Sunday, April 24, 2005

The funeral and the monks

We got invited to a funeral the other night and apparently the more people that show up to a funeral the more "merit" the dead person gets - they think it helps them get closer to nirvana. There are all kinds of crazy rules in Buddhisms (like honking when you pass a temple - b/c that gets you merit too...) So they just invite anyone. No one I was going with (about 6 of us) even knew the deceased. I always thought nirvana was essentially paradise - but no - it's nothingness, you cease to exist. So their entire religion is bent on extinguishing themselves. They believe they will be born over and over again until they finally "get it right" and then they will never be born again, they will just die and cease to exist.
How depressing.
Buddha (which literally means "enlightened one") said he was reborn 500 times until he finally reached "the enlightenment". His real name was Siddhattha Gotama, he was a rich prince, born in India in 532 or something (they actually use his birth for their calendar so here it's like 2537). I'll talk more about that later. Buddhists don't ever "know" anything to be definite. They can never know whether the power of karma will move them up to a higher life or down to a lower life when they die. I think that uncertainty is what leads them to develop so many extra rules like the more people you have at your funeral, the better your chances of moving up a notch when you are reborn.
God does says that "eternity is set in the hearts of men." You can't get away from that sense of knowing that death is really not final, there IS something else. There are very few Buddhists here who actually practice Buddhism in it's truest form - the one that says there is no soul, there are no spirits, good are bad, and there is no God. Buddha just got rid of God altogether, so basically, in a round-about way, you are your own god -all the answers are inside of yourself. The only problem with that is that - They aren't!
I am so thankful that I do know the one who holds all the answers, that I know God and get to experience his peace daily - that I never have to fear death, because I know my future is secure. Unlike what Buddha said his beloved buddhist people can't get away from the feeling of a higher power so here most of the people just believe in the bad half of that power. All around Thailand - in places from houses to car dealerships you will find "spirit houses." They make these little replicas of houses for the spirits to live in and they try to appease them daily by offering them food, etc. But I'll try and talk about that more later -Back to the funeral.
So we pile into Mindy's truck and drive a few miles down the road. The funerals here are all at night and last several days. They are usually at the persons house. So we walk up and there are these big canopies with plastic chairs underneath, sitting on a dirt floor outside the house of the old lady that died. There are these speakers set up with really strange music (which we are told is always played at funerals) blaring out of them. We take a seat in the pastel colored plastic lawn chairs and just start looking around like everyone else is doing. To our left are two huge chalkboards in a row and people are coming up and writing their names on them. Apparently they write their name, what community they're from, and I think how much money they give. Unlike in America, it is the duty of the family of the deceased to provide food for everyone who comes, they had even rented a TV and placed it prominently outside to entertain the guests that would come from far away - and then everyone who comes donates money.
I can see the door inside the deceased house in front of me and to the left. It is open and a bunch of flip-flops and sandals are piled in front of the two steps that lead inside. The doorway gives off a warm, red, smoky glow from the pile of incense sticks smoldering inside. Dark shadows are flickering and you can't really see all the way into the house because of the darkness. Everyone is sort of just milling around. The girls we came with are saying that there is usually a lot of waiting involved in funerals. A "girl" comes by with a tray of water glasses, I grab one as I turn back to here what Noi is explaining to me and Zsila leans over and whispers (that's a man!). She is proud of her new found eye for the he-she. "Yes, Zsila that's a transvestite," and I turn back to Noi. Ever since we first arrived in Bangkok I tried to point them out to her (some of them actually make pretty girls and it is hard to tell) but she would NOT believe me. "Julie, that is NOT a guy." When it was painfully obvious to me that is WAS a guy. And now that she realizes I was right she tries to spot them before I do, it's a game now - Like slug-bug only, not...) The really funny, or sad I should say, thing is when you see an older European talking to one and you *know* he has no clue...Our cab driver told us that some of them think/hope they will come back as a girl in their next life. Anyways, I'm getting off topic again.
Then Zsila decides she wants to go inside the house so some of our Thai girlfriends and Zsila and I get up and walk to the house, slip off our shoes and walk inside. There is a picture of the old lady that died, it had been touched up in a weird way so that her midface was sort of blurred in an attempt to make her look younger. It was on a makeshift easel with flowers and some Christmas lights surrounding it - and a bowl of sand in which an abundance of incense sticks had been haphazardly placed. Besides a strange metal and glass wardrobe sitting off and away from the back wall (and still filled with what I assumed were the deceased clothes,), the articles to the left of the door I just described, and the people in the house, it was completely empty. The "house" was a really a shack, boards of wood composing the floor and walls. In the corner some of the boards had either rotted or were torn away with areas large enough for a dog to squeeze through. The small entry way was lower than the rest of the one-roomed house and a handful of men sat on the small ledge, dangling their legs, some almost lounging. No one seemed particularly sad...One of the men hopped up when we walked inside and asked in Thai if we would tell him what an American funeral was like. "Nothing like this" I thought to myself. We gave a rather quick description because other people were coming into the house and there really wasn't much room, so we went back to our seats.
A man grabbed a speaker up front and started talking. There was a table in front of us with a younger girl and guy who seemed to be taking money out of a big plastic bowl and putting it into a handful of separate envelopes. We waited a while longer and then we saw the first monk saunter in, almost forget to remove his sandals at the door, and step inside the house. Darn, I can't remember how many monks there were....either 5 or 6. It depends on how much money you have but the fact that the number is odd or even has significance, ok, wait a second - OK, I looked it up. Usually monks come (because they come for all kinds of reasons, ceremonies and such that people pay them to come to their houses) in odd numbers because even numbers are "unlucky." But, at funerals it is different for some reason and I think the number can be even. However, I remember counting the monks when they came out and I thought it was 5...Aaaaanyways - there were monks. Actually most of them looked pretty young to be monks. They were all wearing bright saffron (orange - the same color as the gates in central park! There is a picture of that at the beginning of my blog). I don't think there is really any rule to what color their tuniks or whatever have to be but almost all of them are usually some shade of orange, and they all shave their heads and eyebrows like every 14 days, can't eat after 12 noon, can't touch a woman, can only own a certain number of articles - and this number seems to be ever increasing, and can now include cigarettes, hmmmmm - AND Zsila said she's pretty sure she saw a monk on a motorcycle way up in the mountains the other day with a girl tied around his waist :) - They have a gazillion and one rules and every male buddhist is supposed to spend time as a monk at least once in his life, there is no specified time. People say that a lot of guys become monks so they can just be lazy, but, I don't know, I haven't asked them! But the real reason they become monks is because it gains them and their family merit. Later in life many Thai men spend the remainder of their lives as monks.
Soooo, the monks slowly trickled in to the house and sat in a row against one of the side walls of the house. I could see them through the doorway. All the Thais around me got in the wei position (like they're praying with their hands up in front of them), but not the Christian Thais of course. It was kinda like they were worshipping the monks or something. It's sad, since Gotama took away God they'll just worship any and everything. There is a lot of idol worship here, which sounds so archaic, but it is ubiquitous...
Then the monks started their chanting, it was pretty creepy, and no one understands what they are saying because they speak in a language no one knows, something from India. It was just a very dark, oppressive occasion. Definitely not like the funerals we have - where even though there is a lot of sadness, there are people saying words of peace, blessing, and encouragement. This funeral only had a spirit of fear and lifelessness - one big vacuum. Yuck! Oh, and this is the kicker - on the last day of the funeral they take the body of the deceased and light it on fire for everyone to watch. How macabe is that! The people here say it is really bad when they do it stake style, with the body standing up, being burned from the feet up until the face flames away as everything disintigrates into a pile of lumpy ashes.
Yeah, I'm glad I went on the first day and not the last, I don't want a living picture of hell imprinted in my mind!
Alright, now everyone go enjoy your day :)


Post a Comment

<< Home