Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Blessings by the bucketful

Blessings by the bucketful

Bless.jpg
Bless.jpg

After a minor moto accident on the road to Kampong Chhnang, Sam
Rith took Elena Lesley to the local wat, where the aging head monk blessed the two
and then the motorbike, reminding her of a time when Chappy the truck stop chaplain
blessed a down-and-out big rig at the 49er Travel Plaza in Sacramento.
Post reporters Sam Rith and Elena Lesley get religion at Wat Aranhkaram in Kampong Chhnang.
As a reporter in California this summer, I spent a lot of time hanging out at truck
stops.
Fascinated by big rig culture, I decided to write about the work of a Sacramento
truck stop chaplain, dubbed "Chappy" by his parishioners. For several weeks
I camped out at the city's 49er Travel Plaza, listening to the missionary talk about
the diesel engines and dusty roads that frame a driver's existence.
Among the stories Chappy told me was one about a driver whose truck kept breaking
down. When the man brought this up during a service, the worshippers decided to perform
an impromptu blessing. They streamed out of the small chapel, a converted semi-trailer
on the stop's property, and encircled the truck, laying hands on it. Chappy anointed
its hood with oil as the group prayed, asking God to heal the vehicle that this driver
depended on for his livelihood.
Soon after my arrival in Cambodia, an experience on National Road 5 would remind
me of Chappy's story.
While driving to Kampong Chhnang, Post reporter Sam Rith and I were thrown from his
motorcycle when we struck a dog. Even though our injuries consisted mainly of small
cuts and bruises, when we arrived at his parents' house in the province, they were
worried about the "bad luck" moto.
"Would you like to see the monk throw water on me?" Rith asked me after
his mother had finished inspecting our torn clothes and dented bike.
I was confused.
Thinking there must be a miscommunication, I asked him to repeat the question.
"We can go to the pagoda, where the monk throws water," he responded.
That didn't clear things up. I nodded in pseudo-comprehension and figured I'd just
go along to see what happened.
Arriving at the pagoda, I learned that the monk would also be throwing water on me
- and the moto. After several old women wrestled a sarong onto my western frame,
I approached a small wooden house, where the monk sat in a doorway, above a set of
wooden stairs.
I began to understand I would soon be part of a religious ceremony.
"Is the monk going to bless us?" I asked.
"Yes, a blessing," Rith responded, relieved we were finally using the same
vocabulary.
When our turn came, the monk ordered Rith to wheel the moto up to the house, with
its front facing the structure. We then took our places on the steps.
The monk began to chant and, having attended rather staid Methodist services as a
child, I was expecting to be lightly sprinkled, holy water-style.
Then I saw the bucket.
Before I could brace myself for the shock, the monk had dumped the container's contents
on my head.
Sputtering, I glanced over and saw Rith receiving the same treatment. Continuing
to chant, the monk splashed bucket loads on our backs, the water running down the
steps onto the moto.
That's when I started to think about Sacramento.
I remembered how, when I told friends about the drivers anointing a truck, they hadn't
believed me.
"Was it a joke?" they asked. "They didn't really bless the truck,
did they?"
"Um, yeah, kind of," was the best response I could muster.
And here I was, halfway around the world, experiencing a very similar kind of inanimate-object
blessing. The two events became linked in my mind, raising questions. What exactly
was the point of this ritual? Why did many Americans balk at a type of ceremony that
appeared routine in Cambodia?
I set out to find answers. With most of my knowledge of Buddhism gleaned from Keanu
Reeves' performance in Little Buddha, I decided to fill in the gaps at a nearby wat.
Khy Sovanratana, a monk at Mongkulvan Pagoda, was happy to help.
He explained to me that the blessing of inanimate objects with water dated back to
ancient rituals and beliefs. Before Theravada Buddhism came to Cambodia, the largely
Brahmanist and animist population used water in blessings, and "believed that
in all things is a living soul," he said.
Once Buddhism spread throughout the country, the religion took on local traditions,
including this ceremony. Buddhism even offered doctrine to support the practice.
"During the Buddha's time in Vesali (northern India) he chanted discourses and
sprinkled water on areas where there had been tragedy," Sovanratana said. "The
famine, calamities and epidemics disappeared."
To this day, monks chant the teachings of the Buddha and sprinkle water on all people
and objects, so they will be guarded by a protector spirit.
"In the Cambodian belief, when you get anything it should be protected and blessed,"
Sovanratana said. "If you get a new house, you call the monks to ward off bad
luck, and bring blessings and fortune."
As I learned more about the practice, the relationship between Sacramento and Kampong
Chhnang became clearer. In a country like the United States, many people felt they
didn't need such blessings.
If they crashed a motorcycle, they'd collect insurance and get a new one. But it
was those Americans that truly depended on an inanimate object-like the driver and
his truck-that accepted a more "Cambodian" philosophy. It became more than
an object, taking on almost spiritual qualities.
I never found out how Chappy left the trucker, but before Rith and I drove home,
the monk gave us red yarn to tie on our wrists and the moto.
We haven't had any crashes yet. Rith keeps the yarn tied to his handlebar, for good
luck.

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