Caring for the Beyond Two Lao Festivals for the Deceased
Introduction • Since the 14th Century BCE the Lao people have been predominately Buddhist. • Ancestors and deceased relatives form an important part of religious life. There are numerous rituals that are performed that perpetuate the relationship between the living and the dead. • The festivals that the film explores are Boun Khau Padap Din and Boun Khau Salak. The former takes place in the ninth and the latter in the tenth lunar month.
BounKhauPadap Din • Boun Khau Padap Din is a festival about the deceased and is linked to the story of the monk Pha Malai. • It can be translated as ‘festival of the rice packets decorating the earth’. • In this festival food and offerings are provided by members of the lay community in order to feed spirits, ancestors and ghosts. • Not only is food provided but merit is transferred to the deceased. It is hoped that this will allow them to be reborn as a human. • The festival takes place during the new moon.
PhaMalai • PhaMalai had the ability to travel into heaven where he witnesses wellbeing and also hell where he witnesses suffering. • The beings that reside in the hell ask him to help them be free from their suffering. • The king of the hell, Yama, grants the wish of PhaMalai to release them. • He opens the doors of hell and sets them free on the day of BounKhauPadap Din so that they can receive offerings from their families.
Ancestors and Spirits • Ancestors who did not attain sufficient merit are believed to have fallen into hell. • The beings of hell are known as pretas (Pali: petas), which means departed, but is understood as ‘wandering ghosts’. • In the Lao Buddhist tradition peta are miserable beings that reside in hell. They are starving and need to be fed. • Lao Buddhism maintains a link between agricultural practices, ancestors and the Buddha. This can be seen in the rituals that form the festival.
During the festival • The Phi Ta Hek is a spirit that watches over the rice fields. It is believed that if he is not fed the harvest could be damaged. Nine packets of rice must be prepared and placed at the four cardinal points of the house and rice field and the ninth must be given the Phi Ta Hek. • Sugar cane, kho fruit, fish, rice and flowers can be placed into the packets. • In the temple the spirit of the first abbot of the monastery must be fed. • On the evening before the new moon the wandering spirits will be released from hell and will go to the temple to receive food.
New Moon • At the new moon the spirits are released and they search for food. They go to the temple to receive food and merit. The spirits cannot enter the temple so food is left outside temple grounds. • For some of the spirits there is the opportunity to be reborn as a human or even as a deity. If spirits are not fed then they might have to return to hell. • Later on the five precepts are chanted and alms are given to the monks. This is because ritual food cannot simply be given to the spirits. Instead it is given to the monks. Once the monks have finished the food they transfer the merit of the gift to the dead.
Night of the New Moon • After the sermon on the night of the new moon the monks and the laity circumambulate the temple three times carrying candles, flowers and incense. • This is often regarded as a homage to the triple gem, the Buddha, theDharma and Saṅgha. • Monuments and small ancestor shrines which contain the bone relics collected after cremations are located within the temple compound. Often these monuments have images of the deceased and give their dates of birth and death. During the festival relatives make offerings and light candles on these shrines for their deceased ancestors. Laypeople also put offerings wrapped in banana leaves at various places around the temple grounds and at the base of sacred trees to feed the hungry ghosts and local spirits.
Monks and the laity circumambulate the temple three times carrying candles, flowers and incense. (Laos, 2007).
BounKhauSalak • Boun Khau Salak takes place in the tenth lunar month. • The name of the festival translates as ‘festival of the baskets drawn by lots’. • On the day before the full moon a salak basket is prepared and filled with offerings. • During the festival the merit of the gift will be transferred to all of the dead, ancestors, relatives and peta. • It is done because the dead do not have any rice fields and cannot buy or grow their own food.
Preparations • The baskets are filled with uncooked rice, so that the dead can eat what they need and have the rest as provisions. • Dried meat, fruits, fish paste, sauce, puffed rice, bananas and chili can also be put in the basket. • It is not just food that is provided but also lemongrass and galangal which can be planted by the deceased. • The filled baskets are taken to the monks who will draw lots (salak). • The families write their names and the names of the deceased onto slips. The living leave their names on the slip so the deceased know who provided the offering.
A family prepares their salakbasket. Lined with banana leaves it is filled with food that the dead can use. (Laos, 2007).
Origins of the festival • There is a story about villagers who ask an orgress for the protection of the rice fields. She received so much food from the villagers that it was too much for her on her own. So she thinks about her karma and her sins and decides to donate some of it to the monks in the nearby monastery. There were eight monks there and she gave offerings to them everyday. Other monks saw this and tried to gain from her generosity as well. When she saw this she decided that they must draw lots so they know who should receive the food.
Day of the Festival • On the day of the festival the lay people bring the baskets and slips to the monastery. Lots are drawn and the corresponding baskets are distributed to the monks accordingly. • This system was authorised by the Buddha and is found within the vinaya. • The first three baskets drawn in the lot are presented to the main buddha statue. All the other baskets are given to the monks. The monks, once they have received their designated baskets, will transfer the merit generated to the deceased.
Purpose of the festival • It is a festival with dual purpose. Not only does it give food and merit to the dead, but it also allows the laity to pay homage to the Sangha. • There are two aspects at play during the festival. One is Buddhist, and the second is derived from the culture and traditions held by Laotians. These two are brought together into the ritual. • The relationship between these two aspects are maintained by the ‘Twelve Rituals and Fourteen Rules’. It was done to create uniformity within Laos and it creates a solidarity between people
Salak basket and a handwritten slip which outlines who the food is for and the family members that donated it (Laos, 2007).