Water and Incense, Prayer and Belief

In Thailand, people call their capital city Krung Thep (pronounced “kroong tape”), meaning “City of Angels.”

Sixty years ago, Krung Thep, known in the West as Bangkok, did not in any way resemble the sprawling, noisy metropolis it is today. During that fabled time, Bangkok was a truly exotic city of the Orient.

canal.jpgIt was a different time, a different place. People lived their lives by the water, along a patchwork of klongs, or canals, stitched together like a moving, flowing tapestry. Teak houses perched on stilts lined the waterways. Wives did the household laundry on their dock steps, keeping a watchful eye as their children splashed and played. Merchants carrying food and goods paddled their flatbed canoes to and fro, occasionally stopping at a house to trade goods or gossip, oftentimes both.

arun.jpgEach morning the smell of burning incense wafted from house to house as people prayed to Buddha before starting their day. They prayed for guidance, forgiveness, comfort. Happiness. Hope. At daybreak, monks dressed in flowing orange robes silently glided from home to home, collecting humble offerings of food and other basic necessities for their sustenance. In that era, people donated their time and effort -not just their money- to build gilded temples. They had belief and faith in a Greater Power.

In one particular teakwood house, a young mother was in the throes of labor, the sounds of her struggle projecting through the wood shutters from her room overlooking the canal. Hearing and seeing the commotion, the neighbors walked and paddled over one by one to lend support. After many hours of labor, she finally gave birth to a beautiful boy with a full head of hair. He let out a cry signaling his first gasps of breath, bringing great joy and relief to his mother, family and neighbors. Congratulations and salutations floated along the canal, travelling the same path as early morning incense.

For a few months the mother cared for her child. She fed and bathed him. Could not remember what her life was like before he arrived. Every morning, she told her child stories about the world around him. Every evening she covered his crib in a mosquito net, leaving the bedroom shutters barely open so he wouldn’t catch cold from the water’s breeze. Several times a day, the young mother lit incense and said a silent prayer for her son. That he would have kwaam suuk, enlightenment and contentment, every day of his life.

Then suddenly, and quite unexpectedly, the baby fell ill and died. His mother clutched his lifeless body in her arms, refusing to let his spirit go. Tears streamed down her cheeks, her voice extinguished from endless sobbing, her hopes and dreams shattered.

Buddha.jpgFor days she knelt in front of the shrine ensconced on her porch. Neighbors looked on with concern as they sat on their porches along the water, knowing that there were no words to comfort her. She prayed to the golden statue of Buddha, alternately sobbing and whispering her sorrow and bottomless despair.

The day of her son’s funeral, she knelt again in front of her family shrine. She lit three sticks of incense and a candle, and made an offering of ripe tangerines. She made vows to Buddha: She promised to cease eating meat, to devote her life to doing good and building good karma. Praying in hushed tones, she asked that her son be brought back to her. She dabbed banana paste on her deceased son’s left foot, and tomato paste on his right foot. “Put these marks on him when he returns, so that I know it is him,” she pleaded.

After her special prayer, her sorrow did not fade. But at last she relented, allowing her family to take her son’s body to his funeral. She continued to weep. And pray. For many weeks thereafter.

About a year later, the bereaved mother’s younger sister gave birth to a son of her own. Upon inspecting this newborn child, the young mother whose baby had died a year earlier let out a shriek. On the newborn’s left foot was a big black birth mark, and on his right foot a big red one. Her prayers had been answered: This was her child, delivered back to her arms. She considered him the reincarnation of her deceased son, and for a full year she raised him and refused to let anybody else hold him. She only let him go when she finally realized the anguish she was causing her sister.

This is a true story. I have colored in some of the surrounding details, but these events did indeed occur. The baby’s (American) name is Sam. He is now in his sixties, and lives in Los Angeles with his wife and grown son. He is one of my parents’ oldest and closest friends.

I have seen the marks on his feet.

bkk.jpgWas what happened the result of mere coincidence, or the sign of a Higher Power at work? In our hurried, cynical world, it would be nice, if only briefly, to imagine life in a teakwood house along that canal. Where the travelling scent of burning incense from each home mingles in an unspoken communal blessing, and spirituality and holiness flow freely upon the water. Where a person can kneel beside the water and whisper a prayer, creating in that solemn moment a true hope that what you wish for may come true.

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33 Comments so far
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That is a fantastic story and one I would like to believe in regardless of what anyone else may say about the likelihood of the intervention by a higher power. What is his take on it? Does he believe he is a reincarnation of his own cousin?

Impressive story. I wonder if the mother tried to stay close to this baby?

Beautiful story. If I weren’t so coldhearted, I may have even been tempted to reach for a tissue out of the box on my desk.

I don’t believe in Buddah or reincarnation, but I do believe in God. In my opinion, those birthmarks could be a sign from above that her child is okay and lives on in the hearts of all of their family.

The story gives me the shivers. Great images.

Absolutely beautiful.

That is an amazing story, puts this lil old world into a much greater perspective.

Kevin: I’ve never asked him whether he believes that, so I don’t know for sure. My feeling though, is that at least part of him thinks it’s true, because when he tells the story he is somewhat reverent and not sarcastic at all.

AWE: I’ve never asked him what his relationship with his aunt is like, actually. I really should ask him that. I don’t know much of his extended family, but my guess is that generation has passed away already.

Dagny: Darn I was hoping this story would thaw it! :)

ABlondeBlogger: That’s a very interesting take on it. I hope that it was a reassuring sign, as you said.

Eileen: Yes, I remember getting the shivers when I first heard it as a teenager.

Megan: I’m glad you liked it. For a while I was wondering whether people would only read if I told more fart jokes. I couldn’t figure out a seamless way to add a fart joke to this story though. :)

It’s a great story; I’m glad the woman got her prayers answered (mostly) and that it lifted her out of despair. But to me it would just be an amazing coincidence :)

Steph: I think a lot of people have the same view that you do. It’s certainly the most logical. Stranger things have happened, after all.

Why question? It is what it is, a parable of sorts, an amazing story of other sorts.

One of life’s greatest pleasures is to listen to a story that someone has held for many generations. I have a friend who is almost 80 and I get lost in his story-telling.

Thanks for sharing.

M: I definitely see your point. Most people I know view it as you described. I, though, am an introvert and try to construct meaning for my own life from every worthwhile parable that passes by!

Gav: Agreed. I love lore and great stories. And great storytellers.

What an amazing and well-written story. I’ve heard similar anecdotes and they never fail to renew my faith in something higher, usually just as I need it the most.

That’s a great story, especially for a knee-jerk skeptic like me.
Well written, too.

Well written story. I like to believe that the soul takes many turns on this earth. Sort of like living many lives until you finally get everything right.

Jack that was a great story and beautifully written. I loved it! I’m sending it to my sis. :-)

Wow. This story has given me the shivers. True or not, it’s up to each person, but you know how to tell a good story.

Beautiful story whether one believes in reincarnation or not. Nice pics too!

Beautifully done!

I think, for me, it would almost be more tragic to find the reincarnation of my lost child in my sister’s. Because all I would want to do was nurture that child. All I would wonder is “Why is she allowed to have him when I wasn’t? What was I doing wrong when you took him away from me and gave him to her? She steals everything from me, why should she steal this too?”

Jess R: Thanks, and glad you enjoyed the story.

Just Run: Count me in as a knee-jerk skeptic as well for most things. Glad you liked the story!

Angie: Yes, and if you get too much wrong you may come back as a cricket! :)

Candace is a Geek: O very glad you liked it. I hope your sis likes it too!

ChickyBabe: Glad to assist in shivering. :)

Fresh Ink: Sweet! Glad you liked it.

Bre: O that is an awesome observation. I think Buddhists in the end have to learn to let that go, but I imagine that it is much, much easier said than done.

Beautiful story, and so sad. It must have broken the mother/aunt’s heart again to have to let go a second time…

Great story; I’ll tune in for more.

I’ll echo the previous comments. Beautiful story. I do feel for her sister, though. She was entitled to enjoy and love her child too.

I always like to leave the door open for stories like these, even if it’s just a crack. Believing in wanting to believe never hurt anyone.

A wonderful story of faith. I have no faith, in anything, but am fascinated by what it can do.

Anne: Yes, that I think was very hard for her. I have noticed though that after the initial shock, Buddhists in Thailand often deal with tragedy in a pretty even-keeled manner. Maybe it’s part of the culture, maybe they see more of it than in developed countries.

GnightGirl: Thanks, and welcome.

Jason Evans: Yeah, it’s one of those sad cases where it’s not a perfectly joyous moment for anybody.

Janet: That’s a good way to put it, “believing in wanting to believe”. I think our times are sufficiently cynical that getting to that point is an achievement!

Kimananda: Yeah, I am usually of the same mindset. I have to psyche myself up in order to believe in something, and it happens very rarely.

i am glad that i am one of those that doesn’t need to read this lovely account to already have faith and love of the higher power that is out there. great illustrations too!

Miss Golondon: Thanks for your remarks. I’m glad that you have an affinity for a higher power- I think it’s one of the best sources of hope and fulfillment in all of us, as hard as it may be for us to embrace sometimes.

Beautiful Jackt.
I don’t particularly believe in reincarnation but I believe in a sincere heart’s prayers being answered. A mother’s specially.
I remember when I was very sick. I had this severe migraine which wouldn’t go. My parents were frantic and tried everything. Doctors had no idea what was wrong with me. I couldn’t open my eyes. my head hurt that much. I was 8. One day I woke from unresting sleep and heard my mum praying. She was asking God to spare me and give her whatever it was instead. I went back to sleep. I woke a few hours later and my mum was in bed clutching her head. I had a few hours of non-headache but it came again.
This is a very beautiful story you narrated here.
There’s a chinese author named Gao Xinjan (am not sure of the surname) who wrote “Soul Mountain”. You’ll love it.


Fitèna: Wow that’s an equally amazing story you have about your headache! I’ll have to check out that book!

brilliant story, loved it

AMS: Thanks! Have a great week!

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