Laos: Making Merit For The Departed

By Kalinga Seneviratne

Laos is a devoutly Buddhist country – even though it is theoretically ruled by a communist government – where many festivals are held throughout the year to make merit for oneself and your departed relatives, in this life and the next. Boun Khao Padap Din festival is one of them held in the middle of the rainy season – usually on the 10th full moon of the lunar calendar.

Over 2 days Buddhist devotees flock to the wats (temples) carrying silver trays of offerings for monks and deceased ancestors. Traditional music is performed in the grounds of the wat while people make their donations.

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At this temple Wat Kang in the riverside community of Vang Vieng – about 4 hours drive from the Laotian capital Vientianne – on the second day of the festival people came at sunrise to offer foods to the monks. They came dressed in their traditional best, even the small children proudly wore their traditional colouful lungis and the shirts. As they prepared the food and the monks went on the ‘pinapath’ (arms collection) round, recorded traditional music beamed through 4 large speakers.

On this day, Buddhists prepare food for their relatives who have passed away and for abandoned spirits that have been suffering in hell. They prepare 9 types of food and wrap them in banana leaves for offering. They believe that on this day the spirits will be released from hell to come and eat the food put out for them around homes and temples.

At this temple the older people prepared their trays of food items and placed them inside the shrine hall where the monks would come later to partake the meals. However, the food on offer far exceeded the capacity of the monks to consume a morning meal.

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The families with their young children placed mats inside the perimeter of the temple and sat on it together with the food they have brought in silver bowls and baskets to offer to the monks. When the music is lowered and the drums on the drum tower were beaten a few times, the monks came in a row from their kutis (rooms) to accept the food and give the blessings. Before the monks came out, the devotees took the ‘pancha sila’ (five precepts) given in ‘Pali’ (ancient language which the Buddha spoke)by a senior monk over a public address system.

As the monks came on their ‘pinnapath’ round, the devotees put the rice and other food along with money, all into the bowls of the monks. They first raise each item to the top of their forehead for a blessing (and perhaps a wish) before putting it into the bowl.

All the food items – except the rice – were wrapped in banana or other leaves. Some even offered wrapped chocolates and biscuits. Almost every devotee gave money to the monks. As monks are not allowed to touch money under their ‘vinaya’ (codes of ethics) these notes were dropped into the bowl along with the food.

The monks came in a line according to their seniority. Thus, the many child monks were at the end of the line. Each monk was accompanied by a “food collector” that stood with a black plastic bag behind him. From time to time the monks had to empty their bowl into the bag resembling the black rubbish bags for the rubbish collectors.

One assumes that at the end of the ‘pinnapath’ round the temple helpers would separate the food from the money and also the perishable food items from the non-perishables such as chocolates and biscuits. As the food is far greater than what the monks could consume in a day, this may help to keep them fed for a few more days or even to distribute the excess food to the needy. The money of course, would go to the temple funds.

The whole exercise symbolizes the concept of ‘dana’ generosity in Buddhist teachings where followers are trained to let go of their greed and share with others. As monks are not allowed to earn a living, the monastic system is designed for the lay community to feed the monks and provide for their upkeep. That is why money is given to them. This is a clear example of the practice of the Buddhist teachings.

While it seems that the traditions are practiced perfectly, what matters in today’s society is that these ancient traditions of “giving” is accompanied by mindful thinking and morality – as taught in the ‘pancha sila’ – so that the food and the money that were freely donated is not going to waste.

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