Life in the Saffron Forest: Chapter 18

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?’
‘My wife.’
‘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.

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