday morning, that we’d leave that afternoon for Si Sa Ket, where the ceremony was to take place the next day. Great! With that news, my mind had all day to worry and fuss about this ceremony to put an “invisible scares” on my back!

Our projected 5 p.m. ETD turned into an actual 8 p.m. departure. But even then, we spent nearly an hour getting gas, followed by our driving around to various temples in and around Nongkhai, picking up monks who wanted to accompany us on this trip. By 9 p.m. the van with seven monks, two drivers, a novice and myself were on our way for the all night drive from northeastern Thailand to our destination near the Cambodian border, some 700 kilometers away. I’d brought along a pillow as well as a kind of thin blanket, so before too long, I’d created my own little nest. My nest was not that comfortable however, so for the next ten hours I tossed and turned, trying to get some sleep.

All night long… on and on and on we drove. I’m not sure why some of the monks decided to have long, lively philosophical discussions (actually I had no idea what they were talking about ..I only hear the loud voices) on the drive…. but they did! Meanwhile, there I was, trying to get comfortable, trying to sleep. One of the monks was a smoker, which had us stopping frequently so he could feed his habit…. Actually, his smoking breaks made it possible to also have a potty break!

Long about 7 a.m. our van of pilgrims arrived at the rural temple in Si Sa Ket where this ceremony was to take place. The sun was already bright as everyone piled out of the van, grabbed their towels, toothbrushes and headed to the outdoor toilet area for a quick bath. A large cement cistern at one end of the toilets provided the water for our cold water bucket baths. There we basically washed our faces, hands and feet as we stood on wooden planks to keep our feet off the muddy ground. Then it was off to the temple for breakfast.

As we bathed, community members had been arriving at the temple in cars, trucks and on motorcycles, bringing with them a whole range of food. Sticky rice, steamed rice, noodles, fish sauces, chicken curry type sauces, a sweet corn and noodle soup, and a whole variety of local fruit. In the typical style, the monks ate breakfast first, and then the two drivers and myself, along with the couple dozen villagers who were there, enjoyed the meal. Lots and lots of food and oh…. so delicious!

Breakfast over…. time for this long anticipated ceremony!

A middle aged, dark skinned monk sat chanting on a slightly raised platform, a few feet from a huge gold Buddha statue situated at the front of the temple. The monks and I sat down in front of him, on the grass mats laid out on the floor. Just like that, Phra Sanga instructed me to take off my shirt as he and the other monks did the same, in preparation for the ceremony.

One of the monks.... going under the knife!

Earlier that morning, Phra Sanya had asked me if I wanted to be first… well, first after him… or if I wanted to be last to go through the ceremony. I hesitated in responding, for in my mind I thought…. should I go first and get it over with… without any idea of what will happen? Or… should I wait until the very last, when I will have been able to see exactly what goes on and then…. if it is too bad, I can just opt out. No one, I thought to myself, would be too upset with me if I just decided that I could not go through with it.

Without going into all the gory detail of what I observed while the first monk went under the knife, so to speak, it was my turn! I was second in line to have the knife slice my back………

The platform monk was sitting on to conduct this event was maybe 8 to 10 inches high. I was instructed to crouch down in front of him, my feet toward him, almost in the typical fetal position only with my knees on the floor, and to cradle my heard in my hands. That’s when it started!

The monk poured oil over my back, and while chanting, worked his hand over my back, massaging the oil in. About then… I saw the big, long knife! As he was working the oil into my skin with one hand, with the other, he positioned the knife… or was it a sword? …under my right arm pit and thrust it forward…almost touching my nose! He then slowly withdrew the sword, making sure the back side of the blade made cold contact with my underarm the whole way as he pulled it back..

Okay… point made… you got a sword… the sword will soon be used on my back… In other words, before we even start, let the victim see the blade, up close and personal that’s going to be used to slice and carve them up. A traumatic beginning to my horror movie ….

Here was where the actual physical pain began and the mental anguish, well it continued to grow. My mind began wondering, ….what if something goes drastically wrong? What if he puts too much pressure on the blade as he drags it across my back and he cuts me wide open? How sharp is that knife? What if he grabs the wrong knife… the one someone has just sharpened? Does this guy really know what he’s doing?

I told myself, tried to reassure myself, that Phra Sanya would not put me into a really dangerous situation…or… would he? Oh my mind was just racing along with the speed of the Indianapolis 500!

With one fast arm movement, the monk took the knife and placed the tip under my left shoulder blade, digging the tip of the blade deeply into the flesh. Slowly, pushing down hard of the knife tip, he slowly moved the blade across my back to the fleshy area just under the right shoulder blade. Ouch….. I wanted to cry out with pain! He then repeated the process of jabbing the blade into my soft, tender flesh, now moving the knife from left to right, but this time, across my lower back. The blade was heavily tracing a line just above the waste band of the cotton slacks I was wearing.

From my lower back, the monk transferred the blade of the knife to the top of my left shoulder blade where the knife then began its slow, painful journey of slicing down my left side, cutting into each rib, as the blade came to a halt at the top of my slacks, only to be repeated again, equally as painfully on my right side. From what I could tell… the monk had used the knife to carve a kind of square on my back.

The rest became a blur… since the knife blade scraping across my skin was painful. The straight lines the monk made been carving, now turned into a series of squiggly marks on various parts of my back. This part of the ceremony seemed to go on for an eternity, as the monk used the very tip of the blade to bore down deeply into my flesh. I winched visibly with pain each time the blade was jabbed into a new area of flesh. Will these process of gouging my body ever come to an end, I asked myself? There were a few fleeting moments, when the blade of the knife barely touched my skin, causing a near tickling sensation….but those feelings were few and far between! The dominate sensation was agonizing pain…

The last part of the ceremony was extremely dramatic… and thankfully, oh so very, very thankfully….. I only saw this grand conclusion as I watched the other monks go through it only after I was all done. Had I known ahead of time, or seen what was to happen at this stage in the ceremony, I think I would have seriously freaked out. I sincerely doubt I would have agreed to have done any part of this ritual, had I known its conclusion. Now why the monk conducting the ceremony had not concluded the ceremony the same way with the first monk who went through it, I do not know… Maybe he knew my temperament, maybe he had read my mind, and knew how I would have responded and ……

The end of the ceremony involved the monk taking this long heavy sword, placing the very tip of it in the flesh part of the lower back, then forcefully swinging, in a strong pounding action, a large wooden hammer, so the hammer connected with the handle of the sword! How it was that the force of this blow did not drive the sword straight through my ribs and into the abdominal cavity I do not know! Once was not enough…this action when done on one side of my back, was repeated on each side, again with a loud Crack!

When the last of those loud hammer induced cracks had faded away, the monk leaned forward and spewed oil out of his mouth, all over my back, which he then rubbed over my back with his hands…… and with a last slap of his hand on my back…. He signaled that I was done! Thankfully… done!

For the next 30 minutes, I watched… mesmerized, as the other monks went through the same ceremony I’d just finished. One after one after one, I looked on as they went under the knife… the tip scrapping across their skin, carving designs into their backs and in the process leaving huge, bright red welts. I realized my back too… was a mass of red welts, some straight lines, some curly cues, some squiggly.. but any way you looked at it…. My back was a mass of big, red, angry appearing welts!

Knives put away... shirts put back on... ceremony complete...

Several days later now… the memories of this unbelievable, once in a lifetime experience remain vivid, forever etched into my consciousness…

The monk’s haunting chants still ring in my ears, …….the knife blade slicing across my back an unforgettable image,……… and tinges of the agonizing pain continue to ripple, from time to time, across my back…

All part of my extremely strong, emotional memories of the ancient Buddhist – Hindu ceremony I was so fortunate to have participated in…..a ceremony in which through “invisible scares” a special holy mantra had been placed deep within me…..

Placed deep within me as Phra Sanya had explained ….. “to protect from dangerous.”

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Nongkhai.. another day, another picture, another story!

Before heading off to India on a kind of pilgramage to visit where the Buddha was born, gave his first talk, and died, the Abbot sent me out to a small village where his 83 year old sister lives. She's a real kick!

Well.. seemed I arrived at the Abbot's sister's house just in time for lunch... a meal of stickie rice and... buffalo "lop" ... cooked buffalo hamburger, which just before serving... the raw buffalo blood had been poured over! I ate the rice, but there was no way I was even touching that bloody stuff! Haven't been able to enjoy a meals since ...

One day during passing period at school, I stopped to have a chat with one of my students who was listening to music. And what music was he listening to? American Rap!

Thursday, June 15, 2006

Early morning food alms walking with the monks...

Getting up off the thin mattress on the hard wood floor, I try to shake the tired feeling from my body in time to meet up with the monks as they head out on their daily alms walk. Most nights, I toss and turn, trying vanely to find a soft spot on the wood floor. The fan does indeed keep the bugs off me... well, most of the time... but all it seems to do is blow hot humid air over my body.

I say usually it keeps the bugs off.... last night, I lay there on the floor, slowly breathing in and out... counting the breaths is a great way to forget about the hard floor and drifting off to la la land. Twice I'd almost fallen into blessed sleep, when I noticed something crawling on my leg. The first time, I just shook it off and began counting by breath again.

When the little critter interrupted my slide into sleep a second time, I bolted straight up into a sitting position and.... there, I could see through the faint light coming through the windows ... crawling on my shin was this huge, dirty, ugly brown cockroach! Now I jumped to my feet as the nasty bug tried to race away by crawling up the wall.

No... I didn't kill it! Since I've been learning from the Abbott not to kill anything... even on the early morning alms walk, the Abbott has frequently stopped, called me up to him and pointed out a worm, slug, thousand legged insect moving along the road and has asked me to help move it to the security of the side of the road. Okay.... but with my sleep interrupted and now my skin crawling because this creature has invaded my space.... I was not feeling that Buddhist...

So .. I wacked it hard enough to knock it unconscious long enough to gather it up and unceremoniously toss it out the window! Goodnight and good riddence bug!

The third time as I drifted off to sleep, I thought to myself... what's up with me and cockroaches? First the breakfast table in Bangkok and now my meager bed in NongKhai!

Okay.. enough about me and back to the early morning monk walk... The monks and novices, (usually 5 to 8 of them) gather in front of the university just before 6 a.m. The Abbott arrives shortly thereafter and like a mother duckling, leads the single file row of monks and novices that fall in behind him. The Abbott follows are set route each day, and it would seem that pretty much the same people are there, waiting along side the road to give their food to the monks.

What food is given? Sticky rice is pretty much the basic staple... hot and fresh, scooped out of the woven grass basket, by hand, and placed into each of the monk's alm bowls as they file past. Other foods include, hard boiled egges, bottles of water, various kinds of sauces which have been packaged in little plastic bags, fruit, pastries, and even sometimes people give money.

When the Abbott's bowl has gotten too full, he usually calls me up to walk beside him and hand carry some of the surplus food. Everytime I've gone out on walks with the monks, their bowls have been overflowing with food by the time we finish our 30 minute walk.

Back at the temple, the food is taken out of the alms bowls and placed in dishes for 7 a.m. breakfast. After the Abbott eats breakfast, I can sit down and have the left overs... which usually still means a lot of food.

Even in orange, these little boys are still little boys!

Teaching at ... you ready for the name of the school where I'm teaching this year?

Here it is.... Balisatitsuksar Mahachulalongornracha Vittayalai School!

These little novices are a kick! Enthusiastic, excited, eager to learn, out of control some of the time... all of the above! But what can I expect with a class of 45 teenagers late in the afternoon!

For the last three weeks, I have been teaching four periods per week of conversational English to the equavalent of squirrely little 9th graders. They are a handfull to keep busy and engaged for 50 minutes! Especially when I get them end of the day on Monday and Friday. Just what every kid wants to do at 5:30 p.m. on a Friday... go to study a foreign language! Starting next week, for the next three weeks, I'll be teaching 10th graders and will have 6 classes per week.

The novices begin their day early with a wake up call long before 5 a.m. so they can go to the temple for chanting before they head off on their food alms walk long about 5:30 a.m. They walk bare foot through the community with their bowl, collecting the food they will eat for a 7 a.m. breakfast and 11:00 a.m. lunch. From noon onwards, they are not to eat anything until the next day.

Arriving back at their temple from the alms walk, they usually spend about an hour sweeping the grounds before having breakfast. Between breakfast and lunch, the novice spend their time studying, cleaning their rooms, washing their clothes, bathing ... all the normal day-to-day life activities. Oh, forgot... watching T.V. too! Walked into one of the monk's rooms the other day, and there a whole group of novices sat on the floor watching Buddha cartoons!

School starts for them at 12:30 p.m. with a type of home room general assembly before starting class at 1:00 p.m. Their six periods of classes then continue throughout the afternoon, finishing about 6:30 p.m. when they head back to their temple. B

Sunday, June 11, 2006

Rites of cremation for a village elder in Ban That village...

The week of mourning closed on Saturday morning with the Abbot from Wat Sriskat in Nongkhai traveling to the home of the dead man for the ceremonial chanting followed by lunch. With the villagers following behind, the casket was carried on the back of a truck to the cremation site, a simple raised structure with a single chamber for burning the body.

Upon arrival at the crematorium, with mournfull music playing, the truck circled the building three times, with the family walking slowly behind. Then, the casket was carried up the stairs and placed on a platform leading to the furnace where it would be burned. The top of the simple wooden casket was removed so the body could be symbollically washed by family and community members by their sprinkling coconut water over it. The top was then replaced so the remaining ceremonial activities could be completed over the next three hours. Activities included chanting by the Buddhist monks, community member speeches, honoring the man by placing envelops with money on his casket which would later be distributed to the monks and other charities. The final act involved each member of the community walking up the stairs of the crematorium to lay a small bundle of wood on the casket.

From the book, Buddhism and Society by Melford E. Siro...

"Man is an aggrigate of five material factors and processes which, at death, disinegrate without residue." (the five aggrigates being: the physical body including the five senses; feelings/emotions; perceptions; mental formations; and consciousness)

"For buddhism it is the continuation of life across an almost endless cycle of rebirths which is inevitable, and it is this possibility which is the ultimate tradgedy. The extinction of life, which others might lament as man's automatic and inevitable fate, is viewed by Buddhism as neither inevitable or lamentable. On the contrary, for Buddhism, it is not the extinction but the persistence of life that is automatic and - but for the practice of Buddhist discipline - inevitable."

Monday, June 05, 2006

Startled by two teenage Naga!

A strange, un-naturally cool breeze caressing my sweat beaded brow, instantly alerted me that I was not alone as I stood in deep concentration on the banks of the Mekong River. The sky was nearly cloudless and the noon time sun was oppressively hot as it seemed to melt everything it touched. Before that sweet cooling breeze had surrounded and engulfed me, I'd been totally clueless as to the drama that had begun unfolding in the tall green grass directly behind me.

Two young, teenage Naga must have been playing around in the fields, as the Abbott of Srisaket Temple, Dr. Phrarajwuthimunee had brought me to this site just a few minutes before, where he'd come to release turtles, eel, snails and catfish into the water as part of a "merit" making ceremony.

Once the little critters,snails, eel, etc. had all been released back into the water, I'd stepped away from the Abbott for a few minutes of silent "standing" meditation along the humid banks of the Mekong. I'm not sure how long I'd been standing, baking under the noon time sun, when the cool breeze awakened me to my surroundings.

As if emerging from a thick, dense fog, my mind immediately snapped to attention. All my senses went on high alert. My hearing became so acute, I knew I could have heard a fish swimming by in the water or a butterfly landing on a flower a few feet away. My eyes, though tightly closed, could clearly see them. I knew who they were, but I didn't know why they were there, or more importantly, what they would do next!

As my mind tried, rather vainly, to comprehend what was going on as they raced by me, my mind's eye was transfixed by the rich deep color of these young naga's bodies. Their deep yellow, almost golden scales appeared to glow in the sunlight. The reflection of the sun off their scales, was mind blowing if not immediately blinding with its intensity. Highlights of green and red became a blurr as their powerful sleek bodies slithered silently through the tall waving grass.

Time appeared to stand still for an instant, as I saw the two young naga briefly come of a jarring halt on either side of me. Their cold, black eyes, staring deep into my very being, sent a shiver throughout my body.

As those four incredibly deep black penetrating eyes bore into my soul, my mind flashed back to two years ago and my unearthly encounter with the Phra Naga... or King of the Naga, also on the banks of the Mekong. For a very brief moment, that same ungodly fear that had so completely gripped me on that fateful day two years ago, flashed back through my mind, causing my body to freeze. For a second time, I found myself unable to move even one muscle, scared literally to death, and uncertain of what might happen next.

"T" came the faint call of the Abbott. A few moments passed.... "T" the Abbott called for a second time....

Slowly I opened my eyes. The brilliant sun blinded me for an instant... I squinted my eyes to try and see the two young naga. From the corners of my eyes, all I could see was the movement of the tall green grass, waving slightly in the wind. Rapidly blinking my eyes, I strained to clear the blur and focus on the Mekong instead.

All was quiet. Nothing out of the ordinary could I see, as my eyes now took in the whole panoramic view of the river front. Just in front of me, two slight ripples in the water's edge were all I could see. Fast fading ripples, as if something had just slipped silently back into the muddly waters.

"T... are coming?" called the Abbott. "I'm on my way" I answered ... as my eye briefly caught a greenish yellow reflection moving quickly, just a few inches under the water...

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