April 15th 2013 saw our first attempt to hold a proper Buddhist ceremony.
There is a current trend in Buddhism to strip away all cultural aspects of Buddhism that might appear to be animistic or ritualistic, and get to the ‘bare bones’ that is purely meditation. This ‘atheistic’ approach is popular, especially in modern psychology, and has its uses. I read in a recent paper how a woman suffering from bad burns was offered morphine or ‘Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction’ – an 8 week course in secular Buddhism. She took the latter, and it proved effective. She may well not have been interested if there had been any ‘religious’ side to the course.
BUT Buddhism is much more than a simple meditation method that can (not always) reduce stress. There is a rich philosophy, variety of meditation methods, and tools to cultivate ones thinking and emotional life in a wholesome direction. Further, there is ‘applied’ Buddhism, where Buddhist principles are brought to bear in diverse fields such as the hospice movement, economics, politics etc..
The cultural side of Buddhism – the ceremonies, the traditions, even the amulets… is a genuine and valuable side of Buddhism if considered and practised in the right way.
So an event such as Songkran, while you lay folk were out on the streets throwing water on each other, also has a place in the temple, where most Thai people will come to pay respects on the day – in fact Songkran is all about paying respects to elders; including parents, teachers, monks, and favoured deities. For instance, in monasteries the monks usually go to pay respect to their Upajjaya (the one who gave them ordination), even if he is a long way away.
Inside the temple, people come and do the obligatory circumambulation of the central ordination hall with the traditional offering of candles, flowers and incense (it takes a lot of work to scrape up all the dripped candle wax afterwards). Usually they bring food offerings also, which are shared among the monks and temple residents, and then the lay people.
THIS was the first time I tried a proper ceremony for English speakers. I have always been a little cautious, thinking that meditation and wisdom teaching was all people would want. But I was encouraged after our retreat in Chiang Rai with Steven Smith, where, since all the yogis were quite well experienced, we finished off with a Refuges ceremony.
For experienced yogis in fact, have been to all the Dhamma talks, read all the texts, and been with some of the great teachers. Eventually there arises the recognition, that there is real value in just coming together for the sake of Dhamma. If you don’t make an effort, put your feet on the road, join in with a physical bodily remembrance of dhamma, it fades. Dhamma becomes something you did once, like a trip to Peru. Even mindfulness fades if you don’t actively make a fresh commitment once in a while. Even if you did an inspiring retreat with the Dalai Lama, you have to keep the plate spinning in regular life. The ceremonies do that. A physical walk, offering, aroma from the incense, chat with other yogis … and your part in being in the crowd encouraging other people – all is a way to learn with the body, what the mind already knows.
For our Songkran day then, we did the following:
- Reflection on the symbol of water (note the pun 🙂 )
- Requesting the Refuges – taking refuge means holding the qualities of Awakening, Truth, and commitment to others (Buddha, Dhamma, Sangha) as principles to live by.
- Taking the refuges
- Summoning the Devas
- Recitation of some Parittas (short well known suttas)
- Formal offering of food to the Sangha – note offering is always to the Sangha as a whole and not to individuals, with the intention of supporting the continuation of the ordained sangha as the guardian of the teaching.
- Blessing recitation
- Water pouring over the Buddha statue, and monk’s hands, as a symbol of purification
- Water sprinkling over the lay people, with the ‘Jayanto’ chant for victory in wholesome endeavours.
Thanks to Ariyasom for supporting our activities – it took some 2 hours for the staff to clean up and reset all the furniture after everyone departed. And we’ll be back with more of the Thai Cultural side of Buddhism in the future.