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Dying to live again the Buddhist way

by Tibor Krausz, Sydney Morning Herald, March 22, 2009

Thais are lining-up to 'die' so they can start a better life

Nakhon Nayok, Thailand -- I lower myself into the coffin, my curiosity tinged with uneasiness. As I lie there "dying" inside the spacious casket, a Buddhist monk beside it launches into a funereal chant.

Thus bidding farewell to my life so far, he pulls a large white shroud over the casket. In it, clasping a hand-me-down bouquet of orchids, I become, symbolically, the living dead, hovering for a moment between my old life and a new one.

The cobalt-blue silk-lined chest smells faintly of mildew and perfume, and there's a headrest. Pressed against the small of my back is a stack of 100-baht ($4) notes left behind as donation by the morning's previous occupants of this coffin - the seventh in a line of nine identical caskets arrayed inside the ordination hall of Wat Prommanee monastery in Nakhon Nayok.

This nondescript rural monastery, about 110 kilometres north-east of Bangkok, draws hundreds of worshippers daily from around Thailand to its idiosyncratic cleansing rites. Participants die ritual deaths to re-emerge cleansed of karmic misfortune. Marital strife, financial hardships, irksome follies - you can leave them all behind in the coffin.

"I've hit some obstacles lately and came for help to overcome them," Ratchaphon Tandee, a fish farmer from Ayutthya, tells me after his turn in a coffin. From a ceramic bowl in a golden Buddha statue's lap, he scoops up tepid holy water with a plastic cup and takes a worshipful sip. "My cousin won the [town] lottery after her first visit," he adds, indicating the young woman at his side who has returned for second helpings of good luck.

A police lieutenant I meet is eager to be "reborn" into a higher rank with more pay. A college student wants some spiritual boost to her desire for weight loss. A soap opera actress is here to rid herself of a baleful miasma placed on her by a curse. She intends to entice the malevolent spirit into a coffin and trap it there.

Saman Nuchin, who leads his bashful young daughter by the hand, comes from neighbouring Saraburi. He wears a sun-faced Buddha amulet around his neck. He is a groundskeeper at a cemetery. He concedes he has never seen people rise from coffins before, but he plans to do just that for a new lease on life. "I'm 58 and a fortune teller told me this age will be very ominous for me," Saman explains. "I want to die symbolically so I can carry on living happily."

At Wat Prommanee, Bangkok socialites rub shoulders with country housewives, politicians mingle with village teachers, entrepreneurs with rice farmers. In Thailand, superstitious obsession with good luck knows no class or status, or bounds. Amulets proliferate. Every home has its spirit shrines, and magic tattoos are credited with protective powers against everything from mishaps to bullet wounds.

Since 2005, when Wat Prommanee began offering its unique services, the monastery has become a word-of-mouth sensation. "First we thought one coffin would suffice," says Viehien Poomboontharig, a local journalist with bejewelled fingers and cascades of gold amulets who volunteers at the temple. "Now even nine aren't enough."

Nine is a sort of magic number here - the Thai word for "nine" is pronounced the same way as the phrase "move forward".

Rebirths happen quickly. There is no time for reveries or much reflection inside the coffin. The monk, still chanting in a mournful tone, walks past the chest I am lying in and peels the large white sheet back from the feet towards the head.

He taps me on the shoulder. I've been reborn and it's time to get a move on. From the several dozen worshippers waiting in orderly, sombre rows at the back, the next nine rebirthers are already lining up.

They each walk to a coffin, grasp the well-thumbed bouquet there, recite a plea for guardian spirits (each casket has its own), and clamber in. They lie down, close their eyes. The shroud goes up, the shroud comes down. They stand up, make a wish, step out, and off they go into their "new" lives.

"Next!"

Near columns of sandstone buddhas snack vendors peddle psychedelic beverages, home-made crackers and fried rat mounted between splintered bamboo sticks. A black tomcat, famed bringer of misfortune, lurks at a gate guarded by giant plaster elephants. A monk sits behind a table laid with mass-produced charms, 50 baht apiece, for "repelling misfortune".

Part of the donations - the coffin ritual costs 100 baht - goes towards buying real coffins for poor families so they can bury their deceased loved ones in style.

"This ritual helps you see life in a new light." says Luang Por Tueng, a monk.

No question about that. If you can leave a coffin on your own two feet, things are already looking up.


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