August 15, 2009

291206 出家-想家

05. khit theung baan

Those left behind:

1 2 3

A new identity:

4 5

Concrete feels so different from rice straw:


Most of the teachers left home to ordain around the age of 13-15, in order to further their education beyond primary school. Some like Monk TYF & 3-day old monk stepped into school for the first time only at age 9-11. While Monk TYF's parents were supportive, packing him off to a larger village in a neighbouring province so that he could continue on to lower secondary school, 3-day old monk was under constant family pressure to drop out from the time he was 10 y/o, just like the cat's dad. Every pair of hands was needed in the fields, & one doesn't need to go to school in order to learn how to plant rice, maize or sesame. Cash for uniforms & books was (& still is) hard to come by. Even if their parents sold off part of their harvest or livestock, most of the earnings would be eaten up by the cost of travel to & from the nearest market, & the family would have less reserves of rice to see them through should the next harvest be poor. Back then, around the mid-90s, less than 20% of Lao children completed primary education, with another ~20% receiving no education at all.

Others like Novice Spoil Market & Monk Big Head (that's what his name means in Hokkien & Teochew :P) started their 5 years of primary education at age 7, then dropped out of the education system for 2-3 years. There was no secondary school within walking distance of their villages. Monk V had a bicycle, but once it had been worn beyond repair by Lao roads, making the 16KM roundtrip on foot was just too tiring.

In addition, quite a few of them finished Por. 5 (5th & final year of primary school) around the time the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis struck. Inflation hit 87% in 1998 & 134% in 1999. Some families found themselves no longer able to feed all mouths, & sons were sent to live in temples to lighten their parents' burden.

One father moved his family from the mountains (3 hours climb down to the nearest secondary school) to a lowland town in 1997 in order for his kids to have better access to education. Their attempt at starting a new life in town doomed by bad timing, the family retreated back to subsistence agriculture in the highlands. Nevertheless, they found an alternate path to their goal - sending two sons to become novices in a town temple. Quite a few families from traditionally animist ethnic groups have chosen this option, & there are now Khmu, Hmong & (more rarely) Akha novices. For those who had known only life within their isolated villages, had never stepped into a Buddhist temple before, & couldn't speak Lao, the experience was akin to being sent to Mars and being made to dress Martian (little orange instead of green men), speak, chant & write Martian & do other Martian stuff. For some, the journey to their new life was their first time seeing 'black' (paved) roads.

Some had no advance warning e.g. One day somebody from my village took me to go with him & when we arrived XXX town he took me to be novice, or a parent handing them just enough cash for the boat journey to XXX town & telling them to leave & find a temple there. Others saw it coming - it was a matter of time before they finished primary school & were sent to join an older brother or cousin, or it was the usual thing that happened to many boys when their parents died or divorced & relatives couldn't take them in.

In short, practically all of the teachers ended up in temples by circumstance rather than by choice, & the town temples together with the monastic schools end up serving as a boarding school system for rural boys (not unlike Thailand). The merit that they make for their parents by ordaining is just a bonus. As each successive cohort of monk & novice students graduate from the monastic high schools & waste no time returning to lay life & dreams of jeans & motorbikes, they are quickly replaced by a new crop of boys from the villages.

KHIT THEUNGGG!! ex-novice Reebok cap roared in response to the question khit theung baan bor (miss home or not?), hence the title of this post. 出家 chu1 jia1 (lit. exit home) & 想家 xiang3 jia1 (lit. think home) are the Chinese terms for becoming a monk & for missing home respectively.

With the rising prosperity of the more fortunate in the towns & the concomitant increase in the amounts they give as alms, more of the teachers are able to save enough to travel home to visit their families. In the past, quite a few wouldn't see them again for as long as 5-8 years after leaving, now many are able to make the trip home every 1-2 years.

Some like 3-day old monk have no phor mae (parents) left to khit theung (miss), but still look forward to such visits to see their siblings & other relatives, catch up with childhood friends, & enjoy a brief respite from urban life. But there are some who don't care much for home, like one particularly bitter novice who never wants to see his mother or stepfather again - somehow it seems rather common for kids from previous marriages to be 'cast off' when divorced parents remarry (another similarity between Lao & Thai society?). When parents walk out, some sons take a direct route to the temples, others take an indirect route (left to grandparents, & then end up in temples when the grandparents eventually pass away), & the cat would later meet one boy taken in by an expat falang.

Unlike the owners of the first three photos, quite a few who move from the sonnabot (countryside) to live/study/work in urban areas have no photos of their families, & likewise their families have no photos of the kids whom they will hardly get to see for years. When giving its teachers photos of themselves, the cat passes them two copies so that they can send one to their parents back home. Wonder if any of the monk-stalking photographers juggling assorted lenses, tripods, memory cards & other accessories while staking out the monk-shooting hotspots of Luang Prabang might be interested in doing the same? Or are their photos meant only for professional portfolios, Lightstalkers/TrekEarth/Zenfolio/Pbase/Picasa/Flickr, & commercial purposes?

June 07, 2009

020509 The $90,000 questionsss

The first person to question the new exco on how much of AWARE's funds they had used up since taking office was ordered by Josie Lau to SIT DOWN as she had asked more than one question. When she refused to move away from the microphone, Josie Lau called for the auxillary police to remove her from the hall. Seems like there was something to hide, & that that something was rather huge...

Maureen Ong then went on & on in circles about the last minute changes in venues, before disclosing that they were spending $18,000 just to rent Suntec Convention Hall 402, which shocked the audience - just how much did the new exco spend in all, when costs for the Raffles Town Club press conference, new security system, CCTVs & locks for the AWARE office, legal counsel from Rajah & Tann, organisation of the EGM by Ape Communications, Boardroom, Deloitte & Touche & AETOS auxillary police, & rental of Suntec Convention Hall 403 were totalled up? A member of the old guard who was elected into the new exco (Chew I-Jin) said that she quit her post (as assistant treasurer) when the rest of the new exco persisted in keeping her in the dark regarding the cost of organising the EGM.

When the $5000 pricetag for Hall 403 was divulged, the term ultra vires was added to the vocabulary of many a non-lawyer in the audience, as the new exco was taken to task by a lawyer in the audience for spending beyond the $20,000/month limit laid out in AWARE's constitution, without seeking prior approval from members. Another member of the audience, an event organiser, chastised the new exco for frittering away funds that should instead be channeled towards the people whom AWARE helps. They could have simply asked around for volunteers & help in securing a free venue - had they approached her, she would have organised everything for zero dollars & zero cents.

$18,000 + $5000 = $23,000 & still counting...others in the audience continued to press the new exco for a total figure. Surely it was impossible for them (& irresponsible) to not have at least a ballpark figure at hand, or were they treating AWARE's funds as their swipe-as-you-please personal credit line? After spending fifty minutes on evading questionsss on the total figure, Maureen Ong finally revealed that it was in the region of $90,000. The audience was naturally livid - This is ABSOLUTELY HORRIFYING. You have spent $70,000 above the accepted limit! Given the IPC status of AWARE, what would the Commissioner of Charities have to say about this overexpenditure?

At this point, one of the few supporters of the new exco who spoke up during the EGM took to the microphone, saying that he was an accountant & that I am from COOS and I am not ashamed to admit that. I would like to clarify that COOS did not ask its members to come here to promote Christianity. Please be rational, although $90,000 is spent, but we have recouped it by the new membership fees of $120,000.

The way such five- & six-figure sums were being bandied about by certain individuals seemed a little too callous to the cat. It doesn't know what peanut planet those humans come from, but $90,000 is what the average human in Singapore takes almost 2 years to earn (or 2.5-3 years of washing test tubes in the case of the cat). A net gain of $30,000 does not not NOT negate the fact that the new exco had spent enough to hire 3 NUS social work graduates to take on 3 social workers' worth of caseloads (average 40-50 families at any time for Family Service Centre social workers) for a year, or pay for counselling for 1800 women facing problems like domestic violence, or fund 900 sessions of AWARE's legal clinic for women who need access to free legal advice, or run AWARE's helpline for women in crisis for ~3.5 years, or support 250 elderly individuals or 94 families surviving on public assistance from MCYS for a month(*). The cat thinks that the new exco & Mr Accountant from COOS could learn a lot about the spirit of running a nonprofit from the likes of Louis Ng of ACRES & his $500/month starting salary. Society as a whole would also be a nicer place with more empathy.

(*) $360/month for an elderly person living alone, $950/month for a family of four, as of 1 April 2009.

May 10, 2009

020509 the sound of one hand clapping

~3000 pax X 1 h = ~3000 (wo)man-hours later, the new exco finally relented & proceeded directly to item 3 of the agenda. Their legal counsel's opinion that the new exco is not legally bound by a vote of no confidence to resign was shot down by one of the female lawyers in the audience (was it Halijah Mohamad, former Vice-President of AWARE?), who pointed out that whatever he said was merely legal advice subject to the final verdict of a judge in a court of law (or words to this effect). This would be reiterated by another female lawyer in the audience (was it Poonam Mirchandani, founder of AWARE's legal clinic?) later in the EGM. For some unknown reason, the vote of no confidence was split into 3 parts:

3a. The Exco has lost mandate/confidence of the members of the Society because it has not acted or is acting in the best interest of the society.

3b. The Exco has lost mandate/confidence of the members of the Society because they do not appreciate or share the values of the society.

3c. The Exco has lost mandate/confidence of the members of the Society because they does not have requisite experience of carrying out the society's work or are otherwise inadequate to further the society's objectives.

Who was behind this split, & why? Was it the new exco hoping to argue that as long as the results for 1 out of the 3 clauses were in their favour, overall victory would be theirs? &/or yet another tactic to delay the proceedings? According to the old guard, the new exco had refused to meet with them to discuss any part of conducting this EGM. The old guard proposed that all 3 clauses be taken as a single vote, but this was flatly rejected by the new exco, & so the amount of paper, ink & time to print, mark & count the votes was effectively tripled. Add on additional airconditioning & lighting energy costs as the EGM went into 4.5h of extra time = minus 300 green points for environmental unfriendliness!

3 half-A4-sized pieces of paper, each requiring one single tick. TWENTY minutes for the new exco to explain the voting process & that 'if you want the current exco to stay, please tick NO'. & explain the voting process & that 'if you want the current exco to stay, please tick NO'. & explain the voting process & that 'if you want the current exco to stay, please tick NO'. Unfortunately for the new exco, most of the audience was not interested in being hypnotised. Instead, a long queue had built up for the lone microphone on the floor that showed intermittent signs of being alive.

What ensued has been described by many as a merciless shelling of the new exco by the old guard & their supporters, with the former denied of their right to reply time & again. To the cat, it seemed very much a simple case of 'do unto others as you would have them do unto you' - silence others by switching off their microphones, & they will silence you. After all, you are dealing with people who believe in & are fighting for equality. Plus, as many have pointed out, the new exco had had an entire month since taking office to speak up, engage the old guard, AWARE members & the public & make themselves clear on where precisely they stand on various issues...but nothing had been forthcoming. Mutual respect could have gone a long way, but it takes two paws to, the new exco showed that the result of their experiment with the Zen Buddhist koan of 'what is the sound of one hand clapping?' was clearly the resounding *PIAK* of a slap on their own face ;)

As the afternoon wore on, it became evident that giving the new exco less time to speak actually benefited them plenty. It allowed them to escape answering some rather tough questions, avoid stating for the record each individual exco member's stance on issues pertaining to lesbianism & transgenders, & dodge repeated queries on expenditure, among others. The more they spoke (when they could), the more they revealed of their weaknesses, inexperience, unfamiliarity & lack of basic understanding of the work of AWARE, its constitution, the non-corporate culture & 'decision-making by consensus' approach of NGOs, fundamental tenets of social work practice & SOPs of helping vulnerable women in distress, the concept of feminism & gender equality, religious & sexual diversity, the nature of research (the 'RE' in AWARE) & balanced citation of credible sources...providing even more ammunition for the old guard & their supporters. Not that they really needed it anyway, since the new exco was already doing a decent job of shooting itself in the foot.

The cat was not comfortable with the jeering, be it from the pro-old guard camp or the FM Thio fan club beside it (unlike most of the rest from COOS, they did jeer too). Here it must be noted that during the EGM, the We Are AWARE camp sent out mass SMSes saying 'Stay calm & be dignified' to supporters who had earlier registered their handphone numbers with them. The interesting thing was how, despite the litany of attacks from the new exco on her reputation & capabilities (& mispronounciation of her name), both in the press & during the EGM, Braema Mathi was perhaps the most active among the We Are AWARE camp in signaling to the audience to stop jeering so that the new exco could be heard. Time & again, the cat would see her & a few others in We Are AWARE T-shirts standing up & turning around to face the audience, sometimes walking down the aisles, & raising their hands to quell the jeering. Braema also delivered one of the best lines of the night - My reputation is being put on the line and I don't like it, but I will not follow the examples of leaders and launch defamation lawsuits against you!

When they did get to speak, the new exco didn't appear to have much to say, nor an interest in answering to the point. Their standard response was to refer to the legal counsel, bark at the audience to SIT DOWN, signal for the floor microphone to be switched off so that questions were cut off, threaten the audience with forcible eviction from the hall by auxillary police, beat around the bush, or call on puppetmaster FM Thio to speak for them. It was strange & also kinda sad to see a group of highly educated women, supposedly rather accomplished in their respective fields, sit there as mindless puppets, unable to say anything intelligent or credible in their own defence...maciam tio kong tao (like under the spell/possession of a spirit).

May 06, 2009

020509 stand up & be heard...

only to be ordered by the new exco to shut up & sit down...

For a moment, Sally Ang made us feel like we were back in kindergarten ;)

Click here for part 1

A group of ladies quickly moved in to grab the seats to the right of the flower-less & badge-less cat when the original occupants shifted elsewhere. One introduced herself to the cat as a new member who joined just before the last AGM & voted in it, 'so you should know where I'm from' (in her own words)...In contrast to other people's accounts of pro-new exco supporters describing them as quiet, calm & dignified, this bunch stood up & screamed & clapped wildly whenever the new exco spoke, & their loudest screams & cheers were reserved for FM Thio.

Things got a little nasty when Ms YouKnowWhereI'mFrom kept screaming into the ears of three ladies directly in front of her...when they turned back to tell her that her screaming was hurting their ears, she saw their We Are AWARE badges & shrieked back at them SO? I CAN DO WHAT I WANT!...For the rest of the afternoon & evening, she would lean forward & scream into the ears of those three whenever she could. The cat could only hope that one day Pastor Derek Hong will teach her that being a child of God doesn't literally mean being childish ;) Whenever she & her group caught sight of Leona Lo, who was seated a couple of rows in front of us, rather unkind comments about 'ah kua' were made. Interesting how some people who say that their God is loving can be filled with so much hatred & bigotry. In a hall where the majority was pro-old guard, the cat had to end up seated right next to the FM Thio fan club...Beanz, who had also turned up alone, was more fortunate. According to her the supporters from COOS next her behaved a lot more maturely. There are both black & white sheep in any shepherd's flock.

Before the EGM could begin, the new exco demanded that NMP Siew leave the 'nice chairs' section. When he refused (Acidflask has awarded him the Best Rosa Parks tribute for refusing to budge :P), the new exco called for him to be removed by the AETOS auxillary police. He & the old guard tried to explain that he was there as legal advisor for the old guard - & at this point it was discovered that the new exco had instructed Ape Communications to keep all microphones on the floor turned off, so that only the new exco on stage could speak. People called out for the microphones to be turned on, but new exco flatly refused. This was when the audience started to get agitated, & how the shouting started (it was the only way those off the stage could make themselves heard), when people realised that they were actively being silenced, & any remnant of hope for a level playing field vanished. The new exco's response was to threaten those who shouted in order to be heard with forced removal by the auxillary police.

The microphones were turned on only after the old guard insisted that the legal counsel be consulted, & Gregory Vijayendran from Rajah & Tann spoke in favour of the old guard - that all microphones should be left switched on. For a moment, the cat felt that perhaps there was still hope for a more even exchange. However, for the rest of the EGM, all microphones on the floor, save for one right at the front, remained dead. The new exco also set the rule that everyone could only speak once, & for a maximum of 3 minutes, on top of other rules such as no flash photography, no audio or video recording, etc. Lagi bestest, the new exco continued to signal to Ape Communications to turn off the one remaining microphone on the floor so that people could not speak, or were cut off in mid-speech, especially when questions pertaining to the new exco's stand on issues related to homosexuality & transgenders were raised. Things might have taken a different turn had the new exco not denied the audience their right to speak in the first place, but the new exco never gave us a chance to find out.

The new exco flashed a powerpoint slide detailing the agenda for today's EGM, saying that it had already been distributed to all members, contrary to an article in today's Straits Times reporting that the new exco had refused to answer queries from the old guard with regards to the EGM agenda. With the EGM starting 40min late, & 'requisition for EGM' listed as item 3 on the agenda, there were fears that the new exco would seek to stall for time & drag their feet, & then call the EGM to a close at 5PM sharp, so that voting could not be carried out today, wasting the time of 3000 people. These fears seemed to be confirmed as Josie Lau started on a lengthy address + powerpoint presentation highlighting the various achievements of AWARE, with no mention that it was 100% the work of the old guard. The pro-old guard camp was naturally indignant at what seemed like an attempt by a month-old exco comprised of new members to claim credit for the old guard's 24 years of tireless effort & personal sacrifice. Those familiar with AWARE's work found it ridiculous for a bunch of newbies to lecture them & the old guard on what AWARE is about, the history of AWARE, etc. The lack of speed at which Josie Lau spoke didn't help one bit. Points of order to bring forward item 3 to the top of the agenda were repeatedly made - the microphones were still being switched off whenever anyone from the floor tried to speak - & repeatedly ignored. The audience decided that it had had enough of such high-handed tactics, & it was no holds barred jeering from then on, in order to force Josie Lau into cutting short her interminable address.

& then came the incident that turned the audience from irate to incensed - when Margeret Thomas told Josie Lau that her 3 minutes to speak was up, Sally Ang yelled back SHUT UP & SIT DOWN...& because the new exco's microphones were switched on, it was heard loud & clear by all & recorded for posterity on handphones, digital cameras & video cameras for uploading onto youtube (more than 3800 views so far) & posting on websites & blogs, & twittered to the world beyond Suntec City Convention Halls 402 & 403. Kudos to Josie Lau for keeping calm & apologising for the behaviour of her exco member, but what people wanted was for Sally Ang herself to apologise for her outburst...which she grudgingly did later, & not without rebuking the audience once more.

May 05, 2009

020509 calm before the storm

12:32 made it up to level 4, queue for existing members kept growing on level 3...


...even though the queue moved pretty quickly:


Incredible how quiet & orderly a queue can be in Singapore - all kept in line as the queue zigzagged in the space on the left on level 4:


Registration was a breeze as all it took for existing members was to have our NRICs scanned, & sign in...the speed & ease at which so much of our info & particulars can be captured & accessed was a little unnerving. 50min after the first photo was taken, when the cat had finished registering + having its bag checked by security + finding a seat inside the hall, the queue at level 3 was still growing:


Quite a few guys couldn't believe their eyes. One of them shouted at us, 'Ladies, there is NO sale!' Guess he has never met females like the cat who are homozygous recessive for the shopping phenotype. About 3 female PRC employees of a Chinese restaurant, armed with laminated menus, took advantage of the captive audience & tried approaching people in the queue to advertise their restaurant. Their presence highlighted to the cat how for once, it was standing in a crowd that was overwhelmingly majority Singaporean, something it rarely experiences nowadays (but nope, the cat has no interest in joining SAF for the chance to experience this).

Knowing women well, the pro-old guard team was prepared for the fact that some who want to stand up & be counted might be intimidated by the prospect of being surrounded by people from the other camp...especially when quite a few of the pro-old guard supporters would be turning up alone, united by a common cause...instead of being ferried in by the busload, directed by a common instruction (as the pro-new exco camp was alleged to be planning to do). Hence volunteer ushers wearing We Are AWARE T-shirts to identify themselves, so that old guard supporters could approach them & be introduced to fellow likeminded lone rangers, & the We Are AWARE handouts, badges & flowers that allowed those sharing a common purpose to identify one another & sit together. Like MUI, the cat didn't pick up any - it had already read the PDF version of the handouts online, better to spare one set of stuff for others in case there weren't enough to go around. Mass SMSes were also sent to those who'd registered their mobile phone numbers with We Are AWARE, to welcome us to the EGM, clarify which voting forms to fill out (two of the five were not used), & remind us to keep calm when things got heated up.

We Are AWARE sign from the handouts (many who didn't get one earlier hunted around the empty seats post-EGM & karang guni-ed the few we could find as souvenirs), PDF printout of EGM info from the We Are AWARE site, & unused voting slip (this item was scrapped from the agenda):


Some of the pro-old guard We Are AWARE team:


Many men (four in above photo) of all races volunteered for their cause as ushers & runners, directing people to the correct queues, answering queries, distributing info, badges, flowers, water, sandwiches & curry puffs, relaying messages to people at the back of the queue about the voting slips that they had to collect, etc. Mark Goh & NMP Siew Kum Hong helped out as legal counsels for the old guard (pro bono - much cheaper than Rajah & Tann).

There were also guys joining as associate members, encouraging their women partners & friends to join, turn up & vote, publicising the issue on blogs & facebook, raising questions for the new exco, speaking in support of the old AWARE's programmes, helping to cover the event by camera & video, updating the outside world via SMS/twitter/live-blogging/etc when the press was shut out by the new exco, keeping friends & partners company in the queue, & helping them get food & drink when they had to spend lunchtime queueing & the EGM lasted way past dinnertime till ~21:30. Many more men & women helped behind the scenes by taking care of things at home/work for those who'd turned up to vote, driving them to & from the venue, & keeping those within the hall updated on what the press was reporting to the outside world.

First time experiencing such segregation, thanks to arrangements made by the new exco - life/ordinary members-only section with nicer chairs & projector screens:


Associate members (all male + non-citizen/PR female + below 18 y/o members) section with plastic chairs:


Says something about the new exco's interpretation of the term equality. People like them give feminism a bad name. If you think yourself equal to men, treat them equally - give them nicer chairs too ;) Plus projector screens - associate members (both men & women) should be able to follow the entire proceedings too.

Before the new exco would allow the EGM to begin, they ordered all guys out of the 'nice chairs' section...thought gender segregation in secular space happened only in places like public toilets & females-only train carriages in Japanese subways? If all voting could only be conducted by secret ballot as the new exco insisted, & not by a show of hands, why shouldn't associate members be allowed to sit together with ordinary members? As pointed out when the new exco tried to evict NMP Siew from the 'nice chairs' area, in past AGMs everyone was seated together. Strangely, a few seats away from the cat in the 'nice chairs' section, a guy associate member & supporter of the new exco was somehow allowed to stay put throughout. As noted by misshallelujah, one of the first things the old guard did after the new exco left was to invite all from the plastic chairs section to join everyone else in the 'nice chairs' section.

May 03, 2009

020509 in with the old, out with the new

so that we may regain our secular common space:


Upper right & bottom left of above photo enlarged...

Newly elected:


Newly resigned:


News gets old so rapidly...

April 20, 2009

291206 wat fashion?

04. monk fashion vs. novice fashion

During this trip & subsequent trips to Laos, the cat encountered many questions about monks' robes. On discovering that it was Buddhist, Western tourists usually quizzed it about the Theravada tradition - stuff like why Burmese monks wear maroon but Lao monks wear orange & some Thai monks wear ขนุน (khanun aka. jackfruit - dull brown dye from the wood of the jackfruit tree). The most popular question from Laotians - on discovering that Mahayana is the dominant tradition in Singapore - was (& still is), how the heck do Mahayana monks practise kungfu in their robes?? Thanks to the Hong Kong film industry & TVB drama serials, in the minds of many Laotians & Thais, Mahayana = Shaolin...!

During the discussion on clot, clots & clotting, ex-novice Reebok cap jumped up, grabbed an outer robe lying near us, & started folding away as all of us stared in shock...laymen aren't supposed to fool around with robes like that...'NOVICE FASHION!' he proudly declared as he draped his handiwork around his T-shirt & bermudas...& then unravelled everything & started wrapping, twisting & rolling...You know how? an incredulous Monk TYF asked, knowing that his village-mate had never been a full monk before...'I see monk do before many time...MONK FASHION!' he declared, as the rest fell over laughing at his half-baked efforts & the cat fell over laughing at his use of the word 'fashion' :P The final verdict on Reebok cap's attempt...

cat: What do you think? Pass or fail?

Anyway, the cat learnt something new - that in Laos, monks & novices wear their outer robes differently i.e. 'style' depends on 'status'. This makes it easy to distinguish between them, unlike in Thailand, where 'style' depends on the occasion & one's role in it, & things can be more confusing.

In both countries, Theravada monks dress in what Reebok cap termed 'monk fashion' for chanting sessions within the temple, & also when leaving the temple to go on alms round. But during ordination ceremonies, while all other monks turn up in 'monk fashion', the person being ordained is robed in what Reebok cap described as 'novice fashion', even if he is being ordained as a 227-precept monk rather than a 10-precept novice. 'Novice fashion' is also more practical for monks practising vipassana meditation, as it is less likely to unravel.

In other situations, while monks & novices in Laos have to stick to their respective 'fashions', their Thai counterparts can wear their outer robes either way, depending on personal preference or individual temple/school protocol. Monk TYF had to get used to dressing in the 'novice fashion' of his younger days again when he moved to Thailand & was instructed to turn up for all university exams in that 'style'.

For some reason, quite a few Westerners get the impression that the various shades of saffron/maroon/orange robe cloth correspond with actual fact it's a matter of tradition in some situations (in Thailand, Dhammayut monks stick to khanun), while in most instances, it's simply a matter of personal choice (from whatever laymen have donated). Two years later when Monk V pointed at his entire wardrobe in his kuti & commented that having a set each of contrasting shades makes it more obvious that he is a 'hygienic monk' who changes his robes daily, the cat laughed out loud as all the questions on colour that Westerners had asked it before came to mind.

Other 'wat fashion' questions the cat has been asked to answer/translate for monks to answer include:

Why do they carry umbrellas when it isn't raining?
Tropical sun burns shaven scalps.

Why are they allowed to carry only black or brown umbrellas?
Just the two most common colours that laymen donate to them. Black is preferred - transmits less sunlight from above & reflects less heat & glare from the ground. But they have to accept whatever is given, which can result in situations like this. Once the cat had to suppress a laughing fit when a monk friend carried an umbrella with the large logo of the skincare product brand OLAY emblazoned on it.

& probably the most hilarious...

Do novices end up with darker/sunburnt right shoulders?
Most are already quite tan to begin with, & don't burn as easily as fair-skinned Caucasians, but it does happen to a few. Beneath all the colours & robes, everyone is just human :)

March 09, 2009

291206 orange clots

03. clot, clots & clotting

The teachers started pointing at all sorts of stuff & quizzing the cat on the English terms for each object. When it came to the naga carvings...

Monk TYF: This?
cat: Naga (as pronounced in Lao/Thai)
Monk TYF: Naga? You sure? N-A-G-A?
cat: Yes
Monk TYF: Have tourist tell me that correct way for N-A-G-A is pronounced 'na-jar'
cat: ...

For the record, the 'G' in 'naga' is pronounced like the 'G's in 'golden goose'.

After they ran out of things around us to point at, they started taking out all sorts of stuff & quizzing the cat on the English terms for each item. & then they picked up someone's jiworn (outer robe) lying near us...leading to a struggle over 'cloth', 'clothes' & 'clothing', which quite a few Lao & Thai tend to pronounce as 'clot', 'clots' & 'clotting' respectively...

Bedsheet-sized saffron 'clots':


Made by sewing together panels of 'clot' in five columns of staggered rectangles - identical to the layout of rice fields in Magadha, India. During Buddha's time, both Buddhist & non-Buddhist mendicants in India made their robes from bits of discarded cloth (pāmsūda aka. pāmsūla e.g. cloth that had been worn by the dead/burial shrouds, munched by oxen, burnt by fire, gnawed by mice, etc) scavenged from places like cremation grounds & trash heaps.

There was no standard pattern for piecing the scraps together. This confused King Bimbasara, who wanted to dismount to pay his respects to any Buddhist monk he met along his way - how was he to distinguish them from mendicants of other traditions from afar? A request for uniformity was put to Buddha, who then asked Ananda to come up with a standard design that has lasted till today...the same pattern is used for the outer robes worn by Chinese monks in the Mahayana tradition, but with bright red cloth & the pattern outlined in gold:

Buddha Tooth Relic Temple, Singapore

The teachers were pretty shocked to hear that devout Chinese Mahayana Buddhist laypeople do wear robes (e.g. at left in above photo) for chanting sessions & ceremonies within temples - black ones called 海青 (hai3 qing1) & dark brown outer robes called 缦衣 (man4 yi1)...Another detail in that photo that would shock them was how laypeople (including women) could stand with their heads higher than those of monks.

Myriad uses of old 'clots':

Photos from 2007 & 2008 in Vientiane & Sakon Nakhon

Clockwise from upper left - to protect Holy 'kidnap victim' from construction dust; to partition off a sleeping area for two very young novices, & hide their Doraemon from the old chief monk of the province who shares the same living quarters; cord belt to keep unruly bamboo stems in place; bedding for temple cat.

March 08, 2009

291206 motorbike & four eyes

01. motorbike

Back at 'Lao language school', the cat found some teachers busy examining a layman friend's motorbike parked outside Monk A's kuti. They took turns to sit on it & fiddle with various parts, dreaming of the day they would get to ride one of their own after they had returned to laylife. From time to time during the cat's last afternoon in Luang Prabang, we would all turn to look & laugh at novice B surreptitiously examining his face in the motorbike mirror & picking at his zits...once he realised that we were spying on him he would stop...but not for long :P

Fast forward almost 2 years...this time it's ex-novice B's motorbike & helmet receiving all the attention from his former wat-mates...

(Photos from 2008)

...& he still remembers why we laughed at him back then :P

Seriously, the cat hopes that wearing helmets when riding bikes will be seen as the cool thing to do by more Lao youths. According to this 2005 report, the number of motorbikes in Laos increased by 240% between 1990-2002, & the number of road fatalities by 295% between 1991-2002. Only 5% of motorcyclists have licences - too much red tape & bribes involved according to a consultant. & most have had no formal driving/riding instruction (in Luang Prabang some newbies practise on friends or relatives' bikes in an open field near Wat That Luang). A more recent report with 2006 data states that in Laos, 84% of all road traffic crashes are motorcycle related, 90% of casualties with head injuries were motorcyclists. No wonder '150 dtiang' ('150 bed' aka. Lao-Soviet Friendship Hospital, the country's only trauma centre) in Vientiane is always busy - the first report mentions that the road fatality rate per 10,000 vehicles for Laos is six times that of North America & Europe.

02. sii dtaa

As usual, the cat's spectacles drew plenty of attention too...The teachers believed that these metal frames had acted as a magnet for the illiterate seeking help with directions & reading signs, & were also the reason why the cat had (mistakenly) been treated with a lot of respect by people who think that spectacles are the preserve of highly educated teachers/monks & the elderly (think wizened grandmas hunched over their needlework). Sounds just like how plenty of Thais were once conned into thinking that the little cat was a child genius...whenever the cat wants to shock Lao or Thai people, it tells them that it has been wearing glasses since the age of 8. For more kick, it will add that this was (& still is) the norm in its country, long before computers became available.

Glasses, spectacles, eyeglasses - which was the correct term, the teachers asked. All? After some clarification on the difference in pronounciation between 'glasses' & 'grasses', they told the cat that the Lao word for spectacles is the same as the Thai equivalent (waen dtaa), & then cheekily added that 'sii dtaa' could also be used...HEY don't think that the cat doesn't know that 'sii dtaa' means 'four eyes'!! Lao people & their devilish sense of humour ;)

The cat told them that after almost two whole weeks in the far north of Laos, it had seen a grand total of only 3 bespectacled Lao. Later in the afternoon, puzzled cat wondered why Novice B looked somewhat different from an hour or so before...& it was nothing to do with fewer zits...& then it realised that it was now staring at bespectacled Lao #4 - after hearing the cat's comment, he had slipped back to his kuti to put on his glasses, & then quietly joined us again, smiling broadly & waiting for the cat to notice the change. Almost two years later, another novice-turned-monk would join our sii dtaa 'geek club', & Monk C would still be fascinated by glasses, asking both his vice-abbot & the cat to lend him their pairs to try on.

The cat is grateful for having enjoyed cheap/free access to enough reading material to lengthen its eyeballs to myopic proportions during its childhood, even if it meant perfecting the cat art of digging through garbage bins (to salvage discarded magazines). If you would like to endanger the perfect eyesight of Lao students in a more hygienic way, find out how you can do so through:

February 01, 2009

291206 reading as an ability...& writing as a disability

On the reverse side of the exhibition pamphlet:

Click here for larger version

At first glance the cat thought that both lines of characters in red were Pali words written using Tham script. Later it realised that the writing in the second line looked a lot more like the modern Lao alphabet than the Lanna alphabet...When the cat's Lao teachers saw the leaflet among the cat's belongings, they pounced upon it with an enthusiasm not seen when faced with their high school Pali homework. They translated the first line as sabbe dhamma nalam abhinivesaya, & the second line as the same Pali words transliterated into Lao as sapphe thammaa naalam aakiniwesaay.

The significance of the quote:

As to what is the heart of Buddhist Teachings, I would like to suggest the short saying, "Nothing whatsoever should be clung to". There is a section in the Majjhima Nikaya where someone approached the Buddha and asked him whether he could summarize his teachings in one phrase and, if he could, what it would be. The Buddha replied that he could: "Sabbe dhamma nalam abhinivesaya". "Sabbe dhamma" means "all things", "nalam" means "should not be", "abhinivesaya" means "to be clung to". Nothing whatsoever should be clung to. Then the Buddha emphasized this point by saying that whoever had heard this core-phrase had heard all the Teachings, who ever put it into practice had practiced all the Teachings, and whoever had received the fruits of practicing this point had received all of the fruits of the Buddhist Teachings.

- from Essential points of the Buddhist teachings by Ajan Buddhadasa (1906-1993)

In the above photo, one minute difference between the second line & 'layman Lao' lies in how the short vowel 'a' is written like a dot beneath the consonant. The only other time the cat has ever seen this is when the Pali names of monks are written in Thai script on transcripts of exam results from Thai Buddhist universities. Another difference is the use of consonants discarded from the modern Lao alphabet (first character of the second word), & also nonextant spelling rules ('aa' in the last word represented by only the letter 'or' - in modern Lao it would be fully spelt out as 'or-aa'). Many of such anachronisms are still retained in modern Thai writing, which makes it much harder to learn to write than Lao. Brings back memories of frequent exclamations by Ajan Titima (author of this great Thai writing workbook) that Thai is a 13th century language! :P

The cat is never the least bit surprised by Thai news reports on how poorly Thai students (especially those in rural schools) fare at writing their own language. Sometimes it wonders if the insistence at clinging onto all the archaic minutiae of their writing system is influenced by a desire to restrict full literacy to a (privileged) highly educated elite...this, in contrast to the efforts of China & Laos to simplify their written languages. Interesting how both the latter are communist....(Although the evolution of simplified Chinese characters predates communism in China, it traces its roots back to the anti-imperialist 五四运动 May Fourth movement.)

The cat is all for the preservation of ancient scripts for historical & cultural reasons, but it believes that literacy for the 'masses' (for want of a better term) is just as important. Quite a few times it has encountered Lao & Thai people unable to make sense of dosage instructions & warnings of side effects & contraindications on medicines (let alone tell apart real from fake medicines, a growing problem in Laos), & warning labels on pesticides & flammables. & getting lost within hospitals, government office complexes & bus stations. & misinterpreting public education posters on nutrition (food pyramid = make pyramid-shaped cabinets for storing food...?), hygiene, parasites, avian influenza, SARS, family planning, human trafficking, land rights, etc.

The list goes on - people not being able to pass driving tests in order to obtain certain types of jobs (though even if they could, red tape & demands for bribes would still stand in the way), nor read statements/reports that police force them to sign. & that family from Kasi district telling a gaggle of tuktuk drivers at Vientiane northern bus station that they need to go to wherever's stated in some official letter that they can't read, & that gaggle of tuktuk drivers having to turn to a bus station staff for help in reading that official letter that they themselves couldn't figure out (destination unknown turned out to be Mahosot Hospital). & people asking the cat if they've boarded the correct bus despite large signboards indicating the destination. & which toilet is the Ladies or Gents even when 'nying' & 'saai' are painted in huge Lao letters outside...

Lao asking non-Lao for help in reading Lao - not too much of a surprise, given the literacy rate, plus how the standard Lao taught in schools is technically a second language for almost half of the citizens, for whom Khmu, Lue, Phouan, Phou Noi, Hmong, Ta Oy, Lanten, Akha, Phoutai, Yao/Mien, Alak, Lahu or some other non-Lao tongue is their first language. The ignorant cat used to wonder why Lao Studies is a compulsory subject for all college & university freshmen in Laos. After all, 'home students' who've cleared their GCE A levels don't have to take compulsory classes in English grammar at UK universities, nor do 'non-international' students in US universities. & then it had a Tai Lue consultant scoring D for Lao Studies due to difficulties with Lao grammar despite having been through 11 years of the Lao education system, & the ethnic & linguistic diversity of the country hit home...a strangely & incredibly familiar situation for the cat, who struggled through 14 years of learning the Mandarin Chinese dialect of Beijing that the ruling party declares to be its 'mother tongue'.

Interesting how not a single family member from its grandparents' generation or older ever knew how to speak Mandarin Chinese, & how those from its parents' generation picked it up only in adulthood. Singapore must be one of the few places on earth where one's 'mother tongue' is officially assigned based on one's officially assigned ethnic classification - regardless of whether anyone in the family can actually speak that language - & where the majority of the citizens study their officially assigned 'mother tongue' as a second language.

Even in Singapore (95.7% literacy), the cat meets people (usually elderly, & including some relatives) caught in some of the situations described above. Over time, the cat realised that when villagers said that it was brave for a girl to travel alone in their countries, safety wasn't the only issue behind that comment. Finding one's way through the bewildering world of the written word littered with signboards, documents, newspapers, timetables, instruction manuals, etc is something many take for granted. Still, in a world where literacy is a key yardstick of achievement & advancement, let us not forget this:

...this [Khmu] visitor [Damrong Tayanin] once delivered a powerful defense of illiteracy, the final message of which was that he pitied the literate who could not remember whatever had not been written down; whose stories were always the same (read from written texts), only as innovative or original as the original author had been; & so forth.

...We need to remember that not all ideas are written down in words...We need to shed our preconceptions...Societies that may be silent in written words are not necessarily stupid or simple.

- from Reading Thai Murals by David K. Wyatt (1937-2006)

After all, how many of us can name every single one of our direct male ancestors like Akha men, or recount our history (including every single village our direct ancestors have ever migrated through) like the pima of Akha villages in Burma, Thailand, Laos & China, & the griots of West Africa, or recall an entire pharmacopeia like Akha & Lahu herbalists, without having to refer to books & documents? What have we lost in gaining the ability to write?

291206 whatever floats your meditation boat

Back to the Royal Palace Museum to finish up the rest of The Quiet in the Land, the exhibition that the cat had stumbled upon the previous day...

Two of the works touched upon the practice of vipassana meditation - Hans Georg Berger's The Floating Buddha, & Ann Hamilton's The Story of the Meditation Boat. The former is a photographic documentation of the first two vipassana meditation training retreats of the Luang Prabang sangha, held in 2004 & 2005 at Wat Pa Phon Phao. At present such training retreats continue to be held there during the cold season for monks & novices in their final year of high school, where they are taught how to meditate in the four postures - sitting, standing, walking & lying down. Over in Vientiane capital, such training retreats are held at Wat Dongsavath for monk & novice students of the Sangha College, while vipassana lessons open to tourists are at Wat Sok Pa Luang, & an intrepid few have found their way to Wat Nakhoun Noi (contact info).

Most of the students grew up in rural villages, & by all accounts enjoy the forest setting of the retreats at Wat Pa Phon Phao, an interesting break from the four walls of their classrooms. Walking barefooted along the trails is exactly what they did as kids, although shooting birds with catapults & digging up mushrooms & bamboo shoots for dinner - & the whole idea of dinner itself - were definitely off the agenda in this context. Two years later, a consultant who had since returned to lay life would whisk the cat off on his motorbike for a surprise visit to this temple to relive fond memories of his high school days.

Four temples - ວັດຫາດສ້ຽວ Wat Hat Seo, ວັດຄົກປາບ Wat Khok Pap, ວັດລ້ອງຄູນ Wat Long Khoun & ວັດໂຄມຂວາງ Wat Khom Khouang - in Luang Prabang each have a long, narrow window-less building. Much like a bare, enclosed corridor, it is used for the practice of walking meditation, or what might appear to onlookers as a slow, complicated way of pacing up & down with a patience quite unassociated with pacing up & down. The Story of the Meditation Boat floated the practice of vipassana meditation in a most literal sense, by constructing a similar structure for the same purpose, but on a boat rather than on solid ground. No idea if the boat is to be used while moored or while travelling...given how each step is broken down into six component movements, practising walking meditation on a moving boat might involve taking it to a higher level of accomplishment - maintaining one's balance on top of remaining focused on every movement...

Exhibition leaflet from The Floating Buddha:

Click here for larger version

Folded into thirds lengthwise, the A4-sized leaflet was like a modern take on the traditional palm leaf manucripts on which scriptures were recorded for centuries before the printing press was invented. Originating in India, this practice spread across Asia to Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bali, Xishuangbanna (Sipsongpanna, Yunnan), Thailand, Burma, Laos, & Cambodia. In addition to scriptures & jatakas (stories of the past lives of the Buddha), information on disciplines as diverse as rituals & ceremonies, art, dance, music, architecture, medicine, science, agriculture, astronomy, astrology, yoga, martial arts, law, history & economics was also recorded onto such manuscripts by first etching words & drawings onto the treated leaves with a sharp metal stylus, & then rubbing them with pigments made from the soot of oil lamps & various plant extracts to give the engravings colour. What may be summed up as an extremely laborious process of preparing beautiful termite food (which is in itself a lesson in impermanence)...

January 17, 2009

291206 Wat Mai - the naga that ate that

That Chom Si, that is...



291206 Wat Mai - misc

ໃບລານ bai laan (palm leaf) manuscript library:


Sticky rice offerings plastered everywhere:

PC270199 PC270198
PC290300 PC270195
PC290337 PC270218

Anywhere will do...


291206 Wat Mai - monkeys & demons

After covering the whole ceiling with stencils of scenes from the life story of Gautama Buddha, & filling the entire front wall with gilded stucco depicting the Vessantara jataka, the artists who decorated the front verandah still managed to squeeze in the epic tale of Pha Lak Pha Ram (aka. Ramakien or Ramayana) - onto the horizontal beams above...

PC290310 PC290309

...with every available bit of surface area so ornately embellished, the cat couldn't help but take a quick look down at its feet to check if it were stepping on even more artwork...

The demon king Ravana (Totsakan) fights Vali (upper left), the monkey king of Kishkindha, while wielding a whole array of weapons & holding onto Mandodari (Nang Mando) with his 20 arms:


Vali defeated Ravana & took Mandodari away. Ravana's teacher later snatched her back, but she was pregnant with Vali's child, who would be born as the monkey warrior prince, Anggada (Ongkot). A vengeful Ravana turned himself into a giant crab (left) to kill Anggada while he was bathing, but Vali (right) captured him:


Crabs are decapods, but the artist has given Ravana 14 legs in addition to two pincers, perhaps a reflection of his extra arms when in demon form?

Mandodari later bore Ravana a son, the demon prince Indrajit (meaning Indra's victor). He acquired this name after defeating the god Indra, shown here riding his elephant mount Erawan:


Indrajit (left) attacking Indra - above photo is of the section to the immediate left of this one:


Mandodari also bore Ravana a daughter, Sita (Nang Sida). Ravana got rid of the baby Sita in the belief that she would cause the destruction of the demons, but would later fall in love with the adult Sita & kidnap her from Rama (Pha Ram), the prince who had won her hand in marriage.

Hanuman (left), the leader of the monkeys, offers his services to Rama (second from left), after returning Lakshmana (Pha Lak, third from left) the bow that it had snatched away:


Hanuman & Anggada would help Rama search for Sita & battle Ravana to rescue her.

This beam has been damaged by rain seeping through the roof, like what has happened to ceiling stencils - the large bird (left) is either Sadayu or its brother, Sampati:


Sadayu tried in vain to rescue Sita from Ravana, & later informed Rama of her capture, while Sampati helped direct Hanuman & the monkey army to the kingdom of Langka, where Sita was being held. On their way to Langka, the monkey army had to cross a river. Hanuman thus ordered the monkeys to carry rocks over to construct a causeway:


The cat gave up trying to take clear photos of all the beams - it is simply too short, & had only 3X optical zoom & no tripod. During its 2008 visit, it managed to take a few more before it was called over to join in the morning chanting & offering of breakfast to the monks of Wat Mai to mark Boun Ok Phansa.

For other episodes of the story including the ending where Ravana is killed, see here & here.