Saturday, 19 September 2009
Remembering The Ancestors
At the village wat we remember family who have passed on.
Making offerings of food and alcohol to propitiate their spirits.
The animist shrine in the temple grounds.
Tribute is paid to a small laterite rock.
“Tomorrow we go Ban Lamong… take food to grandpapa,” says Cat breezily.
“But he died years ago,” I reply, puzzled for a moment before I realize she’s talking about the annual ceremony at the temple remembering her mother’s dead relatives.
Towards the end of pansaa, the Buddhist ‘lent’, it is the custom of the Suay people to gather at the temple where their family members have been cremated and to hold a ceremony with the monks in their remembrance.
Curiously this coincides exactly with the Chinese ceremony of Ching Ming when families gather at the ancestral graves with food offerings and joss sticks and sweep the graves. I used to watch this at crowded ceremonies in Hong Kong and it looked a happy occasion when all the family made the effort to gather together and honour the departed. It was more like a party than mourning, which was thoroughly healthy and appropriate.
To me it seems a major omission that in the West we have no such custom. We cremate our dead in a clinical crematorium and quickly move on with little ritual or formal grieving. There is no grave to return to and we have no tradition of coming together to remember them at a particular time. Our elders seem to be readily forgotten.
Not so in Suay culture, of whom Cat’s mother is one. Here the spirits of the deceased are all around and need to be attended to and kept sweet. Thus it was that we all climbed into the pickup that morning and headed off to the next village where Cat’s mother had been born and raised.
It was a grey day, heavy with rainy season cloud as we arrived in the temple precincts and parked by the cremation ground. The first small ceremony was to make offerings of food and alcohol to the spirits of the dead. These were placed at the foot of a tree and the old aunties and uncles sat round, pouring alcohol into bowls and presenting the sticky rice to grandpapa.
Then mats were laid on the ground and four elderly monks in saffron robes arrived and sat in a row under the trees. There then began a long formal ceremony in which they chanted the names of those to be remembered and went through the usual formal chants in Sanskrit.
“Bhut thang saranang katchami.”
Then everyone went off to the temple hall while I waited outside. As always there were long announcements on the battered PA system, including lists of small donations given by various locals, often of ten or twenty baht.
Waiting by the pickup I'd noticed a curiosity, a small animist temple right here in the grounds of the Buddhist temple. As I watched, three ladies walked across to it and started making food offerings to its very pagan altar. On this was a large chunk of laterite rock with a ribbon around it, various small figures and the remains of old food offerings. They of course were very amused about the farang with his camera and chattered happily away to me. The one thing I heard was that one of them said they were giving food to Buddha.
I am constantly fascinated by this commingling of Buddhist and animist ritual and the complete failure to distinguish between the two. First of all, propitiating the spirits of the ancestors by the Suay was a wholly animistic ceremony, as appeared from the making of offerings at the foot of the tree. Buddhism and the temple then claim a part as the monks perform their rituals, while on the sidelines further offerings are made to a rock with a ribbon around it.
Just as Christianity, the religion of a jealous god, nevertheless accommodated many pre-christian beliefs and festivals such as that on 25th December, so every organized religion has to absorb existing poly-theistic beliefs and practices. Buddhism is especially tolerant and so happily co-exists with the animism that surrounds it. Monks participating in animistic rituals is thus to be expected but I do sometimes wonder how much of Buddhism actually remains in Thailand once animism has stripped away.
The ladies in the animist shrine said they were giving food to Buddha but what really defines a religion is not the labels but their actual beliefs. Ask a British Christian or a Thai Buddhist what they actually believe in and you’d hardly get a cogent answer. What I suspect though is that the minds of the people around here are filled with a strong belief in the spirits of their ancestors and of the forces of nature that surrounds them. What room that allows for true Buddhist philosophy or observance I have very little idea.
The ceremony in Ban Lamong though was one of the nicer ones and every society should likewise mark an annual occasion when everyone comes together as a family to remember the past and those who are no longer with them.
It strikes me that in this respect our western society is decidedly lacking.
Should we not do this too?
Andrew Hicks The “Thai Girl” Blog September 2009