Speaking of funeral chanting reminds me of Luang Pi Mahā Sing, the leader of our gang of novices. I don’t know where he dug up such riveting and amusing tales. Once he told the story of a Chinese man named Lim from the village of Nok Ee-an. He had a beloved wife named Kaew. One day Mrs. Kaew suddenly died, causing great grief for Lim. He came in tears to the monastery to see the abbot. Arriving, he bowed quickly three times and said:
‘Luang Por, I’ve come to tell you that my wife has died.’
‘What? You mean Ee Kaew?’ Luang Por exclaimed in surprise. ‘What happened?’
‘I know it’s your wife. I mean what was her illness?’
‘She’s not ill; she’s dead.’
Weeping and moaning, Lim then left the abbot’s kuti. By 9pm the villagers were beginning to doubt whether the abbot was finally going to appear with the monks and novices to do the funeral chanting. Having waited a long time, and sensing that nothing was going to happen, Tid Chan ran to the monastery to prompt the abbot. As the abbot was donning his robes while following Tid Chan, you could hear him mutter: ‘He came lamenting, “Long Por, I have come to tell you my wife has died.” Who could have known that he was inviting us to go chant?’
Luang Pi Lan—former clairvoyant—had just joined the group of storytellers and griped:
‘What a bunch of jokers entranced by Pi Mahā Sing’s boring stories. My stories are much funnier.’
‘There you go, and I thought you were only good at performing magic spells. You can tell stories too, can you?’ Nane Boonkay chipped in. The result was that he got whacked by his opponent’s knuckles. In the ensuing time since the scandal of almost two years ago, Nane Lan had reached the age for taking higher ordination as a bhikkhu. Everyone still called him Phra Lan the Sorcerer, even though he himself didn’t like the name.
‘Go ahead and tell your story, mate,’ Phra Sing said, using the familiar form of address used while Phra Lan was still a novice.
‘Once there was a Chinese man named Goh. His wife’s name was … what’s a good name? … let’s say her name was See Nuan.’
‘Hey, that’s my mother’s name, jerk!’ Phra Sing shouted.
‘Oh, sorry, I didn’t mean that. Let’s just call her See. One day, See died. Goh invited the monks to do the funeral chanting. In this group of monks was a newly ordained Luang Dtah (a monk ordained late in life), who didn’t know the chanting. While the monks were chanting, Goh kept a close eye on which monks could chant and which couldn’t. When they had finished, he offered them each an envelope with money, saying: “This monk has a nice voice; I offer him ten baht; this monk has a good voice; I offer him ten baht; this monk’s voice is good enough; I offer him ten baht.”
‘When he reached the end of the line, he exclaimed loudly: “This monk has no voice; I offer him ten pennies!”
‘“What?” the elderly Luang Dtah said startled.
‘“You made no sound!”
‘Luang Dtah grabbed Goh by the arm and whispered into his ear: “Do you know? – those monks who were chanting loudly were chanting for you. I was chanting for your wife, so I had to chant very quietly.”
‘“Chanting loudly for me, but chanting quietly for my wife?”
‘“Wow, you’re special! You were the only one chanting for my wife. I will offer you thirty baht.”
‘So those monks who chanted until they were hoarse only got ten baht, while the Luang Dtah sitting there like a mute got thirty baht.’
At the end of this story everyone laughed boisterously except for Luang Pi Dtaw who got up scowling and left in disgust. Phra Sing said:
‘What’s gotten into him?’
‘He’s angry at Phra Lan’, Nane Liam opined.
‘Why’s he angry at me? I didn’t do anything’, said Phra Lan raising his eyebrows.
‘You were ridiculing him. How can you say you didn’t do anything?’
‘What? I didn’t mean it. If I’m lying, may I vomit blood,’ the clairvoyant swore solemnly.
In fact, Phra Lan hadn’t intended to be insulting, but Phra Dtaw had an inferiority complex about not being able to memorize any chanting. Whenever someone mentioned this subject, he thought they were making fun of him. It is similar to a person suffering from hair loss. They tend to get upset whenever someone mentions anything shiny. Even if their friends complain, ‘Oh, it’s so hot today,’ they are ready to slap them in the mouth.
Disparagement can sometimes propel us to make effort in order to gain the upper hand. After the Vassa, most of the bhikkhus in our gang disrobed and departed. Only Luang Pi Dtaw and Luang Pi Muan – or ‘Arahant Muan’ – remained. ‘Arahant Muan’ – the master chef – walked on tudong in the countryside. Phra Dtaw stayed on through his third Vassa, making determined effort to memorize the chanting, but to little avail. During that year, the villagers of Hin Hae, which bordered Bahn Huay, were looking for monks to live at their monastery. They sent a representative to come and make a formal request from Luang Por. Luang Por asked from among his disciples for volunteers, but no-one was interested in going. Only Phra Dtaw was willing to volunteer. Luang Por laughed heartily:
‘As an abbot, you have to at least be able to give the precepts to the laypeople. Are you able to do this?’
‘Yes, I can’, our dear venerable vowed emphatically.
‘If you can do that, okay. Tomorrow I will inform one of the village elders to collect you. You can take 4–5 novices with you. But don’t bring disgrace on your teachers!’ Luang Por added.
Word of Luang Pi Dtaw’s offer to be the abbot of Hin Hae Monastery spread quickly. Most people found it highly amusing. Some predicted that before long, Abbot Dtaw would be sent back by the laypeople because he could not remember any of the chanting. As it turned out, however, people’s expectations were proven completely wrong. Abbot Dtaw was able to perform the ceremonies proficiently; he was able to give the five precepts, the eight precepts, and do the funeral chanting without any difficulty. It was so amazing that Elder Khan asked him about this matter:
‘Everyone at Bahn Huay said that you couldn’t remember any of the chanting.’
‘What about it?’ Abbot Dtaw said with a smile.
‘It appears that you can chant perfectly well,’ the elder replied.
‘Distance proves a horse, time proves a person’, Abbot Dtaw said reciting a Chinese proverb. Ever since he had taken up the abbotship, he had become noticeably more eloquent.
‘What does this have to do with horses?’ Elder Khan inquired.
‘It’s a metaphor. Listen carefully. Over time, we are able to learn new skills. Earlier, I could hardly remember the chanting. But after making diligent effort, I gained proficiency.’
Things went smoothly for several months, until one day there was trouble. It was the full moon Observance day. As usual, Abbot Dtaw had to give the Uposatha precepts to the laypeople and deliver a sermon. Every time he gave the precepts or delivered a Dhamma talk, he would hold a ceremonial fan in front of him. On that day, he forgot to bring his fan and he therefore asked his disciple Jiew to quickly fetch it for him. As soon as Jiew handed him the fan, he broke out in a cold sweat and his hands began to shake. He bumbled through the precepts making numerous errors – a 180 degree turn from previous occasions. After giving a talk, he immediately walked crestfallen back to this kuti – devoid of any vestige of an abbot. The scapegoat was disciple Jiew, whose bottom was caned until it was full of welts. Abbot Dtaw felt humiliated in front of the laypeople.
Jiew had stubbornly torn off the piece of paper with all the chanting written on it that Phra Dtaw had affixed to the back side of his cherished fan.