The Path of Serenity: Unveiling the Karen Way of Life within Buddhist traditions

In the tranquil village of Phra Bat Huai Tom, nestled amidst the lush mountains of Lamphun province in Northern Thailand, a golden pagoda stands resplendent, bathed in the warmth of the setting sun. As dusk descends, villagers adorned in vibrant Karen traditional attire gather around the revered Sri Wiang Chai Pagoda, a symbol of their unwavering faith. This sacred monument, a testament to their devotion, was collectively constructed by the devout residents of Li District.

Men, women and children eagerly secure their spots for the evening prayers, scheduled to commence at 6:00 pm. They bring along baskets brimming with flowers, plucked from their own gardens, arranged on large platters. Alongside these floral offerings, they place modest sums of money, a token of their devotion, on smaller platters. This being a Buddhist holy day, the evening prayers are followed by a ceremonial circumambulation of the pagoda, a tradition deeply cherished by the entire community.

These rituals embody the unwavering faith of Phra Bat Huai Tom’s inhabitants in the teachings and guidance of their revered spiritual leader, Phra Khru Ba Chaiya Wongsa Phatthana. Life in this village revolves around Buddhist principles. Vegetarianism is strictly observed and slaughtering of animals is strictly prohibited. Adherence to the Five Precepts of Buddhism and regular chanting are pillars of their daily life. The raising of animals for meat consumption is strictly forbidden, with only dogs and cats permitted as companions in this harmonious community.

On Buddhist holy days, the rhythm of life in Phra Bat Huai Tom begins at the crack of dawn. As the morning mist gently lifts, vendors set up their stalls at the market adjacent to the temple, offering an array of delectable vegetarian fare to the devout villagers who gather to make merit and prepare offerings for the monks. The market’s offerings are limited to a selection of fresh vegetables, savory and sweet vegetarian dishes. Among the most popular items are deep-fried chili peppers, deep-fried mushrooms, vegetarian curries, and vegetarian sausages. The strict prohibition of meat within the temple grounds ensures the sanctity of the sacred space.

As the day progresses, the market buzzes with activity. A vendor selling vegetarian sausages shares Phra Bat Huai Tom’s reputation as a devout Buddhist community attracts pilgrims from Bangkok and neighboring provinces, particularly during the Kathina robe-offering ceremony and other religious festivals. These visitors often rely on the local vendors for their vegetarian meals, confident that the food aligns with the community’s beliefs.

In addition to the offerings prepared at home, some villagers purchase food from the market and bring it to the temple. A designated hall provides a space for devotees to deposit their offerings in the morning. After the morning prayers, the monks gather the food and proceed to the dining hall for their communal meal. The villagers disperse, returning to their homes, before reconvening in the evening for prayers and the circumambulation of the pagoda.

As the early days of November approach, the rice fields begin to turn golden, signaling the approaching harvest. The villagers dedicate their lives to agriculture, cultivating rice and tending to fruit orchards. During the off-season, they engage in silversmithing and weaving, utilizing their skills and talents to create exquisite pieces. Each family possesses unique silversmithing techniques, resulting in a diverse array of handcrafted items. The purity of the silver alloy and the craftsmanship of Phra Bat Huai Tom’s silversmiths have earned the community a renowned reputation in the silver market.

The Karen villagers’ deep-rooted Buddhist faith has profoundly intertwined silversmithing with their way of life, religion, and culture. Whether attending religious ceremonies or simply visiting the temple, one is invariably greeted by the sight of intricate silverwork adorning the sacred spaces. These creations include replicas of internal organs, meticulously crafted from large silver sheets, symbolizing the temple’s heart and core; pagodas representing the 12 animal years of the Buddhist zodiac, diligently carved or, in the local vernacular, “embossed” from silver sheets; and even silver coins embedded within offerings, signifying the community’s unwavering devotion. For the people of Phra Bat Huai Tom community, silver is more than a mere commodity or a source of livelihood; it is an integral part of their identity, a cultural expression deeply intertwined with their faith and traditions, passed down through generations of Karen immigrants who settled in this sacred land, guided by the unwavering faith and teachings of their spiritual leader, Phra Khru Ba Chaiya Wongsa Phatthana.

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