After staying for more than two weeks in Bangkok, I decided to move on to Chiang Mai which was 700 km north of Bangkok. Chiang Mai in the past was the capital city of the Lanna kingdom which was the neighbor and competitor of the Ayutthaya kingdom. Ching Mai which air was more cool and fresh compare to Bangkok was a small quiet town. To me the atmosphere here felt so meditative, especially after grueling with all the hustle in Bangkok. While in Chiang Mai, I stayed in the Old City which was very historic, built by King Mengrai in 1286 as the primary city of the Lanna kingdom.
One of the purpose of my visit to Chiang Mai was to visit Buddhist temples, because this town was one of the central development of buddhism in Thailand since the era of Lanna kingdom. In Old City I could already find famous Buddhist temples, like Wat Phra Sing, Wat Chedi Luang, and Wat Phantao. I wanted to listen to sounds in the temples, particularly the chanting of the monks.
One afternoon on 26th January, I visited Wat Phra Singh. According to the information I gathered, everyday the monks would usually do rituals of chanting buddhist sutras at eight in the morning and five in the evening. I arrived at Wat Phra Singh around four in the afternoon. That afternoon, the temple was full of people coming in and out to pray, or just tourists who wanted to see and take pictures. While waiting, I took pictures of the surroundings and observed the many activities in the temple. Truly, during my stay in Thailand, I was amazed by the openness of the buddhist temples to visitors, not only to buddhist worshippers who came to pray but also to travelers, including myself. Even though I wasn’t a buddhist and completely has no idea about the teaching of buddha, there was always a feeling of ‘being welcomed’ in my heart everytime I visit a buddhist temple in this country. Even though visually I stood out like a sore thumb, usually with a microphone, tripod and portable recording equipment with a headphone strapped around my ears. During my visits and recordings, never once was I scolded, some of the monks even greeted me warmly. Even though to be honest, there was a feeling of uneasiness that my presence might disturbed them. But on the other hand, I wanted to learn more and record sounds in buddhist temples. My worries was never proven, as long as we keep our manners and respect while we are in the temple.
Approaching five in the evening, some children and teenagers took their seats on a thin pillow pad, which had been prepared beforehand by the temples’ clerk, one by one. They were wearing orange cloth which was a specific clothe for buddhist monk along with their clean shaved head. In each pillow was a sutra book as guidance of the chants they will do together. After these young monks candidate had gathered, a head monk who was about sixty years of age positioned himself at the from to lead the chants. In front of him was a microphone and beside him was a small bell. I was actually asking to myself at the time, why were the ones present children and teenagers? I later on learned after reading references about that evening that what I had recorded and witnessed was a buddhist chant lesson for young monk candidates.
These children and teenagers learned the buddhist chants by following the lead of the senior monk. An imitation process through listening. If observed and looked closely, these children and teenagers was still learning to synchronize the notes and melody of the chants. Some of them were even singing in a flat tone or border line reading, mumbling, or singing. Some of them chanted way out of tune. In general, their pronunciation was still wobbly and unsure, even though I couldn’t understand every word that was being chanted. It was very different from the senior monk who was leading them, he was a pro and his chants sounded so beautiful and natural. I have just known from learning that learning buddhist chants is a long and difficult process to go through for a young man who wants to be a monk. They have to learn through a disciplined repetitive process everyday to instill these chants into their memory. In addition they have to learn to chant in Pali which is the language used in the Tipitaka scripture and in almost all Theravada buddhist text. The difficulty doubled.
Mastering the buddhist chant is not an easy path. That evening, I felt very fortunate to be able to observe and record this event. When chanting, there were children who were very serious following the chants, there were also some who were probably bored and found it difficult to follow, so in the end they started joking around with their peers near them, even though it wasn’t loud enough to cause a ruckus. Truly interesting and on one hand you couldn’t blame them they were kids after all. This evening I had witnessed and learned how chanting rituals and Buddhist teachings passed down from generation to generation, like a calm and unrelenting river flowing from long past.