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December blooms and celebrations

December 27, 2011

Today when Ketsanee’s family paid respect to the spirits of Dokmai Garden, I noticed that the big forest mango (Mangifera caloneura, Anacardiaceae) is in blossom, and so was mother-in-law’s tongue (Sansevieria hyacinthoides, Dracaenaceae) and citronella grass (Cymbopogon nardus, Poaceae).

To make people understand more of the traditions surrounding the numerous spirit houses you see in Thailand, I wish to share my impressions from this morning. Thais are mainly animistic, praying to many gods and spirits, of which Lord Buddha is the most important spirit.

This morning a Pawnan, equivalent to a Buddhist Monk’s secretary or a Hindu ‘Pram’, visited us. Monks care for Buddha worship, Pawnans deal with older traditions. The name of this Pawnan was Than and he was 73 years old. The occasion was to move a spirit house and to ask the spirits for protection and good luck, and to pay respect in general. The 25th and the 27th of December were proposed by Pawnan Than based on astrology, and Ketsanee selected the 27th because she said a Tuesday is ‘strong’. Ketsanee was upset because a previous gardener had simply bought a spirit house and put it next to an old building without a proper ceremony.

This morning at nine (nine is ‘gao’ in Thai, also meaning ‘go forward’) the ceremony began. Pawnan Than first prayed a hymn in Pali language (an old language related to Sanskrit) inviting the ancestral spirits  to move from the old place to this new place near our big tamarind. These spirits are ghosts of previous inhabitants generally called ‘Khun Ta’ and ‘Khun Yai’, meaning ‘grandpa’ and ‘grandma’. Soil from the old site was placed in the corners of the spirit house in the new place. After the hymn Pawnan Than prayed in Thai for the protection of the family, their animals and for good luck. During this ceremony incense was burning and the family was kneeling facing their feet backwards, hands in a ‘wai’ to show the spirits they were considered superior. It is a common misunderstanding among tourists that a wai is a Thai handshake. It is not. It is a sign of showing rank, and the greeted superior person may or may not wai back.

A 2011 Thai spirit worship. The spirit house is facing East, the direction of prosperity and birth (sunrise). On the table you see offerings such as chicken, rice, bananas, coconut with a plastic straw, mandarins, drinking water, rice spirits, tobacco and betel pepper/areca nuts (another hallucinogen), white flowers (most white flower would do as a symbol of purity. In this case Tabernaemontana pachysiphon (Apocynaceae) from Africa and South American Amazon lily, Eucharis x grandiflora, Amaryllidaceae). Behind the bottle of spirits you may see a package with ribbons of seven different colours which were later attached to the spirit house. The figurines were placed inside the two other spirit houses on the property. The yellow garland on the spirit house is composed of Mexican marigolds (Tagetes erecta, Asteraceae) and white flowers of the native giant milkweed (Calotropa gigantea Apocynaceae). Yellow is the colour of friendship and of royalty. The little cup in front of the opening contains sand to hold the nine incense sticks. According to Ketsanee the fragrance of the incense attract the spirits so they come and listen (normally they fly around). What happens to the offerings? When the incense have burnt out, the spirits go away and you eat their leftovers.

When this ceremony was over we walked 250 meters to the giant mango and the spirit house of Saeng Mok. This spirit has never had any human form. It is the protector of this land, and to the Seehamongkol family the most powerful spirit after Lord Buddha. Previously I though that when we bought a nice teak spirit house we could remove the old hideous white one, but today I learnt that Saeng Mok lives in the old one, and one of his ‘workers’ moved into the much nicer teak house. The offerings were less since this was not a move: chicken, mandarins, rice, water and Thai desserts ‘foi thong’ and ‘thong jowt’. Pawnan Than dipped a white Amazon Lily in water and sprinkled on the houses, mumbling in Pali, and then he asked Ketsanee to light nine incense sticks and to hold them between her hands while making a wai and a prayer (performed in Thai and in silence, a wish).

After the ceremony I read the BBC news on-line. There was one example from another country where superstition leads to violent confrontation. Thai ceremonies are easy-going, cameras are allowed, children can run around, a ritual mistake is either ignored or corrected later, a mistake from a foreigner is tolerated although if severe somebody may gently inform of the expected politeness. Although women must not touch a monk nor show her shoulders or bare legs at a temple, they are equal to men in ceremonies and in society.

The great number of religions on Earth, and the readiness to go violent to defend imaginations is widespread. This map is supposed to show percentage of atheism/agnosticism in different countries. It is sometimes called the map of disbelief (from ‘Atheism: contemporary rates and patterns‘. 2007, in The Cambridge Companion to Atheism, Cambridge University Press. ):

Being a Swede I should like to comment that although many people in Sweden have left the churches, some still have problems with logical thinking, turning to astrology and unscientific medicine. Some simply change gurus, from priests to selected scientists whom they trust blindly. Being a scientist myself I do encourage critical thinking. The opposite to critical thinking is fundamentalism, where you ignore, ridicule or hide inconvenient facts rather than considering and testing them rationally. Scientists are also humans and some can not bear losing face by admitting that decades of research were wrong, and so they become fundamentalists of their own theses too.

However, critical thinking also means critical studies of scientific publications. It is a common misunderstanding even among students in natural sciences that a published and peer-reviewed scientific article has a divine stamp of correctness. It does not. It means the article passed the first filters of critical comments, and is now ready for worldwide criticism. Many old peer-reviewed scientific papers claimed that peptic ulcer was due to over-production of acid, but a brave Australian scientist challenged his colleagues and published experimental proof that in many cases it is due to a new organism, Helicobacter pylori. Others repeated his experiments and confirmed them. A terrible disease was suddenly wiped out in areas ready to change their minds, while some fundamentalistic doctors such as in Russia and Thailand still go on with the old beliefs, maintaining life-long pain (and medical bills) in their patients.

Many ex-religious people behave like the crowds in Monty Python’s ‘Life of Brian’, where they abandon the old prophets to follow a new one, and when told to think for themselves they repeat in chorus ‘yes, we shall think for ourselves’. Although a scientist might be completely right, the laymen who rush to his support to bless the world with his thinking may not have read or understood his articles, nor the articles of his scientific critics. They may have adopted an idea presented in a 30 minutes TV program by a journalist who simplifies, misunderstands and selects suitable theses, commonly pleading to emotions via artistic footage rather than reason. The phenomenon is not too different from religion. Religious and scientific models are both products of the brain, the difference is that the scientific models are based on information you can check, not sayings, and the scientific models keep changing as new information is obtained (see example above). If you do not check or compare scientific information, then the TV program is also just a saying, although hopefully with a core of truth which will inspire you to study the subject in more detail.

Other interesting blog sites on rational thinking:

Rationally speaking.

Why Evolution is true.

Text and Photo: Eric Danell

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. kentiopsis permalink
    December 28, 2011 2:05 AM

    I’ve noticed that my Thai family uses the English word “wish” in place of the word “pray,” which Christian farang would use. I find this refreshingly frank. Regarding the white flowers, one flower my wife won’t use for shrines and paying respect is frangipani. She says that it is associated with death and is grown in and around cemeteries. I don’t know if this is an element of Thai culture generally, or if it is peculiar to Issan culture.

    I also wanted to mention here a book I’m reading now, The High Frontier: Exploring the Tropical Rainforest Canopy, by Mark Moffet, with a forward by E.O. Wilson (Harvard U Press). This is a gorgeous, breath-taking book and a great, non-technical introduction to tropical rainforest canopy biology.

    • December 28, 2011 9:33 AM

      Translations can sometimes be difficult but I think wish is good too. In Swedish we say ‘be’ which means ‘ask’. Frangipani (Plumeria spp.) was originally introduced to Thailand from South America by the Christian farang as an ornamental flower in the Christian churchyards. Indeed it was associated with death, as the older Thai name ‘lantom’ (grief) indicates. With the newer name ‘lilavadee’ after a historical Thai lady, coined by princess Sirindhorn, frangpani became a common feature in private homes. Ketsanee (also from Esan) confirms your remark that they never use this flower in religious situations.

      Thanks for the book advice! Indeed the canopies are the main areas of life in a tropical forest, while ground dwellers such as ourselves do not see much but tree trunks and decay. It is like living in an abyss below a coral reef. That is why I like young gardens, you can actually see the fruits, flowers and foliage, and birds and butterflies stay low where you can admire them.

  2. tongchaichokdee permalink
    December 28, 2011 3:56 PM

    A very informative post!
    As a ‘farang’ in Thailand the meaning of Thai rituals and other cultural practices sometimes get lost in translation! So thank you for explaining the spirit house ceremony in such an excellent and understandable way.Maybe you should write a book on this and related subject matters.
    Korbkhun krap.

    • December 29, 2011 9:04 AM

      Thanks – maybe I write a book some day. A lot of information to gather.

      Cheers, Eric

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