18 November 2012

When Faith meets Fireworks

Imagine smoke, everywhere. Not in a way that is unpleasant. It’s just swirling in the air around you, either perfumed with spices or with the sharp smell of gunpowder. In your ears flow Buddhist prayers, interjected with the crack of fireworks nearby. Everything is lit with orange glow of the little candles perching around the temple.

This is Ok Phansa, the celebration of the end of Buddhist lent, which happens once a year at the end of rainy season. We were lucky enough to experience this unique event while on a homestay in Sisaket province. It was beautiful and chaotic and smokey, and a joy to experience with my temporary Sisaket family.

As a Religion major, I had some preconceptions of what Buddhism might be like when coming to Thailand, but the reality of it has been full of surprises. Hoping to participate first hand in Buddhist ceremonies, I was disappointed to find that there were no temples nearby my homebase in Khon Kaen. Fortunately, religious life is more essential and intertwined in village life. I’ve had the opportunity to give alms to monks early in the morning, and I’ve been entangled in several impromptu string-tying ceremonies.

What really strikes me about what I’ve observed of Buddhist religious practice is how relaxed it is… so completely different from the stiff and stillness that exists in the cannon western religious practice. Even while wai-ing and chanting along with the monks, the women present at the temple for Ok Phansa turned to chat and laugh with each other, as fireworks popped and cracked constantly throughout the entire time, lit by the pre-teen rascal boys of the village. Feem, our four year old sister, was much more interested in playing with the dripping orange candle wax than sitting still, and her mother made little attempt to keep her in attention.

The practice was so much more based in action than in silent contemplation. For these villagers, religious observance is carried out through the lighting of candles and the donation of pillows, mats, rice, and banana-leaf-wrapped snacks, accompanied by the carrying out of the rituals of the ceremony; lighting incense that is strung in a vast web across the courtyard, and circling the temple three times with our candles.

If you’ve studied religion even a little bit, you’ve probably learned Émile Durkheim's theory of Collective Effervescence; the idea that just because of the sheer amount of people participating in religious ceremonies (or any other event), an energy is created and felt by those involved that is perceived to be larger than the sum of its parts. 

Never having been particularly religious, explanations like Collective Effervescence are what I have to explain how I felt that night. A unique feeling arose in my chest as we moved slowly with our candles to light the webs of hanging incense. We lit the incense methodically, and fragrant smoke began to swirl around us. This was nothing like anything I had ever experienced before. Maybe all of the smoke was getting to me, but I really felt part of something big, even though I didn’t know what most of our actions were for.

I think we were all grateful to get to experience Ok Phansa, but, at least for me, I’m even more grateful for the persistence of the kind, yet unexplainable actions of our host families. The easy way that they really truly include us as a part of the family, with little ceremony, really makes me feel like I’m part of something much bigger.

Molly Johanson
Whitman College


CDobrez said...

Molly, what a wonderful piece you have written. Being raised Roman Catholic, I have grown accustom to long, drawn out ceremonies with little interaction with each other. But the Buddhism ceremony, like the attitude of Thailand, was so much more communal then anything I’ve ever experienced religiously. I, too, felt emotionally attach to the ceremony even though I had no idea what was going on or even what holiday the village was celebrating. I am glad now I have something to give meaning to it, the theory of Collective Effervescence. Thank you for bringing this idea to my attention. I believe there is something incredibly powerful about being a part of something so much greater then you. I also believe religion is such a personal thing that being able to be a part of a religious holiday with my host family just made me feel so much closer and connected to this family, like we shared something. In general, any holiday I celebrate with any family beyond my own always creates some deeper connection with that unit. I don’t know if there is any fancy theory behind that idea.

Jahala Dudley said...

Molly, thanks for sharing your experience of Ok Phansa. I was outside the temple experiencing the wrath of the rambunctious teenage boys with my younger brother. They threw fireworks close to our feet and then ran. I had little to think about except as to run fast. Like a chicken with its head cut off, I ran, mostly into other firework blasts. They threw fireworks close to the temple, and I was so worried they would hit a monk. One look at the faces of the villagers, and I was told to calm down. You’re right, the Buddhist religion is much more lax than I would have ever contemplated before.

I appreciate you bringing up Durkheim’s theory of religious energy. When you talked about lighting the incense with your candles, I think to Christmas eve, where my family and I attend a church service. While religious practices have somewhat worn away through the years, I cannot kid myself: When the each person in the room holds a lit camera and the lights are turned off, there is a power there- felt not with my eyes but with my heart. Maybe, it is something similar to what you were experiencing.

Lucy said...

This was really great because it really got me thinking more about my part in these ceremonies. At home, we are active participants in life, we converse, we write, and read. Here, we are simply observers of a different world. As such outsiders, noticing things like energy, aura and collectiveness is something we can do. I have really enjoyed going to buddhist ceremonies although I usually feel like I'm doing something wrong based on the laughs from all of the Yies, but still, I think it is appreciated. Like Molly said, Buddhism requires active participation like giving food to the monks early in the morning. So while we are on our home stays, our simple participation of waking up early with our family and walking down the street to give alms is a wonderful way to participate in the Buddhist way of life.

Galen Hiltbrand said...

Molly, that was an amazing description of that night in Sisaket. I know that we have talked about this a bit in person, but I too have really enjoyed the opportunity to learn more about Buddhism while being here. I have taken religion classes before and have learned about the fundamental principles of the religion, but being able to actually attend ceremonies has allowed me to appreciate the religion in a way I never have before. I have gone to the temple with my roommate in Khon Kaen twice, and both times were ‘Thailights’ of mine. I completely agree that from what I have seen, it is such a relaxed religion. The monks were laughing as I wai’ed and told my roommate to help me work on my form. I was able to have a one on one conversation with a monk and did not feel like I was being talked down to in any way. He gave me advice on how to maintain a peaceful mind in order to be genuinely happier.

Hannah Loppnow said...

What a unique experience! Thanks for teaching us about Ok Phansa, Molly! I had never heard of this ceremony before but it sounds like it’s a big part of Buddist traditions. Although it was not to the scale of your experience, I attended an Evangelical worship for the first time with the community organization I work with this semester in the Dominican Republic. Being raised Roman Catholic I am used to the “stiffness” that you referred to in your blog post during mass. At the Evangelical worship, I was pleasantly surprised by all the participants singing (more like belting) religious songs, clapping their hands, and even dancing all around the room. In fact, they held a dance-off right during the worship! The participants were giving themselves completely to the service and not holding anything back. It was a beautiful experience and I’m lucky to have been a part of it.

BrytneeMiller said...

Beautifully written Molly! I have also studied Buddhism in great depths and was extremely excited about going to a country that practiced Buddhism as the main religion. I also noticed how relaxed and light hearted the practices are- and not in a bad way. The mai pen rai attitude just permeates the temple/village's air because the Buddhist ceremonies are just about freeing the spirit as well as spiritual practice. It really is a great feeling being able to embody a Buddhist mind-set while still believing in whatever other religious ideas you want to believe in. I think this is what is great about Buddhism. It is undefinable.

Marissa Strong said...

I really enjoyed reading your piece Molly. The theory you mentioned about religious energy is interesting and I was unaware of it but I think it relates very much to Buddhism. In the number of Buddhist ceremonies that I have been able to participate in throughout this semester, there have been so many times when "energy" has been mentioned. During our unit2 homestay in Baw Kaew, we witnessed an elder just returning from the hospital. Very ill, he participated with us in a blessing ceremony for him and us. During that time I witnessed many of the villagers touching him so as to make a connection to feel the energy of that blessing pulsing through him. I have seen this occur other times but this was a very powerful scene to witness.

Ashley said...

Coming to Thailand, I knew it was a Buddhist country. I’ve been to Japan before, which is also a Buddhist country. I assumed the two would be pretty similar. In Japan, similar to in the US (at least what I grew up with) religion is pretty separate from daily life. I went to church on Sundays and all the big ceremonies. From what I have learned about Buddhism in Japan is that people visit temples for major festivals, or to pay respect. Death is a very religious thing in Japan. But I was shocked to learn that some people don’t even know the sect of Buddhism that their relative was until the death of that relative required research. My friend’s dad had no idea what type of Buddhist his mother was until he had to prepare funeral arrangements.

In Thailand, Buddhism is much different. It is integrated so well into life, that it has become a part of daily routine. Every morning you give alms to the monks. You give them offerings during every festival. While religion and daily life are separated in other countries, in Thailand, there is a constant reminder. Orange robe clad, barefoot monks are everywhere: walking around the city, at the bus station, even at the zoo! Many people have religious symbols tattooed all over them and others wear necklaces with a carving of Buddha on them.