Monday, January 14, 2008

Encounter with a God

So much talk lately about God and his 99 other names ..... hmmm ..... perhaps this post may be timely.

In the village where I lived, and in many villages throughout the length and breadth of Malaysia, people, especially but not exclusively the Chinese, ‘consult’ the gods on a daily basis on all sorts of problems – health, malevolent spirits, marriage or career prospects, unfaithful husbands, lazy sons who prefer to play Nintendo than look at their maths books, business, love, luck, etc and yes, even politics.

Last year Malaysiakini published a news item titled
Politics of spells and shamans. Malaysiakini talked to Awang Mohd Yahya, a famous ‘bomoh politik’, who claimed that his services were often sought by UMNO politician, including its Youth and Puteri Wings, when party elections or general elections approached. Awang said even leaders from opposition PAS and Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR), as well as non-Malays, seek his services. Pity he declined to reveal names.

The practice is also common in neighbouring countries. According to Malaysiakini article
Politicians seek foreign supernatural boost our UMNO politicans would travel to Thailand, Asahan in Sumatra (apparently the most popular), Surabaya and Pekalongan in Jawa to meet the far superior Indonesian bomohs just prior to any elections.

Unlike the Greeks and Romans who depended on interpretation by the Oracles (which were usually so cryptic that at best, each offered 1,001 possible meanings, with usually the right one asserted as the true interpretation only with hindsight) the Chinese expect straightforward answers from the divine ones.

To speak to the gods and sometimes even dear departed ones, they used, not bomohs but ‘mediums’, who would usually be men though sometimes we get to meet the rare female ones as well. Chinese believe in speaking 'directly' to the gods or ghosts.

As the good olde dictionary describes, a medium is ‘an intervening agency, means, or instrument by which something is conveyed or accomplished.’ Thus the medium acts as the link for oral communication between mortals and immortals or ghosts.

This post is not about the latter, namely speaking to departed relatives, an eerie ritual known in Penang (Hokkien) as karng-bong. I have always wondered why in such ‘connecting’ ceremonies, the dead (through the mediums of course) would without fail, on successful ‘arrival’ after the ritualistic summons, invariably moan spine-chillingly and cry wretchedly to their living relatives?

I have yet to witness a joyous soul from across the Styx who would whistle Rasa Sayange or say something hearty like a humorous
‘Karn-Neen-Nare, where’s my bloody Aw-Kau (Guinness Stout), man?’

Admittedly I had only witnessed less than half a dozen of these events so my lamentation on the absence of happy ghosts, supposedly from the Happy Hunting Grounds, has to be qualified.

The last time I went to a karn-bong was several years ago on the persuasion of a sweetie who actually shed tears when her favourite late auntie gave or rather moaned to dear sweetie her blessings. To be frank, the ghost or medium’s moan was so bloody bloodcurdling that it put all me olde goose pimples on alert; I immediately disliked her for scaring poor me. But I brightened up after dear ‘auntie’ commended me to sweetie as a potential good husband – hell (no pun intended), what did she know about me ;-)

When sweetie saw my wicked grin, knowing that I was about to engage her dear ‘auntie’ in a light hearted banter she gave me a stern stare that chilled me to my very skeleton bones. I wisely shut up or I would have been dead (again, no pun intended). Alas, today our relationship has long been buried ;-)

Anyway, talking about ghosts gives me the creeps so let’s return to the gods. Now, I did mention that the Chinese expect straightforward and not cryptic answers from the divine ones. How straightforward the god’s answers can be would depend on the immortals’ craftiness or cunning, or perhaps the ‘cleverness’ of the mediums. Yes, ye olde gods can at times be cagey, as the ancient Greeks had long been telling us in their myths.

In the Chinese folk pantheon, some gods are the serious types (either philosophical pontificating pious immortals or those with stern don’t-f*ck-around-with-me ferocious attitude – don’t ever ask for any 4-D number from this group; they are more for blessings, healing and exorcism) while some can be quite humorous (and thus cunning, cagey or crafty).

Now, as a young laddie, kaytee was rather mischievous, and naturally keen to try the unusual and even bizarre. A senior neighbour, whom I respectfully addressed in traditional Chinese way as 'uncle' though he wasn’t a blood relative, wanted to 'consult' the ... well ... a ... god for 4-D purpose.

The immortal he had in mind was the popular Tua Peh Kong, the God of Luck – you can see where this was leading!

Tua Peh Kong was (still is) the immortal’s popular name but his formal title goes by the rather stern appellation of Hock Teik Guan Suoi.

Guan Suoi means ‘General’. But the god wasn’t martial looking at all like Kuan Kong (of the 3 Kingdoms' fame) or Loh Chia Kong (Na Cha), but rather resembles a Chinese Father Christmas, with long white beard, jolly countenance and a benign smile. I dare say, after the incomparable Kuan Yin, the Goddess of Mercy, Tua Peh Kong would be the next most popular deity in my village.

To ensure he obtained a good ‘connection’ with the divine one, uncle wanted a 'fresh' or 'virgin' medium, 'virgin in both the sexual and experience sense. Then I was eleven and ... blush ... still a virgin.

So after hearing him expounded on why a virgin was necessary to secure a kosher ‘arrival’, and out of curiosity and wishing to experience the supernatural, I recklessly volunteered. Much later I realized I was cunningly 'manoeuvred' into volunteering by uncle, who obviously knew something about my kuai-larng* nature.

* let’s translate this village term as ‘mischievous’

He went to the extent of engaging a well-known 'medium master' to chant special Taoist conjuration that would petition Hock Teik Guan Suoi, the God of Luck, to use my body as a medium to communicate with the mortal world, specifically in the matter of 4 useful numbers for a Saturday lottery draw.

A highly experienced medium master was an added ‘safety factor’ as his special incantation and knowing eye would detect and guarantee against any malevolent spirit, which happened to pass by at the time of the invocation, from ‘entering’ my body - no casual hijacking of body please. There were frightening tales of accidental ‘invasion’ by alien supernatural forces and their subsequent refusal to leave the mediums' bodies. Yes, a good medium master possesses incantations to ward off uninvited and undesired entries.

Apparently the medium master was already in retirement but when he heard that the candidate for the medium was an untested novice, gulp namely yours truly, he agreed to come out of retirement to perform the ceremony.

The auspicious day was chosen after the ad hoc committee - uncle, medium master and a couple of other wannabe rich uncles - consulted the Chinese almanac with a senior Taoist priest, who incidentally attempted to dissuade the group from such an impertinent invocation, but in vain.

For my part, I insisted on being accompanied by a couple of my village mates, much against the wishes of uncle who wanted to keep the group small and tight for security (or selfish) reasons. But I had my way as there wasn't going to be any ceremony without me, thus who I then wanted I got. Hey, I wasn’t going to leave my soul and body at the hands of some old punters – I wanted to know my mates would be there to ensure I wasn’t abandoned when things went wrong. My friends were just as curious as I was.

Prior to the actual invocation ceremony I was given a thorough briefing by the medium master who obviously possessed an impressive range of experience in dealing with tricky gods. For example, he said that sometimes a guileful god would enter the medium’s body but would not talk to the waiting audience - instead the Wily One would conduct a conversation ‘internally’ with the medium; in other words, while ‘externally’ the audience saw only a silent medium, 'internally' the god could be giving private instructions to the medium on, say, the 929 chapters of the Old Testament, unbeknownst to the bystanders. I was urged to remember the ‘conversation’ from such an ‘internal’ dialogue should it occur, and to relate all when I woke up from the trance.

Another favourite trick of a mischievous god would be not to conduct any dialogue even with the medium but to whisk him (the medium) on a private trip to see the winning 4-D numbers while ‘externally’ the audience would again only see a medium sitting quietly. Needless to say, I was instructed to ‘record’ all and ‘play’ back everything. So on so forth ... my admiration for the Crafty Ones began to grow as the medium master related all he knew, which was probably only a mere fraction of what the gods could and would do if they feel like frustrating or teasing the punters.

The moment came for me to prepare myself. After the obligatory cleansing shower, as if my mischievous nature could be washed away, I was seated on a wooden stool in front of the god icon. Up to then I thought it was all good fun, suppressing a boyish giggle as the chant master started his votive offerings and appeals to the god.

He started the ceremony with a special prayer and offerings of joss sticks and lighted oil lamps to Tua Peh Kong, with the standard plates of fruits, sweets, cakes and three cups of wine and another three cups of Chinese tea on the altar. I must say I eyed the cups hopefully, wishing for my first taste of alcohol.

After the preliminaries, he switched to the invocation incantation. As he recited the Taoist chanting (I heard the title Hock Teik Guan Suoi being recited several times) he burned joss papers continuously as votive offerings in a furnace for that purpose. As in Chinese religious symbology, the joss paper was in gold colour for gods (and silver for departed ones). After I was sure it was gold (and not silver) joss papers that were offered, I closed my eyes in the way I had observed other mediums do.

Around 10 minutes of impatient waiting passed by, during which time I secretly attempted to follow and memorise his invocation incantation. 'Twas then I suddenly ‘saw’ (with my eyes still closed) a bright shining light far away in the middle of an emerging black vortex that appeared before me.

Initially that distant light stayed still, with the black vortex swirling round and round. To tell you the truth, I was quite frightened, but more out of curiosity than discipline, sat very still to see what would happen next.

Then the light began to approach me slowly. Later I was told by my mates standing with the older men around me that I started to shake and sway rather vigorously, though throughout the session I personally thought I was just sitting still on the stool.

I was beginning to fall deep into the trance that I wanted to experience but without realising or noticing the supernatural 'transition'. I didn't experience (as I had anticipated) any physical body sensation other than the sighting of the bright approaching light in the middle of a swirling black vortex.

The light came slowly closer and closer to me, when suddenly it sped up like a hurling comet ... sh*t man ... right towards by-now-terrified me.

Instinctively I made a mighty effort to ward off that almost impacting light, and in that defensive movement ‘woke’ up from the trance, much to the disappointment of wannabe rich 'uncle' and everyone there. I can you I wasn’t at all disappointed. Au contraire I was very much relieved.

But the medium master commented to uncle that I was ‘good genuine material’. By ‘genuine’ he meant I was not faking because being an old hand and a wily olde fox, he had, when I started to sway and shake, deliberately dropped a big bundle of hot burning joss papers on my bare feet to test whether I was really in a real trance. Bastard!

According to my mates I didn’t even twitch; on being told that, with great horror I immediately checked my feet for burnt marks but strangely neither saw/felt any nor experienced any painful sensation/discomfort.

The medium master debriefed me that the next time I shouldn't be scared but allow the light to 'enter' me as that was the god approaching my mortal body. He advised 'uncle' to try me again on the next auspicious night. Of course by then I declined. I decided that the experience was sufficient to last me a lifetime. ‘Twas my brief encounter with a god.

In an earlier posting
Senjakala I had quoted William Shakespeare in his Hamlet (Act I, Scene V): "There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy."

Indeed, and kaytee can say today that he personally knows that.