Monday, February 29, 2016

Chamorro Buddhist Monk

For most Chamorros, there is only one religion which gets to be designated as a "Chamorro" religion. That is Catholicism. Even though it has only been a part of Chamorro lives for just a few hundred years, it became intimately connected to so many parts of Chamorro life during that time, that for some scholars and individuals you cannot be Chamorro today unless you are Catholic or participate in Catholic rites. For others the Chamorro religion deals with taotaomo'na or aniti, ancestral spirits, their reverence and worship. We see elements of this in the way that cautious respect for the jungle and other natural areas persisted in a quiet supernatural or spiritual form, even when the overt belief in the spirits of Chamorro ancestors became weakened and almost forgotten. Although positive perceptions and connections to our ancient ancestors are common today, few people accept this as their religion alone. Instead they mix elements that to some might be contradictory together, and offer thanks and respect to the spirits of their ancient ancestors, even if at one point that was considered blasphemous by the Catholic Church.

For the past 100 years another Western religion entered Chamorro culture and in mild ways vied for hegemony, although barely made a noticeable scratch. Protestantism first came in via Chamorros who had left the island as whalers during the Spanish period, but returned once the US took over in 1898. This new religion offered Chamorros a chance to worship God differently and also Americanize in a new way as well. My own Chamorro family is part of this splintering, as within my grandmother's line in particular, they haven't been Catholic for close to a century. But instead switched to Protestantism soon after the turn of the 20th century, and then later parts of the family switched to become Seventh Day Adventists.

Although Catholicism remains dominant in some ways, there has nonetheless been a proliferation of religions locally. Now you find Chamorros who are every shade of the religious spectrum. I have met Baha'i Chamorros, Muslim Chamorros, Rastafarian Chamorros, Zoroastrian Chamorros, and I am eager to one day meet a Jedi Chamorro. In this context I was intrigued to come across this article from the Guam Daily Post, about the first Chamorro to become a Buddhist monk. It makes you wonder about the relationship between individuals or groups and the systems of belief they subscribe to and gain meaning/identity from. As Chamorros become parts of all these religions, it is intriguing to watch and attempt to map any changes that come about because of increased Chamorro participation. For example, certain religions have gone so far as to create their religious texts in Chamorro, such as the Chamorro translation of selections of The Book of Mormon that I have on my shelf at home.


First Chamorro Buddhist monk visits Saipan
by Raquel C. Bagnol
Guam Daily Post

SAIPAN – The islands’ first ever Chamorro Buddhist monk visited Saipan for a few days last week.
Dwayne “Duke” Jonathan Palacios, 28, is not your typical Buddhist monk. He remains outgoing and has tattoos on his body.

“The feeling that I wanted to be a monk started when I was 4 years old, then I forgot about it. The feeling came back in 2014. I always told my friends that one day I was going to live in a forest and live alone. It became a joke and one friend said her biggest fear was that I was being serious,” said Palacios, who had used and abused drugs and alcohol in his younger days. He also considered having sex-reassignment surgery.

He had no idea what it meant to be a monk. But when he decided to be one, he threw himself into it “100 percent.” He went to Thailand where his mother was born.

He said it was a big challenge because he couldn’t read, write or speak Thai and he was the only foreigner at his temple.

“I decided to stay and try it for 15 days. On day 14, I asked myself if it was really something I wanted to do, but deep inside I knew my decision was already made even before I was ordained. Most people fear that they can’t stay, but my fear was that I was going to stay. Eight months later, I’m still at it.”

Daily routine

Palacios said he and other monks live in individual, little cottages around the temple. The rooms have no air-conditioning units but do have fans. He said during the summer months their rooms are hot, and in the fall the nights are “challenging.”

“We don’t have hot water in the morning and it’s freezing. Imagine taking a bath. We have to get up very early or we won’t have breakfast. “

His temple is about three and a half hours southeast of Bangkok, close to where his mother and other relatives live.

At the temple, “we wake up about 4 a.m. and do morning temple service while the sun is rising, which is very early in Thailand. By 5:30 we are done chanting and meditating, and we go around the villages collecting donations from the devotees. After that, we have breakfast together.”

After breakfast, Palacios said they take care of the temple grounds. Sometimes they hold special prayer sessions or conduct house blessings, baptisms, birth blessings, funerals and weddings for villagers.

“We also pray for the sick and we either all go together or just some us, depending on the request of the people,” Palacios said.

There are only 10 of them at the temple, he said, adding that it is a much smaller temple compared to others. In the rainy season, which is from August to November, Palacios said they are not allowed to go out of the temple unnecessarily so they focus on studying the teachings of the Buddha. They also officiate at various ceremonies.

It is also during the rainy season that younger men get ordained as monks, he added.

Cultural adjustments

Palacios said “fitting in” in Thailand is a challenge, especially if you don’t speak the language.
“We use different words for different things. There are words exclusively used in the temple, and they’re different when we use them outside, but most of those in the community were raised as Buddhists since they were born.”

He said when he was still new there, he experienced several instances of culture shock and did things he was not supposed to do.

“I am still learning the rules, but I already know those that I need to know so I won’t get kicked out,” he said.

For example, a monk is not allowed to sit at a table alone with a woman. Physical contact is also not allowed even with family and relatives — not even a handshake.

Palacios found this rule to be a big challenge.

He said he was always someone who loved to hug while growing up on Saipan and on the mainland U.S.

“But people in Thailand show very little physical contact. For some people, a hug is a validation and shows that you love and care for them, but in Thailand I don’t need to touch them to prove that I love them.”

Drinking water while walking is also not allowed because it shows disrespect, he said, adding that the villagers themselves told him about it after they saw him doing it.

Palacios said monks are regarded as very honorable people in Thailand. When they visit the villages, people, especially the women, step out of their way to avoid the possibility of contact.

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