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Monks ward off Thailand's evil spirits
By Michael Mathes

Thai spirituality and community leaves the kingdom's citizens well-placed to cope with tragedy.

Bangkok - Three monks enter the tsunami-damaged Cat Bar, sit on the floor and start chanting for the living and the dead an ancient Buddhist ritual to address Thailand's most incomprehensible modern tragedy.

About 10 people, mainly the owner and her staff, were seated opposite the orange-robed monks and had prepared morning offerings of traditional foods and bottles of Fanta.

The ceremony concluded with the ear-piercing pop-pop of firecrackers set off to help drive away evil spirits that Buddhists believe congregate at sites of mass death like Phuket, where hundreds were swept away by a killer tsunami.

It is an incongruous image: the monks sitting on the floor of a streetside beer hall near Patong beach's normally rowdy go-go bar area.

But the devastating waves which slammed Thailand's Andaman coast have ensured that monks will be in high demand in coming weeks and months from everything from large hotels, restaurants or offices to convenience stores, massage parlours and private homes.

"Most businesses will bring monks in" for such ceremonies, said Steve Shaw, an Australian who married the Cat Bar owner's niece and now lives in Phuket.

He pointed out a cracked plastic clock nearly two metres up a bar pillar, its hands frozen at 10.24am, the time the raging waters from the third huge wave reached that high on December 26.

"We actually survived this whole thing quite well," he whispered during the chanting. There was damage to furniture, bar equipment and appliances but the structure was intact.

"But it's important to have a blessing ceremony."

As people in southern Thailand dig out from their worst-ever crisis, many turn to Buddhist tenets to help honour the dead, drive away evil spirits, ensure a more prosperous future for their businesses and then move on.

The scene is being repeated throughout the affected areas, according to Venerable Praputt Kantipalow, a monk from a Bangkok temple who joined 1000 monks in last Tuesday's merit-making ceremony in Phuket for tsunami victims.

"Depending on their chants, monks can invite angels or heavenly creatures to bless the area and drive away bad karma and bad spirits from the property," the monk said.

A sermon is often given to provide strength and willpower to survivors, he added. The food alms earn merit for the participants, who dedicate it to the deceased who can then fare better in the after-life.

On Friday morning, a blessing ceremony was taking place along the open-air beach-side promenade of Patong, Phuket's most famous arc of sand.

Thirteen monks in brown robes, including several young novices, joined in chants in front of nine laypersons, three of whom were Westerners.

Monks held a long white string as they chanted. Afterwards it would be used as spiritual protection, to be wrapped around parts of the bungalow resort belonging to 35-year-old Daeng.

As the rhythmic chanting came to an end, Daeng and another woman walked to the edge of the promenade and poured water onto a tree in a mourning ritual.

Three people connected to the small hotel died in the disaster, including a masseuse and two European guests.

Presiding monk Venerable Chanyut Chitinya said he had felt the pain and anguish of the disaster and drove down from northern Thailand to help.

"I saw the spirits of some people who died, so I came to Patong," he said. "People were hurt and they needed spiritual reflection."

Chanyut and his monks had performed a handful of the ceremonies, and he was traveling next to the devastated town of Khao Lak and Nam Khem village, where thousands died and thousands more are missing and presumed dead, for more blessing services.

Monk Siripanyo Bhikkhu said Thai spirituality and community leaves the kingdom's citizens well-placed to cope with tragedy.

"The Thai character has a nice ability to deal with death and dying," he said. "Traditional Thai society is helpful in terms of absorbing these kinds of things." [AFP]

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