The Ox Forgets its Legs – Songkran and Respecting the Elders
As the gym grows quiet with all the boys chittering fading away as they leave for the night, I sit on the edge of the ring with Pi Nu and listen to his woes. He loves Muay Thai, it’s his whole life. And he’s a simple kind of man, only “wanting enough” and nothing more. So, the business side of Muay Thai, which is all talking about money and grappling for power and working in the dark, all that is stuff that Pi Nu would rather just leave to the people who like that part. He washes his hands of it, generally, but there’s no way to avoid it completely. “When the ox grows big, it forgets its legs,” he says, expressing a Thai proverb about forgetting where you came from and not honoring the people who helped you along the way. He’s talking about Thai boys, who he has raised and molded into champion fighters since they were little, but once they become successful then the hungry eyes of gamblers and promoters and gym owners focus in. To some degree, Pi Nu simply can’t compete with “Globo Gym” types, whose business and expertise is in buying fighters pre-made at their smaller gyms. Pi Nu makes champions, then these big gyms and promotions buy them. He’s not into the business of selling fighters, “if they want to go, go,” he says quite often. Meaning if the fathers of these boys come to him and respectfully ask for release from the contract, he’ll release them no problem. “If they speak straight,” Pi Nu says, “not – ” and then he makes this winding motion with an open hand, like the head of a snake as it slithers and winds along the ground. But a lot of folks don’t talk straight. As a result, people feel insulted and bridges are burned. The ox can’t find its legs.
It’s Thai New Year, called Songkran, which is most famously celebrated with a nation-wide water fight that lasts for days. Kids stand on the edges of the road with enormous barrels of water, scooping it out with smaller buckets and splashing motorbikes as they zip past. There are water guns and hoses as well. You can’t escape it. I have no idea how this version of it got started, but just like how St. Patrick’s Day in New York City has little at all to do with the purpose of the holiday, Songkran has become this huge thing that foreigners travel into Thailand to experience and locals travel out of Thailand to escape. I, personally, try to hide indoors as much as possible until the ordeal ends. The splashing of water is this hyper version of the traditional practice of gently pouring rose-scented water over statues of the Buddha and over the hands of your elders. There’s also a beautiful ritual of collecting sand and putting these little flags in the sand heaps, then bringing that sand to temples as a way to kind of return the dust and earth that has been taken off of temple grounds on your feet throughout the year. When looking at the traditional three days of Songkran, it’s a day to remember and honor everyone in your family and community.
Songkran Blessing from Bamrung at Petchrungruang
The group on Songkran in 2015, Alex looking tiny.
Songkran in 2017, Bamrung helps Nat (now almost 3) gently bathe the Buddha
Songkran 2017, Nat and his mom pouring the water over the grandparents’ hands before the elders give their blessings.
Two years ago I arrived at the gym for morning session and Pi Nu invited me into the house to take part in this first day of Songkran. As the oldest and as the men of the house, Pi Nu and his brother Pi Nok went first, pouring water over a small Buddha statue on the kitchen table, then getting onto their knees to bow in front of their parents while pouring water over their hands. Pi Nu’s wife held their baby, who at the time was a little less than a year old, and with her other hand held onto the back of Pi Nu’s arm. This is one of my favorite things you’ll see in blessing ceremonies: you can just make contact with someone who is doing the action and you get included in the merit-making as well. You’ll see whole chains of people if it’s very crowded, just one person pouring water or putting rice into a bowl for the monks and a good 5-10 people making a chain behind them. When it was my turn to go I was quite nervous, having never done this ceremony before and basically just trying to do what those who had gone before me were doing. I kneeled down and held this glass in my right hand, kind of tipping it with the fingers on my left hand from the bottom of the glass. Bamrung, the patriarch of the gym, smiled as I trickled the water over his hands with the palms pressed together and fingers angled down, the water making this soft pattering sound as it landed in a baking pan under Bamrung’s hands. Then Pi Nu’s mother, who always has the same sweet smile on her face – always – repeating the process with a separate pan to catch the water beneath her beautiful, wrinkled and thin-skinned hands. Just seeing the years in those hands felt like a moment of awe and respect for me. I have a bit of thing with hands, so this ceremony is made for me. As the younger boys followed behind me, Bank (their grandson) put small flower garlands on each of their hands, looped around the thumbs. I’ve only ever seen these on statues at temples, so it was moving for me to see them placed on the hands of people. Then we all kneeled on the floor, hands in a wai position, while each parent gave us blessings for the New Year, wishing good health and success for everyone.
Songkran Blessing at Arjan Burklerk’s in Lampang
Fast forward 2 years to this Songkran. Kevin and I are on our way back to Pattaya from Chiang Mai, where I just had 3 fights in 5 days, and we stop at Burklerk’s Muay Thai Gym in Lampang. Arjan Burklerk is Old School. He’s very observant of the traditions and ceremonies of Muay Thai and, having only been to his gym a handful of times, I’ve already seen a few occasions when he’s accepting new students, young Thai boys, he has them do a Wai Kru upon matriculation to the gym. Even though it was a few days before the official start of Songkran, Arjan and his wife invited me to participate in a student/teacher ceremony for the holiday after my training with him. It’s not entirely different in execution from a Wai Kru ceremony and there was no pouring of water over his hands, but it was particular to the New Year in how Arjan used a small bowl of rose-scented water to splash over my head for a blessing, rather than me pouring that water on him to wash away any bad luck. I kneeled in front of Arjan and held out a silver bowl with flowers and this bowl of water on it as an offering to him, thanking him for teaching me the “wicha” (a subject of study) of Muay.
above, video of Arjan Burklerk’s Songkran Blessing
Then he dipped his fingers in the water and flicked the droplets over my head and offered me blessings of good health, success and contentment for the coming year. The splashing of water on me felt very much like what happens in the corner before fights when the mongkol is removed, as well as when you go to temple and the monk uses a bundle of sticks dipped in water to splash on kneeling congregations while they chant. There is a commonality to the practices, but there are differences that are notable as well. For me, with Arjan Burklerk it felt like all of these things kind of sewn together into this one expression of gratitude. Arjan Burklerk is not my main teacher and, indeed, I’ve only trained with him a handful of times. But his interest in me as a student and my admiration for him as a teacher doesn’t need to be qualified by how often we work together, but rather the feeling of this connection between us – I’m thankful for everything he teaches me and he wants me to flourish as a nakmuay, as well as viewing me as a student, which I appreciate and honor. There isn’t a limit on gratitude – you can be thankful to everyone who helps you, all of your teachers, and tell them so.
One of the things about Songkran is that each of the consecutive days allows you to connect in an expanding circle, outward into your community. It’s not insulated. So, as much as I dread the popular practice of “playing water” that is the celebration of Songkran, I also truly love this holiday as a time to really express gratitude, both near and expanding outward like a ripple. I missed the ceremony to honor Pi Nu’s parents this year, so when I came to training in the afternoon I just took a moment to wai to Bamrung and tell him Happy New Year, after which he placed his hand on my head and wished me good luck for the coming year. It was an impromptu ceremony, devoid of all the ceremonial aspects but raw of heart. Because it’s meaningful, because it is an expression of our connection. The New Year gives me the chance to not only remember, but to thank my legs.