U Mao was a petty trader of Shan origin (ไทเขิน thai khoen or ไทขึน thai khuen in Thai) in a rural region of Mueang Sing in northwestern Laos. He migrated to Mueang Sing from Kentung (Chiang Tung) in eastern Burma at a very young age and later became an affluent, wealthy man. But he was also a devout Buddhist. So much merit he earned with generous gifts for temples and communities, that King Sisavang Vong (ເຈົ້າມະຫາຊີວິດສີສະຫວ່າງວົງ) bestowed upon him the honorary title ພະຢາເຊກອງ, “Phaya Sekòng”. (“ò” is pronounced as an open O.)
When this extraordinary man of modest backgound died in 1982, he left an outstanding Anisong, a remarkable manuscript in which he recorded meticulously all his gifts and merit-making over a period of fifty years, including the money he spent for commissioning the making of manuscripts, the casting of Buddha statues or the repair of temple buildings.
Professor Volker Grabowsky, head of the department of the Thai Studies section of the Department of Southeast Asian Studies at the University of Hamburg’s renowned Asia-Africa Institute, has translated and edited this stunning text which gives us today a rare insight into the community life, religious rituals, culture and history of this still remote region. He was supported by อภิรดี เตชะศิริ
Ānisaṃsa (Pali) or, in Lao / Thai, Anisong (ອານິສົງ / อานิสงส์) means literally “benefit”, “advantage” or “blessing”. Though the Phaya Sekòng manuscript refers to Anisong as an underlying concept for making religious donations documenting numerous of these donations, it is at least indirectly related to the genre of Anisong texts. Such texts are asserting the benefits or advantages derived from praiseworthy meritorious acts. These texts are widespread in northern, northeastern, and central parts of Thailand and in Laos. The large majority of these texts are about the benefit of alms-giving (dāna), reflecting the well-known importance of merit making through generosity and charity in Thai and Lao culture in general.
In Anisong texts, telling narratives is a significant technique used to illustrate the benefits of gifts. Those manuscripts, generally rather short (rarely more than twenty folios), expose the rewards in terms of merit, or literally the “advantage” (anisong, or, in Pali: ānisaṃsa), which a believer may expect from a particular religious deed. Manuscripts containing anisong texts, written on palm leaf or mulberry paper, are used in various kinds of rituals and ceremonies carried out by monks and novices. Because they deal with and act as an incentive for off erings made to monasteries and the community of monks (Sangha), they serve an important function in the social and economical relationship between laity and Sangha. On the basis of numerous dated exemplars available, anisong manuscripts may also be seen as a testimony of customs and ritual practices of local Buddhism over at least three centuries until now.
We do not know much about the family background of Phaya Sekòng / U Mao, but even the sparse data that we still have today are very interesting. U Mao was a person who, when he was still a young child, lost his father and became a semi-orphan. Thus his family was hardly complete. However, he struggled hard to overcome all obstacles by earning his livelihood as a petty trader until he had grown older and become a wealthy man. He lent his ears to the needs of all the village and town people of Müang Sing. At the end of this life, the authorities established a new political system and appointed him the representative of the National Front for Reconstruction of Luang Namtha province.
U Mao made his donations and givings in charity continuously and in large numbers. For example, he hosted ordination ceremonies for monks and novices, consecration ceremonies for senior monks, and monk’s robes offering (kathin) ceremonies; he sponsored the construction of a road linking two villages, monastery libraries, temple pavilions, and large Buddha statues. Furthermore, he also initiated the restoration of temples and stupas. Finally, he donated his own private house to the public and helped to build a school for young children.
Having lived from 1894 (one source points to 1902, however) until 1982, he had reached the age of 89. We do not know his birthplace, but his original name U Mao indicates that he was probably born in present-day Burma because of the honorific “U” preceding his personal name, while “Mao”, is used in Burma for mature men or men in a senior position as well as for monks. In fact, Phaya Sekòng alias U Mao is remembered in Müang Sing to have come from the eastern Shan state of Chiang Tung (Kengtung), which at that time had only recently come under British rule.
The book essentially consists of two parts: In the first, Grabowsky offers an analytical introduction with many interesting details about this type of manuscripts as well as historical, linguistic and technical information. The second and most extensive part is entitled, not surprisingly, “Text and Translation” and includes a glossary in Thai and English compiled by Grabowsky and Aphiradee. The book is supplemented by a comprehensive appendix with a list of all donations and all donated manuscripts by Phaya Sekòng, and also with maps, more than 20 facsimiles, tables and a list of all monasteries and stupas mentioned in the manuscript.
With this work, Volker Grabowsky not only brings a piece of Laotian history into light, he also saved a remarkable biography from being forgotten. An undertaking that cannot be overestimated, given the fact that there are more than a few people in Laos who, in terms of history. do not even know their own birthday. The book is generously illustrated, the only point of criticism is the fact that the colour images were apparently not edited. Many details are therefore not recognizable or lost to the viewer. The beautifully designed cover with edited and sharpened pictures shows that this could have been done better.
Professor Justin McDaniel (University of Pennsylvania), himself a member of the advisory board of the Hamburg Thai Studies, is justly praising this work:
This is a brilliant translation of a rare manuscript from a rural and heavily forested region of Laos. More importantly though, it is a lens onto an entire social world of giving, community, family dynamics, social relations, religious ritual, material culture, and local and regional history. This book should be read by every student and scholar of Buddhist and Southeast Asian Studies. It is a stunning achievment.
Volker Grabowsky: Anisong Through Religious Donations. The Case of the Phaya Sekòng Manuscript from Müang Sing (Laos). Segnitz: Zenos Verlag 2019. Paperback, 187 pages, 29.3 x 21 cm, 490 g, ISBN 978-3-931018-42-9, 24.80 Euro.
The book has been published as Vol. 2 of the Hamburger Thaiistik Studien, ISSN 2569-2879.
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