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Thousands of Buddhist monks took part in a ceremony in Bangkok’s shopping district on May 8, 2011. Numbering 12,600, according to organizers, the monks attended the ceremony on Vesak Day, the annual celebration of Buddha’s birth, enlightenment and death. The event was organised to pay homage to the Lord Buddha and to give moral support to the Buddhist monks and novices from the troubled southern provinces of Thailand. This year marks 2600th anniversary of the Buddha’s enlightenment.

In Buddhism, alms or almsgiving is the respect given by a lay Buddhist to a Buddhist monk, nun, spiritually-developed person or other sentient being. It is not charity as presumed by Western interpreters. It is closer to a symbolic connection to the spiritual and to show humbleness and respect in the presence of normal society. The visible presence of monks and nuns is a stabilizing influence. The act of alms giving assists in connecting the human to the monk or nun and what he/she represents.
12600 Monks where given respect this morning at Central World Plaza in Bangkok by thousand of Buddhists in white dresses and shirts.

After chanting and a sermon, the monks then started to file down the paths between an estimated crowd of 100,000 lay people. In normal alms giving events that I have attended, the monks would start accepting alms straight away. However, as there were 12,600 here it wasn’t possible. So, they all filed down to the end first. Once all of the monks were on the red carpet, the lay people then started offering food to the monks at the same time.

The majority of alms offered were dried food as well as personal necessities such as soap, shampoo and toothpaste. Like the mass alms giving in Samut Prakan, most of the donated food will be sent to 286 temples in the deep south of Thailand. Proceeds will also be used to sponsor the Robe Offering Ceremony for the entire year.

Due to the on-going troubles in the four southernmost provinces in Thailand, it is not easy for the monks living there to go out on their daily alms rounds. In fact, monks have been targeted and shot dead in the past. The event today was organized to give them both moral support as well as dried food.

The Thai Lunar Calendar

01 of May 2011

If you have ever been to Thailand, then you probably already know that the calendar here is slightly different. Here we use calendars that show the Buddhist Era. This counts the years from the time when the Lord Buddha passed into Nirvana. This predates the Christian Era by 543 years. So, even though this year is 2008 A.D., in Thailand, calendars show it as 2551 B.E. Although Thailand adopted the solar calendar system in the late 1880?s in order to synchronize with the Western calendar, the new year started on 1st April. This continued like this up until 1941 when it was changed to 1st January.

Thai calendars show both Buddhist Era and Christian Era dates. They also have another set of dates which belongs to the old system which calculates the Thai Lunar Months. This is when it gets complicated. Lunar months do not match the solar calendar. For example, although we are now in August which is the 8th month, it is in fact the 9th lunar month. So, why is important to still show the lunar calendar although it hasn’t been used officially for several hundred years? Well, all Buddhist holidays and festivals are based on the Thai lunar calendar. It tells people which day of the week is “wan phra” or the holy day and which days we should celebrate holidays such as Khao Phansa and Loy Krathong.

One of the questions we often get at ThailandQA.com Forums is when will Loy Krathong be celebrated this year or the next. This is because many of these holidays are not fixed by the solar calendar. Here are the official dates according to the lunar calendar:

Magha Puja Day – full moon day of the third lunar month
Ashana Puja Day – on the fifteenth day of the waxing moon of the eighth lunar month
Khao Phansa – on the first day of the waning moon of the eighth lunar month
Loy Krathong – on the full moon night of the twelfth lunar month
Phra Samut Chedi Temple Fair – on the fifth day of the waning moon in the eleventh lunar month

A complete cycle of the moon, from the new moon (dark moon) to the full moon is 29 and a half days. To make up for this, months alternate between 29 days and 30 days. Like I said before, August this year is the 9th lunar month. It has 15 days of waxing moon (known in Thai as “keun”) and 14 days of waning moon (known in Thai as “raem”). Next month has an equal 15 days of waxing and 15 days of waning. For most of us, today is Thursday 21st August. But, on my lunar calendar, it is “5 raem 5 kam deuan 8?. The first “5? is for the 5th day of the week which is Thursday. Then “raem 5? is the 5th day of the waning moon. Finally, “deuan 8? translates as the 8th month. I should also mention that “kam” refers to the period starting after sunset and not the start of the day.

Let’s take a look at some of the festivals mentioned above. First an easy one. Loy Krathong is celebrated every year on the full moon night of the 12th lunar month. The 12th lunar month is usually in November though it is sometimes earlier. This year, the full moon is on 12th November 2008. In Thai this is “keun 15 kam deuan 12?. For the next example, we will take the start of the Buddhist Rains Retreat which is called Khao Phansa. This starts on the first day of the waning moon of the eighth lunar month. This year, the 8th lunar month started on 3rd July. In Thai, waning is “raem” which is the period after a full moon. This happened on 17th July and so the next day is then “raem 1 kam deuan 8?.

After a while it does become easier. You just need a Thai calendar that marks the lunar months. To find out the dates for the Buddhist festivals and Loy Krathong for next year, it is possible to buy 100 year calendars. However, be warned, they have made mistakes in their calculations before and some years we celebrated major Buddhist holidays on the wrong day!

Buddhist Era (B.E.): The official year in Thailand is counted from the death of the Buddha. The year the Buddha passed away is 0 B.E. To convert from A.D. to B.E., one can generally add 543. For example, the year 2000 A.D. would be 2543 B.E. in Thailand. Although the Buddhist Era dates are widely used, most people are aware of the Gregorian dates. In neighboring India, Sri Lanka, and Burma the date of the Buddha’s passing is counted as 1 B.E., however in Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia it is counted as 0 B.E.

Phuket Vegetarian Festival

29 of September 2010

October 8, 2010 – October 16, 2010
A colourful event held over a nine day period in late September/early October, this celebrates the Chinese community’s belief that abstinence from meat and various stimulants during the ninth lunar month of the Chinese calendar will help them obtain good health and peace of mind.

Though the origins of the festival are unclear, it is thought that perhaps the festival was bought to Phuket by a wandering Chinese opera group who fell ill with malaria while performing on the island.

They decided to adhere to a strict vegetarian diet and pray to the Nine Emperor Gods who would ensure purification of the mind and body. On recovery, the people celebrated by holding a festival that was meant to honour the gods as well as express the people’s happiness at surviving what was, in the nineteenth century, a fatal illness.

The Commitments
The festival always falls on the first days of the ninth Chinese lunar month, and for nine days participants observe the following commitments:
Cleanliness of the body during the festival
Clean kitchen utensils not to be used by others who do not participate in the festival
Wear white during the festival
Behave physically and mentally
Avoid eating meat
Avoid sex
Avoid alcohol
People in mourning should not participate
Pregnant women and menstruating women should not attend ceremonies

The Ceremonies
One of the most exciting aspects of the festival is the various, (and sometimes gruesome) ceremonies which are held to invoke the gods. Firewalking, body piercing and other acts of self mortification undertaken by participants acting as mediums of the gods, have become more spectacular and daring as each year goes by. Men and women puncture their cheeks with various items including knives, skewers and other household items. It is believed that the Chinese gods will protect such persons from harm, and little blood or scarring results from such mutilation acts. This is definitely not recommended for the feint hearted to witness.

The ceremonies of the festival take place in the vicinity of the six Chinese temples scattered throughout Phuket. The main temple is Jui Tui Shrine not far from the Fresh Market in Phuket Town. The first event is the raising of the Lantern Pole, an act that notifies the nine Chinese gods that the festival is about to begin. The pole is at least ten metres tall and once erected, celebrants believe that the Hindu god, Shiva, descends bringing spiritual power to the event.

For the next few days, the local Chinese/Thai community brings their household gods to the temple, along with offerings of food and drink. It is assumed that the household gods will benefit from an annual injection of spiritual energy that fills the temple. Visitors can observe and even participate in the lighting of joss sticks and candles that are placed around the various gods.

Usually street processions take place, where visitors can see participants walking in a trance. Other events include hundreds of local residents running across a bed of burning coals, or climbing an eight metre ladder of sharp blades while in trance.

Apart from the visual spectacle of this festival, visitors can partake in specially prepared vegetarian cuisine made available at street stalls and markets around the island during this time. The vegetarian dishes are not easily distinguished from regular dishes – soybean and protein substitute products are used to replace meat in standard Thai fare and look and taste uncannily like meat. Look for the yellow flags with red Chinese or Thai characters to find vegetarian food stalls – and keep your camera handy!!

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