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Punna for well-beings of individual and society

 

During the last decade a new form of punna has been increasingly practiced in the northern part of Thailand. This punna practice is called Pha pa khao. Pha pa are Thai words for forest robe and khao for rice. This practice is adapted from the traditional one which is simply called pha pa. Pha pa is a popular ceremony in Thailand where people collect money and offer, with robe, to monks for various purposes, i.e. building vihara or support monastic education. As for pha pa khao, rice is collected, as well as money, in order to support rice banks or rice cooperatives in the villages where the ceremony is held. Rice banks/ cooperatives are created in many villagers in the north,and east, to relief poor villagers of debt by providing them with cheap rice or rice loan with low interest. These projects, however, could not get enough rice to help their members in some years due to the drought. To address this problem villagers of other villages initiated pha pa khao to raise rice and money for the affected villages. Such practice not only helps rice banks/cooperatives to function properly, but also raises enough fund to support other projects in the villages, i.e. education fund for the youth, and free lunch in the schools.

Pha pa is a popular practice in Thailand because of the belief that a lot of merit can be attained from it. In traditional pha pa, the ceremony ends when money and robe is offered to the abbot . But in pha pa khao, the abbot, instead of keeping the offering for monastic purposes, giving rice and money to villagers for community projects. Thus the traditional role of monks in community service which has been ignored for decades is restored and strengthened. It should be noted that this practices are intiated by villagers in surrounding area with the spirit of helping fellow villagers who are in trouble. It therefore helps strengthen the network of local villagers and lay the basis for cooperation among villagers in the area. Apart from sustaining existing rice banks/cooperatives to function properly, pha pa khao which is practiced almost every year also plays important role in supporting the new ones in various villages.

This is an example of applying punna practice to support community work and reduce poverty. It also promotes the attitude that helping other people is also a practice of punna; offering dana to monks is not the only way of punna. In fact such attitude is not new. There are many traditional practices in the north, as well as other regions, that are based on this attitude. Tan tord ,for example, is a practice where requisites or dana (tan) are offered to poor people by laying (tord) them near their houses and then lighting firecracker to inform the recipients. It is believed that one can obtain merit from this practice no less than offering dana to monks.

Unfortunately, such practice has been abandoned recently whereas offering dana to monks still prevails. Thus the impression that punna can be obtained only through practice and rituals which involve monks. It should be noted that in the past offering dana to monks and the act of community service were never separated. Pha pa, for example, did not only benefit the monks, but also served the community. Since temple was the center of community, utensils offered to monks, for example, were always borrowed by villagers for feasts in various occasions; i.e. wedding, ordination, and funeral. It is only recently that temple and village become so distant that dana offered to monks are confined for use only in the temples. In other word, punna involving monks is increasingly divorced from community service.

Nowadays, however, there are attempts from various groups to improve punna practice that serves society as well as individuals. There are various kinds of pha pa, for example. Apart from pha pa khao which supports rice banks/cooperatives, there are also pha pa nangsue, which collects books to support rural literacy and education. Seedlings and plants are also collected for forest conservation through pha pa tonmai. In addition to applying traditional ceremony for community development, there are attempts to initiate new social activities based on the concept of punna . Sajja sasomsab or savings with truthfulness is one example of the latter category.

Sajja sasomsab is another form of local saving banks where people keep their savings and get cheap loan without resorting to commercial banks or money lenders. What makes sajja sasomsab distinct from ordinary local saving banks is its reliance on Buddhist virtues such as truthfulness. Every member of sajja sasaomsab is required to keep his or her words of truthfulness that the same amount of money will be deposited to the group every month. This promise of truthfulness helps maintaining their commitment to the group. Concept of punna is another principle of the groups. Members are told that their participation in the group is the practice of punna since their savings could be used to help people in trouble. In the process of making decision about the loan, the priority is given to people who are in trouble, i.e. needs the money to pay medical bills or pay tuition of their offspring. This is another attempt to revive the traditional virtues of compassion and generosity. In the past these virtues were so integrated into the life of people that could be seen in every details of their daily life, i.e. providing drinking water in front of the houses, giving food and lodging to strangers, building shelters to travelers, giving hands in rice harvesting and construction of houses or roads ,etc. All these acts of cooperation were regarded as practice of punna. Sajja sasomsab, however, has developed to another step with its systematic organization. Rules and regulations are laid out for collective decision and transparency. Another development is its mobilization of money instead of labour as before. Interestingly, dajja sasomsab was initiated by a monk, Phra Subin Paneeto,who successfully organized almost 300 groups in many provinces. More than half of villages in his home province,Trad , have been the host of these groups.

It should be noted that tradition belief of punna or dana has wide implications. When Buddhadasa Bhikkhu was young, his mother taught him a mantra while taking care of familys paddy field that if birds eat our rice, that is punna. If people eat our rice, that is dana (Thus dont be angry with them). Practice of punna is not only confined to monks. It can be done with other people, including animals. Besides, dana is not limited to giving money or things. Giving helping hands or good instructions are also dana and punna as well.

This conclusive notion of punna is essential for creating social harmony and well-being. It is also the basis of strong and healthy civil society. Thus attempts have been made to create right understanding of punna as taught by the Buddha. The Buddhist Network for Buddhism and Society is one of the few groups in Thailand that launched campaign along this line during the past few years.

This group started its campaign by publishing the handbook for punna practice, chalard tamboon or smart punna practice. The handbook not only introduces to reader 10 bases of meritorious actions, but also suggests new practices of punna and dana which are beneficial to recipients and contributes to social and spiritual well-being, i.e. being volunteers for the disabled, giving aids to the orphanage, conserving environment, distributing dhamma books. Alternative to conventional punna practice, offering food to monks, are suggested for such events as birthday, wedding, house opening, and funeral. Four aspects of well-being or development (bhavana),i.e. physical, mental, social, and wisdom, are taken as the basis of the handbook.

The beginning of vassa was taken as the launching event for the handbook three years ago. It has received good response from the public and media that many printings follow. At the moment of writing, it has been reprinted 40 times, amounting nearly 200,000 copies. The handbook is one of the popular books chosen as the gift or souvenirs for important events like birthday anniversary, and funeral. Most people buy this book for the reason that the book opens their eyes about right practice of punna. It gives them the impression that punna can be practiced any time any moment and has nothing to do with the unintelligible ceremony. The positive response also comes from people who are dissasstisfied with the current punna practice which either involves wasteful rituals or being too much material-oriented.

Last year another attempt has been made along this line. A smaller and concise handbook for punna practice has been printed, entitled 30 practices of punna for well-being of life and society.It has been printed with four colours for more attracting and readable. At the end of the booklet, addresses of non-profit organizations are printed for those who want to do meritious act by being volunteers or donating money. Places for meditation in various parts of the country are included for those who want spiritual well-being. The booklet was on sale at gas stations in Bangkok one week before the beginning of vassa. Again, the booklet became popular in a few days. All kinds of media, such as newspaper, magazines, radio and television programs, gave positive coverage. Seven reprints has already been made, totalling 200,000 copies. The fact that both handbooks are still in demand reflect the enthusiasm of modern people to know and participate in the creative punna practice that contributes to well beings of individual and society. In other word they need alternative to the conventional practice that is wasteful, ritualistic and materialistic which get along easily with consumerism.

After successful campaign for the right attitude of punna three consecutive years, the Buddhist Network for Buddhism and Society this year wants to go a further step toward concrete social action, i.e. persuading Thai people to do voluntary work as practice of punna during the vassa. Many non-governmental organizations are participating in this project which selects the issues of children as the central theme of the campaign. Officials in big private companies are chosen as target group of this campaign. Thousands of volunteers are expected to be recruited from the private sector to participate in various projects aimed to improve the quality of children on different aspects, i.e. education, environment, media, social welfare and human rights. This campaign not only aims to create new attitude of punna and dana among Thai public, but also wishes to create voluntary movement based on the concept of punna which is still weak. It is also designed to revive the concept of punna as the cultural force for social well-being, instead of limiting itself in the temple or religious rituals.

Though social movement motivated by punna is not well established, there are a lot of individuals committed in social activities based on the concept of punna. In addition to teaching and helping the poor children, some are involved actively in restoring environment. The most notable one is a police who has already planted no less than two million trees along the roads and public space. According to him planting trees is the best punna practice which lasts forever and benefits every people for generations. His initiative during the past 15 years has transformed a district previously well known for the drought and dry into a green area covered by various local trees. Reforestation and natural conservation is increasingly a popular form of punna practice which has been developed to tree ordination in some places.

Interestingly, punna practice in Thailand is now developed into cordiality between animals. There are a lot of people willing to allow his or her dogs to take part in blood donation which is very necessary for operation of other dogs. Many dog owners told that they wanted their pets to do meritious action. Some of them believed that this action will help their beloved blood to be reborn as human being in the next life.

Given 10 bases of punna practice, one can see that punna is essential to all aspects of well-being,( physical, social, mental and wisdom),on both levels of individual and society. Everytime dana is offered properly, it not only reduces personal selfishness, but also contributes to social harmony and peace. This also applies to other 9 bases of punna. If punna is misunderstood, however, ones practice tends to be Brahmanistic offering for divine blessing (yajna-karma) or capitalistic-motivated exchange for more profit.

The culture of punna is still powerful and has a lot of potential for social reconstruction especially in countries where Buddhism prevails. Unless punna is rightly understood and practiced properly in current context, however, its potential couldnt be actualized for the welfare of all.

 

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