A Row of Novices

There is something about monks that makes them very photogenic.  Perhaps it is the bright saffron robes, a brilliant color that creates notable contrast in photos.  Perhaps it is the pared-down simplicity of their person: no hair, no eyebrows, nothing but their robes and an alms bowl.  Perhaps it is the beauty of and image repeated, when you see a row of monks.  Whatever it is, I’m not the first photographer in Southeast Asia to notice that almost anytime you have a monk in a scene, there’s the opportunity for an interesting photo.

Last week while walking to the Skytrain station in the front of my alley, I passed a less-common sight: a row of novice monks collecting alms without any adult supervision. 

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There were nine of them – an auspicious number – along with a tenth who was armed with a megaphone and was announcing their presence.  Unfortunately, I didn’t understand exactly what was happening.  Normally you can find a few monks from the local temple on the next corner up, right at the Thong Lo fresh market.  They are there every morning and the locals, mostly the housewives and housekeepers who are shopping for the day’s ingredients, will make offerings to the monks.

It was unusual to see a who group of novices actually walking the street, so I imagine perhaps they are part of a group that will be entering the monastic life and this is part of their training.  Just a guess, though.

Just a note for when you travel in Southeast Asia: Buddhist monks (at least the Theravada variety who wear these saffron robes) do not accept monetary alms directly as they are forbidden to by the Buddha’s teachings.  Offerings are made of food, robes, candles, toiletries, etc.  Monetary donations are made directly to the temples where they are handled by lay members.  In my travels to Hong Kong and Singapore I have seen “monks” on the street soliciting cash donations.  It is likely they are not legitimate.

 

Beauty Literally Melts Away

In the aftermath of the May political protests and the two days of rioting and fires that followed, certain parts of the city showed the scars of this violence, despite efforts by business and civic leaders to clean up and put on a fresh face.  One area in particular where these scars still showed was the shops in the eastern section of Siam Square, a popular shopping destination in the heart of Bangkok.  Until just a few weeks ago – more than two months after the protests – this sign from a skin care clinic remained unreplaced.

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I saw it while walking from the Siam Skytrain station and found it very evocative of the Buddhist teaching that everything is impermanent, our beauty as well as our bodies.

Just a week or so ago, I passed by again and noticed that the clinic has put a new sign up and is, it seems, back in business.  In this most Buddhist of countries, you can once again test the precepts of your faith and see if beauty can be made permanent.

 

A Buddhist Take on Michael Jackson’s Death and Popular Culture

While I’m not normally one for reposting other’s writings, I felt this article might be of particular interest to you.  With all the fuss over the recent death and funeral of Michael Jackson, it seems that some important lessons have been lost and, worse yet, some of the wrong lessons have been learned.  A Singaporean friend shared this article, by Shravasti Dhammika, a Theravada Buddhist monk of Australian heritage who writes and speaks extensively about Buddhism, especially as it relates to modern life.

MJ And Popular Culture

Shravasti Dhammika Now that the funeral is over I would like to make a few comments on the death of Michael Jackson. Some aspects of the whole business illustrate some interesting trends in popular culture. The first is what I call the exaggeration of emotion. Both here in Singapore and in reports in the foreign media I read expressions like ‘I am devastated’ ‘The whole world is in mourning’ ‘My family and I am in a state of shock’. Really? When I was in the Medical Corps in the army in the late 60’s I sometimes saw severely wounded soldiers evacuated from Vietnam, some of them in shock. Believe me, no one ‘is in a state of shock’ over the death of MJ. And the whole world mourning? I wouldn’t mind betting that a couple of hundred millions peasants in India have never he heard of MJ and even those who have are far more concerned about the fact that the monsoon is late. I suspect that hundreds of millions of poor villagers in South America, China and Africa have hardly given MJ’s death a second thought either, even if they have heard about it. Devastated? Now I saw devastated people on a recent news report of a bomb going off in an Iraqi market. None of the numerous reports I saw about MJ’s showed ‘devastated’ people. The problem with using absurdly exaggerated terminology to describe ordinary experiences, in this case a little bit of sadness, is that when something really shocking or devastating happens we don’t have adequate words to convey its true seriousness or impact. It diminishes it. This misuse of language also encourages people to ‘over-express’ themselves about what are actually rather commonplace events. Sobbing, huddling in weeping groups arms over each others’ shoulders, and gasping ‘Oh my God!’ over the passing of someone you have never met or even seen at a distance on stage, is completely inappropriate. It leaves you with nothing to do when some you are personally are struck by real tragedy.

Did you also notice that during the memorial concert and in the thousands of cards people wrote and left at the hall where it was preformed, that MJ was constantly addressed as if he were present. ‘We love you’, ‘We will always remember you’, ‘You enriched our lives’, instead of ‘We loved him’, We will always remember him’, etc. I find this sort of thing, very common in funerals nowadays, rather weird. And this is not just a matter of the proper use of language. It grows out of and reinforces a sort of pseudo-mysticism in which a vague sentimentality replaces more thoughtful idea about death and the after-life.

Another interesting thing about MJ’s passing is how quickly the recent deep concern and even disgust about aspects of his private life has been elbowed aside by an avalanche of accolades, A genuine and meaningful eulogy to him would include mention of his very real talents in some areas, his great generosity, but also the fact that he apparently made a mess of his life. On several occasions I read of or heard people say things like ‘His message will live forever’, as if he was some great prophet or spiritual teacher. I must say, I find this sort of thing to be the height of vulgarity. It also obscures an extremely important point. If MJ’s life conveys any ‘message’ it would have to be that talent, celebrity and unimaginable wealth do not guarantee happiness. The Buddha said, ‘Truly dire are gains, honor and fame. They are serious and difficult obstacle in the way of attaining true safety’ (S.II,226)

 

Bhante Dhammika’s interesting and thought-provoking writings, which are very accessible to Buddhists and non-Buddhists alike, are posted here.

 

Wan Visakha Bucha

Last Friday was Visakha Bucha day in Thailand and many other parts of the Buddhist world*.  This is the holiest day in Buddhism, commemorating the day when Gautama Buddha was born, attained enlightenment, and passed away.  On this day, believers gather at temples to worship and recall the wisdom, purity and compassion of the Buddha.

In Thailand, Visakha Bucha observance began during the Sukhothai period (around 700 years ago), because of the close religious relations between Thailand and Sri Lanka. Sri Lankan monks came to propagate Buddhism in Thailand and were highly respected.  Thai monks also went to study in Sri Lanka.  It’s believed that those monks introduced this ceremony to Thailand around that time

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While many people arrive at the temple early in the day to make merit by feeding the monks, many more go in the evening to participate in a ceremony known in Thai as wian tian.  (wian = circle, tian = candle)

The core of this ceremony involves a procession three times around the bot, or main sanctuary, of the temple.  Depending upon the temple, sometimes you will proceed around a Buddha image or a chedi (a stupa containing relics) instead.  Regardless, believers carry the traditional offerings: a candle, three sticks of incense, and a lotus blossom. 

The candle represents enlightenment, with knowledge being the source of light in a dark world.  The three incense sticks represent the Buddha, the Dhama (his teachings) and the Sangha (the monks).  As for the lotus, the roots of a lotus are in the mud, the stem grows up through the water, and the flower lies above the water, basking in the sunlight.  It is a common symbol in Buddhism because its pattern of growth reflects the progress of the soul from muddy materialism through the waters of experience to the sunlight of enlightenment.

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On this day, and especially during this procession around the bot, believers are encouraged to meditate, reflecting on the teachings of the Buddha and how they can better follow the Five Precepts:

  1. To refrain from taking life (non-violence towards sentient beings)
  2. To refrain from taking that which is not given (not committing theft)
  3. To refrain from sensual (including sexual) misconduct
  4. To refrain from lying (speaking truth always)
  5. To refrain from intoxicants which lead to loss of mindfulness (specifically, drugs and alcohol)

We went to Wat Phra Ram IX (King Rama IX Temple), a more modern temple founded by the current King of Thailand.  This beautiful temple follows traditional design but features a resplendent all-white exterior, stark compared to the elaborate decorations more common in Thai Buddhist temples.

There were several thousand people present including about two hundred monks and novices.  While some people were already making their procession around the bot, most were listening to the abbot’s sermon, a lighthearted parable about the importance of remaining true to Buddhist teachings even in the midst of contemporary life.

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After the sermon was over, the monks led the crowd on the procession, a nearly endless stream of believers, some chanting, some walking silently, some chatting pleasantly amongst each other as Thais enjoy doing even at religious events.

I shot some footage after we had made our rounds and have compiled it here for your enjoyment:

Observing various religious ceremonies is interesting because there are some aspects that are very universal (or, at least, common across many faiths and traditions) while other aspects are very characteristic of local culture.  I’m not a religious scholar so I won’t expound on those observations.  Suffice it to say that it was a beautiful ceremony to participate in.  

*because of calendar differences, some countries observe Visakha Bucha on different days, but most of the time it falls in April or May.

 

Is sticking a knife into someone positive or negative?

An interesting musing on what the dhamma (the teachings of Buddhism) says about homosexuality, from a blog by a monk of 32 years who lives in Singapore.  A brief excerpt:

ven_d “Is sticking a knife into someone a positive or a negative action?  It depends!  If the knife was held by an enraged violent person it would probably be negative.  If it is held by a surgeon performing an operation to save someone’se life it would certainly be positive.  From the Buddhist perspective, sexual behavior is not judged primarily by the gender of the people involved, by the dictates of a code of behavior drawn up in the Bronze Age or by whether a legal document has been signed, but by its psychological components.  Homosexuals are as capable of wanting and of feeling love and affection towards their partners as heterosexuals are and where such states are present homosexual sex is as acceptable as heterosexual sex.”

To read the rest of this thoughtful article, click here.

 

Monk Sponsorship

Tawn’s employer is celebrating the tenth anniversary of their office here in Thailand.  As part of their anniversary celebrations, Saturday morning they held a tam boon ceremony, literally “make merit.”  Tam boon ceremonies are a large part of what Buddhist monks do.  You call up the temple, arrange for a certain number of monks to come over on a certain morning and then they do the ceremony.  In return, you make a donation to the temple.

Tawn was in charge of arranging for the monks.  Saturday morning we arrived at the temple next to Ekkamai BTS station,  Wat Tat Tong at nine and met the monks.  The senior monk was a kindly man in his fifties, with a friendly disposition and eager to ask me questions to see how much Thai I know.  As we were waiting for the van, he grabbed my arm and, repeating “come take a picture, come take a picture”, led me to one of the main chanting halls to show me one of the Buddha images.  He gave me a lecture about how the main image was from Sukkothai and was several hundred years old, made around the same time as an image at another temple down near the Hualomphong train station.  It was difficult to keep up.  So I took some pictures (below), agreed that it was a very pretty image, and then we went back to the van.  You’ll notice that this wat is decidedly more modest than the Grand Palace and other Thai temples you’re used to seeing pictures of.

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The monks each had a prominent characteristic, reminding me a little (and I mean this in a respectful way) of the Seven Dwarves.  The head monk was like Doc since he was in charge.  A second monk was a jolly, large fellow who upon learning I was from San Francisco was trying to remember the lyrics to a song about the city and then started singing, “I Left My Heart in San Francisco”.  I complimented his memory and asked him whether he liked to sing karaoke, until he explained that “no singing” is one of the 256 precepts that Buddhist monks have to obey.

Whoops!  Faux pas.

As we sat in the van waiting for a third monk who wasn’t answering his phone, he came hustling over to the van still wiping his wet head with his robe.  “Sorry, I just got out of the shower.” he explained.  I’m not sure which dwarf he would be.  Tardy?

The other two monks were junior, “Summer Monks” on break from school.  They don’t get nicknames because other than one’s relatively small ears, they didn’t say or do anything that particularly distinguished them.

We headed to Tawn’s office where about the staff was waiting having already set up the mats, chairs and other necessities for the ceremony.  The monks were seated and then started about twenty minutes of chanting in Pali, the Sanskrit-derived language that is the Buddhist Latin.  (Or maybe Latin is the Catholic Pali?)

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Afterwards the monks were fed.  They have to take their last meal of day by “mid-day” which is usually described as somewhere between 11:00 am and noon.  While it is usual for the monks to be served seated on the floor, in this case they were set up at the conference room, an image that I thought was very funny, below.  Maybe I’ve just seen so many corporate meetings where all the participants were dressed in the same charcoal gray suits that it tickled me to see a conference table filled with people tressed truly identically. 

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Here’s a short video of the first two steps of the ceremony:

While the monks were eating, several of the employees went downstairs to the back of the building and presented offerings at the spirit house.  This isn’t part of the Buddhist ritual as the spirit houses comes from more of an animist / Brahmanist / Hindu background.  The spirit house literally houses the spirit (spirits?) of the land that were displaced when the building was constructed.  Offerings included little portions of food and beverage as well as a single stick of incense per person, below

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P1060591 Returning upstairs, the monks were still eating so Tawn and his colleagues messed around and took photos of each other, being playful as Thais do so well, above

Finally, when the monks were finished, we did the second part of the ceremony which is the blessing with the holy water.  There was further chanting and then the head monk used a bamboo whisk to splash water on everyone.  Seeing me near the back of the group, he flicked a very experienced wrist and a large amount of water sailed over the heads of Tawn and his colleagues and gave me quite a splash, right.

With the air conditioning on high, I nearly caught a cold afterwards!

Something to notice, if you will: in the picture below the monks are chanting behind ceremonial prayer fans.  The purple one on the left used by the head monk was presented to him by the Crown Princess.  The one to the right, used by the happy monk, is interesting because I wasn’t aware that corporate sponsorship was a common practice in Buddhism.  “This merit-making ceremony brought to you by Accenture.  Accenture: High performance.  Delivered.”  Kind of like public radio, I guess.

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The head monk then proceeded around the office, splashing holy water in each room, along the hallways, on the equipment (taking care of the computers and the photocopiers), driving away the bad fortune in much the same way that our exterminator sprayed along windows, doors, and the floor to drive away pests.

Chalk up another interesting cultural experience.

 

Morning in the Big Mango: a queue of motorcycle taxis wait for customers outside the Sukhumvit subway station and Asoke Skytrain station, next to the small Asoke market.  Amidst the yellow-vested taxi drivers, can you spot a trio of saffron-robed monks sitting on plastic stools and collecting alms from the morning shoppers?

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A room with a view: Twenty-some stories above the ground, three window washers dangle as they ensure the occupants of our neighboring office tower have a clear view.  In the distance is the forest of construction cranes erecting the four towers of the Millennium Condominiums, on Sukhumvit 16-18 overlooking the Queen Sirikit Convention Centre.

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Finally, a sign of the coming move: On Saturday our sofa and ottoman were picked up by workmen to be measured for slip-covers.  This was our compromise position.  Tawn didn’t want a leather sofa in the new house but I didn’t want to buy a new sofa just two years after getting this one.

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