A few weeks ago I was in a school doing a workshop on happiness. We were talking about things that make us happy and different sorts of happiness. After a conversation (that could have taken place in any country I’ve ever spent time in) about spending time with friends and playing on the internet and facebook and boyfriends and girlfriends that was peppered with teenage giggling and dominated by two or three apparently more extroverted class members at the back of the class, a young man sitting in the front row stuck up his hand.
Young man: Going to the temple makes me happy.
Me: Ok, great. Is that a different kind of happiness to when you are happy because you hang out with your friends?
Me: Can you describe the difference?
Him (after a long pause): It is more quiet.
Me (turning to the rest of the class): So maybe happiness can be noisy (like when you have fun with your friends) and quiet (like when you go to the temple). Do you agree?
Nods of assent. (Although I’m not naïve enough to think that means much. Nods of assent at almost anything I say are the norm.)
Me: Which is more important? Quiet happiness or noisy happiness?
Young woman who had dominated previous conversation (without hesitation): Quiet happiness.
It’s an interesting distinction – and one that I have made use of in conversations since – but actually, now that Pi Mai Lao (Lao New Year) is upon us again, not a straightforward one. For one thing going to the temples during Pi Mai Lao is definitely not quiet. As I described last year, car and truck loads of people move from temple to temple with bucketloads of perfumed water to ‘water’ the Buddha statues. Monks chant blessings into microphones (my beloved loudspeakers abound), children ‘shoot’ Buddha statues with waterguns, fortunes are told by picking numbered chopsticks (I will have a baby girl and travel to another country soon apparently), streetfood is sold and consumed, people scoop up the Buddha water to wet themselves and their relatives and some times complete strangers. Ideally – for the best luck – you are supposed to visit 9 temples, all of which are beautiful and unique but by number 9 are beginning to blend into one. The atmosphere is a, to my eye strange, mix of reverent and irreverent, joyful and dutiful, energetic and tired.
I visited the temples yesterday with the family of a young volunteer who has been helping me with my research. Before we set out to the temples, I was privileged enough to witness the young people in the family offering gifts of thanks to their elder relatives and asking forgiveness for their transgressions over the past year. The younger and older generations then tie baci strings around each other’s wrists to offer blessing and good luck for the coming year. It is a pretty serious ceremony but there was ample joy and humour apparent as people share laughter over the personalised blessings. Then we ate together.
One of my companions for the day – a young Lao man with very good English – explained to me that the word “baci” is a combination of now obsolete words for “rice” and for “high spirits”. I told him that I have heard several, wildly different explanations about the meaning of baci ceremonies from different Lao people and asked him for clarification. Most written accounts talk about calling the 32 ‘kwan’ (usually translated as ‘souls’) that protect each person back to the body, but I have have asked several Lao young people what the ceremony means and never had this answer. He said that baci ceremonies mix Animist, Hindu and Buddhist traditions and that most people do not really understand what they are doing when they take part. I asked for clarification about the phrase “high spirits” (did he mean spirits as in ghosts or spirits as in mood?) and he said spirits inside you not outside you. He explained to me that during a baci ceremony people wish each other all good things (good health, good luck, good marriage, good work, good salary etc.) and that people ultimately wish all of these things because they want each other to have a happy heart. This is what he understands by the high spirit of the baci ceremony.
And then there is the rice of the baci ceremony. Although, albeit in a very brief online search today, I can’t find anything to support the idea that the word ‘ba’ means rice (if anyone has this information, please pass it my way) I don’t doubt it’s importance. At one point in a full baci ceremony people throw uncooked rice to (as I’ve been told) demonstrate abundance, but it seems to me that the even more important rice of a baci ceremony is the rice (and accompanying dishes) eaten together afterwards. Eating together (most often with family but also with friends) comes up incredibly frequently when I ask young people here about the things that make them happy and, in Laos, eating together and eating rice together are (both linguistically and in practice) near inseparable.
So I come back to the noisy, quiet distinction of happiness and it doesn’t quite fit my experiences over the last few days. High spirits and eating together are really not quiet activities but they seem to fit into the quiet category of happinesses, especially when compared to the simultaneous partying and water-fighting taking place at the BeerLao stage down by the Mekong. This seems linked to my previous thinking about ‘fun’ and it crossed my mind that maybe it is simply a preference about what you enjoy, but I think the difference is more than that. I wonder whether a distinction between internally focused happiness and externally focused happiness works better? Maybe, but it is definitely not a clear distinction.
Six hours after the day’s festivities began, as we pour water over Buddhas at temple number nine, I turn to a young woman in my party and ask her how she is. She answers: “I’m tired but my heart is happy”. Without needing to understand it intellectually, I know (or at least I feel I know) exactly how she feels.