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Dead Monk Walking
By: RSS/News FeedsHungZai Team

Tom Vater attends a most unusual Buddhist ceremony to meet the 101-year-old abbot of Wat Krang Chu Si Charoensuk. Photographs by Aroon Thaewchatturat.

The prayer hall is hot and sticky. Thousands of mosquitoes swirl around in the dim afternoon light. A small crowd of old ladies and children sit on the rough carpet in the temple hall, whispering, full of expectation. They are waiting for the monastery’s former abbot, Luang Phoo, to make his annual appearance.

‘Luang Phoo’ is an affectionate term, meaning grandfather. But Luang Phoo is no ordinary monk and this is no ordinary day.

Phra Somchai is in charge of the ceremony. He directs his fellow monks to gently lift Luang Phoo Budda Thawaro.

The monks pull and heave; the wooden chairs they stand on wobble precariously. Suddenly, in perfect coordination, they step down, each clasping a fragile limb or shoulder of the revered monk. The children are hushed by their parents. The onlookers put their hands together in a respectful wai, the traditional Thai greeting. An old man, dressed in simple farmer’s cottons, stands to the side, his eyes shining with tears. For the locals, this may not be quite a miracle, but for everyone gathered here it is the most extraordinary day of the year.

Supported by his fellow monks, Luang Phoo, 101 years old, stands before his congregation.

He has been dead for 13 years.

Wat Krang Chu Si Charoensuk is located near Singburi, a provincial town in central Thailand, a couple of hours north of Bangkok. The sprawling and dilapidated temple complex lies along a quiet and picturesque canal, fringed by bamboo brush. Green paddy fields adjoin the temple grounds. The main road leading past the temple sees little traffic.

Despite the proximity to the capital, the villages and temples of central Thailand have hardly changed in hundreds of years. Faith and superstition run strong in the countryside.

No surprise then, that one of Thailand’s strangest Buddhist ceremonies takes place in the temple grounds every year, as the local community celebrates the birthday of Wat Krang Chu Si Charoensuk’s former abbot.

Phra Somchai has travelled all the way from his monastery in Ko Phangan in southern Thailand for the event: “We believe Monk Budda Thawaro was an enlightened being. In his lifetime more than 50,000 people used to turn up to celebrate Luang Phoo. They came from all walks of life, thousands a day.”

Phra Somchai was a practising monk at Wat Krang Chu Si Charoensuk for six years and feels deeply indebted to Luang Phoo: “In the 1980s, when Luang Phoo was very well known, the temple was rich. More than 100 monks lived and meditated here. In 1994, the abbot passed away. Since then, the temple has fallen on hard times. People have stopped visiting.”

It is hard to imagine huge crowds at Wat Krang Chu Si Charoensuk. The temple grounds are poorly kept. The small wooden houses that accommodate the monks are sinking into the dusty, hard soil. An eerie silence hangs over the area. No novices lighten the atmosphere, and the remaining 10 monks are all in middle or old age. Ancient and severe-looking women from the surrounding villages form the last guard for Luang Phoo. The younger generation takes little interest in temple life.

That’s because Buddhism is in dire straights in Thailand.

The young pour into the cities, in pursuit of the dollar and little else. American style ‘mall culture’ has gripped the kingdom; politics are dirty; morality is elusive. Nepotism, cronyism and graft have seeped into every transaction, every political decision. No wonder the intense, free-wheeling capitalism the country has experienced in the last decade has influenced Buddhism and the values of its adherents profoundly. Many wats are no longer community centres but businesses, selling expensive amulets and other religious merchandise by the truckload. Some cater exclusively to the super-rich, others suggest lottery numbers to the gullible poor on a weekly basis. Several temples even offer magical tattoos to their congregations that are supposed to stop bullets and ward off evil (see FT176:76–7.

Meanwhile, the monks are out in the streets, taking part in daily life as never before. They populate Internet cafés, and the huts of the younger monks are adorned with Metallica posters. That doesn’t sound like Nirvana. (Bad pun, I know).

Monks can be seen poring over mobile phones in shopping centres or picking through gold bracelets at Chinese jewellers. The Thai tabloids regularly report on monks conning women into sex, visiting karaoke bars or engaging in a whole gamut of crimes. Does Richard Gere know? Has Steven Seagal been informed?

The ceremony at Wat Krang Chu Si Charoensuk is a throwback to better times. By all accounts, Luang Phoo attracted his congregation without vulgar fireworks. Born in 1894 in Lopburi and ordained in 1922, the revered monk acted as abbot for several monasteries, surviving wars, civil conflict, dictatorships and military coups. His charisma brought people to the temple. Under the guidance of Luang Phoo, life at Wat Krang Chu Si Charoensuk blossomed.

Phra Somchai fondly remembers the past: “The yard used to be brushed clean. All the buildings were well maintained.”

On the edge of a nearby paddy field, an old hut was once used as a meditation retreat. The walls are lined with faded but bloody and explicit photographs of surgical procedures and autopsies. Guts spill out of mouldy frames in order for the monks to realise the physical aspect of humanity. The images are meant to teach them that everyone is the same on the inside. But no one has been inside the hut for years.

Nowadays, Luang Phoo rests in a glass coffin within the wat’s prayer hall. On his birthday, he is lifted from his slumber, cleansed and paraded in front of the ever-shrinking congregation.

Incredibly, the abbot does not decompose. His body has mummified, allegedly because Luang Phoo dehydrated himself on his deathbed. It is believed that a monk who does not decompose following his death should be preserved and worshipped. Often, local authorities disagree and there have been conflicts over whether to burn some monks’ remains or keep them in a glass coffin, as at Krang Chu Si Charoensuk.

Once Luang Phoo has been extracted from the glass coffin, Phra Somchai and his fellow monks gently guide the corpse in front of the crowd. Everyone pushes to the front to pay their respects. Camera flashes illuminate the scene while the monks undress the dead abbot and put a new orange robe on him. A woolly hat is pulled over Luang Phoo’s bald skull. A second hat is pushed on top. Even his socks are changed. Finally, the crowd pushes in, tiny flakes of gold in their hands. The prayer hall is ringing with excitement and laughter. Children run around and families have their picture takes with the corpse. The gold is stuck on Luang Phoo’s face, already covered with last year’s layer.

Finally, Phra Somchai and the other monks pick up Luang Phoo as gingerly as possible and manœuvre him back towards his coffin. Eventually, the monks manage to return the corpse to its repository with sufficient dignity, even if this year his socks don’t match.

The temple’s new abbot instructs the remaining monks and they begin to pray for their former abbot. Microphones crackle and the abbot collects money with a wide smile. Slowly the crowd disperses into the night.

Phra Somchai is pleased to have travelled all the way from the south to come and see his former teacher. “It is good to honour the past like this,” he says. “Who knows how many people will honour Luang Phoo next year? The memory is so short.”

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