Sawng pha pa (ซองผ้าป่า), (the ornate envelope above being an example) are a popular form of Thai Buddhist fundraising and information broadcasting. Sawng pha pa are donation letters made for specific temple projects and festivals that request displays of unity from the faithful through acts of communal giving. "Sawng pha pa" literally translates into English as "forest-cloth envelopes," in reference to the yearly act of donating new robes (known as "forest-robes") to monks after the three-month rains retreat. At some point "pha pa" became a catch-all phrase for communal giving, and letter-campaigns a main method of funding and spreading news about temple projects and festivals. I have been collecting and translating a number of these objects of Buddhist media as part of my research on temple construction in Chiang Rai, Thailand.
Sawng pha pa find there ways into the hands of Buddhist practitioners through a variety of means--they may pick one up while at a temple, be handed one by a friend, or be given one by a complete stranger. Temple councils often organize groups of congregants, mostly women in straw hats, to go around town with sawng pha pa piled in ornate aluminum bowls (ขันอลูมิเนี่ยม). These Buddhist foot soldiers cold-call donations from people passing by on the street, sitting at noodle shops, and shopping at markets, creating donation networks that are mapped onto the physical geography of the town. We can imagine lines trailing from each letter, emanating out from the temple, spreading throughout the city, and elaborating into peoples homes and offices. The old technology of print on paper folded into a neat little package creates webs of potential donors and festival attendees. Temples depend on this patronage to stay relevant, and the laity seek out such donation opportunities as the main mode of accumulating spiritual merit. When confronted with a sawng pha pa, the devout thing to do is to fill out the information on the front of the envelope, including one's full name, address, and the amount being donated, and return it to either the deliverer of the letter, or to the temple directly. Like so many other examples of Buddhist material culture, sawng pha pa are objects of motion. Similar to Buddha relics, Buddha images, and amulets, they move through the landscape and dictate that Buddhists perform certain kinds of actions in their presence.
Visually, sawng pha pa occupy their own genre. The outer envelope usually features some sort of floral border, a red stamp of the official temple seal, and the text almost always rendered in an ornate Thai font such as TH Srisakdi or equivalent. Without a doubt, the irreducibility of the genre is defined by the trademark blue color of the text and design motif. I have a hunch that this persistent blueness is a hold-over from the days of the mimeograph, whose blue-to-purple color duplicates were the hallmark of mid-century grassroots print media. I have yet to get my hands on any old sawng pha pa, but my theory is that these were once produced in small batches by temples using the relatively cheap and utilitarian printing technology of mimeograph (or its equivalent ditto/spirit duplication). Over time, the pervasiveness of the blue color produced by mimeograph solidified into a stable aesthetic that people now expect in their sawng pha pa. This is all conjecture on my part (that's why it's in a blog), but it is helpful to remember that, when wondering about the origins of certain religious aesthetics, the constraints of media can become an important element of a visual vocabulary, even long after said media has died off.
If my hunch is correct, and sawng pha pa-blue is mimeograph-blue, there are implications that extend far beyond the mere aesthetic of the objects themselves. These letters are technologies of connection, they draw devotees and support to temples while uniting communities and broadcast news far and wide. The utility of sawng pha pa is reminiscent of how the advent of the mimeograph allowed everyday folk to define community through the production of low-cost print-media. Churches made pamphlets, summer camps printed out bulletins and daily schedules, history teachers printed out worksheets on Thomas Edison, Anarchists wrote zines, and work-by-day revolutionaries pumped out Prussian blue propaganda.
Above images: 1. Chinese Version of ‘Political economy terminology textbook, ‘ compiled by the Marx-Engels-Lenin-Stalin Translating Bureau of the Central Committee of the Communist Party, published by the Shih-tai Ch`u-pan-she, Peiping, in 1956” (preface) Source; 2. Some Zine called "Haereticus" Source; 3. Camp Beacon Rock's publication "The Midnight Doughnut" Source; 4. "First Grade News" Source.
Hue is history, and mimeograph-blue is Buddhist history, Christian history, Anarchist history, and history homework history. This color blue is the slice on the spectrum through which people created the material media upon which communities depend. Given the history of the word in blue, it is hard to ignore the fact that our small-scale modes of personal broadcasting are still blue-washed to this day.
Is mimeograph-blue the first shade of social media? Is it a coincidence that Facebook, Twitter, Skype, iOS mail, Safari, and a host of other apps are branded with different shades of this bygone technology? Does the color itself foreground acts of community and connection?
After all, we are all here together under the one blue sky.
Less subtly than their blue color, The rhetoric used in sawng pha pa invites and creates community. Many of them start with the stock Thai Buddhist phrase ขอเชญร่วมทำบุญ meaning something like "join us in making merit" or, less elegantly, "you are invited to communally make merit." These are letters strung together with words that imply cohesion--สามมัคคี (unity), ร่วม (join), ได้ร่วมกัน ([to do] something together) and so on. It is no great revelation that religious activities create community, but in sawng pha pa we have these perfect little packets of rhetoric and aesthetics that facilitate this process in a brick and mortar sort of way. They not only give details as to ceremony schedules, temple council members, important monks who will be present at special events, and so on, but they also directly indicate what type of members are invited into the Buddhist community--ผู้มีจิตเมตตาประกอบด้วยศรัทธา (those with minds of compassion and faith), พู้ใจบุญใจกุศลทุกๆท่าน (all those with virtuous and charitable hearts)--These are the types of people addressed in these letters, the types of people that Thai Buddhism aims to produce, and maybe even the types of people that Thai Buddhists aspire to be.
The process of creating community is not without its obstacles, however, and one sawng pha pa that I have translated gives a glimpse into the inner-workings of community, and how sawng pha pa are themselves tools for solving certain types of problems. Here is a translation and rough analysis of the sawng pha pa in question:
Join us in making merit by offering a pha pa for the construction of a door at our arched gate and an exterior wall.
Offerings to be presented at Wat Phra That Doi Khao Khwai Kaew, Tambon Robwieng, Amphoe Muang, Chiang Rai Province
Saturday, the 15th of February, B.E. 2557 [C.E. 2014]
at 9:39 am
Name of donor....................................................................................................................................................
House number.................. Village....... Tambon..................... Amphoe...............Province......................
Having the spirit of faith, donates this amount............................... of baht (...........................................)
May the power of the Triple-Gem protect and care for [this person whose name is above]. Bestow upon every member of his or her family prosperity in age, position, health, vigor, wisdom, and affluence in wealth of every type.
The outside of the envelope evidences and facilitating the process of merit making. It is combination book-keeping, blessing, and crib sheet. During the merit making ceremony, the presiding monk will often hold the envelope in his folded hands, securing it with his thumbs, and read aloud the personal information of the donor at the appropriate time in the Pali chant, which confers merit upon the proper individual. The appeal to the Triple-Gem at the very bottom of the envelope will be read as well, often as the final line of the chant.
I am interested in this final line of the envelope, the appeal to the Triple-Gem, and how it is perceived outside of the ceremonial context. When read by an everyday person, where is the appeal's voice of authority? Do the aesthetics of the thing lend authority to the disembodied voice that calls upon the Triple-Gem in the hermeneutic moment, or is the power of the appeal only active when read aloud by a monk? Is its efficacy temporary, and fleeting, just one more aspect of the sawng pha pa's quality of motion?
Due to the fact that Wat Phra That Doi Khao Khwai Kaew has been revered as an extremely old and precious temple in Chiang Rai for many years, and because it is an ancient site with a Buddha-Relic Cedi, it is an appropriate place to pay obeisance and respect where virtuous people come far and wide to make merit and donations of faith. It has visitors from all walks of life and of various intentions. Some come to worship monks as they chant, some to meditate and practice, some to make merit and donations, while others come to take in the unparalleled view of Chiang Rai. They come and gaze at the buildings of the city, or the outer areas and the rice paddies. They look out to find forest temples stitched into the surrounding mountains, seeing things both near and far. They behold the shine of the evening, fine, beautiful and magnificent in their eyes. It is for this reason that groups of youngsters, boys and girls together, come up and drink liquor and beer. Fondling and flattering, singing and dancing, they fill the temple with their revelry. Their bottles of booze, which litter the temple grounds, offend the eyes other visitors, and are indeed a scandalous site. Therefore, the temple has a construction project consisting of an arched gateway, a gate, and a surrounding outer wall that will open and close with the time of day. At this time the arched gateway has already been completed but we are still without the gate and surrounding wall because we are badly in need of materials. We have therefore sent out this pha pa letter in order to attract materials for the construction of the gate and surrounding wall so that they can be completed along with our other construction projects.
We therefore humbly invite the devout and compassionate to join us in expanding our temple through the faithful act of communally presenting a pha pa on the aforementioned time and day. This request is made with the utmost respect.
[Signed] Phra Khruba Sanong, abbot of Wat Wat Phra That Doi Khao Khwai Kaew [and] Phra Somphong, assistant to the abbot.
 Materials (จุตปัจจัย) the four requirements of monastic life.
In this letter we see sawng pha pa being used to solve a specific community problem--teenagers drinking beer, being loud, and taking advantage of the romantic vista seen from the temple grounds. What is most interesting to me here, however, is the literary voice of the abbot, Phra Khruba Sanong. He gets poetic and playful in his description of the problem:
พะเน้าพะนอคลอเคลีย (fondling and flattering),
ชมแสงไฟในราตรีก็สวยสดงดงามตระกานตาดี (behold the shine of the evening, fine, beautiful, and magnificent in their eyes).
This language is high and artful. In Thai, it is pleasing to hear, full of assonance and alliteration. This is not a disembodied voice, or a ceremonial voice, but the voice of a wordsmith, a skilled writer who can sculpt words into images and emotions.
Poetry is only one of Phra Khruba Sanong's skills, he is also a talented artist, designer, and crafts-person (crafts-monk?).
Look out for more bog posts about him and his gentleness and dedication to Buddhist arts.
over and out.