Monday, May 31, 2010

Makeshift Heaven

This year, for the Buddha's birthday, I thought we should do some sort of circumambulation, but the question was, ambulate around what circum? I thought the swimming pool was a good place to hold the ambulation, but we still needed an appropriate circum. Half-joking, I told my students we needed a boat. They found one for $300 at a Thai importer. We decided a simple basin of some sort would suffice; after all, it was crazy spending $300 on a boat you only intended to use for one night, wasn't it? So, we picked out a nice beer & wine cooler at Ross's for $25, and started thinking of how to sit it in the middle of the pool with a Buddha image on it. Suffice to say, it hardly sufficed, in my mind at least, and thoughts of the boat began to again creep in.

We went to see the Thai importer. Saw some sunburnt, decrepit ten-footers outside; went inside and found they were selling nice miniature boats (3 ft) for $300. Asked about the relics outside; $600 for one. Just as I was about to give up on the idea, the owner showed up and someone talked him into giving us one for $300. We were sold - they were still solid teakwood, after all...

Trouble is, wood in Thailand magically shrinks upon leaving the tropics, leaving empty space where one there was a tight seal between the planks. Undaunted, we set to task filling the crevices with some sort of water-based wood-filler putty stuff... that, it turns out, dissolves in water, and cracks when it dries. Still undaunted, we plastered on another layer, and then set to work adding a dark stain and five coats of polyurethane (the latter, it was assumed, would allow for at least a few hours of floatation). It was somewhere during this process that I found myself wondering whether I had perhaps misplaced my sanity somewhere... indeed, there were many questions as to why anyone would spend $300 on a boat they never intended to sit in.

Anyway, we are all crazy in a way, and at least the intention was good; I wanted to offer something special to the Buddha. What better thing to offer the one who has overcome the flood (oghatiṇṇo) than a vessel representative of the Dhamma used to cross the flood? So, the work went ahead and was completed more or less in time for the ceremony, set for 8 PM Friday evening, May 28th. May 27th it rained, and had been cloudy for a few days but, sure enough, the day was bright and clear, and we set the new boat out to to bake in the sun, hoping the polyurethane would dry enough to allow the Buddha the few hours of buoyancy required to complete the affair.

The wind was strong the whole day, and we were pretty sure the candles wouldn't fare well, so we got some glass lanterns (made in India, no less) to supplement the tea candles places around the pool. Flowers were arranged, the boat was placed, rather than in the middle of the pool where a rescue attempt might prove difficult, next to the near bank, where we would also have the convenience of placing flowers in the boat itself after our ambulation of the circum.

8 PM came, I lit the first candle, and suddenly the wind died down to a whisper, warming up the air, and it stayed that way until the very end of the ceremony, before picking up again (see the video below for proof of this, around the three-minute mark). After evening chanting, receiving the precepts, a short explanation of what Visakhapuja is all about, both in English and Thai, then three circumambulations, lighting our candles and incense, placing our flowers in the boat, and finally sitting down for twenty minutes of meditation, followed by a brief dedication of merit, the latter turning out by all accounts to be the most powerful part of the evening, a group of dedicated meditators dedicating their goodness to the rest of the universe. Finished at 10 PM, and the wind was allowed to return in full force.

Pictures below, and a video. It should be said that just about everything about this year's celebration was makeshift, and yet somehow, oddly enough, it was very close to perfect. Perhaps not so odd, really, but inspiring to say the least. Two hours of makeshift heaven. And the boat never leaked after all.



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