"TERA เถระ" from Behind the Subtitles
Text by Miho Sentoku (Japan-Thailand performing arts coordinator / "TERA เถระ" subtitles translator)
To start from the conclusion (yes, we’re beginning at the end, and since this essay is riddled with spoilers, I’d recommend watching the performance first before reading any further), the theme of this theatre piece is “death.” But it doesn’t give the slightest impression of being heavy or oppressive—on the contrary, a serene atmosphere permeates the performance, with the presence of nature that’s even soothing. Perhaps TERA เถระ has this particular quality because it was born in Thailand. In Thailand, more than 90 percent of the population are devout Buddhists, and most people believe in Saṃsāra (cyclical reincarnation or transmigration). In this country, the worldview of Yukio Mishima’s "The Sea of Fertility" isn’t entirely fiction.
For Thai people, then, “death” is not the end of everything, but an occasion to go on to the next life, a point of passage towards rebirth. A Thai friend of mine says “we part with the dead with a smile.” How would our view of “life” change if we stopped seeing “death” as something to detest, something to struggle against, and, instead, accepted it with open arms? By the time I finished watching the TERA เถระ performance, I felt as though I’d caught a vague glimpse of a path leading to an answer.
I am not an expert in religion, nor do I specialize in philosophy, but I was fortunate to have this opportunity to work on the Japanese subtitles for this theatre piece. And through this experience, I became another member of the audience who loved it. I truly regretted not being able to go to the venue myself to watch it live. In this note, I want to share with you what makes TERA เถระ so captivating. What I’ll introduce below are all features I can’t possibly cram into the subtitles: those secret ingredients that give the piece its rich flavors, working their magic from deep within. Though I’ll only cover a small part, I’d love to tell you about some of those subtle charms of the play.
TERA เถระ, in the Latin alphabet, is written as “TERA Tera.” It’s not just a repetition of sounds, though. The “เถระ” in Thai is actually pronounced “tē-ra” (with an elongated “eh” sound), and it is a name for elder leaders of Buddhist priests who have undertaken more than ten years of spiritual training. The “Thera” in “Theravāda” Buddhism is the same word. Interestingly, it also resembles the Japanese word for a temple: “tera.” This curious connection first attracted Kop-san, the director of the Thai production, and she came up with this playful title.
"The Cat Who Went to Heaven"
TERA เถระ makes use of the Japanese Tera's structure, which draws inspiration from Jūrō Miyoshi’s "Daffodils and Wooden Fish: A Verse Drama" (1957). The Thai production adds another dimension to this by weaving in the world of "The Cat Who Went to Heaven" (1930), a children’s book by the American author Elizabeth Coatsworth.
"The Cat Who Went to Heaven" is a story of a calico cat, who longs to be included in a painting of the reclining Buddha; the artist who owns the cat; and the old woman who takes care of the artist. After appearing in 1930, it won the John Newbery Medal, which is considered the most prestigious award for children’s literature in the US.
In the original novel, the cat is named “Good Fortune.” In TERA เถระ, the cat’s name becomes “Warssanar,” which is Thai for “fortune,” and instead of the reclining Buddha, the artist is painting a mandala. While the reclining Buddha represents Buddha’s entry into the parinirvana, implying his release from the cycle of Saṃsāra, the mandala symbolizes a spiritual journey. Bringing in the image of the mandala made it possible for the play to portray the cyclical story of death and rebirth in transmigration.
Shigeru Okamoto and Kae Yamada
In TERA เถระ, the artist is named Shigeru Okamoto, and the old woman is Kae Yamada, but Coatsworth’s book doesn’t name either of these characters. Where did these names come from? They sound like people you’d run into if you lived in postwar Japan. I was so curious that I had to ask Kop-san. Here’s what she shared with me:
Indeed, what a back story for the two names, which give off an air of a bygone era, as if they came straight out of Japan from the Taishō or Shōwa periods. In this context, 72-year-old Kae’s self-introduction (around 14:04) makes more sense now, if we look at it as her “return.” Incidentally, “Kop” means “frog” in Thai (and “frog” in Japanese is “kaeru”), but according to Kop-san, this has nothing to do with Kae. Also, the house where Kae and Shigeru live is inspired by Denchū Hirakushi’s home and studio in Yanaka, Tokyo, that Kop-san visited before.
As you can see, Kop-san, who is also an instructor of Aikido, built the world of TERA เถระ on her deep knowledge of Japanese culture.
Phaya Nark the Dragon Deity and Guardian of Buddhism in Northern Thailand
At the beginning of TERA เถระ, as the audience walk into the temple’s precincts, resonant with the voices of sutra recitation and the chirping of insects, what awaits them is the world of Northern Thai folklore with Sonoko-san playing the two parts of Mae Bua Khiao and Phaya Nark the dragon deity (from around 5:23).
Mae Bua Khiao’s folktale is well known in Northern Thailand. A widow who survived a natural disaster, her name “Mae” means mother in Thai, “Bua” means “lotus,” and “Khiao” means “green.” In a temple in Chiang Rai, there is even a small shrine which houses her statue, and there are always many worshippers there. (It’s said that she brings good luck for winning lotteries.)
By comparison, Phaya Nark protects Buddhism over a much wider region. In temples across Northern Thailand, Phaya Nark in the form of a large serpent adorns various parts of the architecture, including the stairway leading to the temple, the gates, and both ends of the ridgepoles of the roof. Also known as Nagaraja, Phaya Nark is a mythical creature that originated in India and is the half-sibling of Garuda, the legendary bird depicted in the national emblem of Thailand.
Here’s a link to a Facebook album made by a tour company in Chiang Rai, which shows Wat Pa Mak No, a temple with a shrine devoted to Mae Bua Khiao. You can see statues of Phaya Nark and white eels as well. The statue of Mae Bua Khiao is in the fifth and sixth photograph.
The Many Ways of Unraveling Death
TERA เถระ is packed with all kinds of material, ranging from Northern Thai folklore, art, and music to Tibetan Buddhism and even geology. In the latter half of the play (from around 55:00), Sonoko-san performs Sufi whirling, and if you listen to the geologist talking about the possibility of earthquakes in the past (from around 1:07:50), you’ll start to feel as if the legends might have actually taken place in history.
By the way, the white costume that Sonoko-san is wearing as she dances, which billows out gracefully just like the traditional outfit in Sufi whirling, is something she designed herself based on the traditional clothes of an ethnic minority in the mountains of Northern Thailand. It’s a remarkable garment—she can easily change its shape to portray multiple roles and move freely to perform different dances and choreography, and, on top of that, it looks comfortable to wear. Am I the only one who’d like to buy it if it was on offer?
What fascinates me about this theatre piece is not only the costumes and the artworks that embody the essence of Northern Thai culture, but also the world it creates. Every scene is beautiful, and every time there is a change of scene, the view changes dramatically, and the sounds, smells, even air are transformed in a moment, as if you turned a kaleidoscope, the new vision falling into place with a little clink. Without realizing, you are gradually drawn into the world of TERA เถระ, and, eventually, you are enticed into the world of meditation. A crucial part of the play’s power lies in its venue, Wat Pha Lat.
Wat Pha Lat
The temple in which TERA เถระ was performed, Wat Pha Lat, dates back more than 500 years and is located in the Doi Suthep-Pui National Park in the northwestern region of Chiang Mai. There is another temple called Wat Phra That Doi Suthep inside the Park, perched on the summit of Suthep mountain at an elevation of 1,080 meters. During their pilgrimage to this famous temple, monks would rest at Wat Pha Lat. Ever since Wat Phra That Doi Suthep became more accessible with the construction of a road in 1935, it has become a temple for monks’ meditation. But the path of pilgrimage is still in use as the “Monk Trail.” Laypeople can also use this trail to hike to the temple, which takes about an hour. At one point in the play, we hear about this “Monk Trail” from a Wat Pha Lat monk himself (from around 34:30). Personally, I’d love to visit this temple for meditation—where there are no tourists, no souvenir shops, no WiFi—and experience meditating there.
If you’ve watched the video, there’s no need for me to tell you how wonderful the music of TERA เถระ is. But in particular, I’d like to draw your attention to the string instrument called phin phia, which appears in the scene of mediation. It is a difficult instrument to play: so difficult, in fact, that there is seldom an opportunity to listen to it. It usually has two or four metallic strings, and it is mainly played by men, plucking away for women at night (though in the old days, women used to play it too). According to Ajarn Krit, who played it in TERA เถระ, phin phia was originally used for religious rituals.
What is especially unique about this instrument is the coconut shell (or sometimes gourd) that is attached to it for the effect of resonance. The performer presses the shell against their chest while playing the instrument. The heartbeats of the performer mingle with the sound of the strings, and the resonating vibrations wash over the listener like a rippling wave. It feels as if its music is guiding the meditation of audience members who might be unfamiliar with meditating. There’s a close-up view of the instrument (around 1:19:47), so I would highly recommend that you check it out.
The 108 Questions of the Wooden Fish
The question-and-answer segment where the audience strikes the wooden fish is a signature scene of the Japanese TERA. The Thai TERA เถระ inherits this element too. Instead of hitting the wooden fish, the audience scrapes or strikes a wooden frog güiro, the handheld percussion instrument that you often see in Southeast Asia. Just like the audiences in Japan, they all look like they’re having fun. The questions are mostly the same as in the Japanese play, but there is a slight difference in the following:
When it’s translated as “richer” in English, the subtle nuances are lost, but in Thai, they are using a word that includes the meaning “profitable.” In any case, the issue of foreign labor must be a familiar topic for both sides: the country from which people depart and the country which receives them.
I wonder if this suggests that finding a solution to alleviate the burdens of everyday life may be, perhaps, a more pressing issue than the problem of artificial intelligence.
To me, it feels quite like Thai to ask about happiness instead of unhappiness.
I feel that we can catch a glimpse of the present society of Thailand and Thai people’s ways of thinking even in such little moments.
From the days of preparation to the premiere of TERA เถระ, COVID-19 was raging through the world. In Thailand, the discontent that had been building up towards politics and the monarchy exploded, leading to large-scale protests, resulting in the government and the army’s crackdown on activists, which was as harsh as a purge. These events were all over the news, day in and day out. It was a time when it was difficult to feel positive about living. That this theatre piece came into existence in Chiang Mai and was broadcast to the world at this particular time in history seems to have a significance of its own.
I am deeply grateful to Ajarn Bhusdee Navavichit, who oversaw the preparation of the Japanese subtitles, paying close attention to all the details of the play and supporting us warmly until the end of the online launch. Only two months after the project’s completion, she suddenly passed away. After 49 days—the time when the spirit of the dead roams in the liminal realm between birth and death, according to Tibetan belief (as the play explains around 42:00)—her body was returned to the ocean of Thailand. Then, where is her soul now? When she departed, did she recall TERA เถระ? Sadly, it turned out to be the last project that we worked on together, but I’ve already decided that in our next lives, we will certainly meet again, and when we do, we will watch TERA เถระ together.
Thank you, TERA เถระ.
(Translated from Japanese by Yui Kajita)
TERA เถระ is available for on-demand streaming from Friday, November 19 until Sunday, December 26, 2021. Please visit the link below for details including ticket information.
*Tickets are available for purchase until Sunday, December 12.
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