These photos are from the Boon Khun Lan (บุญคูณลาน) ceremony in Ban Thung Nang Ok, Amphoe Mueang, Yasothon province on December 30, 2019 to January 1, 2020. Thanks to Mae Nang, Mae Yewa, Khun Noi, Khun Noot, Khun Wii, and everyone else in the village for being such great hosts and answering all my questions. For more information, there’s an explanation of Boon Khun Lan and an overview of heet sip-song, the twelve Isan merit-making traditions.
Boon Khun Lan, here called Boon Kum Khao Yai (“The Big Rice Heap Merit-Making Ritual”), was held at Wat Pa Thung E-Ok along with the monks from the village’s other temple, Wat Thung E-Ok.
Most of the preparation was done the day before Boon Khun Lan began. People set up the seating area, hung lights and loudspeakers, and folded bai sii.
But the biggest job this day was making khao lam; sticky rice, sugar, salt, and coconut milk stuffed into bamboo tubes. The bamboo was stuck into the ground and surrounded by fires, which slowly roasted the sweetened rice for three hours.
Throughout this day and the next morning, people brought sacks of rice (a mix of sticky and regular) to the temple. As with all temple donations, every delivery was carefully recorded. Since the temple doesn’t need the rice (because people donate rice to the monks every day) a few days after Boon Khun Lan, on the January 5th, the rice would be sold at a low price so poor people who don’t have land or need extra rice can afford it.
Preparation continued the next morning with decorating the parade truck, peeling the khao lam, and finishing the festival grounds.
The work was mostly finished by lunchtime. (Despite the “Wat Pa” name, this is not an actual “forest temple” and the monks eat two daily meals.)
The Sermon and Parade
Boon Khun Lan started about 2pm with some chanting, which was followed by three guest monks (from Ubon Ratchathani and Si Saket) reciting the often humorous folktale of two sons called “People Who Are Liked Eat Skin; People Who Are Hated Eat Bone.” In the story, the younger son frequently lied that his older brother abused him. Their mother believed him and thus wrongly thought her younger son was a good person while the elder was bad. Later the younger man lost everything gambling and had to be helped by the righteous elder brother he had harmed.
At 4pm the sermon was stopped and the parade left the temple. Led by village elders collecting money and a truck topped by a picture of Mae Phosop, the rice goddess, the parade snaked through the village for over an hour.
Bringing up the rear was a fifteen-person marching band playing Isan parade music; led by a pin (a three-stringed electric guitar), driven by percussion, and fueled by lao khao “rice whiskey.” Dozens of dancers walked along from the start and more joined as the parade passed their homes.
After the parade returned to the temple, some of the dancers were having too much fun to quit, so the band set back off for another round through the village.
At the temple, there was about fifteen minutes of prep – inserting candles in cups filled with sand, setting rice stalks in front of the Buddha image, stripping down the parade truck, and placing the Mae Phosop picture atop the rice pile – for the evening meeting and the next day’s ceremony; then everyone except the monks went home for dinner.
For the last six years Ban Thung Nang Ok has celebrated Boon Khun Lan during the new year – when many people who moved away for work are visiting, making it a well-attended community celebration – and combined it with late-night chanting led by the monks from both temples. People, almost all wearing white (but they were not sleeping at the temple or following the eight precepts – no eating after noon, no sexual activity, etc.), started arriving at the temple about 7pm and they slowly trickled in until 8.30pm: eventually there were over 100, only about 10 of them men.
The night started at 7.15pm with half an hour of chanting. Then the abbot spoke for ten minutes about doing good deeds to the best of your ability. This was followed by two more sermons (30 minutes and one hour) about how many small acts of merit add up to a large result and the importance of patience. The other monks went off to relax during the sermons.
At 10pm, following a little breaktime, during which Ovaltine was served and candles were passed around, people chanted for another hour. Then the monks had those born on Sunday light their candle while chanting. The candle lighting continued with a new chant for each day of the week, including the usual dividing Wednesday into two days; morning and evening. Midnight passed without a mention from the monks (though it was announced by random fireworks launched by people around the village) and Saturday’s candles were lit soon after.
Finally, following two short chants, a monk splashed people with holy water while the abbot shared a new year’s wish for everyone to have health, happiness, and prosperity. Just after 12.30am, everyone headed home.
Early the next morning people came back to the temple to serve a special breakfast to the monks, and because of this, they did not walk through the village to collect alms; instead their alms bowls were placed on a table and nearly everyone came to the temple to fill them, though not everyone stayed after they’d given their food.
By 7.30am, people had taken their seats in front of the monks and listened to fifteen minutes of chanting. Then a sai sin sacred thread for the blessing of the rice was sent from the monks’ platform to the rice pile and also to the people sitting next to it. (Generally rice is piled up unsacked like this, but here it was not removed from the bags.) It was during this time that the rice was formally given to the temple.
The blessing lasted five minutes and then the string was wound back up. After a little more chanting, the monks were served their food. Before eating, they spoke briefly to encourage people to do good in their life, blessed gruat nam holy water (for passing merit to ancestors), and led a short final chant before passing the Boon Khun Lan duties to a maw kwan shaman to finish the ceremony while they ate.
The maw kwan began by blessing everyone with a splash of water and then brought out the bai sii and recited some prayers to honor and thank Mae Phosop.
After half an hour, a bountiful future harvest hopefully ensured, the maw kwan‘s ceremony was done and people started eating their breakfast and tying sai sin sacred threads around their friend’s and family’s wrists with the usual good-luck-in bad-luck-out blessings.
By 9.30am everyone had gone home except for the monks and a small cleanup crew who got right to work.
Boon Khun Lan (Month 2)
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