When I first moved to Laos with my husband Mike, I tagged along on one of his work trips out to a rural village where Mike’s organization had recently helped set up a gravity-fed water system. During this trip, Mike and the staff (and, by extension, me) were the guests of honor in the village we were visiting. This meant enduring some long speeches and eating a lot of food I didn’t particularly want to eat. It also meant that we had the privilege of peering briefly into lives very different from our own, and that the humbling mantle of the village’s blessing was bestowed upon us. For in between breakfast and lunch, the village held a bai si.
The bai si (or su kwan) is a blessing ceremony indigenous to Southeast Asia, and it is performed on many special occasions – marriages, births, housewarmings, when someone becomes a monk, recovers from illness, or at the beginning or end of big journeys. As far as rituals go, it’s pretty versatile.
Su kwan means “calling of the soul”, and the purpose of the ceremony is to bind the personal spirits, the kwan, to the person. Many people in Laos believe that the human being is a union of 32 organs, and that each organ has their own kwan to watch over and protect them. Collectively, these spirits are believed to constitute a person’s spiritual essence or “vital breath”.
The problem with the kwan? Well they tend to wander, you see. Sometimes they stray quite a way from your body, and this is not at all what you want. It throws things out of balance. It makes you sick. You don’t want your kwan out roaming the world, you want as many of them as possible at home where they belong, watching over you.
So, periodically, it’s a good idea to call your kwan back. This is what the bai si ceremony does – it calls your spirits to return home, secures them in place, and re-establishes equilibrium. The ceremony, a communal event, is a way of expressing goodwill, good luck, and good health to those being honored. This was how the village was choosing to commemorate the official handover of this new water system.
We sat on the floor in a circle around a low table that was decorated with flowers and candles and laden with plates of meat and offal, packets of chips, and the Chinese version of Twinkies. Long, white, cotton strings were draped over the stalks of flowers.
After everyone was gathered, the Mor Pone (the soul caller, the most senior elder in the community) began to chant, calling the lost souls of those gathered to come back to their bodies and asking them nicely to bring health and happiness with them while they were at it. As he finished chanting, we, the honored guests, were presented first with the plates of meat.
Under pressure I made a very, very bad choice and picked up a piece of offal. I’m pretty sure I heard some of my kwan snicker. Just between us, I’m not sure that all of my kwan always have my best interests at heart, no matter what Laotians would have me believe.
After we’d snacked on offal and Twinkies, the soul caller approached Mike and me. Kneeling in front of us, murmuring blessings, he tied strings to our wrists to bind our spirits to our bodies. Other community members followed suit. By the time the ceremony was finished I had so many strings around my wrists that my kwan had resigned themselves to not going anywhere for quite a while.
Now, a word about the ceremonies and rituals of different faith traditions.
I feel a little as if I’m in a minefield here. I’m well aware that some of my friends and acquaintances may be troubled that I participated in what they would call an animist ritual. Others will be troubled that anyone would be troubled.
More than a decade ago, during a trip to Thailand, a younger me was troubled by a similar ceremony that I participated in there. The world was more black and white to me then, and in that world a good Christian didn’t allow people to chant over them in a language they didn’t understand and tie strings to their wrists. After all, who knew what footholds that could give the devil in my life? And what on earth would Jesus say?
I’m not mocking my younger self (though it’s awfully tempting sometimes). She was sincere in her beliefs and her concerns, and she may have had some valid points. But I am not her anymore and the world looks different to me now.
Now I can come to the bai si with more peace, as a guest and as a learner. I am still not entirely comfortable with people chanting over me in a language I do not understand during a ceremony that is not of my own faith tradition. However, I am far less worried about the possibility that, simply by being present, I may be delivering myself irrevocably unto the dark side.
For I looked into the eyes of those who approached me with strings in hand that day and I was profoundly humbled by the warmth and gentle goodwill I saw. I live a life more privileged than many of them could imagine, yet they were delighted at this chance to bless me. The elders of this community – those who have earned their years and their wisdom the hard way – knotted the strings with reverence and tenderness. Their sincerity in wishing us well was unmistakable.
I’m still not entirely sure what Jesus would say about this. The stories of the gospels suggest that he wasn’t too keen on things like commerce in the temple courts, meat sacrificed to idols, spirit-worship, superstition based in fear, and religious rituals undertaken for show. But they also suggest that he had a knack for discerning attitude and intention, and that these two things counted for an awful lot in his sight.
I suppose it’s possible that Jesus might tell me, “Lisa, it’s not super wise to make a habit of participating in ceremonies that you do not really understand. There are powerful spiritual forces for good and for bad out there, and you should not lightly trespass upon these realms.”
But I think it’s also possible that Jesus might smile a little and say something along the lines of, “I know and love your kwan, and they could do with a good calling now and again for they are a wilful and unruly lot. And, look, try your best to eat the offal that has been presented to you today in the spirit of happy gratitude, because that is the loving thing to do.”
Someday, I hope I have the chance to ask him.
How do you navigate invitations to participate in the religious ceremonies of other faith traditions?
Lisa McKay – author, psychologist, sojourner in Laos