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.”

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