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Wednesday, March 07, 2012

Makha Bucha Day

Big doings today at the local Wat here in Pattaya.

Well, my experience of "today" is your "not yet" - it's late Wednesday afternoon for me but the wee hours of Wednesday morning for you.

For me, "right now" is in the midst a Very Big Religious Holiday.

There are saffron robed monks with shaven heads everywhere, it seems. While post offices and restaurants and many businesses are all open, Buddhists who are able are not working today, but everyone who is Buddhist - and lots of people like me who are not - will be at the Temple at Sunset.

Offices and shops, post offices and other government places will be open for business. Bars will be closed but restaurants will be open but will not be able to serve alcohol (Well, unless they are willing to pay for a special license which exempts them. Up to you.).

Today is the full moon day of the third lunar month, known as Makha Bucha Day. The third lunar month is known in the Thai language as Makha. Bucha is also a Thai word meaning "to venerate" or "to honor".

This is one of five or six major religious holidays here in Thailand, specially set aside for the veneration of Buddha and his teachings. It is an occasion when Buddhists tend to go to the temple to worship and perform activities that will earn them merit in the eyes of God.

Here's the reason for the big celebration. Makha Bucha marks "the four auspicious occurrences", nine months after the Enlightenment of the Buddha at Veḷuvana Bamboo Grove, near Rājagaha in Northern India, which was 2,500 years ago.

On that occasion, 1,250 Arahta - or "Enlightened Ones" (priests) - without so much as a memo, email, text or tweet much less an appointment - suddenly and spontaneously arose together and came to see the Buddha.

All of them - all 1,250 (not 1,249 or 1,251 but 1,250 - which seems to be a Very Important Number) were Arhantas, and all of them were ordained by the Buddha himself.

The Buddha gave those Arhantas principles of the Buddhism - known here in Thailand as the "Heart of Buddhism". Those principles are:
To cease from all evil
To do what is good
To cleanse one's mind.
And, and, AND....all of this amazing stuff happened on the full moon of the third lunar month, which usually falls sometime in February but I think this being a leap year sorta messed things up.

Tonight, there will be a candlelight procession called a wain tian (wian means circle, tian means candle).

As I understand it, the monks and the congregation, holding flowers in one hand and a lighted candle and incense in the other, will circumambulate clockwise three times around the Temple.

They will process and complete once circle 'round the Temple to honor each of the "Three Jewels" of their faith: Once for the Buddha, once for the Dharma, and once for the Sangha.

Observant Buddhists will be in and out of Temple today, wearing traditional white robes, lighting incense and chanting and meditating and making special offerings.

They will refocus and renew their commitment to keeping the Five Precepts.
"Do not kill." (Unintentional killing is considered less offensive)
"Do not steal." (Including misappropriating someone's property)
"Do not engage in improper sexual conduct." (e.g. sexual contact not sanctioned by secular laws, the Buddhist monastic code, or by one's parents and guardians)
"Do not make false statements." (Also includes pretending to know something one doesn't)
"Do not drink alcohol."
Or, for monks and laity who wish an even more rigorous, aesthetic life, there are the Eight Precepts, which focus both on avoiding morally bad behavior, as the five precepts obviously do, but include such things as celibacy, abstinence from singing, dancing, playing music, attending entertainment performances, wearing perfume, using cosmetics and garlands (decorative accessories) and using "luxurious places" for sitting or sleeping, and overindulging in sleep.

It's odd, but I find myself getting very excited about tonight's religious festivities and observances. There's something oddly reminiscent  of the religious observances and celebrations of my Roman Catholic childhood - complete with processing at night with candles and flowers and incense.

We didn't "chant" per se, but as I listen to the monks and people chanting in the Temple, it sure sounds a lot to my ears like a church filled with people, saying the rosary - only in a different language. Then again, when I was a kid, we said the rosary in Portuguese and the mass was said in Latin.

Where I once used "rosary beads", the Buddhists here use knotted "prayer ropes". 

On certain feast days - depending on the particular Saint - the children of my youth would be required to recite the Ten Commandments along with the Nicene Creed and/or sections of the Baltimore Catechism.

And, oh my goodness, did we ever have processions! Blocks and blocks of neighborhood streets would be closed off because these were more like parades, complete with marching bands playing old standards like  "Holy, Holy, Holy," while children, adults and old men and women with wavering voices would sing off key and throw flowers at the statue and "money blankets" of the particular saint we were honoring.

Every grade of catechism class would march with our own special colored sash which were festooned with various religious medals and attendance awards.

The latest "First Communion" Class would also be in procession - the boys in blue suit and tie and the girls dressed as 'brides of Christ' in white lace dresses and white tiara with a small white veil, white shoes, socks and, of course, white gloves.

Various men's and women's "guilds" would also march en masse, usually with a sash of the color of their guild and the name of their group carefully hand embroidered across the top.

Absolutely everyone - young and old - also wore our scapulars - a fabric necklace of a color of particular significance of the day from which hung a picture of a The Sacred Heart of Jesus or the Blessed Virgin Mary.

I can't for the life of me remember the significance of each color - except that blue was for Mary - but I do remember that if you were wearing a brown colored scapula when you died, you were assured of instant admission to heaven.

I don't know why that was so, exactly. I only know that the nuns said it was so, so it must be true. Everybody knew that nuns never tell a lie (wink wink), which seemed to give them full license to beat you within an inch of your life if you were ever caught telling one.

On the Christian calendar, today is the observance of Perpetua and Felicity, two of five Christian martyrs of the 3rd century.

Perpetua was a 22-year old married noble, and a nursing mother. Her co-martyr Felicity, an expectant mother, was her slave. They suffered together at Carthage in the Roman province of Africa. The Christians refused to renounce their faith in Jesus and were condemned to be torn to pieces by wild beasts, for which - it is noted - they gave thanks to God.

I remember, as a young child, listening to the nuns read us the story of Perpetua and her Companions, often as we ate our lunch in silence.  The boys loved all the gore. The girls all wept and became ill.

The nuns usually ended the telling of the story by asking "And what do we learn from the lives of these early Christians martyrs, children?"

Which, of course, gave the goody-two-shoes in the class a chance to say something pious and noble.

It also gave rise to sobering wisdom from the ranks of the lesser children of God, usually spoken in whispers in the hallway or the bathroom or the playground, like, "I think it's okay to lie to someone who is going to kill you if you tell the truth. Jesus forgave Peter. I'm sure He'll forgive us."

I'll be thinking of Perpetua and Felicity tonight as I take part in the candlelight procession around the Wat. I will, no doubt, not understand much of it but I'm looking forward to it, none the less.

There's something about public celebrations of religious beliefs that, at the very least, peak one's curiosity. I'm fascinated by the "collective unconscious" of the human religious experience with all of the similarities and parallels.

You all have just survived "Super Tuesday" which, believe it or not, has been all over the news here in Thailand: BBC, AsiaNews, Al Jazeera, and FoxNews (the only American news station on my basic cable television - Grrrrrr).

It's a religious experience, of sorts, isn't it? We all have different Gods to whom we pray and different outward and visible signs of what we believe. There's not a whole lot of difference, it seems to me, between a trip to the ballot box to vote in someone who shares your values or a procession with a candle of honor and veneration for what it is you believe.

I'm ever so grateful to be here, in Thailand, to observe Makha Bucha Day. 

Of all the things on the calendar, I think this one comes closest to my own spirituality: to cease from all evil, to do what is good, and to cleanse one's mind.

I'll vote - and be in a public procession - for that.


textjunkie said...

Many thanks for posting that!!

Kirkepiscatoid said...

Elizabeth, I want to hear how the nuns worked around that "unbaptized" part. After all, they were only catechumens...