Buddhism in Thailand seems to be nothing like what I learned from Pema Chodran, popular American female ‘monk’. There is so much I don’t understand and there is no one who can explain it to me.
Today, was the end of a three-day funeral for my ‘grandmother’ of my host family in my village? She was 105 years old. I spent more time with her than with anyone else in the family. They were always gone: working.
It was an odd friendship. There were no spoken words we had in common and yet she’d talk to me and I’d listen. If I were in the other room, she’d come look for me. Grandmother Gong liked fruit. She was a skinny as could be and had no teeth but loved to eat fruit with me. I always had fruit to share. Then, sometimes, we laid down on the same tiang (bamboo bed/table) and would rest together.
The first month with a ‘typical Thai family’ was spent with Yai Gong. I continued to visit her after I moved into my own house. It was a chance to ‘visit the old neighborhood’ and have time with Thai people. No pressures from Yai Gong. She’d say something I couldn’t understand and I’d say something in my basic Thai that she didn’t understand. We’d smile, laugh, share and just be together, never any pressure.
Her farewell to this earthly life: a shinny, elaborate coffin in the front room decorated with tiny Christmas lights, flowers, photographs, candles, incense, and a tray of her favorite food. Baskets of gifts for the monks surrounded it all.
Mostly there were people and food. Everyone related in any way to this great-grandmother came to the ceremony. Maybe even more because it’s holiday of the New Year. The attendees were dressed in black. All ages were represented from young to old and there were especially many, many old people, her contemporaries.
The family accepts donations (merit making) for the event and to contribute to the temple. Food is the common bond: people cooking, eating, drinking, washing dishes and all the rest. Contributions are listed next to your name on a ‘white board’ for all to see.
There are canvass tent-tops for shelter from the sun. Hundreds of people came, ate, prayed and left. Sadness wasn’t noticeable. It was about family and friends seeing each other and eating together.
My status as a Westerner and special friend’ to Yai Gong was noted. I felt sad. She was my first ‘family’ in the village and always there when I visited. At the cremation I was ‘honored’ as one of the people who presented robes to the monks. With plaintive folk music in the background, her life story was told.
Never have I witnessed the burning of the body up close and personal. Many photographs were taken and there was another first experience I don’t understand.
When it was time to slide her body into the chamber to burn, I was urged to join others by pouring coconut milk over her body. There was folded money in her mouth (20 baht) and more money in her hands. After all the coconuts were empty, someone poured gasoline over her from a plastic Pepsi bottle, special dried palm tapers were ignited and the smoke started coming out of the special temple chimney.
As I looked around there seemed to be 300 or 400 people there. There were fireworks. Seven young men who were grandsons and great grandsons had shaved their heads and become ‘monks’ to honor their ancestor, Yai Gong. The youngest boy was 6 and the oldest in his 20’s. They took their role seriously and were honored in return.
Many more photographs and everyone who participated washed their hands in a bucket and took a souvenir nail clippers. Then the crowd walked back to the house to eat, drink and talk more. I was befriended by another grandmother there and offered some beetle nut to chew on. This was an offer indicating my acceptance by the group.
Tomorrow is December 31. It’s almost the end of my second year of Peace Corps service. I started by joining the family of Grandmother (Yai) Gong. And now she’s gone, and soon I’ll be leaving, too.