Monday, January 29, 2007

The Legend of Phra Sai & Ong Tue

I just returned from a trip to Udon Thani around a week ago. While I was there I went to the various famous & not so famous temples in Udon, as well as Nong Khai. In Nong Khai there are 2 important temples, Wat Pho Chai & Wat Si Chompu Ong Tue. They house the 2 principal Buddha images of the province, LP Phra Sai (灵感佛) & LP Phra Chao Ong Tue respectively.
Wat Pho Chai is located just outside the Nong Khai town. The gold image of LP Phra Sai is in the posture of subduing Mara. The lap width is 28 inches while the height is 41 inches. This sacred Buddha image has been enshrined since the establishment of the province. The history of this image relates to many parts of Thai history but it is unclear when it was cast or who cast it. Prince Damrong Rachanuphap speculated on its origin in a book called "Histories of Important Buddha Statues", which was published and distributed in a royal kathina ceremony in the year 1925. Prince Damrong thought that LP Phra Sai was cast in the Lan Chang Kingdom in Laos. According to legend, 3 princesses were the people who caused the images to be casted. Another legend gives us more details. It goes like this:
King Chaiyachetthathirat's had 3 daughters named Serm, Suk, and Sai. They had the unanimous wish of casting their own personal Buddha images. They then asked their father for support, thus leading to the king's command to cost three Buddha images having different sizes according to their ages, the oldest having the largest image. They were named accordingly, Phra Serm for the oldest and largest, Phra Suk for the middle sister and second largest size, and Phra Sai for the youngest and smallest image. They were to be cast in an alloy of gold & bronze, a virtually impervious metal and a difficult one to mix. It required very high temperature to get the metal smelted enough to pour and although the Monks and Novices worked full time at the bellows for seven days and nights they still couldn't raise enough heat. On the eighth day the Monks were exhausted at noon when a white robed figure appeared and offered to take over the work. The Monks and Novices thankfully retired to take a break and eat. More white robed figures appeared to assist the first and when the Monks and Novices returned from their meal break and rest, prepared to take up the task of smelting again, the white robed figures were nowhere to be seen. They had disappeared as mysteriously as they had arrived - the metal was melted and ready to pour into the moulds!
The 3 Buddha images were in Vientiane until 1778, when the man who was to become King Rama I of Thailand went to Laos. He removed the images to Vientiane en route to Thailand taking the son of the Laos King with him as a future son-in-law (hostage) for safety and returned to Bangkok. The son-in-law, Chao Anu Wong, survived Rama I, Rama II and in the reign of King Rama III the King of Laos died. King Rama III then sent Chao Anu Wong back to Laos to take over the throne but the Laos people and his relatives persuaded him to declare independence for Laos. Subsequently King Rama III sent an army, led by his Commander in Chief to wage war against the rebellious Laos. He won and Chao Anu Wong was killed. The 3 Buddha images were then taken by raft on the Mekong river to Thailand.
The Phra Sai Katha is shown above. It goes:
Namo Tassa (3x)
Arahang Buddho Bodhijayo Seyyakuno
Bodhisatto Mahalabho Piyang Mak Mak
Bhavantuno Hotu Sappatha.

During the journey a storm capsized one of the rafts but the Buddha images were retrieved, until a second storm hit them and the image of Phra Suk sank through the bottom of the raft to the Mekong riverbed at Wern Pra Sook, Nong Kong Village. There it lies to this day, off the shore of Phon Phisai District in Nong Khai. The two remaining Buddha images were taken one to Wat Ho Klong and the other to Wat Po Chai until King Rama V ordered them brought to Bangkok. They were to be taken by buffalo cart but Phra Sai refused to leave and no matter what they tried. The buffalo cart could not sustain the weight and continuously broke down. So Phra Sai remained at Wat Po Chai while the remaining one, Phra Serm, was transported to Bangkok where it now resides at Wat Pa Tum Wanaram at Siam Square, behind the World Trade Centre. On every full moon day of the 7th lunar month the people of Nong Khai celebrate Pho Soi by having "Bun Bong Fai", the rocket flying ceremony at Wat Po Chai in honour of LP Phra Sai.

Wat Si Chompu Ong Tue is in Tambon Nam Mong, Amphue Tha Bo, 43km from Nong Khai town. LP Phra Chao Ong Tue is the largest Buddha image in the province. It was also believed to be casted by Lan Chang artisans using an alloy of gold, bronze & silver. This image is in the posture of subduing Mara, having a lap width of 3.3m, & a height of 4m. The word "Tue" is an ancient measuring unit of Isan, equivalent to 1 ton.
LP Ong Tue is considered very sacred just like Phra Sai. There are no reliable records as to when it was cast, though it is believed to have been casted in 1562. King Chaiyachettha, the ruler of Vientiane (who was a son of Phraya Sinsuwan, born in Muang Wiang Khuk), commanded the casting for his wife, Queen Si Chompu (a villager of Ban Nam Mong or Muang Chompu).
The casting process was not successful until Indra, king of the gods & 108 Devadas came to help. The total time spent for the casting was 7 yrs and 7 months, at the expense of 400,000 baht. There is an annual paying homage festival to LP Ong Tue on the full moon day of the 4th lunar month every year.

At both temples I did not hesitate to invite buchas of the 2 Buddha images back to Singapore. I've placed them in my office altar in replacement of the 2 small LP Tuad images, which I brought home.
This is the 3-inch brass bucha of LP Phra Sai. See how refined it is! The casting is beautiful indeed. The image of Phra Sai gives off a strong aura, & is not called 灵感佛 or the "Buddha of Inspiration" for nothing. The Phra Sai katha to be chanted is shown in one of the photos above. And this is the 3-inch Nawa bucha of LP Ong Tue. Somewhat different from the original Ong Tue image, but a good piece of Buddhist art nevertheless. The bronze is also of high quality. So those are the modifications to my office altar after I came back from Udon. Feel free to give me your comments.

Saturday, January 27, 2007

Flesh Body Buddha

Recently there was a report of an undecaying body of a monk in Lingquan Monastery, Anyang, Henan province of China. The monk's name is Wu Yunqing and he had passed away in 1998, but his body remains intact 8 yrs later. One of his disciples in Anyang, a certain Su Huaren spreaded the rumour that the Master was 160 yrs old at the time of death. However this has been refuted by the villagers who came from the hometown of Master Wu. They verified that he is around a more believable 102 yrs old.

Master Wu's body has since been put up in a crystal casket for display & veneration. Tickets to the monastery has been raised to 20 RMB, worthy of a tourist attraction. The disciple Su unashamedly used the body as an advertisement for the "Longevity Nei-dan Chi-gong" course that he is conducting for 280 RMB. Regarding the undecaying state of the body, a doctor from the Chinese Medicial College in Henan suspected it was preserved with formalin because the colour of the body is consistent with that kind of "treatment". But he is not able to verify it as the monastery people do not allow anybody to examine the body up close.

I tend to believe that it is not a real undecaying body, for after seeing the undecaying body of LP Tong in Thailand, as well as in other places, I have little doubt that Master Wu's body is a more likely to be a well-preserved mummy. In any case, putting up the body, which is merely a stinking sack of skin for worship as though it is the Buddha is inconsistent with the true teachings. The Buddha is not to be found in a corpse, undecaying or otherwise. He is only to be found in our own mind. The same could be said for holy relics. The relics of the illusionary body are easy to see, like seeing form relfected in a mirror. But the true relics, the relics of the Dharmakaya are hard to see indeed, as hard as trying to catch the moon in a lake. Worthless is the pursuit of outer forms for enlightenment. What more for trying to preserve it with Taoist chi-gong in life, & with formalin in death? Verily, that foolish man Su is a corpse-horder who puts his Master to shame.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

My Office Altar

Recently I've decided to set up a simple altar in my office cubicle, so I can venerate the Triple Gems on a daily basis. As it is an air-con room, I don't put any kind of offerings except for a glass of drinking water, which I change every Thursday - the Day of Teachers. Fortunately, none of my colleagues seem to mind the Buddhist art on display. The main images of this altar consist of: 1) A bronze 5-inch bucha of Shakyamuni Buddha seated in the full lotus position and showing the "Vitarka Mudra" (gesture of discussion or transmission) with his right hand. There's a story on how I found this bucha, but I shall talk about it later.
2) A bronze 3-inch bucha of LP Tuad in a seated in a half-lotus position & holding an orb. There's also a King Cobra encircling his seat. Sharp eye readers would know this a the signature LP Tuad image from Wat Pako in Songkhla. I got this bucha on my 2nd trip there last year (2006).

3) 2 small 1.5-inch mini buchas (meant for putting in cars) of LP Tuad flanking the main Buddha image. The one on the left is from Wat Changhai, the place where LP Tuad attained enlightenment, & the one on the right is from Wat Saikow, where Ajarn Nong resided. Both temples are in Pattani.

4) 2 wooden Elephants & 2 jade Pixiu flanking LP Tuad, serving as protectors.

Yup that's basic setup. Feel free to give me your comments.

Regarding the main Buddha bucha, I actually found it months ago lying on the road being sold by an old man in the Sungai Rd flea market. It immediately caught my eye as it was totally different from most of the other poorly made Buddhist images found there. As you can see the casting was detailed, well defined & proportionate - a masterpiece of Buddhist art. I knew in my mind that this was the Chiang Saen - Lanna style of Buddha images to be found in Northern Thailand, but I did not know the name of this image or the temple that it might have come out from. How such a great bucha end up being sold in such a dirty & undignified state was a mystery to me. Without a second thought I decided to "rescue" it from the flea market. I bargained with the old man and took it at a real affordable price.

At home I meticluously cleaned the bucha, but found that the cement stuffing under the bucha crumpling in a few places. Unperturbed, I wrapped it up with a cloth bag, and on the very next day carried it to the Burmese Temple at Ah Hood Rd to let a Venerable there to conduct a consecration. Only then did I took it back to my office & place it on my cabinet. Although that settled the bucha, in my mind I was still eager to find out its origins.
It was only until yesterday (7.1.2007) that I realized where it came from. While surfing a tourism website of South Thailand
I saw that it was a replica of the famous "Phra Buddha Taksin Mingmongkon" statue in Wat Kaokong, Narathiwat province! Located 6 km away from town, on the Narathiwat-Rangae Road, this large seated Buddha image is covered with golden mosaic tiles, 24m high and measures some 17m from knee to knee. A magnificent object of veneration indeed!
The temple used to be visited by many tourists, but since the terrorist insurgency began in the South a couple of years ago, it has become quite deserted. However, it is precisely due to the atmosphere of fear pervading the whole region that the significance of this Buddha becomes more striking. With all the bombs exploding here & there, & with so many innocent people getting killed; yet the Buddha continues to sit there calmly, transmitting the Dhamma to all beings who still come to take refuge. Do you see the powerful contrast of imagery there? The fact that I came to obtain a bucha of Phra Buddha Taksin reveals the karmic affinity I have with this Buddha.

Strangely enough, I've also discovered that I'm linked to Amoghasiddhi Buddha of the Vajradhatu Mandala during a recent Kagyud blessing ceremony conducted by the 17th Karmapa. Amoghasiddhi Buddha, green in colour, is also portrayed as seated & showing the Vitarka Mudra, exactly like Phra Buddha Taksin. In the Vajradhatu, he represents the all accomplishing wisdom of the Dharmakaya. How does all these events link up with me?

Although I do not see the complete picture now, but inspired by this affinity, I've vowed to visit Wat Kaokong in Narathiwat once the situation in the region becomes more stablized. As difficult as it is, I do sincerely pray that the terrorists in the South will eventually give up the butcher's knife & make peace with the Thai government. Sadhu.

Saturday, January 06, 2007

Naga or Oarfish?

Last Saturday (30.12.2006) Malaysia's Mun Sang Poh paper did a report on a strange Naga like creature caught by fishermen at Pantai Remis on Dec 15th, about 70km from Ipoh. The 2.1m long fish has such a strong resemblance to the mythical creature that the fishermen who hauled it up was reluctant to identify themselves for fear of it bringing bad luck. However they were eventually identified, as shown in the photo below.They had originally intended to send its body to a taxidermist for preservation, but called off the idea under advice from a village medium. Instead they were instructed to return the "Naga" carcass to the sea, which they dutifully complied. Pantai Remis assemblyman Nga Kor Ming said that according to local superstition, the fish was one of the "family members" of a Sea Naga King. "If you kidnap the Sea Naga King's children, you are looking for trouble," he said. The fishermen so deeply believed in this theory that they even turned down a RM50,000 offer to part with the dead creature!
This type of "Naga", which has "dragon whiskers", red dorsal fins and a long, silvery body, is actualy an Oarfish (Regalecus russellii). The rare oarfish is reputed to be the longest of bony fishes in the world. It is not surprising that the fishermen know nothing about it, because oarfish seldom come to the surface of the sea. They only do so when they are sick or dying. Many other legends are woven up surrounding the capture of a Naga-like oarfish. People say that this kind of creature was seen beached before the Tsunami disaster happened 3 yrs ago. Incidentally, this oarfish was also caught before the recent earthquake in Sumatra. So there is definitely some link between seismic movements on the seabed & the sighting of oarfish. Some people also believe that the massive floods in Johor 2 weeks ago was due to the Sea Naga King's anger over the death of one of his children. Using his elemental powers, the Naga King caused a mighty storm in revenge, flooding the entire state of Johor. Could the floods be linked to the oarfish as well? Unlikely, as Johor is too far from Pantai Remis & it would be hard to build any relation between the 2 events.
This story also brings to mind this widely circulated photo in Thailand, supposedly of the "Queen of Nagas seized by American Army at Mekhong River, Laos Military Base on Jun 27 1973". The creature seen in the photo is also an oarfish, but it is much bigger than the one caught in Pantai Remis. This oarfish is 7.8m long! There is also a legend surrounding this picture saying that those soldiers shown in the photo had all died as a result of the bad karma caused by killing a Naga. But the myth has been debunked some time ago. This photo was identified by one of the guys in it - 30 yr old Andy Z. According to Andy this was taken on Sep 19 1996 at the Naval Special Warfare Center, Coronado, California. "We were on our morning physical fitness run," Andy recalls, "when we came across this huge fish lying on the sand." At 23 feet in length and 4 feet in circumference, it was quite a shocking sight for the Navy SEAL cadets. Not suprisingly, the photo has been modified in Thailand to make the oarfish more convincing as a real Naga.

The Buddhist point of view is that it is not possible for ordinary humans to see real Nagas or their children for that matter, for they are a race of serpent-like demi-gods with bodies much more subtle than any human or animal. Given their powers it is impossible for a man to catch them. They can shape-shift at will and often appear in a human form when speaking to the Buddha or his Noble Ones. Thus only those meditators with divine eye can perceive these beings. But if we think of oarfish as their closest looking servants, then we have an idea what their true form resembles. As for the earthquakes and floods in Malaysia and Indonesia, they are not caused by the Nagas or their servants, but by the collective karma of the sentient beings in the respective regions. Know that natural phenomena and the mental state of beings are deeply related. The more impure our minds are, the more disasters we will experience. But if we can return the mind to it original purity, peace & protection will always be by our side.