Sunday, August 4, 2013

Phasa Rains Retreat in Thailand ("Lent")

Vassa (from the ancient Pali language) is the annual three month "rains retreat" observed by Buddhists, especially for monks and other serious practitioners of traditional Theravada Buddhism. It is sometimes referred to by westerners as "Buddhist Lent" because many lay people choose to give up consumption of a particular substance (smoking, drinking alcohol) or food, such as meat. However, Buddhists do not call it "Lent". In Thailand, it is known as Phasa.

Phasa begins with throngs of people turning out at local "wats" (temples) to give alms to monks, receive blessings and seek guidance from fortune tellers. It is a swirl of activity, solemnity mixed with a carnival-like atmosphere lasting at least until midnight. Crowds of a hundred or more walk three times around the wat in a continuous candle-lit procession; a steady stream of newcomers take the place of those leaving. Nearby, food vendors offer a staggering variety of food and drink.

At the last moment, I decided to stop at a nearby wat (actually two wats across a klong (canal) from each other, to witness one of Thailand's biggest holiday celebrations. I was captivated by the colors, the smells, the smoke of incense hanging in the air, the calls of vendors hawking wares, monks chanting, and fascinating ancient rituals that are carried on today.

As is often the case in this easternmost town in Bangkok province, I was privileged to be the sole westerner (in a crowd of at least a thousand) that witnessed the celebration. Westerners are not uncommon here, but for some reason do not usually show up in the outer reaches of Bangkok to experience Thailand's rich cultural and religious festivals right in their "back yard".

Celebrants pay 20 baht (US 60 cents) for a candle, three incense sticks and a bouquet of orchids to carry with them and give as offerings at the entrance to the wat.

After circling the wat three times, the candle and incense are placed in sand-filled troughs; the flowers are placed in a pile at either end near the steps to the wat.
A tradition in Thailand is the making of very large candles that are given to the monks. Here people take turns dipping long ladles into melted wax and filling a candle mold.

One way to "make merit" is to release confined animals, such as birds (paying for the opportunity of course). At this wat, all of the animals were aquatic: frogs, fish, eels and turtles. Here they await the kind-hearted to release them into the nearest body of water (the klong a few meters away).

Although no alcohol can be bought in shops or grocery stores on this day, an enterprising woman set up her mobile converted Volkswagon bar and sold mixed drinks (just outside the wat walls of course). Here I enjoy a gin drink with fruit soda. Delicious, even though perhaps sacrilegious.


Jessica said...

I love that I learn so much culture through your pictures. Happy celebrating!

John Stiles said...

Thank you for your comment, Jessica. It appears we have many things in common: Thailand, adopted children, and a child who is "limb different".