Life in the Saffron Forest: Chapter 2

Inlaid Marble at Wat Luang Por Sothorn

Chapter 2

My surname Tamtang was chosen by my paternal grandfather. He was a Laotian from Vientiane, who immigrated to Thailand and set up a farmstead in the forests of Mahasarakam in the district of Barabeu. My father told me that in the reign of King Rama VI, the king announced that all citizens must choose a surname following the traditions of other countries. This created a lot of confusion among the populace since most people were illiterate and didn’t know how to choose a surname. It was usually the district officials who would come up with names. Many of these officials had previously been ordained as monks and they used the chanting book ‘Seven Chronicles’ to choose names. They simply copied out a word or pair of words from the chants and rather randomly assigned them to people. Surnames in this area were thus mostly Pali words like Bhagavā, Itipiso, Evamme, Padakkhiṇaṃ, & Pasīlatesaṃ.

This haphazard naming process sometimes became a joke when people later learned the meaning of these Pali words. Some people would want to sink into the earth with shame when they found out the meanings of their surnames, for example: Petānaṃ (‘the realm of ghosts’) and Paṭikūlaṃ (‘rotten’).

Apart from extracting names from books, the officials would sometimes make surnames by combining the nicknames of a person’s parents or grandparents. ‘What is your father’s name?’ ‘Full.’ ‘And your mother’s?’ ‘Mouse.’ ‘Okay, your surname is Fullmouse.’ For this reason there are many strange surnames like Smartmeadow, Prettygreen, and Wealthyfat.

My grandfather refused to let the officials determine his name. He chose the name Tamtang (‘Along the Way’) as a recollection of the long way he had had to walk to the administrative center from the village!

The refusal to allow the district officials to choose a name was a good opportunity to obtain a pleasing name which would be for the honour and renown of his descendants. Tamtang, however, is as silly and rustic as Fullmouse or Smartmeadow. When I had been ordained and had learned some Pali, I suggested to my father that we change our surname. My father objected vehemently: ‘No way! Your grandfather chose this name. To change it would be ungracious.’

For this reason I could not escape using this unfashionable surname until I got married later in life to a woman with a pleasing last name and asked to change my name to hers.

This outdated surname cast a curse on my destiny. Whatever I undertook wouldn’t reach fulfillment or fruition and I never seemed to reach my intended goals; the best I could do was be ‘along the way.’ If my grandfather had chosen the name ‘Destination Reached’ I would probably be near being the Supreme Patriarch by now. Who knows?

* * *

‘Tell me truly, Tadpole, you really didn’t know that eating rice cakes in the evening is a transgression of the monks’ discipline, or are you simply pretending?’ asked the abbot (whom all the novices called ‘Luang Por’—Venerable Father), as I was massaging him one evening.

I told him that I truly didn’t know. On the ordination day the preceptor had simply said no supper in the evening. I thought he meant no proper meal with rice, not snacks and cakes.

Luang Por chuckled in a good-humoured way. ‘In that case it isn’t a transgression, for intention is required for a transgression of moral precepts. According to the law “intention may be inferred from a person’s actions.” But if you are faking then you will become “an old monk eats turtle soup; ringworm eats his head,”’ he concluded speaking in riddles.

‘What do you mean?’ I asked trying to suppress by anxiety.

He explained by reciting the following legend:

There was once an old monk (‘luang dtah’—a monk ordained late in life) who saw a turtle walking slowly by the monks’ lavatories. All of sudden he had a craving for turtle soup. He therefore went into his room and began chanting in a loud voice. The sound of chanting was heard by several young monastery attendants who were playing outside: ‘Boys, the venerable father has seen a turtle by the toilets. Boys, the venerable father has seen a turtle by the toilets.’

He kept repeating this chant until the boys got the message. They went to the lavatories, saw the turtle, and started a fire to make a soup. The pot they chose, however, was slightly too small. The old monk, who was secretly watching from his hut, continued to chant:

‘That pot is too small; the dying pot is larger!’

Hearing this the boys went off to get the large dying pot, in which the monks boiled the tree bark for dying their robes. This time it worked—they threw the turtle in and after writhing and struggling it finally died. The boys had never made turtle soup and didn’t know what ingredients to add—they therefore called out in confusion. The old monk was afraid his plans would end in vain and continued his solemn chants:

‘Lemon grass, kaffir-lime leaf, saddle-grunt fish, and fish sauce!’

The little cadets made a fuss to gather the necessary ingredients. When the soup was ready they removed the pot and gathered in a circle to enjoy the feast … but a loud, intimidating verse of chanting came from the old monk’s hut, stopping them in their tracks:

‘The bones and cartilage are yours; the meat must be kept aside for the late-morning meal!’

With this devious strategy the old, cunning monk got his turtle soup by evading a transgression of the rules.

Luang Por concluded by saying: ‘In this way did this so-called reverend escape falling into an offence. But even if he technically avoided an offence, he surely still did wrong because his intentions were impure. Remember this, Tadpole: pure and impure actions depend on intention. The Buddha said: “Cetanāhaṁ bhikkhave kammaṁ vadāmi,” which translates as: ‘I say that intention is karma.” Having spoken this Pali verse he turned to me and asked one final question before permitting me to leave:

‘Enough—do you understand?”

This entry was posted in Life in the Saffron Forest, Moral Conduct and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.