Buddhist Holy Days at the Temple
These are edited excerpts from our book A Potato in a Rice Field (Chapter 13): Today would be my first visit to the “Big Temple” of Broken Road, which is the central temple to the family’s strict Buddhist routine, and it would be the setting of many more ceremonies to come. But we do arrive late this morning following a “Sweet Potato Party” we joined at sunrise, and it’s always important to be showered and clean again before visiting temples. And this goes more so when making merit on traditional Buddhist Holy Days.
Arriving at the temple, we find it is already busy, and most of the congregation has already taken place facing the stage. In the front rows the congregation kneel or sit with legs crossed, while, in the back half of the hall, they sit more comfortably in plastic chairs. They all face forward to the front stage, where the Buddha statue and altar are on display, as well as six monks who wait patiently with crossed legs before the ceremony begins.
Next to the front altar stands the lead monk where he makes introductions for the Holy Day service using a microphone and loudspeaker. But, as always, I have no idea what he is saying, given it’s all in Thai.
The Temple Congregation
The temple is just a short walk from our compound, but with further engagements in the day, Napow drives us this morning to the temple ceremony. Where we leave truck next to the open entrance of the hall which merges with the carpark.
With us, we carry a tiffin tin, which is a bit like a tiered metal lunchbox containing different cooked foods, along with a big bowl of rice, and we will offer these to the monks.
But as we reach the entrance to the hall, I realize that I have left my camera in the back seat of the pickup, and I rush back to the truck to fetch them. But when I lean over from the front driver’s seat to grab the camera from the back seat, my rear presses against the car horn and a long “meeeep” rings through the temple. As the heads of the congregation turn towards me, and the lead monk pauses on his microphone.
It was quite probably the worst introduction I could ever have hoped for, but I have no option but to continue, now skulking into the temple hall with my head down in embarrassment, to find Fanfan and Napow who look more embarrassed than I do.
Donations to Monks
I follow Fanfan’s lead at the front of the temple hall, where she opens and offers the food in the tiffin tins to the monks on the front stage. The treats today, sealed in individual bags and fastened with elastic bands, include fried eggs, a hot and sour pork bone soup, and some panaeng pork curry. And these are just a taste of many offerings that the monks will receive this morning, and the amazing food is no doubt one of the few perks of a life devoted to the temple.
But the monks otherwise have to fast through to the next morning, as they cannot eat after midday of each day, which is why I would never hack such a disciplined lifestyle. Also, no alcohol. So we continue to pray in front of the monks in the temple, before moving to the far side of the hall where their alms bowls have been set across tables against the wall.
Here we join the queue to scoop spoonfuls of rice into each bowl, before moving to the tricky part of the ceremony, where we move to the front altar to make offerings to the central shrine. So I have done similar ceremonies in the past, and I was never great with them, but now with the temple full and congregation waiting, I feel like all eyes are on me.
Offerings to the Shrine
At the shrine I hold two candles, two incense sticks and a small bunch of ceremonial flowers. Which is the norm. And I again follow Fanfan’s lead to light my candles, which I then use to light the incense sticks. We both then hold the candles and incense between our palms, in prayer, and hold them out in front of us. We both bow our heads, and Fanfan says some words in prayer, before stepping to the shrine to make the offering.
First we simply set the flowers at the base of the shrine, which is the easy part, as we move on to offer the incense sticks. But being among the last to arrive to the temple, there is next to no room left in the tray to place our incense sticks. So I spot a narrow space at the back of the tray, and I nervously guide my hand up and over the wall of already burning incense sticks.
But as I lower the incense sticks into place, I burn my pinky finger, and I drop the sticks into the tray. The sticks fall back against the shrine, and I can only watch helplessly as the searing red embers singe the gold paintwork of the shrine. There was no way my hand was going back in to fix it.
Having hopefully gone unnoticed, I shuffle to the side and start with the next offering of the candles, only to find myself face-to-face with a wall of flames. And I give up before I even begin, as there was just no way my hand was going anywhere near. Fortunately Fanfan also concedes and saves me the embarrassment, as we instead smother our candle wicks, and set them at the base of the shrine.
The Token Farang
Finally I can escape and we return to join aunty Napow who kneels at the front of the congregation. And I feel relaxed again. So the service begins, and the lead monk walks to the shrine where my incense still singes away at the paintwork. Then, when reaching the altar, he turns to the congregation and points in my direction. “Please not me. Please not me”.
The monk then communicates with Napow, in Thai, and I just completely panic inside. “Have I ruined their holy shrine? Or maybe it was the car horn?” I really do expect the worst at this time, when Napow nods her head and signals me to walk to the front of the temple. “I could still run?”
So I get up from my haunches and scramble between the lines of the congregation to the front of the temple hall. I am still confused and panicked, with worst case scenarios running through my head. And it isn’t until I reach the front where I find the opposite.
In Buddhism, there are few days more important than Holy Days, and, on this Holy Day, I have been chosen to lead the service alongside the lead monk of the temple. And by doing this I will have lots of karma bestowed upon me. Yet I still want to run and hide. “Please don’t faint, please don’t faint”. So it is hard not to picture myself falling face first into the altar, as, again, I find myself face-to-face with the temple shrine.
Candle Lighting Ceremony
This time all eyes are definitely on me, but the lead monk would at least help me through the ceremony, only I wish I knew what he was saying. So he begins by handing me a long metal candle stick holder, with an already lit candle on the end of it. He then directs me to light the two large candles which sit in the centre of the shrine. So, on the plus side, he had obviously missed my previous attempts, as there’s no way he would otherwise trust me with such an important ceremony
But any relief is tiny compared to the pressures ahead of me now, yet I can only worry about how ridiculously childish my t-shirt is today, with cute dancing muffins, and “Fast Food Good Taste” emblazoned across the front. Today was the wrong day. So I refocus, and I hold the candlestick out towards the wick of the first candle, and I pray “please light, please light”. But it doesn’t light.
The monk then steps in to help me, by pulling down the candle and holding it to an angle. So I have another go, and the wick finally catches fire, giving me a sudden spur of confidence. And I move to the second candle, which lit as soon as I touched it, and then I breezed through the two incense sticks. I smile and thank the monk, and, with an immense sense of relief, I get ready to scurry back to safety.
But I don’t get far, and as I turn to leave, a temple helper sets his hand on my wrist to lead me to the front, centre of the congregation. And this is where he indicates me to kneel, on a mat on the floor, right in front of the monks. I can hardly say no. But I do look to Fanfan, hoping maybe she could get me out of it, yet she seemed to be enjoying the anxiety, which was likely scrawled all across my face.
Anyway, the temple helper signals for me to kneel on the rattan prayer mat, and both of us haunch down on our knees in front of the monks. And again I continue to follow his actions, holding my hands in prayer, as the monks begin to chant. After each verse, the helper then signals to bring my palms to the ground and to bow three times. Fortunately I have covered similar prayers before.
The prayers continue for a good five minutes, although it feels like a lot longer, as I balanced on my knees until they felt like they were on fire. Which is normal for me, where in past ceremonies with the family, I have always been allowed to sit cross-legged. Or I am given a small chair to sit on. Because I have otherwise not knelt in these shapes since I was in primary school. Whereas, in Thailand, it is common practice.
So I begin to panic again, as I have no idea how long the ceremony would continue for, and I picture myself buckling in pain, and writhing on the ground in agony with the congregation watching me.
Fortunately, just I was teetering on the threshold of extreme pain, a dog strolls to the front of the hall, as they really are allowed to just roam freely in-and-around the hall and congregation. And this is where it rolls over, to start licking its bits. So, with the spotlight shifted slightly, I thank the helper and monks, before scurrying between the lines of congregation and back to Fanfan.
Anyway, it was not so much a fun day for me, and I was somewhat terrified for most of it. But it was no doubt another memorable experience, and back at the compound, I was congratulated by excited family and neighbours on my new found karma. It was a proud moment for me.
A Potato in a Rice Field: In 2015 I spent a year living in a close-knit rural community in Northeastern Thailand (Isaan). I was based in the small village of Broken Road and ‘A Potato in a Rice Field’ chronicles my time there as I bumble through life, culture and etiquette within a strict family of tradition and Buddhist belief. Find it on Amazon here.