When I received the message last month that my cousin Tina’s husband Ken had passed I felt a deep sadness. I hadn’t know Ken well, I had met him 3 times over the course of probable 10 years but I had followed his blog (where he wrote about his fight with the aggressive brain tumor Glioblastoma) for about a year and every time I read his posting it amazed me how someone could be as strong and full of optimism and hope as he was.
I have been living in Laos now for the past 11 months and as I am teaching English to monks and novices in temples I have spent quite some time learning about Buddhism and its rituals. I had never been a religious person in the sense that I followed a belief that was taught to me at school or in some churches but from my own experiences and learning I truly believe in reincarnation. So when I heard the sad news a clear thought and impulse formed in my heart: I wanted to wish Ken all the best for his journey and his next life. Buddhists see death in a different way than people who believe that death means THE end. And when you live in a country where this belief is predominant then the experience of dealing with death becomes far more calm and less sad. Because people believe that although your body dies, your soul will be reincarnated into another person. When people pass away here their relatives and friends go chanting to the temples on many days and they also make an offering to monks at a temple. All those rituals have the purpose to wish the deceased good luck for the next life and to give him a blessing. Making merit is a core element in Buddhism and by going chanting at the temple and by making offerings people can make merit – in this case for the person who passed away.
So I went chanting on 3 consecutive days, and one day I brought with me a “banana-leaf tower” (Kong Than) which is decorated with the orange flowers typically used for rituals and ceremonies. One of my friends, a young monk at the temple where I teach, explained to me that I had to write Ken’s name on a piece of paper, his age and the wishes I want to give him on his way. So I placed the piece of paper between the banana leaves and flowers and the monk placed the Kong Than in the front of the temple and the Buddha statues. During the one hour chanting my thoughts were with Ken and with Tina all the time. After the chanting I continued my conversation with the monk and he explained to me how to prepare for the offering on the next day. For such an offering one brings various kinds of food for the monks (fruit, soups, sticky rice and vegetables) and small banana leaf cones with one of the orange flowers and a little donation inside. All of that is arranged on big trays and placed in front of a senior monk. My monk friend had given the senior monk a paper with Ken’s name written on it in Lao language and after I had knelt down in front of the monk and the offerings he started with the blessing. The blessing is done in Pali language (similar to Sanskrit), a dead language and the language which Buddha spoke. All blessings and chanting are done in Pali language. The core essence of the blessing is to wish the deceased person good luck, health and happiness in the next life and to wish that person to reach Nirvana = to reach enlightenment. While the monk gave the blessing I had my eyes closed most of the time and I had a very intense sensation: my eyelids started pounding and I saw white flashes behind my closed eyelids. (I tried to interpret that feeling and my feeling tells me that this sensation represented a lot of strength and vividness coming from Ken’s soul). A little bottle of water placed in front of the monk while he gives his blessing is another element in Buddhist praying. I brought this bottle of water with me and during offering the monk blesses the water, thereby turning the water to so-called “wholly water”. After the blessing the person you go outside and choose a plant or tree, kneel in front of it and pour the wholly water over this plant while at the same time dedicating the wholly water to the family members that have passed away and silently formulating all wishes that you have for that person.
It was a very emotional experience and of course there is sadness along that path but there is also a strong feeling of optimism and peacefulness because of the belief that life WILL continue, just in another “skin”, another body that our soul slips into.