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.
It 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.
Each 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.
For 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.
Was 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.