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Village Rituals and Ceremonies (Thailand)

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In virtually all cultures in which Buddhism is well established among the populace as a whole, Buddhist temples hold regular calendric festivals. Especially in the village context, these rituals and ceremonies often cover a range of social interests and concerns. They generate merit for the devout. They produce merit for the dead and departed and assist them on their way to better states of rebirth. They sustain communication and exchanges among different villages, towns, and temples. They establish and maintain what are considered to be proper gender, monastic, and lay relations and roles.

They instruct the larger community with and through the life, virtues, and moral principles of the Buddha and Buddha-related figures. They celebrate good harvests and agricultural cycles and attempt to ensure the prosperity of those to come. They please village guardian deities and function as modes of requesting continued supernatural protection and blessing. Finally, they provide a context for social amusement, creativity, and fun. Thus, temple rituals and ceremonies, especially annual ones, function as definitive moments in communal identification, social cohesion, and collective expression. To put this point another way, annual temple rituals and ceremonies help to develop and sustain a communityfs understanding of the world at large and to orient its ongoing religious and social life based on that understanding. The following excerpt illustrates one

1. Editorsf note: Jatakas are stories recounting an episode or series of episodes in one of the Buddhafs many previous lives. They play an important role in Buddhism, particularly, though not exclusively, in the Theravada Buddhism of Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia. 2. Editorsf note: The story recounts the many gifts of Prince Vessantara including, ultimately, the gift of his wife and two children to a despicable Brahmin priest. In the end the god Indra intervenes, and Vessantara is reunited with his wife and children and becomes king. For a full translation of the Pali version of this story, see Margaret Cone and Richard F. Gombrich, The Perfect Generosity of Prince Vessantara: A Buddhist Epic (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1977).
such annual temple ceremony as it takes place in and around a monastic complex in northeast Thailand.

Bun Phraawes is the grandest merit-making ceremony in the village of Phraan Muan. The name of the festival derives from the story of Phraa Wes (PrinceVessantara), which relates the story of the Buddha in his last birth before the one in which he attained Buddhahood. For all Buddhists this is preeminent for its moral implications of selfless giving and its deeply moving drama that leads from tragedy to final vindication and triumph. In Thailand it is often referred to as the Mahachad (great Jataka) and is recited in merit-making rites in the form of 1,000 verses divided into thirteen chapters.1 Villagers count Bun Phraawes as merit from listening to a sermon. Listening to the recitation of this long text is believed to confer great merit and the fulfillment of the devoteefs wishes.

2 But Bun Phraawes is not merely an annual religious ritual. It is the villagefs major festival, appropriately occurring after harvest, and combines merit-making with secular interests. In terms of the agricultural cycle it reflects two themes.thanksgiving and looking forward to the next cycle. Occurring as it does in the middle of the dry season, it looks forward to the onset of rains. The particular interest this festival has for our study of village Buddhism is that it embraces a number of themes and interests which are given theological integration under the auspices of Buddhism.

Structurally, the Bun Phraawes rites divide into three sequences. First comes the invitation to Uppakrut to attend the festival; he is a Buddhist guardian deity who is associated with protecting the village and ensuring the rains. In this sense the first phase is manfs communion with natural forces. The next phase, the inviting and propitiation of the divine angels (thewada), is manfs communion with the upper spirit world. Uppakrut mediates with nature, thethewada with the divine. The ideologically central part, enacted in the third phase, is merit-making by recitation of and listening to the great story (and other subsidiary sermons). Every night of the festival the village fair is held in the precincts of the Buddhist temple or wat.

I shall give a brief ethnographic description of these sequences and analyse their implications.


Preparations go on during the two days preceding the first major ritual sequence. Stages are built for maulam (folk opera) and ramwong (popular Thai dancing); a pavilion to store paddy contributions is constructed; four posts are planted to enclose the reception hall, with large flags attached to them at the top and baskets fixed at the bottom; the reception hall is decorated with painted cloths and special decorations connected with this festival. Special ritual articles connected with Uppakrut, thewada, and Phraawes have to be made locally or purchased. A striking pattern of the preparations is the differential male-female roles. Old women roll cigarettes, make betel-nut packets, candles, etc. This is a role that in fact old women perform in every religious or social ceremony in the village.

The men.both old and young.decorate and construct pavilions (or in other contexts coffins or other ritual furniture), the old doing the lighter and the young the heavier work. Young girls and young married women are the cooks. It is they primarily who, supervised by older women, bring food for the monks on ceremonial occasions. In the afternoon of the second day the Buddha image is brought down from the monksf quarters and installed in the pavilion. Monks sit in the pavilion with begging bowls, waiting for villagers to bring them gifts of paddy. Paddy contributions are the main gift made by villagers at this festival.

The Invitation to Phraa Uppakrut
In the late afternoon is staged the first main ritual of the series.the invitation to Phraa Uppakrut, who lives in a perennial pond or swamp.

3. Editorsf note: One of the most important stories in the biography of the Buddha concerns his victory over Mara, a powerful deity who is the personification of desire. The victory prepared the way for the Buddhafs attainment of Enlightenment, and during the battle itself, the Buddha called the goddess of the earth to be a witness to the virtues he had perfected in the course of his previous lives. Villagers said that before preaching the story of Phraawes it was the custom to invite Phraa Uppakrut to the temple.
The set of ritual articles important in this rite is called the kryang (things) of Phraa Uppakrut. They are: a monkfs bowl, a set of monkfs yellow robes, an umbrella, a pair of monkfs sandals, two small images of the Buddha, karuphan (made of various kinds of flowers), puffed rice, two banana-leaf trays containing locally made cigarettes, and a kettle. All these articles were placed on a cushion which rested in the centre of a wooden sedan chair.

The procession actually started from the temple compound and was led by three monks, who were followed by elderly leaders carrying the sedan chair. Then followed a large body of, women, and children. Guns were carried, and music was provided by a bamboo flute and drums. Conspicuous were the flags with pictures of Nang Thoranee (goddess of the earth), a mermaid, a crocodile, etc., which represent Buddhafs victorious battle with Mara.3 The procession, after passing through the hamlet, headed for a pond in the paddy fields. The ponds selected must have water all the year round. After the usual preliminaries in any Buddhist of candles, offering of candles and flowers to the Buddha, and requesting of the five precepts.Uppakrut was invited. An elder placed the two small Buddha images on the cover of the monkfs bowl. Another held a dish of flowers and a candle in his hand (as an offering to Phraa Uppakrut), while the former chanted the invitation to Uppakrut to come and be guardian of the ceremony.

As he chanted, he threw some puffed rice onto the sedan chair, again as an offering to Uppakrut. Next the guns were fired several times, the drums were loudly beaten, and all the people shouted gchaiyo.h (It was said that the guns were fired to frighten off Praya Mara and gchaiyoh was shouted in order to proclaim victory.) After this the monks chanted gchaiyanto,h the victory blessing.this was to bless all those who had joined the procession. The kettle was then taken by an elder to the pond and filled with water, and placed on the sedan. The Buddha images were put in the bowl, and the sedan chair lifted. The procession returned by a different route, entered the temple by a different gate, and circumambulated the reception hall three times in the usual clockwise direction.

The sedan chair was carried into the reception hall, and the articles (kryang) were put on a shelf in the corner. All the flags were placed near the pulpit. The kettle of water was put on a high shelf. (Informants said that when the entire merit ceremony was over, the water would be ceremonially thrown away: gUppakrut lives in the water; that is why the water is brought.h) Later in the evening, the monks chanted blessings and sprinkled holy water on the congregation, which consisted only of old men and women. The events of the next two days formone continuous series, but I shall in the following subsections separate out two major ritual sequences: the thewada ceremony and the recitation of the Mahachad that tells the story of Phraa Wes.

In the afternoon of the day following the invitation to Uppakrut, a sermon concerning Pramalai (Malaya Sutta) was preached by the monks. Since listening to such sacred texts is considered a highly merit-making act, a large congregation consisting of men, women, and children of all ages was present. The gist of the sermon is as follows: Pramalai was a monk who went to hell to preach to all sinners. His visit and his preaching helped to alleviate their sins.

Then he ascended to the heavens. with sixteen preach to those who had made merit. He then came to the world of human beings and told them what he had seen in heaven and hell. This sermon in a sense appropriately reflects the three major sequences of the Bun Phraawes festivities.the inviting of Phraa Uppakrut who lives in the swamp, and of the thewada who are heavenly beings, followed by the great sermon addressed to human and supernatural devotees.

The Homage to Thewada

On the morning of the third day, at 2:30 a.m., when the village fair was in full swing, a ceremony was staged in which respects were paid to the thewada (divine angels). It was village dogma that before the Phraawes story could be recited (or as a matter of fact any merit ceremony begun), thewada must be invited to come and be witnesses to the act. What is of significance here is that in no other ritual are the thewada propitiated in a special rite and made the sole recipients of offerings. It was said that if the thewada were invited and worshipped they in turn would make the villagers glive well and in health,h that rain would fall as usual and much rainfall might be expected.

A procession consisting primarily of old men and women (except the drummers, who were young men) formed at the reception hall with candles and flowers in their hands, and bowls containing balls of glutinous rice (which in theory should number 1,000 to represent the number of verses of the Phraawes story). It is in fact called the gprocession of 1,000 lumps of rice.h No monks took part in the procession. It went round the reception hall three times in a clockwise direction, and whenever it passed one of the four posts with a flag at the top and a basket at the bottom, rice balls, candles and flowers were dropped into the baskets. These posts were called han (ran) bucha, and were said to be khong (things) of the thewada.

The offerings, informants said, were intended for both thewada and Phraawes, but they were unable to say why the processions and offerings had to be carried out in this particular fashion. The han bucha can perhaps be related to Buddhist symbolism unknown to the villagers. They appear to resemble the gtrees that gratify the desires of men.h These trees have no likeness to any tree at all, but are hollow wicker baskets on the ends of long poles. In popular Buddhism they are said to represent the four trees that will blossom at the four corners of the city in which the next Buddha, Maitreya, will be born. They will then produce all kinds of delicious fruits in fabulous quantities. The money trees that appear in merit-making rites may also be seen as associated with this symbolism.

The Recitation of Mahachad

When the circumambulation was over the participants in the procession entered the reception hall, placed the bowls of glutinous rice near the pulpit, and took their seats. The ritual articles associated with meritmaking for Bun Phraawes as such are: betel-nut packets, locally made cigarettes, small flags, candles, joss-sticks; each of these items must be 1,000 in number. Other items are: four pans filled with water containing fish and turtle, and these represent four ponds in the forest in which Phraawes lived in banishment; a bee hive (in memory of a monkeyfs offering to Buddha); bunches of coconuts and bananas.

The main sequences in the recitation of the story were as follows: after presenting flowers and candles to the Buddhist trinity (the Buddha, Dhamma, and Sangha), and the request for the five precepts (which refer to the recitation by monks of the precepts against killing, lying, theft, sexual licence, and the use of intoxicants), two elders in turn invited the thewada to come and listen to the great story. gChaiyoh (victory) was shouted three times.
4. Editorsf note: The Phra Choolamani monument is a stupa located in the heaven presided over by the god Indra.

5. Editorsf note: As mentioned in the general introduction to this collection, Pali is the sacred language in which the scriptures of the Theravada tradition are preserved. The next sequence was the sermon called Teed Sangkaad, delivered by a monk. Its delivery has to be requested by a village leader of the congregation. This invitation, called aratana Sangkaad, is a recounting of episodes in the Buddhafs final life as Gotama.his renunciation of the kingly life and his wife and son, his departure on his best horse, Maa Keo, one of the seven treasures of the Emperor (Chakravartin), the death of this horse through sorrow, the Buddhafs cutting off of his hair and its reception in a golden vessel by God Indra, who took it to his heaven and deposited it at the Phra Choolamani monument.4

The theme of the monkfs sermon which followed was the well-known story of the defeat of Mara, especially the tricks resorted to by Mara in order to defile Buddhafs state of enlightenment.

Mara sent his three daughters to excite Buddhafs sexual passions. He rejected them, and the girls gfinally became old women.h Informants said that this sermon was an essential prelude to the Mahachad recitation. Monks took turns in reciting the long text of the Mahachad, and the recitation, which started early in the morning, did not conclude until 8 p.m. First a Pali verse was recited; then the audience threw puffed rice at the Buddha image; then the monks told the story in Thai.5 People came and went and the attention to the sermon was not intense.

At the conclusion of the recitation, villagers brought money trees and presented them to the monks and the temple. People came in procession in groups. Finally a monk made lustral water (nam gatha phan � water of 1,000 verses) and sprinkled it on all those present. Villagers took home some of the sacred water to sprinkle on their buffaloes in order to drive away illness. Thus were concluded the Bun Phraawes ritual and festivities.

There is a belief associated with the Mahachad recitation that it must be completed in a day; if not, unfortunate accidents and misfortune will occur. This is why, we were told, the thewada ceremony had to be staged in the early hours of the morning, so that the recitation could be started very early and concluded in the evening.

The themes of the monksf preaching of the Dhamma were renunciation of the kingly life and family, selfless giving in the Mahachad, rejection of sexuality and passion in the encounter with Marafs daughters, and the after-death phenomena of heaven and hell. It could be said that the last phase of the Bun Phraawes, the sermonizing and recitation of texts, recounts the great episodes of the Buddhafs life: renunciation of secular glory and comfort, the ardours of the search for truth, and final achievement of detachment and salvation.

At the same time the paradox is that these words of renunciation and selflessness (as well as the other ritual sequences) are viewed by the participants as endowing them with merit, and ensuring a ggood and healthy lifeh and plentiful rain. Mara, the enemy of Buddha and man, is held at bay, and the lustral water of the thousand verses confers health on man and buffalo. Thus a problem is posed as to the mechanics of the Buddhist the use of sacred words which deal with the virtues of renunciation transfers to the participants the seemingly opposite benefits of life affirmation. The Activities of the Fair I have thus far concentrated on the Buddhist rituals. I must now describe the fair briefly in order to give a rounded picture, for Bun Phraawes combines with merit-making robust fun and sheer entertainment. The annual temple fair is the chief recreational event in village life and characteristically Buddhism shows its robustness for combining it with conspicuous merit-making.

The fair ran for three days and two nights, the nights being the time of peak activity. Shops.mostly selling food and drink.were set up in the temple compound. The chief attractions were the ramwong (popular Thai dancing), conducted by a professional orchestra and dance hostesses from a nearby village; maulam (folk opera), also performed by a visiting professional troupe; and movies.

The monks, true to their rules of priesthood, avoided themaulam and ramwong, but they did not avoid interest in the movies. They were, however, mainly involved in ritual merit-making activities in the pavilion with the Buddha statue. There, two main activities were carried out: laymen put money in the monksf bowls and in turn were sprinkled with holy water; and laymen bought pieces of gold leaf and daubed them on the Buddha statue. (Additionally, laymen brought flowers in order to present them to the Buddha.)
Persons of all ages and both sexes attended the fair. Most old persons, male and female, first engaged in merit-making by contributing money, then looked at the movies for a while, and then gravitated towards the folk opera. Adults watched the movies and ramwong and also found the

maulam of absorbing interest; the young men were primarily interested in the movies and ramwong, while young girls of the village found the movies and maulam their chief attraction. Children were the most consistent audience at the movies.No local village girl took part in the dancing. The fair was an occasion for flirting between the sexes. Some ritual sequences of Bun Phraawes, which ran parallel with the fair, were largely ignored by the young people.

A few words about the scale of participation. Bun Phraawes in all the villages around Baan Phraan Muan is staged with a fair. It therefore attracts devotees and pleasure-seekers from a number of adjoining villages. People from at least seven or eight tambon (communes) were present at the Phraan Muan proceedings: they made merit, contributed money, and had fun.

Particular hamlets or groups of villagers from elsewhere often acted as a merit-making group, each contributing a gift of paddy or a money tree. Twenty-six monks from other temples took part in the Bun Phraawes proceedings. It is usual to send out invitations to other temples, and for the latter to send representatives. The following distribution shows the range of inter-temple co-operation.15 monks came from 15 temples in the same tambon in which Baan Phraan Muan is located; 6 monks came from 6 temples in the adjoining tambon of Mumon; the remaining 5 monks came either from the same district (Amphur Muang) or from the adjoining districts of Pen and Pue. The vendors of food and drinks also came from a widespread area. Of a total of 40 .45 vendors, only 5 were from the local village; 4 came from the town of Udorn and the rest from at least 8 adjoining tambon. These facts, I think, establish the nature of festive Buddhism as a supralocal religion.

It is true that it is local people who primarily patronize a village temple; but merit-making is a society-wide ethic and such prominent merit-making occasions as a temple fair attract many others who see participation in them as a chance of acquiring greater merit than usual. Just as outsiders attend grand merit-making rites at Baan Phraan Muan, so do residents of the latter participate in the wat festivals of other villages. By contrast, the cult of the village guardian spirit is of an essentially local character, being bound up with a settlement and its land and people. All the villages around Phraan Muan propitiate the same village guardians; the cult is widespread but no outside villager needs to propitiate the guardian of another village. But traditionally the villages in the region combined to propitiate a common swamp spirit in a Buddhist festival that expressed a regional identity and interest.