Veneration of Elders and Releasing of Fishes

Karen Buddhist ceremony at Nhill, Victoria

A Photo-Essay by Catherine Schieve, December 2017  (Image gallery below)  

Nhill is a small farming town of 2,000 people in the dry Western Wimmera region of Victoria, near the South Australia border. The Karen in Nhill are a settlement of ethnic tribespeople long-dislocated from their homelands in Burma, fleeing persecution and finding a new life in the Victorian hinterlands. I was thrilled to be invited by the Karen leaders to attend a seasonal celebration Veneration of the Elders, part of the Water Festival traditional to southeast Asia; a festival from green forested places, re-constituted in this tiny town on the dry Australian flatlands. Getting to the festival involved driving five hours West with my husband Warren, and locating the school hall in which the ceremonies were taking place. We were welcomed by the assembled community of Karen people all sitting on straw mats on the floor, along with a group of "Aussie" people (Nhill locals) sitting on chairs, and the Karen Buddhist monks sitting separately, presiding over the assembly— visibly enjoying it, offering blessings and receiving gifts. There were festive dances to pre-recorded music, a heart-felt "thanks" to the Karen people by the local constable, traditional foods being prepared in the background, and periods of choral chant in Karen language interspersed with recorded blessings in Karen and in English. 

Photo by Catherine Schieve - Karen people of Nhill dancing to the Lake

Photo by Catherine Schieve - Karen people of Nhill dancing to the Lake

What I didn't know was that I was going to be invited to join the "venerated elders" in receiving the blessings. We sat with the mixture of Nhill Aussies and senior Karen people, in a row of chairs turned around to face the Karen assembled group sitting on the mats. Chants were sung and music played, as a gentle and multi-sensory ceremony of anointing unfolded: the Karen women, young men, and leaders walked by the row of seated elders, offering hand-bathing in fragrant water saturated with the scent of local herbs and Eucalyptus. The herbal water was doused upon our cupped hands with eucalypt fronds like a cool refreshing drink, with carefulness and respect. I had not been the recipient of a prolonged ceremonial foot or hand-washing before, and found it very powerful and a form of friendship and mutual respect that goes beyond words. Every elder got an offering of anointing waters - dripping nicely through our hands onto a plate at our feet - by every single Karen person there. Healing words such as may they be healthy, may they be prosperous, may they be free of illness.... wafted by in the background on a recorded sound-track. Eventually there was choral Buddhist chanting, as we sat and in return appreciated the generosity of the Karen people. The monks were venerated too, at their special raised seat on the small stage. The elders were all offered a big festive gift of a basket containing practical things for the household; sweetened condensed milk, coffee, candles, soap and toothpaste from Thailand. A feast of Karen delicacies finished the Veneration part of the ceremony with a friendly and joking crowd of mixed ethnicities, all enjoying community together.

Soon the issue of "what to do with the fish" was resolved: a second ceremony, "Releasing of the Fishes" normally follows the Veneration ceremony, but in Nhill, no-one could find any fish to release into the one lake in this rather dry landscape! Finally there was an announcement that a solution had been found: some baby fish from a nearby fish-farm would be brought over in a jar, and released into Nhill lake. Everyone was pleased to hear this, and once the fish arrived in their little jam-jars, people grabbed their drums and clapper sticks and headed out on foot to parade in full traditional dance through the streets of Nhill toward the lake. It was a joyful, exuberant experience seeing the Karen Burmese and other townspeople, on foot and in their Utes and cars, ambling through the suburban streets past corrugated iron sheds and suburban homes with dry yards, in full Burmese textiles, smiling and singing and drumming. After the anointings, it was a release of the people into the world to do some good for their community, growing new fish to catch and eat. 

At Lake's edge the Karen formed into a chain, linking arms to maintain contact with the monk as he stooped gently over the water's edge, while an elder man unscrewed the tops off the fish jars, handing the jars to the monk. Venerable Ashin "Moonie" Moonienenda, monk and spiritual leader for all the Karen Buddhist community in Australia (and indeed, important to the wellbeing of the Karen people, Buddhist or not) released the fish, gently into the water. Tiny fish were barely visible in the small stream of water coming out of the containers. I was told the Karen link arms because around the large rivers of their homelands, the releasing of fish could mean falling into the current. Pictures were taken at the moment of release, and there was a civic moment at lake-side, with prominent officials and elders of Aussie and Karen descent standing up to give thanks for the presence of the Karen community, and for the blessing of the fish. A senior couple, retired businesspeople beloved in Nhill and benefactors of the Karen, stood up and presided in Christian prayer at the lake's edge. Venerable Moonie then offered a Buddhist prayer for the benefit of the community and released his fish. It was a beautiful melding of cultures and blessings, and intercultural fellowship hard won in this remote town. Further dancing and music erupted, as people dispersed back into town for more festivities at home, or went out on their ways.