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.
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?)
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.
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.
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.
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.