Ancient Demosthenes summed it up by saying, “As a vessel is known by the sound, whether it be cracked or not; so men are proved by their speeches whether they be wise or foolish.” Others have implied that the empty vessel makes the loudest sound. I have observed, however, that genius and mystery are sometimes discovered in the cracked pot.
I first heard of the Plain of Jars during the US-Vietnam conflict in the 1960s and 70s. The U.S. had showered Laos with more missiles than it had dumped on Germany and Japan combined during World War II. The Xieng Khouang province was one of the most heavily bombed targets in history with about four billion pounds of bombs dropped during the Pathet Lao offensive to try to cut off the Ho Chi Minh movement of the advancing North Vietnamese. Many of the bombs did not explode and still present a problem. Sightseeing on the Plain of Jars can be done only on cleared and marked pathways.
Never did I dream that one day I would actually get to visit the Plain of Jars, located on the high plateaus of the mountains of Laos. I had been asked to perform needs assessments for several Laotian hospitals in the area that had requested donated medical goods from Project C.U.R.E. Just outside the city of Xieng Khouang was located one of the ancient sites where the mysterious hand carved stone vessels still remained. The jars were huge, up to nine feet tall, the largest weighing fourteen tons. Most were carved of sandstone, others of granite. Some were round, others angular, and most were hand chiseled between 500 B.C. and 900 A.D., and then, somehow, they were transported from a distant rock quarry to the present sites.
It reminded me a lot of standing out in the countryside in England and trying to figure out why the massive rocks of Stonehenge were balanced as they were. How were these massive jars transported? Who carved them? How were they used? What civilization placed them here? What happened to some of the lids that used to cover them? Did they bury people in them? Did they store water in them? There were thousands of the megalithic vessels around the Xieng Khouang area.
Traditional Lao stories and legends explain that a race of giants ruled by a king called Khum Cheung fought long and valiantly and eventually beat their enemy. He supposedly then created the jars to brew and store huge amounts of rice wine in the vessels to celebrate his victory. Another local tradition states the jars were molded, using natural materials such as clay, sand, sugar, and animal products, in a type of stone mix. They believed that a nearby cave was actually a kiln, and that the huge jars were fired there and were not actually hewn of stone.
Some legends claim that the jars were used to collect rainwater for caravan travelers along their journey at times when water was not available. The rainwater would then be boiled for safe use.
Initial research of the Plain of Jars in the early 1930s claimed that the stone jars were associated with prehistoric burial practices. Excavation by Lao and Japanese archaeologists in the intervening years has supported this interpretation with the discovery of human remains, burial goods, and ceramics around the stone jars.
The nearby cave is a natural limestone cave with an opening on one side and two man-made holes at the top of the cave. The holes could have been used as chimneys of a crematorium. Some archaeologists excavated inside the cave in the early 1930 and found material to support a centralized crematorium theory.
The Plain of Jars could have been a burial site. Inside some of the jars have been found glass beads, burnt teeth and bone fragments, pottery fragments, iron and bronze objects. The stone jars initially may have been used to distil the dead bodies. In contemporary funerary practices connected to Thai, Cambodian, and Laotian royalty, the corpse of the deceased during the early stages of the funeral rites is placed into an urn, where the deceased undergoes gradual transformation from the earthly to the spiritual world. The ritual decomposition is followed by cremation and secondary burial.
While exploring the megalithic archaeological landscape in Laos, I kept wondering what I could learn about empty jars and cracked pots. One thing I did know was that there certainly was a lot of confusion about the mission and message of the ancient traditions and practices. It was muddled and hidden enough that no one could really be certain now, even though it was incredibly important to the folks involved back then.
I concluded that the genius to be discovered was that compassion is not a megalithic jar to be filled, but a fire to be ignited. When that fire is ignited, and its energy and warmth is focused on a needy place like Laos or Cambodia, the white-hot flame will be extended not just into the years ahead, but into eternity. Project C.U.R.E. volunteers who spend their energies passionately collecting, sorting, warehousing, and distributing health and hope around the world are indeed messengers. They are human vessels with a message that will not be forgotten. The collective vessel is filled with the pulsing heartbeat of over fifteen thousand individuals who compassionately love and care for others.
Hope can do exceeding good to the vessel in which it is stored, and multiply thereby the goodness onto which it is freely poured.