Letter from the Road #26

Path of the Friend

Elias Amidon


In the Fourth World


Pati Daiya, the village headman, held the chicken gently next to the Water Spirit’s bamboo shrine, her wings folded against her body. He prayed, and while he prayed he reached behind his back to the sheath containing his square-ended machete. Without hesitation he thwacked the chicken hard on her head, and then sliced open the vein of her neck. Blood sprayed forth, which he guided to mark various parts of the flimsy shrine, including the curved struts of bamboo symbolizing the rainbow.

The procedure was repeated with a second chicken, and then with a small pig. Sunlight dappled the grove of trees and the assembled villagers sitting around the shrine in their bright reds and blues. There was no sense of portentous ritual or religion, simply a respectful air of expectancy and naturalness. Performed each year at the confluence of two streams near the top of this remote watershed in northern Thailand, the ceremony honors the spirit of the waters, asks for forgiveness for polluting the river during the year, and offers blessings for all beings downstream from this place, which is virtually the entire world. It is a ceremony of purification and renewal of the waters.

You might think that blood sacrifice and praying to the spirits would conflict with my modern sensibilities, especially after spending six weeks in the monotheistic Middle East. How could these practices be anything other than relics of primitive superstition? This is blood sacrifice, after all!

We modern people know better. Each day in the modern world we slaughter millions of chickens and pigs without the least thought to honor their sacrifice to become our food. Each day we use whole rivers of water to cleanse our world without for a moment bowing our heads in gratitude. We know better than these primitive people. Their life ways are rapidly diminishing, and for all we care it will be good riddance when they are gone. Blood sacrifice!

And yet, there in that sunny forest something happened that was significant. The mortality of the machete’s swift stroke, life of animal, life of human, joined, the sunlight, the passing of time, the pleasantness of the hour and our conversation, all of it seemed to me as if it was being harvested, lifted up from the moment and winnowed invisibly downstream to the waiting world. We were harvested.

Calling in the Spirits

In these small villages my name is Pati Hanapa. The name means “Uncle Hanah’s-father,” after my first-born child, Hanah. Naming by relation is a sign of the Paganyaw’s sense of interdependent identity – knowing something by its relations.

The Paganyaw tribe (also called by their English name, the Karen) live in a swath of territory extending from Burma to Thailand and Laos. They are the most culturally and spiritually integral indigenous group remaining in the region, though like indigenous cultures everywhere, their days appear to be numbered.

We’ve been coming to these villages for the past nine years, leading “Interfaith Solidarity Walks” and conducting trainings with the Paganyaw in bioregional mapping of their community forests, in an effort to help secure their land rights.

Last week, wanting to thank the members of the Solidarity Walk for our visit and the work we were doing together, the villagers said they would like to offer us the most precious thing they have – their prayers. But in order for us to receive the prayers, a special ritual first needed to be performed. This involved the preparation of a tray of sacred elements: rice, water, fruit, a sacrificed chicken, an egg, and a cowrie shell. As the group’s leader I was to be made ready to receive the prayers – once I was ready, the whole group could receive them.

On our final evening together, I sat next to the village shaman as he prepared the ceremony. About 75 people, villagers and pilgrims, sat in the large half-open room, smiling and talking quietly. Dozens of candles were placed around the room, making everyone’s eyes beautiful in the light.

The shaman put some rice and chicken in my hand, and placed a cotton thread leading from my hand to the tray of sacred elements. He began to pray aloud, tapping a piece of wood against the tray. He was calling in my spirits. The Paganyaw believe that we each have 37 spirits associated with us, but only five stay in our bodies. The other 32 may wander around the countryside. In order for us to receive the blessing of prayer, these 32 spirits must be called back to us. (It is similar, a psychologist with us remarked, to the psychotherapeutic process of bringing shadow material to consciousness.)

How would the shaman know when my spirits were all present? For that insight he relied upon a small cowrie shell which he was patiently trying to balance on the pointy end of an egg standing upright in a bowl of uncooked rice. Of course, the cowrie shell was also pointed and each time the shaman attempted to balance it the shell tumbled off the egg. We were told that when it balanced there, all my spirits would be present.

Three years ago I had experienced a similar ceremony, and at that time I had made the mistake of trying to pray the little shell to balance there. The harder I prayed the less the shell wanted to do it. Only when I gave up trying to will the thing to stand still did it find its balance. So this time I didn’t try to interfere – I simply sat there, happy and open.

Within a few minutes the little shell was incongruously standing on its tip on the curved surface of the egg. Suddenly it seemed as if everything else was moving except that shell, which stood perfectly still. It was the unwobbling pivot of the world. I felt a rushing sound in the room, and at once the shaman was praying over me and tying the sacred threads on my wrists. When he finished, other village headmen took their turns, and then their wives, and other villagers. The threads were trailed through the elements of the sacred tray and then blessings spoken as they were tied on.

Soon the prayers spread beyond me to the other pilgrims, each person having multiple threads tied on their wrists. Then the whole place went up! All of us were tying threads on each other – Paganyaw, English, French, Dutch, American, Thai, Ladaki, Korean, children, grandmothers – the room became a honey hive of the sounds of people blessing each other. “May your life be long!” “May your children and grandchildren be healthy!” “May the spirits protect you!” “Bless your people, bless your forest, bless each moment of your life!”

The languages interwove and sounded like water flowing, like the sacred music of an ancient people. Eyes sparkled with tears. It was a moment – many moments long – that none of us who were present will ever forget.

How can it be that this apparently weak, primitive culture could reveal so effortlessly a radiant, communal love like this – a love so often eclipsed by our own advanced culture? What do they know that we don’t?

The balancing cowrie shell tells the story of our spirits: are they present or absent? How delicate a matter this is! The unity of our spirit allows blessings to be given and received.

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