Feeding the soul

Today I will talk about a religious ceremony in which I took part a couple days ago. Richard already wrote about the historical facts behind Makha Bucha day; now I will give you a personal perspective. 🙂

Rose of the North before dawn
I got up around 5 am to do tak bat -ตักบาตร-, giving alms to the monks to make merit. After I got ready, my friend picked me up at six. As we drove on the empty streets through the awakening city still clouded in darkness, I watched as shopkeepers and stall-owners were getting ready for the new day, accompanied by the ever-present stray dogs. The city was quiet; the only noise was made by the employees of the nearby Seven-Eleven store, as they stocked their inventory from a large truck parking in front.

On the way we also saw a few monks walking to collect their alms. Their orange robes were almost gloving in the darkness. Did you know that at this time they have to walk barefoot? It’s a good thing Chiang Mai has relatively smooth roads. 🙂

Grab the grub!
Before we could give food to the monks, we have to buy it of course. We stopped at one of the several cafeterias scattered on campus. It was surprisingly busy; the three employees behind the counter were handing out food packaged in dozens of little plastic bags. There was all kinds of food: rice, noodles, fried and cooked pork, chicken, boiled eggs, fried eggs, scrambled eggs and all kinds of vegetables and soups. (Yes, in Thailand soups are also commonly stored in plastic bags). It was enough to feed an entire monastery.

At first it seemed to me that the folks behind the counter were just picking the kinds of food randomly, as there were no orders. My friend just said ตักบาตรเก้าชุด (dtakbaat gao chut), asking for nine kinds of whatever. You see, it doesn’t really matter what kind of food it is, as long as there are nine little plastic bags of it. After we both had nine different kinds of food, we took off.

On the scene, and…
We parked near the zoo, and walked uphill, towards a temple where the monks were supposed to come from. My friend was surprised to see that many people were standing there still with their food, meaning that no monks have come yet – and it was well past six am! My guess was perhaps today they have to pray longer, as it was a special religious holiday.

Many people were just waiting near the road for the monks to come by, but we went ahead. We walked quite a long way, passing many people. We also saw a woman, away from the crowds, giving food to a street dog. That dog looked nice and healthy, unlike many other strays. It was obvious that this dog was well-cared for, not just today.

When we got near a famous shrine, we spotted ornage robes in the distance: the monks were coming. A very large crowd has already gathered near the shrine, and cars were trying to get by amongst the people. It was somewhat chaotic, though the people tried to maintain the resemblance of a single line.

… Action!
When we found a suitable spot near the monks we waited for our turn. When we do tak bat, we have to be barefoot as well, so we stepped out of our shoes. Some cars run over them – that shows you just how chaotic and crowded the place was!

After a few failed tries, finally we got the attention of a monk (Have to say นิมนต์ ครับ/ค่ะ(neemon khrab/ka) to have them come to you). The monk opened the metal alms bowl he was carrying, and we put one bag of food in. He closed the bowl, we got into a squat position in front of him, bowed our head down, with hands in prayer position. He chanted in Pali for a minute or so, then he stopped and went over to the next group waiting to do tak bat.

We had to do this eight more times, with eight different monks. Alms bowls filled up quickly, and when this happened, the monks opened their bowl and placed some of the donated food to a shopping bag. When that was full too, they headed back to the temple.

By the time we finished, the sun was just coming up on the horizon. We found our shoes scattered around, while others were still busy giving alms. We also spotted a man kneeling in front of a tree, pouring water and saying some words. As it turns out, he was transfering the merit he just earned to his ancestors. This is called กรวดน้ำ (gruat naam). I found out that this is a good thing to do because the deceased cannot do merit for themselves, and we don’t know what form did they reborn into.

Lasting impressions
I came away from the ceremony with lots of new experiences and mixed emotions. It was nice to be part of this age-old tradition of the country I love so much. On the other hand, it was also somewhat of a disillusion. Not only the annoying presence of Farang and Asian tourists who were flashing their cameras in our faces, but just the whole thing… it felt unsincere; something that was done merely out of custom, rather than out of true belief. My friend and I couldn’t help but to compare this with the simple actions of that woman who fed the streetdog silently, away from the frenzy. Such sincere goodness earns true merit, in my opinion.


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