December 16, 2003
Calling All Spirits
Outside of every Thai home and business is a small "house" - about the size of a bird house or a doll house - colorfully decorated and with offerings of food, drink and flower placed in and around it. Called a "spirit house," its function, as one might imagine, is to house local spirits.
The Thai people believe that spirits inhabit things, including homes. The idea behind the spirit house is to make it so nice, so inviting, that the local spirit will set up residence in the spirit house, leaving the main house for the family.
This practice is taken quite seriously, and the more lavish the house or business, the more lavish the corresponding spirit house - otherwise, why would the spirit want to stay in it? A visit to a modern shopping mall in the city of Chiang Mai proved the point - the spirit house for the shopping mall was the size of a large tree house!
For a long time, I thought the concept of a spirit house was a Buddhist belief, as I also saw the spirit houses outside most temples. However, my ignorance was cleared up while participating in a two-day Buddhist meditation retreat. During a question and answer session with the instructing monk, someone brought up the spirit houses. The monk explained that spirit houses had nothing to do with Buddhism, but were part of the animist beliefs of the Thai people - beliefs that predated the introduction of Theravada Buddhism to the country. The spirit houses we had seen at various temples and wats were put there by lay people - and the Buddhist monks made no objections.
To me, this seemed amazingly open minded.
This fusion of Buddhism and older animist beliefs is not unique to Thailand. The Laos people, also Theravada Buddhists, have their own unique blend of Buddhism and animism. Called "phii" or "spirit" worship, it is the dominant non-Buddhist belief system in the country. Though officially banned by the government, its practice is open and widespread - even as far an being incorporated into "traditional" ceremonies in tourist hotels!
The most interesting and commonly practiced of the ceremonies involving the phii is the Baci [Baa-see] Ceremony. The ceremony is a calling of personal spirits back to an individual. During my time in Laos I was lucky enough to participate in a family ceremony.
The Saturday after Thanksgiving, Pom, one of the two sisters that runs the guesthouse I stayed in during my month in Luang Prabang, asked me if I was available that evening at 6 p.m. She explained that they were having a special ceremony for her mother and invited me to join in. I immediately agreed, excited and curious about the ceremony.
Pom's mother is 77 years old. Though she didn't speak any English, she always smiled at me warmly when we passed during the day and I had a soft spot for her. Earlier in the week, I came home to find the sisters preparing a mass amount of food, and their mother and her elderly friends working on flower and fruit arrangements. Pom told me her mother had been sick, so they were preparing an offering to take to the temple. I determined this ceremony had something to do with her illness.
I arrived just as the ceremony was starting. Inside the main house, a group of old women were sitting mermaid style on the floor, gathered in a circle around a tiered centerpiece standing on a low circular table. The centerpiece, a metal bowl called the "phaakhuan" was piled high with cones of banana leaves and flanked with marigold flowers, white string, candles and incense. Around the base was a selection of food and drink items - rice cakes, sweet pastries, boiled chicken, liquor, and eggs.
Each of the women had one hand touching the table upon which the phakouan sat, the other, in front of their chest in a half-wai (similar to the Christian prayer position of two hands together). They were dressed in traditional clothing - long sarong skirts (sin) with coordinating sashes (paa bien) wrapped around their upper body. I quickly sat down and joined the outer rim of the circle. I noticed that those who could not touch the center table touched the arm of the woman in front of them - and so I followed suit. I later learned it was to capture the flow of good energy and show a state of togetherness.
An elderly man, known as the "maw phawn" or blessing master, sat in the middle of the participants and conducted the ceremony. Usually a village elder, the maw phawn is always a man and usually one who has spent some time as a monk. Lighting the candles, he joined his hands in prayer and addressed the "spirits" in both Pali (an anicent Indian language still used by monks) and Laos, chanting for about ten minutes.
After he finished, all the women bowed their heads, their hands palm together in the traditional prayer position. Then the maw phawn took a few pieces of string from the centerpiece and positioned himself in front of the mother, the guest of honor. Taking her hand in his, he brushed his fingers toward her wrist, then away. He then tied a white string around one wrist and then the other. All the while, he murmured his blessing.
At that point, the women took some string from the centerpiece and one by one, went to the guest of honor and tied one string to each wrist, providing their own blessing. I took two strings and waited my turn, not knowing what I would say, but figuring I would do my own version of a prayer for good health.
I was watching the mother with interest when one of the old women, without a word of English but with a sparkle in her eye, came over to me and began to put the string on each of my wrists, all the while smiling and saying some words I didn't understand. Nith, the other sister, seeing what she was doing, came over and translated.
"She wish you good luck, and long life, and happiness. She wish you will have many children and also come back to Luang Prabang. She wish you safe travels and a quick return," she said, smiling.
When she had finished I smiled and thanked her in Laos. My wrists were almost immediately taken again, by another women, who also chanted as she tied on the strings. Nith later explained to me that while the guest of honor was usually the focus of the ceremony, it was very common for the participants to also tie the strings on other participants - wishing them good luck and a long lif, among other things. As I looked around, I noticed women tieing strings on the sisters, and on each other. Everyone was smiling and laughing - enjoying the ceremoney and the gathering of friends. Even though I didn't understand most of what they were saying, I had a great time, feeling like I was a part of something special.
The next day I had Nith explain to me more about the background of the ceremony, and explain the details of what had happened the night before. She told me that according to ancient Laos beliefs, a body has 32 spirits or "khwan." Throughout a personís life, the khwan wander, sometimes going very far from the personís body. Normally, this is fine, but during certain times in a personís life, especially when they are sick, it is important to call back these spirits - so they may help the person in their current need. Because Nith and Pom's mother had been ill, they had decided to perform the ceremony.
The Baci Ceremony is also performed at other important times in a person's life. The ceremony is performed for a mother and baby after the birth, for a couple as part of their wedding ceremony, and when a family builds a new home. It is also performed during the Laos New Year, before a Laos person undertakes a great journey, or when they are about to enter a new business venture.
Nith explained that the stroking of the palm by the maw phawn meant two things. The first motion, toward the wrist, is done to bring good things to the person. The second, away from the wrist, is to remove all bad things from the person. The strings tied to the wrists bind the spirits to the person.
The strings should remain on a personís wrists for a minimum three days, to ensure the desired affect. They can then be removed but should be kept in a safe place, somewhere above your head (the most holy part of a Laos person's body). This is to guarantee that the blessings will stay with the recipient throughout their life.
After three days, I removed my strings, but was unsure where to place them. I finally decided to put them in the top portion of my backpack - which, when on my back, rested above my head. It was the best I could do considering my present gypsy lifestyle, and I felt the spirits would find this arrangement suitable.
The timing of the ceremony, for me, was ideal. Just a few days after Thanksgiving, a holiday I was unable to celebrate according to my usual tradition, the ceremony reminded me that while our own traditions are important and should be maintained - they are no less important than the celebrations and traditions of other cultures. And, when in Rome!
Thinking back on Nith's explaination of other times when the ceremony was performed, I quickly focused on the embarking of new journeys. With my Laos visa expiring in a few days, I knew I was about to embark on another adventure. Thinking again about the old woman with the sparkling eyes, I recalled her words:
"She wish you safe travels and a quick return."
I hoped she was right.