Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Honor Thy Ancestors

It’s not every day that you get to go to a sacred temple on the highest point in all of Thailand and receive blessings of good fortune from a Monk, but for some reason my mind was elsewhere. While Mariana and I were in Vietnam, we had become friends with a man from Thailand who was slightly younger than us. We had a number of good discussions and he informed us that he was engaged to be married soon to a young woman from Northern Thailand. After a few days of travel together, we politely exchanged emails and went our separate ways. Little did we know that he and his fiancé would be picking us up at our guesthouse in Chiang Mai three weeks later to show us a more local experience. They were kind enough to treat us to a lunch that was composed entirely of authentic Northern Thai cuisine and then take us to a temple nestled in the mountains overlooking all of Chiang Mai. Once at the pinnacle of Wat Prathat Doi SuThep, our new friends invited us to join them in a traditional ritual that honors loved ones who have passed and allows the faithful to solicit the blessings of Buddha. Mariana and I have prayed for our ancestors and asked for blessings at many Buddhist temples all across Southeast Asia, but today was special because for the first time, we were practicing true ritual.

Mariana and I removed our shoes at the steps leading up to the temple and then made a humble offering to its proprietors at the entrance. In return, we were each given a flower, a candle, and three sticks of incense. At the highest point of the center of the temple there was a towering golden spire, which the prayerful must walk around three times as they reflect on their thoughts and desires. So we did and my thoughts were consumed by those who were close to me that I had lost in recent years: my Grandma Kuhl, my Grandma Seitz and my Grandpa Seitz who lived long and rich lives, my good friend William “JR” Berry who was taken from this World far too early, and a kind man named Scooter Robison who richly deserved more time with his family and friends. As I followed Mariana and our friends around the temple, I could not help but think about the sheer number of simultaneous thoughts and prayers that must have been filling the complex at that very moment. I thought about life and death, family and friends, and the delicate balance of joy and sorrow. I realized that the only fairness found in death is its certainty, which ironically causes an unequivocal amount of uncertainty for those who take time to dwell on its meaning. Days before my Grandmother Kuhl passed away, she wisely stated that her only concern with dying was that she had “never done this sort of thing before”. I prayed for the same graceful ability to surrender to powers beyond my control.

After walking around the spire three times, the prayerful quietly light their candle and incense and then place their flower in a water-filled vessel. The candles are placed in neat rows of simple metallic holders and left to burn. The incense is held above your head in a cleansing fashion as you kneel, prostrated before a sacred shrine and you begin to pray. Our friends requested blessings for their upcoming marriage, some students nearby were no doubt sincerely asking for help with their studies, and I was appealing to a higher power somewhere to sanctify my desire for my loved ones to rest peacefully. When the prayers are finished, each person places their three sticks of incense into a large vase filled with ash to burn and proceeds into the temple. Once inside the temple it is imperative that you remain lower than Buddha and any monks who may be inside. We were lucky today, because a monk was offering tidings of good fortune and prayerful blessings to those who wished to receive them. Not being one to turn down any opportunity to gain some GOOD Karma, I waited my turn to be blessed and sprinkled with purifying water. Bright white strands of string are then tied around your wrist, which are supposed to be worn for at least three days by its bearer. Call me superstitious, but I am going to wear mine until it falls off. Finally, to end our day at the temple, I left a prayer card at a sacred tree honoring the deceased for my Grandma Kuhl who passed away recently and is sorely missed.

I truthfully felt as though I was leaving hallowed ground as I placed my sandals back on my feet and headed back out into the hurried streets of Chiang Mai. Maybe it was because of the honorable Subjects of my thoughts that day, but for the first time in a long time, I felt as though my prayers were heard.

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