Author Archives: Richard Barrow

Feast for Dead Souls

The Vegetarian Festival has now reached its seventh day in Samut Prakan. Last night, many devotees went to the City Hall Plaza to float krathongs on the Chao Phraya River. This was done as a kind of invitiation to the dead souls to come to a feast on the following day.

This is what happened today at Rong Jay Thong Siang in Taiban. Hundreds of local people came to the VegetarianHouse to offer food first to their own dead ancestors and then to all the dead souls.

In addition, they bought a food package consisting of a bag of rice and bananas. These were then later distributed to the poor. The Vegetarian Festival finishes on Thursday 6th October with a giant parade through town early in the morning.

Loy Krathong in October

Everyone knows about Loy Krathong that happens on the full moon in November. However, not many people know that we have another Loy Krathong in October. The phrase “loy krathong” means to float a bowl shaped container. It is not a festival like Christmas which celebrates a particular event. You can actually float a krathong at any time of the year. The annual event I went to tonight was called “Loy Krathong Jay” and is part of the ten day Vegetarian Festival that we are having in Thailand at the moment. The ceremony started at Rong Jay Thong Sian, near Taiban Circle in Paknam, and then all the participants walked all the way down to the Chao Phraya River at the City Hall Plaza. They were accompanied with musical instruments for their fifteen minute walk through the town.

We were lucky with the rain this year as it stopped shortly before the ceremony was due to start. A table was set up with candles and a food offering for the ancestors. Three monks led the chanting. The idea behind this ceremony is to change your misfortune and to float away your bad luck on the krathongs. But, this ceremony was also held to transfer this merit to the dead souls in the water and on earth. Each krathong had incense sticks which were lit before it was floated on the water. One horse-shaped krathong was also set on fire which is a common thing in Chinese ceremonies to pass merit onto dead ancestors.

The whole ceremony was over within 15 minutes. After the last krathong had been floated on the water, everyone then set off for the walk back to the Chinese temple. We are now more than half way through the Vegetarian Festival. There are more ceremonies to make merit for ancestors. On the last day, Thursday 6th October 2011, there will be a big parade through the town. I will be bringing you pictures of this parade next week. I have also posted some pictures of the vegetarian food that I have been eating over at www.ThaiFoodPhotos.com. More pictures from tonight can be seen on my facebook page.

9 Gods Invited for the Vegetarian Festival

Yesterday marked the official start of the Vegetarian Festival in Thailand. In Samut Prakan it runs from 26th September to 6th October 2011. We went to Thong Siang Vegetarian House in Samut Prakan to watch this opening ceremony. The event was a signal for the nine Gods to come down to earth. Something similar happened all over Thailand. During the following ten days, people will keep a strict vegetarian diet and also obey ten basic rules which will help cleanse their mind and body. The symbol for the festival is a small yellow flag with the words in Thai “jay” which means “vegetarian”. In Thai culture, yellow represents Buddhism and good moral conduct. When looking to buy vegetarian food, we need to look out for the small yellow flags on the foodstalls.

According to legend, the nine Gods come down from heaven to inspect the earth and to record the good and bad deeds of everyone. So, during the festival it is important for Chinese people to be on their best behaviour. Refraining from eating meat means less animals being slaughtered which will gain them some merit. People taking part in the festival will often wear white and will visit their local shrines to pay respect to the spirits. If you want to visit a shrine then you should wear white too out of respect. In addition to not eating meat, strong smelling vegetables cannot be eaten. Such as garlic, onion, spring onion, Chinese chives and Chinese parsley. In Thailand, many popular Thai dishes are replicated by using tofu and extra mushrooms.

These days, it is not only people of Chinese descent that are following the strict vegetarian diet. It is also Thai people and foreigners who are living here in Thailand. Here are the ten rules that you must keep during the festival:

1. Keep your body clean during the nine days of the festival
2. Use special kitchen utensils that have never been used to prepare and cook meat
3. Wear white or yellow during the festival
4. Make your mind pure and mentally calm
5. Do not eat meat or animal products such as milk and butter, and strong smelling ingredients such as garlic and onion
6. No sex
7. No alcoholic drinks or tobacco
8. People who are mourning should not attend the festival
9. Pregnant ladies should not attend any of the ceremonies
10. Ladies who are having a period should not attend any of the ceremonies

What to expect if you are invited to a Thai Funeral

The longer that you stay in Thailand, the higher the chance is that you will one day be invited to a funeral. This might be for the parent of a colleague at work or a relation of your Thai wife or husband. I am not exactly an expert on Thai funerals, but I have attended a fair number. I have also been invited, strange as it may seem, to take pictures at funerals. Like this group photo in the first picture. For this particular funeral I had to take dozens of pictures of various groups posing in front of the coffin of the deceased.

If you are invited to a funeral, then the first question that might go through your mind is what to wear. As you can see from this photograph, you should wear either black or white or a combination of the two. You should avoid any bright colours but you could get away with it if it is a muted colour. For example, I have seen some people wearing blue jeans but with a white or black polo shirt. For myself I usually wear a white shirt and black tie for the main events and a black polo shirt for other times.

Funerals for Thai Buddhists can go on for much longer than what you may have seen before in the West. It could last from anything from one week to a year or two. Depending on how close you were to the deceased, you probably won’t be expected to attend every part of the funeral. For the parents of colleagues at work I probably would only attend the cremation on the last day. For relations of friends you probably would attend at least one if not all of the chanting sessions. If you are close to the family then it might be appropriate for you to bring a wreath. Either that or give the family some money in an envelope.

The Bathing Rite takes place on the evening of the first day. You would only attend this if you knew the deceased personally. The body is laid out on a table and covered with a cloth. Only the head and the right hand is showing. People then take turns to pour some scented water over the exposed hand. You can take this opportunity to make a blessing or to ask for forgiveness for past misdeeds. A sacred white string, called sai sin, is then tied around the ankles and wrists. The hands are held together in a prayer-like gesture holding a lotus flower and incense sticks. A coin is also put in the mouth.The body is then placed in a coffin and placed on a high table. It is then surrounded by flowers. A portrait of the deceased is also prominently displayed.

Four monks are then invited to chant daily for the deceased. This usually take place over a period of seven days. However, this might be shortened if the cremation needs to take place on a certain day, like the weekend. It also should be noted that cremations cannot take place on Fridays as the name for that day sounds like the Thai word for “happiness”. If the chanting sessions are shortened to say five days, the same amount of merit still needs to be created for the deceased, so on two nights the chanting sessions have to be done twice. Notice the ribbon in this photograph. It goes all the way to the coffin which is how the deceased receives the merit.

In Bangkok, the daily chanting sessions for the deceased will probably start at 7 p.m. and last for about an hour. Upcountry these are often done at the house and may go on all night as they are social events. It is not a completely sad affair. There are four main chants with regular breaks in-between. During the breaks people chat or listen to some traditional Thai music. There is also often a break with some Thai dancing. The hosts are always generous and you will find that you are also given drinks and snacks. Even full meals. Before my first chanting session I thought I would have to sit on the floor for hours. But, there are always seats and the time passes quickly.

After seven days of chanting the cremation can take place. Some families will do this straight away while others might wait a year or more. Quite often a young family member, usually the grandson, will ordain as a novice monk in order to make merit for the deceased. They do this for only a day or two. Even though it is only for a short time, they still have to do the full ordination which includes the shaving of hair and eyebrows. On the morning of the cremation there is more chanting and food is then offered to the monks.

Once everyone has eaten, it is time to move the coffin to the crematorium. The coffin is carried outside and placed onto an ornate cart. A procession then takes place to the crematorium. Leading the way are family members carrying a portrait of the deceased. Behind them are a couple of monks holding onto a white thread that is attached to the coffin. The mourners walk behind the coffin. If you have ever done a procession around a chapel at a Thai temple on a Buddhist holiday you know that you have to walk around it three times in a clockwise direction. However, for funerals, you must walk anti-clockwise.

The coffin is then taken up the steps and placed on a high table in front of the crematorium doors. The portrait of the deceased is also placed here. The crematorium itself is decorated during the afternoon with black and white cloth and beautiful flowers which were the favourites of the deceased. The cremation ceremony is often in the late afternoon. If you didn’t go to the Bathing Rite or any of the nightly chanting then the cremation ceremony is the one that you should really attend.

At cremations you don’t get to see much of the ceremony. Most people are seated far away. During the ceremony, honoured guests will come forward with monk robes and place them on a pedestal in front of the coffin. As you can see here, the same ribbon is being used to connect the pedestal to the coffin. A monk then comes to receive the robe as if it was offered by the deceased. The monk here is saying a prayer before receiving the robe. During the ceremony someone will also give an eulogy about the life of the deceased. There is often also some kind of traditional dance performance.

Cremation ceremonies are often over very quickly. Anything from 30 minutes to an hour. When you arrive you are given a flower made from wood shavings. You will need this for the last part of the ceremony. The monks at the cremation will go up the steps first with their “flowers”. These are placed under the coffin as if you were lighting the funeral fire. Once all of the monks have done this then it is the turn of the guests. What most people do is tap the coffin a couple of times with the flower then place it in a tray under the coffin and then give a quick “wai”. You are also supposed to say a short prayer telling the deceased person that you forgive them for any wrong doings in the past. On your way down, you will be given a kind of souvenir of the funeral to take home. Sometimes this a book about the life of the deceased person.

At this stage, most people would go home. They have paid their respects. Unless you were close to the deceased, you would go home too. It is mainly family members that stay for the actual cremation. What happens first is that the ornaments decorating the coffin are removed. The coffin is then lifted off its base and then carried towards the crematorium oven. The lid is then taken off. A coconut is cut open and the juice poured over the deceased person. The coffin is then pushed inside the chamber. This is the last chance for family members to pay their respects. The remaining sandalwood flowers are also thrown into the coffin. Everyone then goes down to the bottom of the steps where they gather around to watch the cremation. At some funerals I have attended, rockets are fired into the sky. However, this is banned in residential areas.

The friends and relations don’t wait for the fire to finish. They will come back the next day to collect the ashes. A monk is present for this ceremony. Sweet smelling flower petals are mixed in with the ashes. Depending on the family, these might be placed in one urn or several.  Once they are collected they are taken to the prayer hall where there is more chanting and robes and food are again presented to the monks on behalf of the deceased. What happens next to the ashes will vary. Most will keep the ashes at the temple as there will be further merit making ceremonies on the 50th and 100th days. Some people keep them at their home.

A third option, which is seemingly becoming more popular these days,  is called “loi angkarn” which means the floating or scattering of ashes over the water. However, they might keep some relics, like pieces of bone,  in the shrine at home. It is not really a Buddhist tradition as it has been adapted from Hinduism where they often scatter ashes in the Ganges River. Some Thai people believe that floating the ashes of their loved ones in a river or in the open sea will help wash away their sins but also help them go more smoothly up to heaven. It doesn’t matter where you do this, but if you are in the Bangkok and Samut Prakan area then an auspicious place is the mouth of the Chao Phraya River at Paknam where I live.

There are a set number of rituals that have to be done in the correct order before the main ceremony. This includes paying respect to the guardian spirit of the boat and then later the god of the ocean and the goddess of water. Next comes the prayers where the mourners request the spirits and gods to look after the deceased person. It is then time for the white cloth containing the ashes to be carefully dropped over the side. They don’t actually scatter the ashes, they just let the cloth float away and then sink. As they watch it go, they say their final farewells while at the same time scattering flower petals on the water.

Hilltribe Ordination at The Marble Temple

Wat Benchamabopit, which is more commonly known as The Marble Temple, is probably the most beautiful temple in Bangkok. It is certainly one of the most unique as it is a blend of European and Thai architecture. It is a beautiful place to photograph at any time of the year. However, this last weekend was extra special as 285 Hilltribe people, mainly youngsters, were being ordained as novice monks.

Photo Album on Google+ and Facebook

The boys and young adults taking part in this ordination ceremony came from 13 different provinces around Thailand. This is an annual project that has been organized in order to promote Buddhism among the Hilltribe people. This year it was done in honour of the 84th birthday of H.M. The King which is on the 5th December.

Normally young men being ordained as monks are supported by their families. However, as many of these Hilltribe people come from poor backgrounds, members of the public were invited to sponsor one of the novice monks. They donated 2,500 Baht to a scholarship fund and were then able to make merit by presenting the robes.

Presentation of robes took place all day on Saturday and also on Sunday morning. The same robes were presented many times to the young men dressed in white. Then on Sunday afternoon, the actual ordination took place. This started with a parade around the main chapel. This was done three times in a clockwise direction. They were led by long drums and dancers.

They then entered the main chapel where the ordination ceremony took place. Everyone first ordains as a novice. The first part of the ordination procedure is called the “Going Forth in Homelessness”. This is where the candidate requests to become a novice.

He is instructed about the Triple Gem (the Buddha, the Teaching, and the Community of Monks) and the purpose and benefits of the ordination. He is then told the five basic objects of meditation which are: hair of the head, hair of the body, nails, teeth and skin.

The first half concludes when the shoulder cloth is put over the head of the boys. After this, all of the candidates are taken outside to change from their white clothes to their robes. These are not easy to put on. The boys certainly couldn’t do it themselves. As there were so many of them, they needed the help of monks.

Once they had the robes on, then all of them went back into the hall. They next request to take Refuge in the Triple Gem and the Ten Precepts. They said: “I go to the Buddha for refuge. I go to the Dhamma for refuge. I go to the Sangha for refuge.” This is then repeated three times. The abbot then tells them that they are now “samanen”.

As a novice monk, they have to obey the ten precepts. This includes basic things like not stealing or lying and also not eating after noon. But they can drink liquids in the afternoon like milk. At the end of the ceremony, the abbot reads the 10 precepts out in Pali which is the ancient language of the scriptures. The novices have to repeat them after him. The new novice monks now prostrate three times and leaves the hall.

Mass Ordination of Monks at Wat Phra Dhammakaya

At the crack of dawn this morning, I was back at Wat Phra Dhammakaya in Pathum Thani Province. I was last there for the meditation workshop for female Buddhists (see here).  This picture shows the extraordinary dome that is a wonderful backdrop to many of the pictures that I have taken here. Lit up like this at dusk you can see that it is not a smooth dome.  In fact, it is covered with 300,000 small Buddha images. Inside the dome there are even more and when complete, they aim to have 1 million images.

Photo Album of Mass Ordination on Facebook >>>

Over the past few weeks, a massive project has been organized nationwide entitled “100,000 Monk Mass Ordination Program for Buddhist Rains Retreat”.  I have seen quite a few posters and billboards saying something like “If you were born a male then you should ordain as a monk for at least one phansa”. Others said that you should “ordain for your mother”.  The annual Buddhist Rains Retreat, called Phansa in Thai, starts next week. Traditionally, men ordain as monks for the three months of the Rains Retreat.

When you ask someone how long they have been a monk, you don’t ask “how many years” but instead “how many phansa”. Meaning, how many periods of the Buddhist Rains Retreat have they spent as a monk. This is important as it dictates proper seniority. When monks go out on an alms round or sits chanting at a ceremony, it is the monk that has seen the most Rains Retreats that is the senior and leads the way.The reason that it is called a Rains Retreat is because by now we are well into the rainy season. For the next three months, monks must stay in their temples and cannot move around or even be disrobed.

This morning I took many pictures of the men wearing white clothes holding onto the robes of a monk. At 6 a.m. they took part in a procession around the dome. They then knelt down and prostrated in a show of respect to the 300,000 Buddha images. The picture below shows an estimated 20,000 men who had come to this temple to be ordained. The same event was also happening at other temples all around Thailand. In fact, I left this one early to go and take pictures at a Hilltribe Ordination at the Marble Temple in Bangkok. I will tell you about that one later.