Spiritual therapy: "Calling the pralung"



Introduction

In Cambodia, some communities of Buddhist monks perform rituals with therapeutic virtues. One of them, the "Calling the pralung" text — "Hau Pralung" (ហៅព្រលឹង, say hao prɔ.lɔŋ) — is celebrated on two occasions: for a Buddhist monk's ordination and in the event of a long-lasting illness. This study focuses on the latter case. 

We have concentrated our study around a series of ceremonies celebrated in a single monastery. The general philosophy remains the same in the other monasteries, only the form differs.

We approached this study both as an ethnomusicologist and a healer. It is therefore not only a scientific approach, but a true sharing of the Khmer belief, the fruit of our personal experience.

In order to ensure a perfect understanding of notions that are sometimes absent in the West, "Cambodians" are the subjects of the Cambodian Nation. They are made up of various "ethnic groups": the "Khmers", the majority and traditionally Buddhist even if some of them are now Christians, and a number of other groups, a minority at the national level, sometimes a majority at the local level (Jarai, Kreung, Bunong...), mostly animist with pockets of Buddhists or Christians, Chams of Muslim religion, Sino-Khmers who have emigrated for a long time, Chinese, etc.

 

New contributions from this study

If this ritual has already been the subject of a few publications (see Bibliography at the end of the page), this research analyzes the material and immaterial ingredients contributing to its effectiveness.

 

Definitions

First at all, the two terms that name the ritual "Hau Pralung" must be defined.

> Pralung ព្រលឹង. The various authors translate it as "soul", "vital breath" or "vital spirit". However, as no translation is really satisfactory, we have preferred to keep the generic term. It is believed that the Khmers possess nineteen pralung. But no one can explain this number, both mathematically prime and singular, by the rarity of its use. In our opinion, it could be linked to the traditional Khmer counting system which allows, with one hand, to count up to nineteen, that is to say fourteen phalanges plus five fingertips. Still according to the belief, physical or psychic illness is due to the remoteness of a certain number of these pralung, without anyone knowing how to identify or count them.  The notion of pralung is not exclusive to humans: all beings (animals, plants) live precisely because they possess pralung. The Khmers ensure their subsistence by cultivating rice, a plant whose "body" also contains nineteen pralung. The houses and objects important to the life of the Khmers are also inhabited by pralung, incorporated during specific ceremonies. 

> Hau ហៅ. Literally "calling". Since distant souls are at the source of evils, it is appropriate to call them back so that they can return to the bosom of the sick person, that is to say, to both his body and his environment.

 

Conception of the disease among the Khmers

The "Calling the pralung" text, sung in whole or in part during the eponymous rituals, cites three times the existence of nineteen pralung, highlighting at the same time the way in which physical and mental health is understood among the Khmers. According to the belief, when a person is ill, it is because some of their pralung has escaped. If the person has died, it is because the nineteen pralung have gone. This point is corroborated by the text since the patient experiences a symbolic death before being reborn. Here are the three excerpts concerned:

 

"Here is why my sacred and effective mantras attract you, all nineteen pralung of this body, all the indolent pralung that were entrusted to the arakh អារក្ស from various places, which were taken away to keep in various villages and rice fields. » 

 

"My call comes to an end, O nineteen pralung, come back together, free from suffering, danger and misfortune. »

 

"On this very day, which is a propitious day, of extreme happiness, the nineteen pralung arrive and return to their home. »

 

Christians and Buddhists have different approaches to suffering: the former conceive that individual progress is the fruit of the suffering one has to go through. The latter focus on giving individuals the means to fight it without considering it as a source of progress. 

It is still believed that the distance from pralung takes place at key moments in an individual's life: endangerment (great punctual stress), important transition from one situation to another (existential stress). Popular expressions indicate this relationship between a state of mental or physical health that has changed from normal and the equally sudden distancing from pralung. In the case of sudden stress, the pralung's reaction is just as immediate: some people move away from the pralung immediately. In the case of fainting, the Khmers believe that the nineteen pralung move away temporarily. Thus, any psychological or physical suffering, any stress modifying the normal state of the individual, is due to the pralung moving away. During their journey, they risk getting lost and being captured without being able to find their way back, which adds to the stress of the individual. It is precisely the role of the ritual to invite them to return.

The mental illness apprehended by the West through various pathologies such as schizophrenia, depression or bipolarity, is qualified by a single Khmer term, chhkuot ឆ្កួត, meaning "possessed by demons".

 

Traditional therapeutic remedies

In case of illness, the Khmers resort to self-medication, based on traditional magico-religious practices and preparations based on plants and/or animal substances. In case of failure, they rely on two types of characters from outside the family: 

The kru គ្រូ (from the Sanskrit guru, master, guide). He is part of the village universe; he communicates with the entities of the original spiritual universe of the Khmers (animist) but also with deities belonging to the Brahmanic and Buddhist pantheon. Each practitioner has his own entities and recipes. He is also a traditional practitioner who knows the so-called traditional remedies.

Buddhist monks use sacred Buddhist texts, but given the integrative particularity of Theravāda Buddhism of Cambodia, they also deal with Hindu deities and animist spiritual entities.

In urban areas, the Khmers increasingly resort to Western medicine through allopathic self-medication and private or hospital medical consultation. Recourse to pralung recall occurs when the patient has exhausted all or part of these recourses unsuccessfully.

 

Location of the ritual

While the "Calling the pralung" text exists in many Buddhist monasteries throughout Cambodia, this study focuses on a ritual that takes place almost daily at the monastery of Wat Trach, located in Bakong district, Siem Reap province. It is built in the archaeological site of Chaw Srei Vibol where there are several Hindu buildings from the early 11th century. This geographical area has been constantly populated since the ninth century, while the other Angkorian areas have experienced deep numerical crises of settlement. This monastery is somewhat distant from the village areas. It is located in a zone protected by the Apsara Authority, manager of the Angkorian temples. It has a special atmosphere. The main monk seems to have been there since the foundation! Peacocks, roosters and geese wander under the building dedicated to rituals. Bird cages are hung on the walls. A hornbill in freedom points from time to time the end of its beak. Dogs and cats roam freely in this chaotic universe where nothing seems to have been tidied up since the origins. The result is an incredible feeling of "end of the world" which, let's say it right away, contributes to the effectiveness of the ritual. Going there already represents an effort that underlines the will to heal for the one who takes the step.

 

Initialization of the ceremony

The ceremony is initiated after the patient has made an appointment with the monks. On the morning of the ceremony, the monks and a team of lay women prepare offerings, some common to most Buddhist ceremonies, others specific, such as rice pasta figurines or the palm-leaf staircase.

 

The patient

In order to facilitate our communication, throughout this study we will refer to the person who submits to the ritual as a "patient". Furthermore, in an attempt to prove the effectiveness of the ritual beyond cultural attachment, we followed both Khmer and Westerners who do not speak the language and are religiously detached. The benevolence of the lay logistics team made it possible, through appropriate gestures, to effectively remedy the misunderstanding of the language.

 

Permeability of Theravāda Buddhism

According to Khmer belief, the individual is part of an interdependent cosmic Whole composed of the living world (human, animal, vegetable, mineral), deities (Buddhist, Brahmanic, mixed), spiritual entities of various natures (animistic: beneficial, evil, ambiguous) and "living" objects (statues and objects invested with pralung breathed during specific ceremonies). If the vitality of one of them wavers, the whole is affected. 

To understand the stratification of the spiritual entities of the pralung remembrance ritual, we need to go back in time. Originally, before the penetration of Brahmanism and Buddhism in Cambodia around the first century CE, there were only two interdependent blocks: on the one hand, the polynuclear family living in a civilized space made up of dwellings and a cultivated space, and on the other, the wilderness with its spiritual entities. The interdependence was exercised between these two blocks. The civilized block most certainly experienced a primary village level, but of lesser importance compared to what we know today. Such structures and practices continue to exist in the border regions of Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam among the non-Buddhist animist ethnic minorities.

With the development of Brahmanism, around the 6th century CE, small kingdoms, then a true empire, the Khmer Empire proper, composed a concentric societal interdependence whose heart was the royal court (of Brahmanic religion then Buddhist under the reign of Jayavarman VII, late 12th early 13th century). The court encompasses village communities and then, hierarchically, families and individuals. From the 14th century, the Theravāda Buddhist clergy infiltrated the existing spiritual world and became the main religion of the country until the present time. But to penetrate the Khmer society of the time, Theravāda Buddhism had to show ingenuity. Before the 14th century, the successive Hindu or Buddhist royal courts probably had little control over the populations living far from the palace in the heart of the primary forest. These populations were animist. The Buddhist clergy therefore had to take precedence over the rites of marriage, initiations, funerals and ceremonies for the original spiritual entities. It would seem that the contribution of new knowledge in relation to death and life after death was decisive in the success of their enterprise. However, even though Theravāda Buddhism succeeded in unifying Khmer villagers around the Buddha, it could not teach all individuals. This is why it was forced to leave a minimum of permeability to local beliefs by incorporating them into Buddhist rituals, offering de facto continuity to the existing. This is the case of the ritual of the recall of pralung.

 

Khmer rituals

The Khmers perform rituals at various levels: individual, family and village. Some of them, concerning all Khmers, are performed by the religious authorities of the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh. At all levels, the rituals mix animism, Buddhism and symbolic elements belonging to Brahmanism since the Royal Court of Cambodia continues to maintain a squad of Brahmins as the first great Buddhist king Jayavarman VII did already at the end of the 12th and beginning of the 13th centuries. Khmer rituals are both endogenous (animist) and exogenous (Buddhism from India, royal ceremony of the Sacred Furrow of Chinese origin). Khmer beliefs are permeable to everything that can make life easier, with all the shortcomings that this implies. Let's mention Mammon (or his Khmer equivalent of wealth!) who became the "divinity" to which the Khmers now devote their lives most clearly. 

 

Hypnotic virtues of the ritual

Let us now try to understand how the ritual works on the energetic and neurological level. We will briefly analyze the ingredients likely to lead the patient into an altered state of consciousness (ASC) in the light of Western knowledge.

Hypnosis is a temporary state of escape from tangible everyday life. It is known that to achieve this, each individual needs different stimuli. In Western practices, a first meeting between the therapist and the patient is generally necessary in order to get to know each other and to develop a strategy linked to the patient's personality and the nature of his or her problems. In Cambodia, the monks only know the patient's name (at the last minute, when they have to evoke it) and date of birth in order to determine the opportune date for the ritual and the nature of the rice paste figurines to be made, depending on the horoscope. It is therefore on another level that we must look for an answer. We believe that all the ingredients of the ritual contribute, with a certain variability, to lead the patient to an ASC. 

 

Physical implications of the patient in the ritual

Physically, the patient is variously involved in the ritual. His position varies: kneeling, sitting on his heels facing the monks, lying down, prostrate, sitting on the ground with his legs bent or stretched out.

  1. At the beginning of the ceremony, the patient, kneeling and sitting on his heels, holds a bowl filled with sand and pricked with incense sticks. This is a cetiya, a common ritual object in the countries of Theravāda Buddhism. In Cambodia, cetiya are performed during Khmer New Year and at other times to obtain, among other things, forgiveness for past karma. The monk pronounces words (a form of the Christian mea culpa): "I am doing a sand cetiya, for the third time, allow me, on behalf of the cetiya of the world, to do a sand cetiya; allow me, I have been negligent in my body karma, my verbal karma, my mental karma... I bow, to Nirvana! ».
  2. The patient lies down to die symbolically in his old life and "be reborn" in a new existence.
  3. The patient is then kneeling, prostrated before the monks for a very long time. It is a physical ordeal.
  4. The patient is attached to a sort of "ring" made of a banana tree trunk, made according to his body dimensions and horoscope, on which a ritual battle is fought between the forces of good and evil. This is a form of exorcism.
  5. Purification with water ends the ceremony. It awakens the senses, especially through its freshness. 

Sensory implications of the patient

During the ritual, the patient is plunged into an "extra-ordinary" universe in which he loses his bearings. His/her six senses (according to the Buddhist meaning) are solicited:

  • The sense of smell: incense, candle smoke, animal excrement...
  • Hearing: prayers, songs, mantras, spoken voice, natural and human environment; in the particular case of this monastery (dogs, wild and domestic birds, visitors of the Venerable...). During part of the ritual, the patient does not see what is happening around him since he is placed in a position that prevents him from doing so.
  • The sight: chaotic place, monks, laymen, visitors, offerings, animals...
  • The touch: contact with the white tulle when the patient is lying down for a ritualized death, cotton thread uniting the speakers towards an image of the Buddha (statue, drawing or sand cetiya) cords tied around the wrists and ankles, blessing water of blessing during the ritual, purifying water at the end of the ritual.
  • The taste: ingestion of a hard-boiled egg whose symbolic role is to forget past lives. 
  • The mind: the whole ritual process. 

The permanent six senses' solicitation passively leads the patient to let go of the mind and to access an ASC. The only actions required of him/her are in the physical position: sitting on the ground without constraint, lying down (ritual death and rebirth), kneeling in prostration with hands joined together, then finally sitting down. In the West, it is easy to understand that a patient who is not accustomed to hypnosis may be reluctant to let go when confronted, for example, with an unknown therapist. Here, the ritual is "operative", without pressure, since the patient does not expect hypnotic therapy. Moreover, the patient is never alone with a monk, he is surrounded by family, friends, monks and lay people. This is probably one of the keys to the success of this ritual. The hypnotic approach is induced by the ritual without anyone questioning how it works. The patient is also reassured by the image of the Buddha in front of whom no one could normally commit irreverent acts. Even for a non-Khmer, such a configuration is reassuring. 

Part of the ritual is devoted to the symbolic death and rebirth of the patient; a rice paste effigy representing him is placed in a coffin made of a banana tree trunk. The coffin is closed and then taken outside for cremation. A poignant moment in the ritual is when the patient is covered with a white tulle shroud. During funerals, the Khmers wear this type of cloth to honor their dead. For a Khmer, lying on one's back (like a deceased person) and covered with white tulle is an impressive experience because it carries the symbolism of death. The ASC, at this precise moment of the ritual, could be described as paroxysmal. 

 

The immaterial ingredients of the ritual

Before tackling the most delicate part of this analysis, namely the mental and sensory implications of the patient, it is necessary to analyze the immaterial ingredients of the ritual, which are essentially made up of texts that are psalmodized and sung using various techniques.

Two categories of texts are sung: Buddhist texts from the Theravāda tradition and all or part of the "Calling the pralung" text (in the case of this ritual, only the final part of the text, in prose, was sung. See translation below). On the formal level, the former are opposed to the latter. The mass of Buddhist texts is such that the monks, in this ritual as in the others, sing with great celerity so that the ceremony does not drag on. Given the rapidity of diction on the one hand and the hermetic character of the texts on the other, only the sound components can operate on the energetic and neurological level. If the meaning of the texts is operative, it can be considered as magical or, depending on the acceptance of another level of understanding, as a real relationship with one or more spiritual entities. Generally speaking, what escapes comprehension is considered magical by the Khmers. It is opposed to the rapidity of the cantillation of the Buddhist texts, the slowness of the text of the recall of the pralung. It is a negotiation during which the entities involved are supposed to understand the content. The prayers of the monks and the incantations of the lay women create a cocktail of sounds that can immerse the patient in an ASC. 

In summary, on the one hand, the Buddhist texts aim to purify the patient's body and its environment, on the other hand, the text of the "Calling the pralung" text invites the patient to return to this purified body and space. 

Let's try to analyze the structure and formal symbolism of the text according to Ashley Thompson's translation, even if the whole text is not sung as part of this ritual. The first part of the text, poetic, is organized according to a canon in which verses and words are linked by various technical devices. There is rhyme, rhythm, alliteration, emphasis and, in a global way, a three-dimensional mandala-like construction starting from the top (the Three Jewels) and turning in pradakṣiṇa (clockwise) to the depths of the world through Brahmanic, Buddhist, Mixed and Animist deities. This text is Hindu-Buddhist in its structure (mandala), Hindu-Buddhist and animist in its content. 

What is the role of the mandala? The mandala allows life while fighting against natural entropy. To conceive a mandala, physically or as here virtually, is to guarantee balance. We know today that the Universe is expanding and that the probable movement that will follow this expansion will be a contraction. This principle has already been mentioned by the Vedas, the sacred texts of Hinduism for about 3,500 years. This expansion is considered entropic. For the Khmers, the disease is a disorder, a dangerous distancing from pralung. The pralung recall ritual is intended to counteract this phenomenon. What the West calls "disease-healing" is considered by the Khmers as "expansion-contraction" or "entropy-neguentropy". The "Calling the pralung" is therefore a negentropic ritual using, among other things, the properties of the mandala to bring back energy and societal harmony. Let us add to this abundance, the beauty of the chant for which the monk does not spare his efforts.

 

The prose of the "Calling the pralung" texte

We publish here the translation of the entire prose part of the chant of the "Calling the pralung" sung in smot by the monk of Wat Trach.

 

"Om srūp mahā srūp, the Master instructs me to pluck you from the peaks of the mountains, O little pralung.

The Master charges me to draw you, O great pralung taking refuge in the great trees.

The Master charges me to snatch you from the hands of the arakh spirits.

The Master charges me to extract you from the forests.

The Master charges me to extract you from the hands of the arakh spirits and the dhmap sorcerers.

The Master charges me to draw you, O pralung buried under the rocks.

The Master charges me to attract you, O pralung buried under the paths of the khmoc.

The Master charges me to attract you, O pralung imprisoned in the new rice pots.

The Master charges me to attract you, O pralung hidden at the edges of rivers and ponds.

The Master charges me to attract you, O pralung entrusted to the arakh spirits in the mounds, villages, crevices and rocks.

The Master charges me to attract you, O pralung buried in the holes of frogs and crabs.

The Master charges me to pursue you and to draw you, O pralung, from the waters and oceans.

This is why my sacred and effective mantras attract you from this body, O you nineteen indolent pralung entrusted to the arakh of various places, removed to guard villages and rice fields.

The Master charges me to extricate you from the mufles of oxen and buffaloes, from the mouths of fish and the mouths of wild beasts, from the beaks of raptors, owls and scares.

The Master charges me to extricate you from this sick man, O pralung.

Om siddhi svahah, listen to my commandments, I who am the Master."

 

A syncretic cocktail

The "Calling the pralung" text is based on endogenous material and immaterial ingredients common to most of the ceremonies of Theravāda Buddhism (offerings, cantillation of sacred Buddhist texts, blessings with lustral water, etc.) but also on exogenous elements specific to this ritual (cantillation of the "Calling the pralung" text, making of rice paste figurines, a ladder allowing the pralung to descend into the material world, divination, etc.).

The mixing of languages, vocabularies and pronunciations is also an important element of syncretism. Two languages and several levels of understanding are used in the ritual:

  • Commonly spoken Khmer language, to ask the patient to perform this or that act or to change position.
  • Sung common Khmer language, used by lay people (women) to call pralung.
  • Sung learned Khmer language: the text properly named "Calling the pralung" contains both poetry and prose. It is sung in a Khmer language with mixing of Pali and Sanskrit terms. The poetic stylistics (pad kākagati) and mixtures of vocabulary prohibit or limit comprehension for the uninitiated.
  • Sung Pali language: Pali is the sacred language of Theravāda Buddhism used to chant or sing the word of the Buddha. Depending on the level of education of the monks, it is understood or not. This language is misunderstood by the patients, even if they are Khmer. Khmer and Thai words are mixed, Pali words pronounced in a Khmer or Thai style.

Is the "Calling the pralung" a magic ritual?

In the Khmer beliefs' world, the more complex a ritual is, the more incomprehensible the languages sung or spoken, the more magical and effective it is. Also, from an endogenous as well as exogenous point of view, this ritual can be qualified as "magic" due to the lack of understanding of the totality of the functional aspects. Let us retain one of the definitions of the word magic: "The art of producing, by occult processes, phenomena which are inexplicable or which seem to be such. » 

So if there is magic, how does it work? Let us affirm it as a postulate: magic is part of the ritual. The description of magic processes could be the subject of an independent article. We will therefore limit ourselves to mentioning a few of them. There is, in the concept of magic, that of deceiving the conscious. Western medicine will speak of a "placebo" effect. For us, the "placebo" approach is a methodology allowing the patient to mobilize these internal resources of healing by broadening his field of consciousness, in particular thanks to the ASC in which the ritual plunges him. The latter is induced by the cocktail of chants, mantras, incantations, offerings, blessings, etc.. If Western hypnotic techniques are adapted to each patient, here the ritual offers a wide field of stimuli in which each one is supposed to find a way.

 

Effectiveness from the spiritual entities' point of view

Since it is a Buddhist ceremony, the main entity is the Buddha to whom all the protagonists are connected by a cotton thread. It is the most recent entity in order of arrival in the customs of Cambodia, since the development of Theravāda Buddhism dates only from the fourteenth century. It is materialized by a statuette or a drawing as well as by a rice paste figurine made by the monks for the occasion. We then find legendary characters from Hinduism and animist entities, also materialized by rice paste figurines. 

The entities invoked throughout the ritual have been aggregated over the centuries because of the intellectual permeability of the Khmers and, let's be frank, their vital needs, in a win-win exchange. In Cambodia, three spiritual universes rub shoulders: Theravāda Buddhism, Hinduism, which came from India in the first centuries of our era, and original animism. The "Calling the pralung" ritual is a concentrate of culture that has its roots in the India of Buddhist texts (-2,500 years), the Vedas (-3,500 years) and in the depths of the religion of the origins of the proto-Khmer people (animism, undatable); it has been shaped over the centuries by adaptations, aggregations and interpenetrations of ancient and emerging practices. 

The antiquity of the ritual and the diversity of the entities confer on it a power of attraction that leads to this remark: "If it was not effective, it would have disappeared". The offerings made to spiritual entities, both good and bad, have been the same for centuries. The entities invoked by the monks are benevolent and active, both from the point of view of belief and spiritual reality itself.

 

Contents of the "Calling the pralung" text

The "Calling the pralung" text handles with emphasis the formulas of respect, regardless of the nature of the entities. They are not without recalling the long protocolary preambles of colloquia and formal meetings in contemporary Cambodia! According to some researchers, this text would go back to the 17th-18th centuries. For our part, we think that there was a form of recalling pralung prior to Theravāda Buddhism since animist ethnic groups in the region practice this type of therapeutic ritual. The text is a skillful negotiation between the monk who sings and the pralung. Here are, for example, some verses from the text, (after Ashley Thompson):

"To you, the four mighty kings of extraordinary deeds, enjoying the perfect happiness of paradise and sovereignty, I dare to ask for your benevolent friendship. »

"The great Parameshvara commands me to meditate without ceasing. For you I feel love. »

"The family awaits you impatiently and calls you back, pralung. So come back; instead of going away to these forests, come and live with all of your family. »

"O my dear ones, there are tigers, huge and ferocious rhinos; there are also elephants and lions, panthers and royal tigers. »

As is always the case in international diplomacy, the text invokes entities according to an established hierarchical order. Here, since the country has been Hinduized and Buddhist since the beginning of the Christian era, it is a hierarchical organization in the form of a three-dimensional mandala

 

Dangers

Beyond its therapeutic objective, the "Calling the pralung" is a prophylactic text in the broadest sense. It warns against the dangers of tangible nature (animals, plants, minerals) and its intangible creatures (evil spirits, demons). It is also, as it were, a compendium of human behavioral disorders. If it is the role of the tale to recount the original fantasies, primordial organizing patterns of the psyche transmitted from generation to generation, this text could well be, originally, a tale. The very structure of the versified poem, with rhymes, rhythms, emphasis or repetitions, is reminiscent of the tales and legends of the proto-Khmer minorities of the borderlands of Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam. Western hypnotic techniques use personalized tales to achieve their ends; yet this "generalist" tale could pursue the same goal, even if it remains partially misunderstood by patients. 

The scenography of the ritual opposes two worlds or two face-to-face groups:

  • The monks, civilized, strong in their knowledge of the sacred texts, the "Calling the pralung" poetic text and the learned use of the smot // The patient deprived of his/her pralung, thus becoming "wild" again, accompanied by lay women with a "wild" voice. 

The text describes a dual universe, physical and mental, with very clear oppositions:

  • The forest's wild world with its wild plants and animals, evil spiritual entities and frightening sounds // The civilized village cocoon with the house, the loving family, its silk mats and woollen carpets, cushions and cloth pillows.
  • The world of evil spiritual entities associated with the visceral fears of the Khmers (the wild world described above) // The Brahmanic and Buddhist protective pantheon.
  • The infinite universe in which the pralung risks getting lost // The fantasized body of the patient and by extension his environment in which the pralung finds security and comfort.

Two sound universes also oppose each other:

  • The frightening sounds of the wild space // The melodious sound (smot) and the chosen words of the pralung reminder song. 
  • The melismatic chant of the monks using a whole poetic formal expressive arsenal // The strident voice and the direct formulation of the call of the lay women. This successive alternation, which is truly destabilizing for the mind, helps to lead the patient into an ASC beyond the meaning of words.

Wild Animals

The most characteristic are the wild animals that once (before the Khmer Rouge revolution) inhabited the primary forests; they are dangerous by essence or by the sounds they produce: "tigers, rhinos, elephants, lions, panthers, royal tigers, tiger cats, bears, wild oxen, buffaloes, fallow deer, wild dogs, monkeys, wolves, jackals, poisonous snakes, terrestrial and aquatic leeches. "Some animals not considered dangerous at first sight become so because of their behavior or their numbers: "Birds in large numbers; nocturnal birds, raptors, sultan chickens and gibbons make resounding cries, frightened ones scream. (...) butterflies rustle along deep forests; owls and owls with huge, scary eyes. »

Curiously, the crocodile, symbol of death, is not mentioned in the text; perhaps because it was once the totem pole of the Khmers of the plains and continues to represent them in funeral ceremonies.

Plants

Thorns all spiky; rotins and creepers.

Minerals

Gravels and burning sand.

Evil entities

Many evil entities are listed throughout the text.

  • Irascible kumphoan demons
  • Spirited grandchildren mreñ gangveal with curly and shiny hair, and terribly evil.
  • Etc...

Beneficent entities

Of course, beneficial spiritual deities belonging to the Hindu-Buddhist universe are also invoked. To all lords, the Buddha Tathagata — Pali name of Gautama Buddha or Shakyamuni — opens the ball since it is a ritual celebrated by Buddhists. Are invoked just after the Three Jewels of Buddhism: the Buddha, the Dhamma including all the teachings of the Master and the Sangha composed of the Buddhist community. Then come the four elements: Fire, Earth, Wind (Air), Water. Then the three founding deities of Brahmanism (Brahma, Shiva, Narayana (Vishnu), to which is added Indra, the king of the gods). Then the tevodas (celestial beings), the Son of the gods, the Holy Hermits and finally Vaishravana (or Kubera, god protector of Buddhist law and prosperity). Then come the entities and deities belonging to the Brahmanic pantheon, found both in the Reamker (Khmer version of the Indian Rāmāyaṇa epic) and in Khmer Buddhism theravāda : the King of the Neak (mythical serpent guardian of the Earth and the Waters), Varuna (God of the Waters and the Rain), Rama (Ream in Khmer, avatar of Vishnu who names the Rāmāyaṇa/Reamker) and Lakshmana, Rama's younger brother who accompanies him throughout the epic. Then are invoked the deities residing in mythological places: the sky of the Thirty-Three (Tāvatiṃsa, all thirty-three gods of the celestial kingdom of Indra), that of the Himavanta forest (mythical forest surrounding the base of Mount Meru, home of the nāga, the Garuda and the kinnaras), the caves, the air, the water and the sky. In order not to forget anyone, are invoked "all the supra-mundane beings, all the saints, the "deities overflowing with virtues". » 

Then the ten directions (described in the Lotus Sutra), Brahma's sixteen paradises, and the eight orients are invoked. The notion of direction characterizes one of the facets of Khmer thought. Even today, even in the urban fabric, the Khmers still know the orients perfectly well. One of the directional referents is the East, indicated by the entrance to the Buddhist temples. In Brahmanic times, then in the specific Buddhism of King Jayavarman VII, builder of the temples of the so-called Bayon period, each direction was guarded by a deity. In preamble, the text invokes the "deities of all the cardinal points" then each one of them is invoked particularly. The invocation is made in pradakṣiṇa, that is to say in clockwise direction, processional direction in Hindu temples. It is the direction of the course of the sun, here confirmed by the first evocation of the divinity of the East, orientation of life among the Khmers. Note that all Buddhist temples open to the East, like Hindu temples, with the exception of the temple of Angkor Vat, open to the West, and considered as such a "funerary temple". This evocation in pradakṣiṇa thus makes this text a hymn to life.

  • Dhatarattha who resides in the East
  • Great king Virulhaka who reigns in the South
  • King Virupakkha, eminently radiant, sovereign of the West
  • Vessavanna, protector of men, who enjoy supreme happiness in the North

Then the kings of the intermediate orients are invoked: "To you, the four powerful kings with extraordinary feats, enjoying the perfect happiness of paradise and sovereignty, I dare to solicit your benevolent friendship".

  • Khatgrama of the Southeast
  • Auguste Sora residing in the Southwest
  • Sovereign Srisaman God  of the North West 
  • Sura that reigns in the Northeast

Then come other deities directly related to climatology and rice production:

  • Varuna, God of the Waters and the Rain
  • Auguste Sun and Auguste Moon

Are also invoked the characters and deities of the Reamker:

  • Auguste Matali, coachman of the Gods

Are also invoked the deities integrated into Buddhism

  • Goddess Mekhala, Guardian of the Ocean

Etc...

The content of the "Calling the pralung" text

The interventions of the singing monk and the lay women are also characterized by substance. Through the text, the religious negotiates, as we have just seen, with various spiritual forces of the Universe: the Buddha, the Brahmanic deities, the animist entities and the pralung so that none of them lose face, the primordial requirement of all negotiation in Asia! The monk is alone in front of the Universe and its dangers. On the one hand, he uses a rich and chosen vocabulary to praise the divinities; on the other hand, he warns the pralung against the dangers of nature: dark places, evil entities, wild animals, thorny plants, burning minerals... This meticulous enumeration is not without risk for him because each life-bearing element (animal, plant, mineral) and each spiritual entity, is charged with a vital energy that could turn against him. This is one of the reasons why many monks, especially the one who sings in this ritual, are tattooed with symbols of magical protection. The Buddhist prayers and mantras (often inaudible) sung before and after the recalling of the pralung contribute, apart from their ritual effectiveness, to protect the monks themselves. 

The nature of lay women's voices is quite singular. We know of no other examples, in Southeast Asia, of words expressed both with such power and pitch. Each beginning of a sentence begins briefly as a chest voice and instantly changes to a head voice. The head voice provides great sound power and pitch without bruising the vocal chords. They repeatedly exhort the pralung to come back.

 

The formal sound component of the ritual

Negotiation is not limited to the meaning of words. The melody touches the hearts Khmers' hearts (but also of the Westerners involved, according to their testimony). During the cantillation of the text of the "Calling the pralung" text, the monk's voice and that of the women skillfully complement each other in the form :

  • The monk's voice: unitary, chest voice, low, medium tense, vibrant and melismatic, calm. The text is sung in smot, a style dating back to the 16th century. It is usually used to chant the life of the Buddha or the regret of the loss of a loved one at funerals and major Buddhist ceremonies. If one pays attention to the way the words are sung, one finds on the one hand deep, forced, relatively fast vibratos and melismas. Melism is an embroidery of the syllable on which the monk stops; the tone goes up and down to adjacent frequencies to form an aesthetic sound arabesque. Some ethnic minorities of Chinese origin, inhabiting the north of Vietnam, Laos and Thailand, also have such ways of singing. What characterizes these populations is their tonal language. A "tonal language" is a language in which the pronunciation of the syllables of a word is subject to a precise tone, i.e. a specific relative pitch or a characteristic melody. This characteristic prohibits any melodic movement contrary to the tone of a word. For example, if a word has a rising tone, the melody will not be able to descend on that word. In the case of tonal languages, therefore, it is the tones of the language that govern the melodic conduct, which tends to impoverish creativity. This is why, once the understanding of a word is ensured by the right melodic movement, the singer can stop on a word and embroider it according to a canon defined by his tradition. It could therefore be that this way of singing comes from a tradition that belonged to a tonal language society, which is the case of the languages of all the countries bordering Cambodia (Vietnam, Laos, Thailand) and even further afield, China. 
  • Women's voices: multiple, leading voices, high-pitched, tense, energetic.

The opposition of the two forms alternately creates calm and tension. Calm is characterized by the emanation of a calming energy (slowing of the heartbeat, calming of the mind, opening of the field of consciousness). Women's voices contribute to bringing the protagonists out of this torpor. This cerebral solicitation is reminiscent of the Scottish baths used in the CRPS (Complex regional pain syndrome) where hot and cold water alternate in order to deceive the brain and make it forget the pain. 

 

Acoustic, functional and magical virtues of voices

Humanity has long been aware that sound has power over the living, spiritual entities and the cosmos. Shamans are probably the actors in the world of spiritual communication who have gone the furthest in the mastery of sound: playing drums, rattles, jaw harps, voices, etc.. 

Within the framework of this ritual, the monk puts all the chances on his side to call and seduce the pralung. He spares no effort. On the other hand, the height of voice of the lay women literally contrasts with that of the monk; this is more of an injunction than a negotiation. 

The two vocal techniques used by both the monk and the lay women to call the pralung can be contrasted with the acoustic dimensions of the Angkorian martial orchestras. Indeed, the message must reach the limits of man's physical universe: dense forests, cave bottoms, the ocean... Sound propagation is sensitive to the environment. Where low-pitched sounds penetrate, high-pitched sounds fade, and vice versa. The war orchestras depicted in the historiated bas-reliefs of the great Angkorian temples (Angkor Wat, Bayon, Banteay Chhmar) are made up of instruments covering a wide spectrum of sounds, from the large frame drum with its low sound, to bronze cymbals with rich high harmonics, through long and short trumpets, conches and intermediate-sized drums with fixed or variable sounds. Acoustically, we find here analogies with the low voice of the monk, with slow diction, and the high-pitched voices of lay women, with fast diction. In Southeast Asia, the lower the sound of an instrument, the fewer the number of notes emitted in a given time, and vice versa for high-pitched instruments. One will notice the ascending portamento of the women, at the moment when they begin to sing; it allows them to pass from the chest voice to the head voice. The hourglass-shaped drum thimila offered this feature to the war band. The other possible analogy between these voices and the orchestra is the message carried. Indeed, the war orchestra galvanized the soldiers and sent them messages. The women do not shout, they call for pralung in the common Khmer language. Another analogy is that war orchestras, in the front line, were intended to cleanse the path of all harmful entities (such a practice is still active in Vajrayāna Buddhism of the Newar of the Kathmandu Valley). The powerful voices of the women seek to impress spiritual entities who might be tempted to capture the pralung, in addition to invectivating them and inciting them to return.

 

How does the ritual work?

The aim of this ritual is therefore to bring the escaped pralung back into the "bosom" of the patient. We use this broad term because the individual is part of the Whole and his personal pralung goes beyond the strict framework of his only body envelope. We can observe that the poetic text itself (which is not sung as part of this ritual in order to shorten the ceremonial time) has a structure of interdependence of verses between them and stanzas between them. If there are various reasons that have led to compose poetry in this way (aesthetic, mnemonic, symbolic...), this text shows how the Khmer way of thinking is not based on the individual, but on an interdependence of the "living": humans, animals, plants, minerals, deities, spiritual entities, statues and everyday objects with pralung breathed in during specific ceremonies. Another tangible proof of this interdependence is the cotton thread uniting the protagonists of the ritual to the Buddha. 

On the psychic level, the ceremony immerses the patient in an ASC without anyone (patient, monks, lay people) really being aware of its mechanisms. The ritual does its work without stressing the patient. Perhaps we could emphasize the differentiated methodology of Western medicine in which everything is understood, described and explained to the patient (at his request or not). To speak only of hypnosis, if the initial objective is to reassure the patient and sometimes also to satisfy protocols and legal obligations, this approach can also generate negative stress which makes the patient less available for effective hypnosis. 

If the West practices personalized hypnosis, it is also practiced within the framework of this ritual since the monks take into account the patient's horoscope in order to adapt the spiritual entities to be invited (rice paste figurines). 

The aim of the ritual is to prepare the patient for the return of his pralung. Indeed, if they left, it is because they had their own reasons for doing so. So why would they come back to find themselves in the same situation? The first part of the ritual consists in making the patient die in his old life to make him be reborn in a new existence. We could, for example, draw a parallel with a child who runs away from his parents' home because he is mistreated. What motivation could he find to come back to live in the same conditions? To hope for the return of their offspring, the parents must first understand the reasons for the departure and then change their behavior. In this pragmatic example, the family cannot analyze and find all the solutions alone. In this type of case, the extended family, the village community and the Buddhist clergy must intervene. This three-tiered organization provides psychological, social and spiritual support in Cambodia. In this ritual, lay women symbolically embody the village community. When the patient is Khmer, he or she is always accompanied by one or more members of his or her family and/or friends. 

 

The ritual in summary

So here are, in a summary way, the main phases of the ritual:

  1. Preparation of the offerings
  2. Acknowledgement of physical, verbal and mental karmic failures and application for forgiveness
  3. Symbolic death and rebirth
  4. Offerings to evil and ambiguous spiritual entities
  5. Preparation of the body envelope for the return of the pralung by the cantillation of Buddhist texts and lustral water blessings 
  6. Calling the pralung by Buddhist clergy and laity 
  7. Return of the nineteen pralung noted by lay women
  8. Knotting of the pralung on the wrists of the patient, and also of the viññean consciousness វិញ្ញាណ (animating force of the body of Buddhist obedience as opposed to animist pralung)
  9. Purification of the patient by water with prayer accompaniment.

Probable history of the ritual

We believe that this ritual was elaborated in consciousness by monks (and partly by shamans before them) with the aim of bringing the patient to a ASC so that the pralung finally accepts to return to a pacified and purified universe. The ritual acts both on the patient's microcosm (physical body, mental body) while involving the macrocosmic universe, both interdependent like the verses and stanzas of the pralung reminder text. The patient is one of the ingredients of the energetic Whole (in the sense that matter itself is energy). We know today that the living carries within it the capacity to reproduce, to self-sustain and to self-repair. By placing the patient at the center of the matrix of the energetic Whole, the ritual allows the initiation of a process of self-repair that begins during the ritual and continues over the course of days, weeks and months by the phenomenon of remanence well known to healers in particular. 

 

A catalog of behavioural disorders

The spiritual entities that populate the spiritual universe of the animists of Cambodia fall into three categories: beneficial, harmful and ambiguous. All are described according to the various human characteristics. With regard to the harmful and ambiguous entities, the brief characterological descriptions made in the text of the reminder of the pralung refer to human behavioral disorders known by Western psychiatry. We have listed the different types of spirits and demons dangerous to pralung (mreñ gangveal, khmoc, reachaphut, beisac, yakh, aso, khmoc priey ramboal). 

  • There are some little child spirits mreñ gangveal with curly and shiny hair, and terribly evil. 
  • In the forest, deceptive khmoc are cuddling you. (Narcissistic perversion)
  • In the forests there are deceptive khmoc and eloquent reachaphut spirits. (Narcissistic perversion)
  • If they cajole you, don't go (Narcissistic perversion); even if spirits of your parents insist on challenging you, they will always remain khmoc, impure and vulgar. (Gilles de La Tourette's disease/syndrome)
  • The beisac spirits will speak to you with sweet and deceptive words. (Narcissistic perversion)
  • Towards the South there are only awful khmoc, beisac spirits, countless yakh and aso demons everywhere; there are even ramboal priey khmoc — those feminine spirits that cause epidemics! (A misogynistic characterization showing that this text is masculine in conception; it is known that in his time, the Buddha left little room for women. Even if these spirits belong to the animist beliefs, the monks did not bring any censorship). Virgin women or women dead in childbirth! 
  • Dreadful, harmful and insolent khmoc.
  • Deceptive khmoc and reachaphut spirits in disguise.

From East to West

How can Western medicine be philosophically inspired by this therapeutic practice? We introduce here the notion of tetrad — "body-mind-soul-society" — because we have seen that the Khmers are not isolated individuals, but that each one is part of an energetic and societal Whole.  The fundamental evil of Western societies is the isolation of individuals. To speak only of the psychological aspect, the separation of the individual from the family and societal dimension is a problem that needs to be taken into account more acutely. 

Western medicine too often considers the individual as a body monad and, at best, as a body-mind dyad, ignoring the spiritual and societal dimensions. The individual must be recognized a minima in its triadic dimension, "body-mind-soul". The physical integrity of an individual depends on his ability to open his field of consciousness so that he can decide to live a healthy life rather than program a premature death. The international recognition of the benefits of meditation makes it possible to affirm this today. It is also worth mentioning that the therapist and Western society should recognize the existence of the sixth sense: the mind, malleable and educable. 

Moreover, the mental and physical integrity of an individual depends on the quality of his family and social behaviors. Westerners, and consequently Western societies, are sick with social isolation. It is thus advisable to consider the individual in his tetrahedral dimension: "body-mind-soul-society". The care of the patient in this dimension would thus contribute to the care of society itself.


Addendum

For those who would like to go further in understanding this complex ritual, we are (and will be) adding text and video elements. Feel free to ask us questions or make suggestions using our Contact page.

Hot testimonial

In June 2019, at Wat Trach monastery, Ida Monteau, a native French speaker, had a reminder of pralung made for her. We interviewed her at the end of the ceremony. Her testimony is eloquent. She understands neither Khmer nor Pali. 


Bibliography