ASW In Action

The Origin of Rice Merit Network:
The Wisdom of the Karen Peoples on Rice and Money (A Brief Note)

 

Dr. Sunthorn Womjomporn,

Director, Karen Rice-Merit Network,

RTRC, Chiang Mi, Thailand

 

[Translated by Francis Ferguson, 2008]

In the lifestyle of us Pgaz K'Nyau, we believe that rice is of the utmost importance. Our ancestors said that, "If we have enough rice to eat, then everything else will follow on of its own accord." (bu mei koov auf, taj le av gaz qu keiz le hki sei) Our ancestors told us folklores to warn us repeatedly of this, to give us illustrations of this, to make us aware, to teach us and to help us grasp its significance unswervingly in our lives. They told us:

"Once upon a time, the money god said to the rice god that even if there were no rice he could continue to live. The rice god said to the money god that this was not so. If you don't have me, you cannot live. However, the money god stuck to his opinion. Because of this, the rice god went away from the money god and hid in a cave which no one could enter, because the mouth of the cave was opening and closing all the time.

The next morning, the daughters and sons, and the grandchildren of the money god were crying. The money god tried to pacify the daughters and sons, and the grandchildren by giving them money, but however much he gave them they would not stop crying. By chance the money god spotted a small amount of rice stuck to the bottom of the pot, so he gave it to his daughters and sons, and the grandchildren to eat and it turned out that the daughters and sons, and the grandchildren stopped crying quite nicely.

The money god thus understood that the only thing which could make the daughters and sons, and the grandchildren stop crying was rice, so he asked his servants to enquire where the rice god had run off to. The servants made enquiries and found that the rice god had hidden in a cave that was very difficult to get into. The person who can go into the cave must be very swift and nimble. The money god called the Indian pipit (htof hpgiv bird) and asked it to go and get the rice god back out of the cave. The htof hpgiv bird flew into the cave and catching the rice god, flew out again with him. When the bird was flying out of the cave, the mouth of the cave pinched the bird's throat just a little, and made its wattle move down onto the back of its neck, where it is to this day. When the rice god returned the daughters and sons, and the grandchildren had rice to eat once again. The life of the money god and the daughters and sons, and the grandchildren returned to their usual happy state."


We believe that rice is the subject-person that gives us real life, and we also believe that having enough to live and sufficient to eat is the mainstay of our lives. We cultivate our fields, planting rice and other food crops, and we know that we are not rich with property and money, we know that we will not be rich and wealthy, that we just have enough rice and other food crops to eat through the years, but we choose to carry on our lives in this way.

This is the wisdom of our ancestors, who passed on to their daughters and sons, and grandchildren over many generations, as in their teachings, which say:
















 
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The Origins of Rice Merit Network

 

Rice merit ceremony was setup based on the wisdom of the Karen people as the folklore mentioned above (conflict between rice and money), and traditional Buddhist practice of believers making donations of rice to the Buddhist temples which has been practiced for a long time in Thailand. Traditionally, Thai farmers have setup “Rice Banks” where farmers save a portion of the rice harvested for common use by the villagers during times of bad harvests and shortage of rice. This practice helps to overcome the problems of hunger and rice shortage among hilltribe communities for a long time. Building on this, the farmers from different villages get together to initiate projects both for material purposes (i.e., to respond to the problem of rice shortage) as well as for spiritual purposes (i.e., to encourage the virtue of being a giver and for mutual help and sharing). Farmers set up local committees for these projects which undertake campaigns and collect rice from different rice banks in various villages in order to give to other villages in need.

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