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Thailand: Changing Habits By Thailand RPCV Elle Toder
Thailand: Changing Habits By Thailand RPCV Elle Toder
Thailand: Changing Habits
By Elle Toder
Our chanting was a low-pitched, almost conversational stream of sound. It rumbled off the tall cave entrances and sheer cliff walls in front of us. As we began, once again, to chant 16 rules of Buddhist law, I shifted my legs for the umpteenth time, trying to ignore the aches and numbness creeping into my body and mind. The setting sun marked the many hours since I had taken my place on a straw mat that morning amidst the field of white-robed women that still encircled me.
It was Christmas 1993. I was becoming a nun for a day.
Surrounded by fueng-fa (brilliant red, white, pink and purple flowers) we continued to chant as the almost-full moon rose above. With 400 Thai women, I was nearing the end of Buat Chi Prahm, a special, rare Buddhist ceremony in which women "become nuns" through an all-day and night ritual of chanting and prayer.
This was almost as unique a ceremony for the Thai participants as it was for me: a chance for us to "make merit" in Thailand's Buddhist society, through an opportunity most women are not afforded. In Thai society, the highest level of Buddhist merit one can achieve is to become a monk. Women cannot become monks, so the only way they can attain the highest level of merit is by having a son become a monk. While it is possible for a woman to become a nun, this happens very rarely, due to societal pressures for women to marry and have a family. Conversely, Thai social customs dictate that every male, at some point in his life, will enter the priesthood.
For me, the ceremony was a chance to experience an intimate part of Thai culture that most foreigners never see. About three months earlier, I had made plans to extend my work in Thailand with the Peace Corps, in order to take advantage of an opportunity to do environmental outreach teaching in the primary schools and rural areas near my village in northern Thailand. Most of my close American friends had left the country in early November, when our two-year Peace Corps contract ended. So when two friends, Pi Sanit and Pi Sompit, teachers from the primary school in town, invited me to take part in the special ceremony, to "Buat Chi Prahm," I jumped at the chance.
Pi Sanit and Pi Sompit, now sitting next to me, had prepared my traditional, white outfit: a sua, a white linen short-sleeve, button-down shirt; a sabai, a white scarf, worn draped across the shoulders and down the chest; and a pathung (literally meaning "cloth bag" in Thai), a long, white piece of cloth sewn together on the ends to resemble a long tube, which one must step into. So except for my lighter colored hair and eyes, I blended in perfectly with the other "nuns."
Advance word of the ceremony had spread throughout central and eastern Thailand, and consequently, women had chartered buses from places as far away as Bangkok, over seven hours away, in order to participate in the ceremony. Others walked from local villages like mine, Nern Maprang, about four miles from the caves. Unlike the hill country further north, the lower part of northern Thailand where I lived is dominated by rice paddies. Its flat topography is broken only by random, two-story-high rock outcroppings, many of which contain caves. The caves provide home to bats, an occasional devout monk, and until ten years ago, served as hideouts for the disaffected Thais who made up the country's Communist insurgency in the mid-70s and early 80s.
We arrived at Tam Laud early in the morning and staked out a spot close to the monks who led the ceremony. The nine monks or "priests" who presided over the ceremony (the number nine has special significance in Buddhist and Chinese calendars) came from as far away as the Thai provinces bordering Cambodia and Laos. The special guest of honor was the 95-year-old monk from Ubon, the southeastern-most province in Thailand, 11 hours away by bus. Though his back was bent with age, and he walked forward slowly with the aid of a cane and a monk on either side, his body still looked strong. The host of the evening was our local monk, Pra Ajaan Wichai, who lived at these caves and was very popular with local villagers, in part due to his reputation for being able to "see" the future, including next month's lottery numbers.
One of the monks began speaking, inducting us into the nun order. We all sat together in white, 400 women, mostly strangers, yet feeling a special bond through our common gender and the ritual. During the ceremony, we followed the first five precepts of Buddhist Dharma law: 1. Do not harm or kill any living thing; 2. Do not lie; 3. Do not steal; 4. Do not engage in sexual relations; 5. Do not take any alcohol. We then sat and prayed in the "side-leg" sitting style. My Thai friends said that they did not entirely understand the chanting either, except with the aid of the Thai translation provided, because most of the ceremony was conducted in Pali, a language used for meditation and religious ceremonies.
Participants were also required to give up their usual responsibilities for the day. As women are traditionally responsible for all household duties in Thailand, it meant that husbands were taking care of the children.
Since we were becoming nuns for only a day, we were not required to shave our heads and eyebrows, a symbol of humility and relinquishment of earthly attachments usually required of Thai nuns. Also, as we were "practicing," we would give up our vows at the close of the ceremony (and retain our hair).
After praying and chanting for a few hours, we received a break to eat and stretch our legs. Even though the weather was quite cool, the sticky rice and spicy, unripe papaya salad were hot enough to cause beads of sweat to form on my upper lip.
When we returned to the prayer grounds, more women crowded the area, and we sat packed tightly together. More chanting, this time in Thai. My legs, along with those of my companions, including the 79-year-old woman next to me, were aching terribly, almost intolerably. On and on we continued. The promised 8 o'clock ending came and went, but luckily we never saw the 4 a.m. finish that the monk joked about in the beginning, and about which we weren't sure he was joking.
At 9:30 p.m. or so, we came to a pause, after several more full rounds of 108 chants, counted off by the old women with worn, rubbed-smooth prayer-bead necklaces in their hands. Lung Boo (a title for a respected grandfather), the 95-year-old monk from Ubon, lit some candles, and three loud fireworks were set off. Then Lung Boo, by now wearing a fuzzy, fake-fur hat for warmth to compensate for his thin, saffron robe, walked around the inner circle, throwing handfuls of tiny fresh flowers. Reaching out for the flowers, everyone began to push forward in a most un-nunlike manner. For a few minutes, instead of being a solemn religious occasion, the scene more closely resembled the opening of a clothing sale, with prices slashed to low, low prices, and women rushing to grab the best bargains. But the old monk only threw the handfuls of pink, red, yellow, white, purple and blue flowers slightly ahead of his own circular path, and none fell into the outstretched hands of the nuns reaching for them.
The eight other monks then proceeded into the crowd, throwing flowers toward us as we held our programs out to catch the symbols of our success. We had done it!
Now that the ceremony was complete, we all had to "undo" what we had done and figuratively "cast off" our robes. My friends explained that without this final short ceremony, technically, we would still be nuns. We huddled in groups of twenty as a monk held his arms above us and droned on in Pali, relegating us to everyday, citizen status, once again. The priest's prayers said that as we had tasted being nuns today, hopefully in the future we could make the time to participate again.
I was sad to disrobe. I loved walking around in the white clothing, barefoot, my hair all pulled back, no jewelry on at all, no chains to sway my mind's thoughts. Simplicity. I didn't mind sitting and praying for so many hours on end. I let my mind go and "visited" with old friends of mine in happy times in North America during the chant-filled night.
After the ceremony, I realized that I had strongly reaffirmed my love for the Thai people, culture and country. I relished the thought that three years before, when I first learned of my Peace Corps assignment, I had rushed to locate Thailand on a map. Now I felt that the more I learned about Buddhism, the more I appreciated and respected the basic tenets of this religion. The challenge awaiting me would be to find a way to incorporate the special, simple elements of my Buddhist Thai life into a new American lifestyle.
Six months later, one month before flying back to New York, I embraced the Buddhist principle of "non-attachment." I shaved my head, thus voluntarily giving up the curly, long tresses that had previously defined my person.
And I felt wonderfully freed.
Elizabeth Anne Toder, MIA '96, was a Peace Corps volunteer in northern Thailand from 1991-1994. Back to Slant