For My Friends Who Have Lost Loved Ones to COVID: Calling the Soul

Friends across the globe from all the stages of my life have lost parents, spouses, family members and loved ones to COVID. I have been thinking alot about the ways we are all tied to one another in joy, in grief, in loss, in trying to live together and ease one another’s pain. Here is a story about how a very different culture keeps people they care about literally connected to one another, in a ceremony that creates unity and restores harmony to both the individual and the community. For some reason this post has gotten a lot of views recently. I wrote the essay after several trips to Laos. May it offer some comfort and peace. — Jadi

 

Note the white cotton threads

When we visit the temples in Laos, we often see monks tying special white cotton strings to the wrist of a person’s right hand. Sometimes the monk ties connecting strings to whole groups of people. What are the strings, and what is their significance? The answer, it turns out, varies in the different regions of Laos (as well as the Sipsong Panna autonomous prefecture of the Tai Lü in the extreme south of Yunnan, China, and Northern and Isan Thai cultures). And the meaning depends on time and place….

Full moon Vientiane, Laos

The strings are tied in the Baci ceremony, and their significance depends on the occasion. Take weddings, for instance. According to an old Laotian legend, the cotton threads are tied to ensure a happy marriage. We each have a tree in the heavenly garden, and that tree has branches intertwined with your predestined partner. When our trees come to this earthly existence, the cotton threads binding them are cut and we’re born separated and alone. If you can find your soul mate again after searching for him or her, at your marriage you are rejoined by retying the thread.

In Laos threads are also tied on newborn babies and their mothers [1] or on people going home or departing from home, which explained the many men, women, and children wearing these bracelets we saw at airports. The ceremony is performed for specific life events: success, health (both for the cured and the sick), and annual festivals like the sacred Wax Castle Procession in Vientiane. We witnessed a high number of Baci ceremonies during that time. [2]

The ceremony is done after a death, too, to bring back any wandering  missing spirits and reinforce the harmony of the surviving family members.

The entire ceremony is rich is symbolism. The white color means purity, and the strings are believed to bind the 32 kwan, organs or parts to the soul, to prevent them from wandering away. The Baci ceremony is also known by the term su kwan, “calling of the soul”. [3] When kwan wander away from your body, this creates an imbalance in the soul that may lead to illness and bad luck.

Foundation stones are honored

The ceremonies take place in Buddhist temples, but kwan and the Baci ceremony predate Buddhism. [4] I’ve had strings tied to my right wrist in Buddhist and Hindu temples from Laos to India, but have never taken part in a Baci ceremony. Regardless, the white bracelet should be worn for at least three days. Then the threads can be unknotted or allowed to fall off on their own, but should never be cut.

Dedicated to my friends who have lost loved ones to the pandemic

NOTES: [1] A Baci ceremony for new mothers and their babies is performed to welcome the baby, and to recall any kwan that may have wandered away from the mother during the birth. [2] The Wax Castle Procession falls on an especially auspicious lunar calendar date: the full moon of the seventh lunar month. [3] Concept of Kwan: Kwan are components of the soul but have a more abstract meaning than this. The kwan have been variously described by Westerners as: “vital forces, giving harmony and balance to the body, or part of it”, “the private reality of the body, inherent in the life of men and animals from the moment of their birth,” and simply as “vital breath”. – Pom Outama Khampradith, Bounheng Inversin, and Tiao Nithakhong Somsanith, writing for Lao Heritage Foundation. P.S: Baci in Italian means kisses, and it’s also an awesome chocolate candy that contains a whole hazelnut at the center.

©Jadi Campbell 2018. Previously published as Laos White String Bracelets: The Baci Ceremony. All photos ©Uwe Hartmann. To see more of Uwe’s photos and pics from our trips go to  viewpics.de.

To learn more about kwan and the Baci ceremony: Laos-guide-999, Baci, UNESCO

My books are Broken In: A Novel in Stories, Tsunami Cowboys, Grounded, and The Trail Back Out. Books make great gifts!

Tsunami Cowboys was longlisted for the 2019 ScreenCraft Cinematic Book Award. The Trail Back Out was a 2020 Best Book Award Finalist for Fiction Anthologies for the American Book Fest. The title story The Trail Back Out was longlisted for the 2021 ScreenCraft Cinematic Short Story Award. Broken In: A Novel in Stories was a semifinalist for the 2020 International Hawk Mountain Short Story Collection Award from Hidden River Arts. 

Laos White String Bracelets: The Baci Ceremony

Note the white cotton threads

When we visit the temples in Laos, we often see monks tying special white cotton strings to the wrist of a person’s right hand. Sometimes the monk ties connecting strings to whole groups of people. What are they, and what was the significance? The answer, it turns out, varies in the different regions of Laos (as well as the Sipsong Panna autonomous prefecture of the Tai Lü in the extreme south of Yunnan, China, and Northern and Isan Thai cultures) and depends on time and place….

Full moon Vientiane, Laos

The strings are tied in the Baci ceremony, and the meaning depends on the occasion. Take weddings, for instance. According to an old Laotian legend, the cotton threads are tied to ensure a happy marriage. We each have a tree in the heavenly garden, and that tree has branches intertwined with your predestined partner. When our trees come to this earthly existence, the cotton threads binding them are cut and we’re born separated and alone. If you can find your soul mate again after searching for him or her, at your marriage you are rejoined by retying the thread.

But in Laos, threads are also tied on newborn babies and their mothers [1], or on people going home or departing from home, which explained the many men, women, and children with these bracelets we saw at airports. The ceremony is performed for specific events in a life: success, health (both for the cured and the sick), and annual festivals like the sacred Wax Castle Procession in Vientiane (we witnessed a high number of Baci ceremonies during that time). [2] The ceremony is done after a death, too, to bring back any wandering, missing spirits and reinforce the harmony of the surviving family members.

The entire ceremony is rich is symbolism. The white color means purity, and the strings are believed to bind the 32 kwan, organs or parts to the soul, to prevent them from wandering away. (The Baci ceremony is also known by the term su kwan, “calling of the soul”.) [3] When kwan wander away from your body, this creates an imbalance in the soul that may lead to illness and bad luck.

Foundation stones are honored

The ceremonies take place in Buddhist temples, but kwan and the Baci ceremony predate Buddhism. [4] I’ve had strings tied to my right wrist in Buddhist and Hindu temples from Thailand to India, but have never taken part in a Baci ceremony. Regardless, the white bracelet should be worn for at least three days. Then the threads can be unknotted or allowed to fall off on their own, but should never be cut.

NOTES: [1] A Baci ceremony for new mothers and their babies is performed to welcome the baby, and to recall any kwan that may have wandered off from the mother during the birth. [2] The Wax Castle Procession falls on an especially auspicious lunar calendar date: the full moon of the seventh lunar month. [3] Concept of Kwan: Kwan are components of the soul but have a more abstract meaning than this. The kwan have been variously described by Westerners as: “vital forces, giving harmony and balance to the body, or part of it”, “the private reality of the body, inherent in the life of men and animals from the moment of their birth,” and simply as “vital breath”. – Pom Outama Khampradith, Bounheng Inversin, and Tiao Nithakhong Somsanith, writing for Lao Heritage Foundation. [4] Check out my posts about the Rocket Festival we saw on our first trip to Laos!

P.S: Baci in Italian means kisses, and it’s an awesome chocolate candy that contains a whole hazelnut at the center.

©Jadi Campbell 2018. All photos © Uwe Hartmann. To see more of Uwe’s photos and pics from our trips go to  viewpics.de.

Click here for my author page to learn more about my books and me.

To learn more about kwan and the Baci ceremony: https://www.laos-guide-999.com/baci-ceremony.html

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Baci

http://www.laoheritagefoundation.org/ceremonies/baci.jsp

https://www.laos-guide-999.com/that-luang-festival.html

 

The Wax Castle Procession of Laos – Part 2

The That Luang Festival – Part 2

Laos’s most important religious festival opens with a parade led by monks and government officials, accompanied by musicians in ethnic costumes.

The faithful follow, carrying colorful, decorated structures (wax castles, or phasat).

The scent of honey filled the air

These are high towers built by hand to resemble castles. But such castles! These beautiful structures are covered with yellow wax flowers, especially scented with honey. Offerings of money and gold paper further decorate the towers, which are carried three times in a clockwise direction around the stupa. The procession is led by the temple’s monks, who are chanting Pali verses. Then the castles are placed on the stupa, and on the ground candles and incense are lit to ask for Buddha’s blessing.

To place castles at this event brings extra-special merit as they are an especially worthy offering. According to legend, a monkey offered the Buddha honey and was rewarded with a human incarnation. The honey in the yellow wax flowers is a symbol of this great honor.

Monks are available to receive offerings of money and place the towers (sometimes precariously!) on the stupa.

Room for a few more!

The festival brings everyone together, regardless of ethnic group or social standing. The procession shows solidarity among communities as people from all walks of life take part in the festival. Everyone dresses in their best clothes, and people from all over the country attend. Groups across Laos try to bring at least one wax castle to the stupa. The stupa itself is the country’s most important religious edifice, believed to contain a sacred relic of the Buddha.

We spent a long time on the grounds, quietly watching the comings and goings. People laugh and talk and play music as they make their offerings, but the solemnity of the procession made me sorry I didn’t have on a skirt or dress, or pay to rent a sarong for the event. Tourists are welcomed but there is nothing touristy about this sacred ritual. It was an overwhelmingly, intensely Laotian celebration. As always: I feel honored and lucky that Uwe and I were there for that full moon, and that we continue to get to witness the wonders of this precious world.

NOTES: “November 28, 2012 Wax Castle Procession” Vientiane Times, The First National English Language Newspaper

https://www.laos-guide-999.com/that-luang-festival.html

©Jadi Campbell 2018. All photos © Uwe Hartmann. To see more of Uwe’s photos and pics from our trips go to viewpics.de.

Click here for my author page to learn more about my books and me.

The Wax Castle Procession of Laos: Part 1

The That Luang Festival – Part 1

As my readers know, Uwe and I are devoted to travel. One of our favorite regions is southeast Asia. We keep going back, in love with the countries, the food, the cultures and the people. Each time we go, we’re lucky enough to plan on – or stumble onto – a local celebration.

If it’s a religious festival, taking part is a way to gain merit. After so many years visiting the area, I’d like to think that visiting is a way to gain merit as well….

An especially charming festival is the annual That Luang Festival, or Wax Castle Procession. The festival takes place in Laos’s capitol Vientiane. Uwe and I were in Laos one year when our visit to the city coincided with the fest. Of course, we had to see it!

The festival is a holiday honoring Buddha at the That Luang stupa, Laos’s most sacred religious site. [1] Traditionally, the festival occurs during the full moon of the twelfth lunar month (November).

A gigantic traditional trade fair had opened six days earlier, with booths, rides, food, and ear-splitting speakers blasting music…. There was no way you could miss where the festivities were! Families sat everywhere, either picnicking or taking a break from the sights. Special areas had been set up on the grounds for male and female monks to rest.

Traditional clothes and musical instruments

There are booths selling special foods, rides for kids, and items both sacred and practical for sale.

In the afternoon, everyone watches the traditional game tikhy, played with a ball and long curved sticks, similar to hockey. We missed the game – which gives us an excuse to go back again someday.

Within the stupa walls the atmosphere was devout. Outside the walls though, people were having a loud and lively time. We left as the full moon rose over the That Luang stupa and lights went on. Even more people were streaming in as we made our way back to our hotel.

Part 2 will post next week.

NOTES: [1] The That Luang stupa is depicted on both the kip (Laos paper money) and the att coins (no longer in circulation).  Some information on the festival taken from “November 28, 2012 Wax Castle Procession” Vientiane Times, The First National English Language Newspaper

©Jadi Campbell 2018. All photos © Uwe Hartmann. To see more of Uwe’s photos and pics from our trips go to viewpics.de.

Click here for my author page to learn more about my books and me.