Life in the Saffron Forest: Chapter 2

Inlaid Marble at Wat Luang Por Sothorn

Chapter 2

My sur­name Tam­tang was cho­sen by my pater­nal grand­fa­ther. He was a Laot­ian from Vien­tiane, who immi­grat­ed to Thai­land and set up a farm­stead in the forests of Mahasarakam in the dis­trict of Barabeu. My father told me that in the reign of King Rama VI, the king announced that all cit­i­zens must choose a sur­name fol­low­ing the tra­di­tions of oth­er coun­tries. This cre­at­ed a lot of con­fu­sion among the pop­u­lace since most peo­ple were illit­er­ate and didn’t know how to choose a sur­name. It was usu­al­ly the dis­trict offi­cials who would come up with names. Many of these offi­cials had pre­vi­ous­ly been ordained as monks and they used the chant­i­ng book ‘Sev­en Chron­i­cles’ to choose names. They sim­ply copied out a word or pair of words from the chants and rather ran­dom­ly assigned them to peo­ple. Sur­names in this area were thus most­ly Pali words like Bha­gavā, Itip­iso, Evamme, Padakkhiṇaṃ, & Pasīlate­saṃ.

This hap­haz­ard nam­ing process some­times became a joke when peo­ple lat­er learned the mean­ing of these Pali words. Some peo­ple would want to sink into the earth with shame when they found out the mean­ings of their sur­names, for exam­ple: Petā­naṃ (‘the realm of ghosts’) and Paṭikūlaṃ (‘rot­ten’).

Apart from extract­ing names from books, the offi­cials would some­times make sur­names by com­bin­ing the nick­names of a person’s par­ents or grand­par­ents. ‘What is your father’s name?’ ‘Full.’ ‘And your mother’s?’ ‘Mouse.’ ‘Okay, your sur­name is Full­mouse.’ For this rea­son there are many strange sur­names like Smart­mead­ow, Pret­ty­green, and Wealthy­fat.

My grand­fa­ther refused to let the offi­cials deter­mine his name. He chose the name Tam­tang (‘Along the Way’) as a rec­ol­lec­tion of the long way he had had to walk to the admin­is­tra­tive cen­ter from the vil­lage!

The refusal to allow the dis­trict offi­cials to choose a name was a good oppor­tu­ni­ty to obtain a pleas­ing name which would be for the hon­our and renown of his descen­dants. Tam­tang, how­ev­er, is as sil­ly and rus­tic as Full­mouse or Smart­mead­ow. When I had been ordained and had learned some Pali, I sug­gest­ed to my father that we change our sur­name. My father object­ed vehe­ment­ly: ‘No way! Your grand­fa­ther chose this name. To change it would be ungra­cious.’

For this rea­son I could not escape using this unfash­ion­able sur­name until I got mar­ried lat­er in life to a woman with a pleas­ing last name and asked to change my name to hers.

This out­dat­ed sur­name cast a curse on my des­tiny. What­ev­er I under­took wouldn’t reach ful­fill­ment or fruition and I nev­er seemed to reach my intend­ed goals; the best I could do was be ‘along the way.’ If my grand­fa­ther had cho­sen the name ‘Des­ti­na­tion Reached’ I would prob­a­bly be near being the Supreme Patri­arch by now. Who knows?

* * *

Tell me tru­ly, Tad­pole, you real­ly didn’t know that eat­ing rice cakes in the evening is a trans­gres­sion of the monks’ dis­ci­pline, or are you sim­ply pre­tend­ing?’ asked the abbot (whom all the novices called ‘Luang Por’—Venerable Father), as I was mas­sag­ing him one evening.

I told him that I tru­ly didn’t know. On the ordi­na­tion day the pre­cep­tor had sim­ply said no sup­per in the evening. I thought he meant no prop­er meal with rice, not snacks and cakes.

Luang Por chuck­led in a good-humoured way. ‘In that case it isn’t a trans­gres­sion, for inten­tion is required for a trans­gres­sion of moral pre­cepts. Accord­ing to the law “inten­tion may be inferred from a per­son­’s actions.” But if you are fak­ing then you will become “an old monk eats tur­tle soup; ring­worm eats his head,”’ he con­clud­ed speak­ing in rid­dles.

What do you mean?’ I asked try­ing to sup­press by anx­i­ety.

He explained by recit­ing the fol­low­ing leg­end:

There was once an old monk (‘luang dtah’—a monk ordained late in life) who saw a tur­tle walk­ing slow­ly by the monks’ lava­to­ries. All of sud­den he had a crav­ing for tur­tle soup. He there­fore went into his room and began chant­i­ng in a loud voice. The sound of chant­i­ng was heard by sev­er­al young monastery atten­dants who were play­ing out­side: ‘Boys, the ven­er­a­ble father has seen a tur­tle by the toi­lets. Boys, the ven­er­a­ble father has seen a tur­tle by the toi­lets.’

He kept repeat­ing this chant until the boys got the mes­sage. They went to the lava­to­ries, saw the tur­tle, and start­ed a fire to make a soup. The pot they chose, how­ev­er, was slight­ly too small. The old monk, who was secret­ly watch­ing from his hut, con­tin­ued to chant:

That pot is too small; the dying pot is larg­er!’

Hear­ing this the boys went off to get the large dying pot, in which the monks boiled the tree bark for dying their robes. This time it worked—they threw the tur­tle in and after writhing and strug­gling it final­ly died. The boys had nev­er made tur­tle soup and didn’t know what ingre­di­ents to add—they there­fore called out in con­fu­sion. The old monk was afraid his plans would end in vain and con­tin­ued his solemn chants:

Lemon grass, kaf­fir-lime leaf, sad­dle-grunt fish, and fish sauce!’

The lit­tle cadets made a fuss to gath­er the nec­es­sary ingre­di­ents. When the soup was ready they removed the pot and gath­ered in a cir­cle to enjoy the feast … but a loud, intim­i­dat­ing verse of chant­i­ng came from the old monk’s hut, stop­ping them in their tracks:

The bones and car­ti­lage are yours; the meat must be kept aside for the late-morn­ing meal!’

With this devi­ous strat­e­gy the old, cun­ning monk got his tur­tle soup by evad­ing a trans­gres­sion of the rules.

Luang Por con­clud­ed by say­ing: ‘In this way did this so-called rev­erend escape falling into an offence. But even if he tech­ni­cal­ly avoid­ed an offence, he sure­ly still did wrong because his inten­tions were impure. Remem­ber this, Tad­pole: pure and impure actions depend on inten­tion. The Bud­dha said: “Cetanāhaṁ bhikkhave kam­maṁ vadā­mi,” which trans­lates as: ‘I say that inten­tion is kar­ma.” Hav­ing spo­ken this Pali verse he turned to me and asked one final ques­tion before per­mit­ting me to leave:

Enough—do you under­stand?”

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