Dec.26,2004 It was full moon and we gathered for a purification rite where we invited 35 Buddhas to strengthen us in our determination to lead a better and more committed life.
The same day we heard a shocking news of Tsunami. On Jan.3,2005 we gathered as a group of concerned Buddhists and dedicated merits for the departed souls. But we still thought we should do something more concrete than just dedicating merit.
A small donation was made as seed fund for immediate action plan. On. Jan 10, monks, bhikkhuni, maejis and lay people boarded two vans and head southward to the worst reported site in Takua-pa, Pang-nga province on the west coast of Thailand.
It took us 12 hours on the road. We had earlier plan to camp on the site along with the larger group of Tsunami victims, but facilities were limited. So we put up for the night at a for the night at a forest temple in town.
Ven.Dhammananda and myself were invited to stay at a resort at Khaolak where most of the volunteers stay.
The group planned the work for each day together. Ven.Bhikkhu Chaiwat, a local monk was kind enough to visit us at our camp and provided us with information as to how best we, monastics can be of any help to lessen the suffering of the people. He gave us information about the various camp sites temporary set up for the victims. Material supports were in abundant as we can see mountain of donated clothes sat under the sun without any interest from the victims. What is still lacking was the spiritual support.
Ven.Chaiwat suggested we should go out for alms, it was only an excuse to reach out to the victims.
With respect to the Buddha, when he sent out the first batch of 60 monks, he gave an instruction that they should go in different direction so as to make the service more available to as many people as possible.
We divided among ourselves, monks, bhikkhuni, and maejis into two groups as we had two vans. Women monastic also went into different groups to make sure we represent the four groups of Buddhists. Two monks in our group speak the southern dialect, they led each team.
Ven.Kosila went with 3-4 monks to visit “Baan bon rai” camp site. There were some 200 people in this camp and they were mostly Mogan (sea gypsy) The camp site was in a poor condition, each family had a sheet of plastic spread over the ground with another one hanging on a bamboo pole as a roof. But all of them had cooking utensils and supply of food and water. The monks and maejis went to receive alms and spent half the day talking and listening to the stories from the people. We discovered that story telling was yet another healing process.
From a Feminist perspective, we noted that on the first day, the maejis followed our monks for alms round without difficulty. However, on the second day the local monk asked them not to do so inspite of the fact there were few households whom the maejis already established a good relationship on the previous day.
I followed Ven.Dhammananda who joined another group with Ven.Tavisak as a leader as he was most senior. We first visited Bangneang camp site. There were about 200 people who moved from the beach site across the street and nestled close to the mountain for safety. The living condition of this camp site was better off than many other sites we have visited. All of them live in a knocked down style temporary house with modern facilities of both toilets and water supply. They even provided a pair of slippers for each toilet!
As the location was nestled in a valley, we did not have access to them by telephone, so they did not expect our arrival which we had anticipated. So I prepared 10 simple packed breakfast which was offered to Ven.Dhammananda from the resort where we stayed. The Resort owner effused the payment as he insisted that he would also want to be part of this merit making.
We, the lay people, helped spread out the mat on the only space facing the washrooms! Then the monks and bhikkhuni set up their bowls. Ven.Tavisak told us not to hurry and sure enough people started coming out each with a bowl of rice and some cooked food and fruits. We had apples and pears, can fish, bottled water, etc. These were of course donated to them. Behind the monks and bhikkhuni were piles of food and clothes offered to this camp.
An old grandmother commented “we do not have proper house yet, too many clothes become a burden”. Sure enough when we returned to the resort where it is used as a base for volunteers, we heard a report from a volunteer who tried to handle the donated clothes at the main camp sited in Bangmuang. It would have taken her at least one week only to try to set some kind of system. Thai people are truly generous. We were told, they donated even their grandparent’s denture!
At Bangneang camp site, Ven.Dhammananda was moved by a story of a Youngman whom we learnt later that his name was Ek.He was sitting in front of our monks and bhikkhuni with a bowl of rice to offer for alms. He was working as a truck driver at one of the construction sites on the beach. He was hit by Tsunami while working and fell trapped by a wire sticking out from a fallen concrete post. The end of his pants got caught by the wire and pinned him down, under water, he let loose of his pants and surged upward to the surface of the water. He caught hold of the first thing which came within his arm reach, it was a window of a resort, a window on the third floor!
In that nick of time he prayed to the Buddha for the safety of his two children.
Tsunami took only ten minutes, as the local people described, five minutes up and five minutes down.
But it was ten minutes of a hellish experience.
Ek walked in the mud for 10 hours, calling to everyone who passed by and knew of his family, if they had seen his wife and children.
He headed towards the mountain using common logic, and sure enough his wife who had few minutes of warning grabbed the younger son and dragged the older daughter towards the mountain. Ek, still in his underwear were overjoyed for the reunion. One of the few happy ending stories.
He told the venerables that regularly he would offer alms to the monks, and since Tsunami, this was the first chance for him to be able to offer alms again with his children. The venerables agreed in unison that with his regular merit making, it paid back to protect him and his family.
Another woman while making offering to Ven.Dhammananda, had a dog very close to her. Her name was Paolina, that was the dog’s name! We were so impressed by the dog’s name that we never get around to ask for the lady’s name. Paolina was separated from the owner for 7 days, and when the owner went to see the site where it used to be her house, sure enough Paolina was there waiting! Since the reunion, Paolina never let her owner out of her sight.
There were about ten men and women who came to make offering, they felt good receiving the chanting from the monks and bhikkhuni and the monks also led them to make dedication for the lost ones.
The group agreed that they would spend as much time as possible with the victims. But many of them had to go to the district about the papers, the land, the boat, the missing relatives. So it was no use for our group to stay.
The venerables left with blessing for everyone to return to their normal life as soon as possible.
We stopped at Pakweep camp site, there were also about 200 people but this group had a different background, most of them were the sea gypsies. Their camps were really plastic sheet thrown over a bamboo pole, with plastic spread on the ground. But when we arrived, they were moving from the temporary campsite to the area very next to it, with tin roof and wooden floor closely together. Ven.Dhammananada walked through the kitchen site where soldiers were busy cutting vegetables preparing for lunch. She asked for permission to take a photo of them working, they were more than happy. The monks stopped by and talked to some men still in the tent.
We learnt later that week that there were people who came with good intention, not trusting the donation system handled by the government. So they went to see these gypsies and handed out B100 cash to each one of them. As a result, that night the camp was very noisy, the men got drunk with the money they received.
Next our group visited Namtok Bohin Camp site and asked if then would like the monks and nun to come for alms round next morning. They agreed readily.
In the afternoon, the two vans rejoined and headed to the pier to cross over to Khokao Island. This was another site where disaster was reported severely. In order to get to the pier we had to go through Baan Namkhem, an area heavily hit by Tsunami.
It was right on the beach with some four to six thousand people living in a congested area.
A young man, Prasert, showed us where it used to be his house, now flat to the ground. When Tsunami came he was out at sea, and remained out there for 6 hours. It was his wife’s father who warned them when the water receded suddenly. So his wife grabbed the 3-month old baby and dragged along the 3-year old older boy, they ran to catch a pick-up and the family escaped within seconds. Prasert said most people died because they came out to “see”, some of them enjoyed picking fish left on the beach because the water receded. Then the giant wave came, and before they realized, its already too late.
Even the princess’ daughter reported saying that when she saw the water receded, she called out her bodyguards to come out and see and even to take picture. Such was the fate of many who lost their lives.
Our two vans went on the raft commuting between the main land and the island. It was only 15 minutes but the waiting for the raft took much longer.
On the island we visited Wat Thung tus. As we approached the temple compound, things were still thrown here and there. The standing Buddha with his right hand raised in “No fear” gesture, now flat on his back, his right hand is now protesting the sky. The head of another Buddha image came loose and landed on the lap of another seated Buddha. You see things that you do not normally see. The Buddha’s message on impermanent was thrown on our face, we became more humble than ever.
The abbot was a small man in his 50s we discovered later that he was also a sea gypsie. He was ordained since he was 16 and remained there ever since. He described how he survived Tsunami, he climbed to the highest place in the temple, that is the main Buddha image stand and literally hold on the the Buddha. There were some 3-4 monks in the same temple, they all climbed the trees. When the water receded they came to check how the abbot was, and the abbot told them that this time he really took refuge in the Buddha Buddham Saranam gacchami.
Ven.Banchob, that was his name, showed us his robe with possibly 40 holes, all stitched nicely. He said he has been using it some 20 years ago. His wrist was wrapped up in bandage. Ven.Dhammananda asked if it happened because of the Giant wave, he said it was due to boiling water after the Tsunami. He said in a carefree style “take it for free”. He showed the real spirit of someone who understood and accepted things as they come. We bade him farewell and asked him to be the anchor for his people, the sea gypsies.
The next morning we went at 7 a.m. again to receive alms at Namtok Bohin. This location was next to the waterfall, there was hardly any flat ground, so we spread the mat for the monastics to sit under the trees, between the rocky mountain.
People came out and lined themselves ready to offer alms. Monks and bhikkhuni walked single file to receive alms. Food was plentiful, so we asked the people to join us for breakfast also.
After breakfast, one elderly woman came to Ven.Dhammananda crying and asked if the venerable would stay over night so that the venerable could perform the rite for her daughter who is still missing. As she was sobbing away, the venerable held her in her arms, this would not have happened if the venerable was a monk. It was really very moving. The Venerable asked her to write down the names of the missing one and asked the sangha to perform the rite for her right away without having to wait for the night. The ritual was meant to relief the suffering of the living ones. I did not give much importance to rituals and rites, but I must confess that it changed my attitude greatly after this trip of what I have seen what the monks and nuns can do to up lift people spiritually.
In fact some people said that it was sufficient that they get to see the monks and nuns and to know that at least they cared for the suffering of the people.
Another afternoon our monks and nuns get together and we had three local volunteers taking us out to another island. Prathong Island where the western beach was 100% destroyed.
This was a longer ide, we boarded a larger motor boat, the 2 maejis were from the northeast hence not accustomed to the sea. They were scared but they remained very quiet. There were some 28 people in our group, with 7 monks and 3 nuns including bhikkhuni, the rest were laypeople.
After one hour we stopped at Baan Pakchok, this particular site the disaster was a hundred per cent, there was no living quarters left untouched by the wave. Two monks died, with some 20 people reported dead and still some missing. The volunteers told us that when they first surveyed the island, they discovered 2 watches, both stop ped at 10.15, so that was evidence as to the precise time when they were hit by Tsunami. We had to wade knee-high water, Ven. Tavisak had been to this village before so he went down to the site where it used to be the temple to pay respect and to send dedication to the departed souls.
The island is longish in shape it was 18 kms.long from north to south. But in the middle of the island it was a restricted forest zone and it was not accessible by land. So people used to travel from northern part to the southern part of the island only by boat. We went to the northern site of the island where there used to stand two resorts, one was “The Lost horizon” and “Mogan”. Of course both of them were completely gone now. The room-rate during high season could go up to $200-300 a night. But here the water was waist deep, so the monks did not want to make any move. Ven.Dhammananda was curious to see why people would spend that much money. So she let the group, two monks followed and I tagged along with another female professor.
One of the volunteers pointed out to a string of colorful flag hanging between the two coconut trees, they said this flag came after Tsunami but they could not read the script and could not tell what it was about. Ven.Dhammananada told them that it was the popular Mantra flag used by the Tibetans for protection. It was obvious that some western Buddhists who follow Tibetan tradition must have visited the place and wanted to help ease the suffering of the people by hanging out the colorful flags. Ven.Dhammananda raised her hands together and said “Modhana”.
This part of the island was truly beautiful having the beach on both side, Andaman sea on the western side and the inner sea between the mainland and the island on the eastern side. At the northern tip of the island was a small mountain where it became a sanctuary saving many lives during Tsunami. On this spot 8 foreigners lost their lives with some 12 Thais who worked at the resorts. The survived were picked up later by the boats sent from mainland. We said prayers for them before we returned to the boat.
The volunteers told us yet another story of how the local fishermen caught a brand new car in their net just off Pra Thong Island with two bodies. Not wanting to be bothered with all the red tape that might entail if they reported it to the police, they cut loose the net. So now the volunteers had a harder job to find the exact location. Sometimes we have to pay heavily for ignorance.
The following two days, the group split, the larger group went to Gurapuri where the victims from the Pra Thong Island now resided temporary. The monks led them for morning and evening chantings and received alms from the people. Some men were interested to receive temporary ordination to dedicate the merit to the parted ones.
Ven.Tavisak, a young monk from another province in the south offered to sponsor and take care of 5 ordinations whereas Ven.Dhammananda offered to take in some 20-30 women at her temple for temporary training. Ven.Dhammannada stayed on at Khaolak Nature Resort to give a talk to the volunteers. Volunteers also needed a rest and a spiritual uplift after many days of hard and never ending work.
Scotti, from England, was helping with the bodies at Yanyao Temple. Definitely not a pleasant job. He helped the doctors to lift the bodies from one bag and putting in another bag for the doctors to extract the rib bone for DNA and to bury the chip in the cheek bone for identification. Yet, Scotti was willing to do it for his mother who died of cancer a year ago. On the day he met Ven.Dhammananda, he asked her to pray for him. In a situation like that Buddhist or Christian lost their brand, there was only love and care among the hard working spirits. Youngs men and women in their twenties were volunteers at the Tsunami site. Even grade 11-12 school girls also joined the volunteer group during their weekends.
Tsunami came to cleanse our souls and made many of us blossom in a wonderful way.
INEB (International Network of Engaged Buddhists) and the Sekhiya monks and nuns with our temple will continue our work to ease out the suffering of the people and in that process we hope it will provide us a better exercise to practice.