Sunday 26 August 2012


Muslin wrap round a Bodhi Tree in Thailand

Khun’s house stands impermanently
by a large and ancient Bodhi tree.
This has lent him its shade
since the house was first made
and has spread its branches comfortably.
Under such a tree was Buddha enlightened.
Hundreds of birds come here
to nest,
to rest,
to watch the night fade
and the dark sun appear.
Khun has heard of chicken flu.
Seeing all those birds, he fears
that he might catch it too.
He drew the Council’s attention to it.
He wanted the tree cut down
and the Council to do it.
The Council refused,
said no, declined, demurred.
But Khun was not so easily deterred
and hired a local man to do it for him.
But first he knelt down on the ground
(Suchit saw him).
He put his hands together
in a gesture of submission
and asked the Bodhi tree’s permission.

I do not know
what the tree had to say
but I do know
it was chopped the very same day.

Opposite Wat Krathum,
a large and ancient banyan tree
has been blown down by the wind.
A Medium says the deva
has been complaining it is homeless.
On Sunday the old Headmaster (eighty three)
announced in the Temple
that local people had collected
seven thousand baht
for a large Spirit House to be erected
next to the stump.

(Note: In Buddhist Southeast Asia it is not unusual for tree devas to be seen, resulting in a large, red, green or yellow muslin-type cloth being wrapped round the trunk of the particular tree, to indicate that it should not be cut down. Offerings are then made to it (the deva) such as lighted joss sticks, rice and fruit.)


Last evening a heavy crunching
on the gravel drive
between here and the river.
Ang and Dek are dragging a spirit house
through a moonless night.

What are you doing?

“Can we throw this
into the river in front of your house?”


“It is empty. Manit has bought a new one.”

Why bring it here?

“We can’t leave it by the road.
Bad spirits move into empty houses
by the road and cause accidents.”

Drop it in the river by your house.

“The bank is wrong.
It goes straight down.
Here the bank slopes.
It will slide down.
The river devas will take care of it.
There will be no danger.”

Tong Dee is thin
wears a yellow shirt,
has short hair.
However she puts her body,
it is uncomfortable.
For six weeks she has been a medium.
When she speaks,
it is with the voice of a spirit drifting
between death and rebirth,
trying to communicate with the living,
grasping at mother earth
with de-atomizing fingers.

It is making Tong Dee ill and thin.
Wek, her grandmother,
has invited a great Deva
to stop the spirits getting in.

Today, Tong Dee’s mouth complained,
“They have taken my house.
I have nowhere to go.”


“Ah Koh Lai was my Grandmother.
She was a great devotee
and kept back the best
fruit for the alms round.
She hoarded up her money for the Temple.
When the rice plants
were pregnant with milk
in the young grains,
she would cut strips of plain white cloth.
She dyed them
in turmeric and water.
She tied them
on bamboo poles
and made yellow banners.
She planted one in each rice field.
She stuck a post in the ground
with a plate on top
and piled it with food and fruit.
Then she would light jossticks
and respectfully invite Mère Pho Sop *
to come and receive her offerings.”

The Rice Goddess


Trees calm the brain,
absorb the poison
of its thoughts
and return them
clean again.

Gong is the Land Guardian
of this place.
Old Chinese face,
Chinese hanging shorts,
pointed Chinese hat
of palm leaf and bamboo frame.
He sits with his back to the river
by the tumbledown remains
of his spirit house,
which has endured all of thirty years.

From ‘Bamboo Leaves’ by Brian Taylor

Thursday 16 August 2012


Ordination of a Thai Monk

Before a would-be monk is ordained,
he is called Nāga (Great Snake).
Jain Narong (He Who Has Long Campaigned)
has come of age
and, for his grandmother’s sake,
sits in the afternoon before his ordination
and waits for a drama to unfold.
He faces a table with a palm-leaf fan on
and wears a robe of brocaded white and gold.

There are no monks present.

Around the edge of the red carpet
is a three-sided circle (yes),
where thirty five people are set
(and one baby).
Outside the circle, a dozen (more or less),
hang around to see
what the outcome will be.

Nāga sits next to Doctor Spirit
and Lady Doctor Spirit.
She has been in a trance for half an hour,
hands pressed together,
body inclined towards the table with the flowers,
preparing for the occasion.
Nāga’s parents sit behind.
His mother is gaunt and pale as a Caucasian;
enormous eyes in shadowed lids slide
restlessly from side to side.

The Band starts with a boom;
trumpets, trombones, boat-shaped gamelans,
a kong and two double-headed drums.
(It is a big band for a small room.)
Just as suddenly, it stops.

Doctor S begins chanting;
in the Indian style
(the meaning
is in the wailing).
The language is Pali
and though the sound
is shaped by syncopation,
there is a disregard for cadence
(and sense).
It is the language of magic and incantation
rather than instruction.

Next comes an Invitation to Devas of All Classes;
Devas from the planes of Sensual Pleasures,
Rupa Brahmas, Bhuma Devas,
Nature Spirits, Ether Devas,
Guardians of Treasures,
Yakkhas, Nāgas and Ghandarvas,
Devas from celestial mansions,
jungles, fountains,
rice fields, streams and rivers, mountains,
garden spirits and Chao Ti’s,
all are invited to these festivities.

Devas, they say, like peace and solitude,
(they may also, of course, enjoy an interlude)
and such an all-inclusive invitation
to the universe’s unknown, furthest stations
needs musicians who will do their best
to boom it where the deafest
Devas hide undisturbed.
How many have made it here? I cannot guess.
But Doctor S
seems satisfied
(and the baby unperturbed).

There is an unexpected hush.
I wondered what that golden bowl was for.
From it, Dr S takes a decorator’s brush
and carefully paints Nāga’s head,
neck and shoulders with water,
which he then splashes round the room.
Is this to cool us – it is unconscionably hot?
Or purify the room? Probably not.
More likely it’s a signal
that the Performance will begin,
this drama Doctor S and Lady Doctor S are in.
They are both narrators and performers
and will give voice to the traumas
of spirits, which otherwise were dumb
and will, in Thai, speak for them
(and with high decorum)
every time they come.

Doctor S tells Great Snake the debt he owes
his parents, particularly his mother,
and goes on to propose
a review of Great Snake’s life.
He says he’ll start with day one in the womb
(that tiny, expanding single room).
Lady Doctor S wails and shrieks and groans
to express the discomfort, the confinement,
the mother’s pains and premature contractions,
with the sympathy and encouragement
of gamelans, kong, trumpets and trombones;
and to everyone’s apparent satisfaction.

The trombones blare, the drums boom louder.
The emotional temperature rises.
The metal keys of the gamelans
are hammered ever harder.
Lady D is inspired. She writhes, she agonises
in a most enthusiastic trance.
Two small boys, aged two and three,
jump on the monks’ platform and dance.
Onto the red carpet, two women crawl
and offer money to Doctor S,
who takes it with no acknowledgement at all.
The birth pains become more intense
and the music goes full volume.
A group of girls start clapping their hands
in time to the kong and the gamelans
and swaying with excitement.
Two older women start beating the floor.
This is contagious and soon there are more.
A plump woman is bouncing
on her buttocks while bending her knees
and slapping her feet
to accompany the mother’s agonies
and her clamouring
for exotic foods to eat.
At last, the climax is reached,
the midwife is sent for,
the waters are breached.
The girls wail hysterically,
the music blares apoplectically,
(the baby screams epileptically).

After fully forty minutes in the womb,
Great Snake is born,
to the immense satisfaction
of almost everyone in the room.
Great Snake himself
has shown no particular emotion
through all this commotion
and is no doubt practising Detachment
(the fourth Brahma Vihara) quite untainted.
His mother looks as though she has fainted
in a sitting position.

I decide it is time to move on.
For ninety minutes, fruit flies
have been trying to get into my eyes,
mosquitoes have been biting me,
I have been sharing my blood with a flea.
What is more, it now appears,
Great Snake’s life has another twenty years
to run before his spiritual consummation.

Tomorrow, he will become
Jotipanno (Bright Wisdom).


The next day, to clashing music and shouts,
Jotipanno is carried
around the Uposatha Hall
by yesterday’s revellers
and deposited at the door.

Inside the Hall,
no revellers and no music.
On a raised platform
there is a notice banning women.
On a green carpet
sits the Preceptor
with incredibly tired eyes
and twelve powerful looking monks,
aged from forty-five to eighty-two;
a spiritual bodyguard
on the lookout for Māra.

Jotipanno asks to be a novice.
He is given ten precepts,
which he accepts, and changes
his white robe for yellow.

Now he asks to be a monk.
He is told to wait by the door
where two senior monks interrogate him.

Are you a human being?
Are you a man?
Are you in debt?
Are you on bail?
Do you have your parents’ permission?

He has learned the responses by heart
for he speaks no Pali.
The interrogators are satisfied.
Jotipanno is led to the platform
to go through it all again
before the Preceptor
and the Spiritual Bodhi Guard.

Finally it is over.
Venerable Jotipanno leaves the Uposatha Hall
to a throng of relatives and well-wishers outside.
Each places a bundle of flowers and joss sticks
(and a brown envelope)
into his shoulder bag.
He wais his thanks.

“You don’t have to wai now,
  you’re a monk already.”

Thirteen days later,
Jotipanno leaves the Sangha
and reappears in the world
disguised as a layman.
His grandmother, it seems, is satisfied.

Brian Taylor from Bamboo Leaves