A Long, Big Buddha Day

These are edited excerpts from our book A Potato in a Rice Field Chapter 45: Makabucha Day (Big Buddha Day)

I do feel familiar with Buddhism by now, so going to every Holy Day and temple celebration in the area, would be a bit like going to church every Sunday, along with the fetes and bake sales of all the churches in the area. And I only ever turn up to church on Christmas back home. As I find that once I have experienced something once, it is rare for me to go back to do it again, and again. Which is probably reflected in how we live our lives right now. It is hard to stay in one place, without getting bored.

So, instead of going to every event in the area, we will likely turn up to the major ceremonies and festivals yet to experience at our temple Broken Road. But there is still a lot to come in the year so we will not be bored any time soon.

Makabucha Day (Big Buddha Day)

Anyway, today is Makabucha day, better known as Big Buddha Day, where we begin the morning at the temple for almsgiving, and we go through the motions. First, we start by donating our tiffin trays of cooked food to the monks on stage. We then place a money note into the branches of a money tree before scooping rice into the lines of alms bowls at the side of the temple hall. We place flowers, candles and incense at the base of the Buddha statue, and I burn my finger as always. And there is just a lot of repetition from previous alms offerings at temples.

It is still early in the morning (07:00AM) when the Makabucha Day ceremony begins, where In front of me, a young boy repetitively drops and picks up a ten Baht coin, just to keep himself entertained. As today’s service will be longer than the norm. And the repetition is starting to remind me of church services, with a similar setup of the congregation; a leader in prayer, the collection plates, antsy kids, screaming babies, the restlessness and yawns. Admittedly these ceremonies can be somewhat tedious for the newer generations in Isaan, and because of this, there is a decline in the more devout followers in modern day Thailand.

But, as with Church, there will always be special ceremonies to mix things up a bit, like baptisms, harvest and Hot Cross Bun Day. And today is Makabucha day, aka Big Buddha Day, which is a national holiday in Thailand and it marks the full moon of the 11th month of the Buddhist lunar calendar. Which is different to our own Gregorian calendar, and this day would normally fall between mid-February and early-March. And this year (2015) it falls in early-March.

Wian Tian Candle Procession

Very little happens during the day, as we sit around, twiddling our thumbs, while waiting for the ceremony at night. As tonight there would be a ceremony called “Wian Tian” where a candlelight procession would circle the ordination hall of the temple, led by monks holding candles, while the congregation follows with flowers, incense and candles held between their palms in prayer behind. It’s very similar to the final ceremony of the monk ordination, only it is held at night beneath the full moon. So the procession will circle the hall three times, clockwise, in respect of Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha. Where dharma is the teachings of Buddha, and the path to enlightenment, while Sangha is the community of practising Buddhists.

I have seen this ceremony before, coincidentally in Vientiane, Laos, which sounds almost identical to “Wian Tian”. I was poking around in the backstreets at the time, in search of tasty French food, when I heard booming drums sounding from a not-so-far temple, and followed along to find the monks leading the congregation from the front doors of the temple’s ordination hall. So I sat and watched from beneath the drum tower, as other tourists arrived to chase along at the back of the procession, without even noticing the monks at the front. But what was special about this whole experience was that I stumbled onto it by complete accident. And it these occasional surprises which make travel so fascinating and worthwhile.

Anyway, despite knowing exactly what was going to happen, I was excited for tonight’s Wian Tian ceremony, although, to join along, I am told to wear all white. Which is not so easy given not many people actually own white trousers. Yet, embarrassingly, I did find a bright pair of white Adidas tracksuit bottoms, still unpacked in my cases, and I match it with a bright white top. I then turn up looking like a right chav.

It is just after sunset when we arrive to the temple where we are met with a hypnotic percussion of xylophones, bells and a chorus of Buddhist chants from the monks inside the ordination hall. It is rare for us to be out in the rice fields at this time of night, or outside of the compound to be honest, and we now find ourselves surrounded by the relentless sounds of insects and reptiles. The squeal of lizards, the chirps of crickets, the high pitched siren of cicadas.

A full moon is bright in the sky as the procession of monks flows out from the ordination hall, with candles bobbing, and there’s a bright glow against the saffron of their ceremonial robes. Followed by the white of the congregation behind. This, to me, feels like the very heart of Buddhism. Although I’m fairly sure I’m the only person in white trousers.

A Potato in a Rice Field: In 2015 I spent a year living in a close-knit rural community in Northeastern Thailand (Isaan). I was based in the small village of Broken Road and ‘A Potato in a Rice Field’ chronicles my time there as I bumble through life, culture and etiquette within a strict family of tradition and Buddhist belief. Find it on Amazon here.

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