Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Mor Lam and Monks

Mor lam, is a northeastern Thai tradition that is slowly dying due to the influence of pop music. It would be wonderful if a new generation of Isaan youngster with talent could revive this lyrical art.

An unforgetable talent that had helped keep this artform current was Pumpuang Duangjan, R.I.P. While there are current artists like Jintara Poonlarp, Siriporn Ampaipong, and even a Dutch singer Christy Gibson, these studio-produced mor lam pales in comparison to the excitement and appreciation of a spontaneous talent shown in the live sparing of a mor lam contest or performance among the Isaan people.

I was fortunate enough to witness one such performance at a young age.  Maybe multimillion Thai pop music studio businessmen can be tipped to fund these contests in the Isaan country side, in the way that Nelson Mandela did for South African rugby, as shown in the movie, Invictusnot only to promote the goodwill of Luk Tung, a local musical genre not imported from abroad, but to give a sense of pride in cultural identity of the young, as well as to discover new natural talent.

I had always thought that this musical form is in some ways similar to modern rap, only much more traditional. It challenges its performers to dig up the best use of language and rythm on the spot. The best perform from a memory or repertoire of word play, rythm, rhyme and metaphors. It's what I would call a neobaroque form of entertainment because the musical accompaniment is simple and repetitive yet intuitive and spontaneous. It's a whole performance that engages and pulls in its viewers or in this case audience and listeners.

So what does mor lam performances have to do with monks?

I just recently read the history of Phra Ajaan Mun Bhuridatta Thera (1870-1949), the most venerable founder of Thailand's famous forest monk tradition. Here's what http://www.accesstoinsight.org/ says,
The unusual style of Phra Ajaan Mun's sermons may be explained in part by the fact that in the days before his ordination he was skilled in a popular form of informal village entertainment called maw lam. Maw lam is a contest in extemporaneous rhyming, usually reproducing the war between the sexes, in which the battle of wits can become quite fierce. Much use is made of word play: riddles, puns, innuendoes, metaphors, and simple playing with the sounds of words. The sense of language that Ajaan Mun developed in maw lam he carried over into his teachings after becoming a monk. Often he would teach his students in extemporaneous puns and rhymes. This sort of word play he even applied to the Pali language, ...

The best of buddhist teachings comes from oral traditions, in the forms of rhetorics, whether in the Tibetan debating or in this case the teachings of humble monks of Isaan origins, that towers above the more conventional Thervada style of Thailand's center. The language of mor lam and the language of forest monk tradition is Lao, which is (central Thais would probably love to deny) the true origin of the Thai language. Acharn Mun and other forest tradition monks had so internalized the teaching of the Buddha, which they had learnt in Pali, but it was practice and practice (of meditation) that allowed them to master the knowledge and thereby able to transmit in simple yet enlightening forms (in Lao) to their students and the common people. 

An interesting note to leave, pondering on oral tradition, links to languages, and preservations of cultures.

Acharn Mun passed away in 1940 at Wat Pa Suthawat, Sakon Nakhon. A small museum was built in his honor where there is an exhibit of his personal belongings and a brief account of his life.

Wax image of Pra Acharn Mun Bhuridatto, 
at Wat Pa Suthawat, Sakon Nakhon

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