Since Thailand is 93% buddhist (64 millions people out of 67), i thought it would be a good time to have a little refresher on the topic of buddhism and the role of buddha to better understand our surroundings, people’s beliefs and local culture.
The temples, the ruins
So we get to Thailand and after the first day or two of acclimatization, we start to seek things to do and see.. and we end up going to temples and ruins without fully understanding what we are looking at. Of course it’s pretty, some of the smaller temples have this halo of serenity but still, we cannot get the full picture.
So after some research and the visit of many more temples and museums, here is the top line: Buddhist temples in Thailand are known as “wats“, meaning an enclosure. All of them have an enclosing wall that divides them from the secular world and makes them a holy place because they represent the pure environment of a Buddha. So they are designed to inspire inner and outer peace, which is the feeling we got very quickly.
In the enclosure there are always several buildings:
- The main Chedi (or stupa or prang or pagoda depending on the style) is the central element, usually conical or bell-shaped. It contains the relics of the Buddha or other buddhist objects.
- The Bot is the holiest prayer room where sits a large image of Buddha. Monks and worshipers pray in this room, bringing offerings and burning incense. It is also called the “ordination hall” as it is where ordinations of new monks take place.
- The roofs are decorated with Chofas which represent the mythical creature Garuda, half bird, half man who are guardians of the temples. It’s a very distinctive feature of Thai architecture.
- Additional smaller chedis and buildings (library, monks quarters) can be found in the temples depending on the foot print of the temple and its religious importance.
In the beginning it was slightly awkward for us to stay in the Bot, mainly because we didn’t know what to do or how to behave. Do we sit? Do we look around and leave? Turns out that like in a church, people pray, make offerings and pay respect to the Buddha, so it was just a matter of understanding the rituals and what is appropriate to do as a non-buddhist.
You can greet the Buddha’s Statue either by a simple bow with the palms of both hands placed together as an expression of reverence and gratitude, or you can do 3 full prostrations for a deeper respect for Buddha’s teachings.
Bowing it is for us, and sometimes we sit in and spend several minutes relaxing – vagabonding in spirit – and thinking of what the Buddha stands for.
Siddhartha Gautama was a prince in the north of India and was meant to be a great king or a holy person before he was even born. His father wanted him to take the throne, so he kept him in the castle, providing all entertainment, education and distraction a boy could want. At age 29, he married his cousin (weird..) who became pregnant. The same year, he went outside the palace for the first time and encountered pain, death and suffering among other human beings and caused a deep trouble in his mind.
He kept on thinking about how to free himself and others from sickness, ageing and death. Finally, he decided he had to leave the palace, his wife and new born child to become a homeless monk. His ultimate goal was to understand life and what caused suffering. For over 6 years he went on his ascetic life and tried different teachers and meditations styles, but none of those were satisfying to answer his question of suffering.
Finally, he discovered the Middle Way: a path of moderation away from the extremes, and he became the Buddha, the Enlightened one. At the time of his awakening he realized complete insight into the cause of suffering, and the steps necessary to eliminate it. These discoveries became known as the “Four Noble Truths“, which are at the heart of Buddhist teaching:
- The Truth of Suffering (Dukkha) is that all conditional phenomena and experiences are not ultimately satisfying;
- The Truth of the Origin of Suffering (Dukkha) is that craving for and clinging to what is pleasurable and aversion to what is not pleasurable result in becoming, rebirth, dissatisfaction, and redeath;
- The Truth of the Cessation of Suffering (Dukkha) is that putting an end to this craving and clinging also means that rebirth, dissatisfaction, and redeath can no longer arise;
- The Truth of the Path Of Liberation from Suffering (Dukkha) is that by following the Noble Eightfold Path (see chart at the end), behaving decently, cultivating discipline, and practicing mindfulness and meditation, an end can be put to craving, to clinging, to becoming, to dissatisfaction, and to the cycle of death and rebirth.
Pushed by the Gods, Buddha then started a long journey of sharing his learnings with other humans.
Now that we have uncovered a bit more of what Buddhism is, I want to go back to the Buddha images inside the Wats, because it took us a while to understand what they meant.
They represent the 8 positions of the Buddha for the 7 days of the week. Based on your birth day, dropping a coin or two will bring you good luck and improve your faith.
Sunday: In Pensive Thought. The enlightened Buddha stands with hands crossed over his abdomen (right hand over the left). The Buddha contemplates his achievement of complete knowledge under the Bodhi tree.
Monday: Preventing Calamities / Stopping the relatives from fighting. The Buddha caused heavy rain to pour down on the city of Vesali infested by poverty, cholera and devils. So heavy that it cleaned the city of all dead bodies and uncleanliness.
Tuesday: Reclining Buddha. It represents the historical Buddha during his last illness.
Wednesday Morning: Holding an alms bowl (alms = aumone)
Wednesday Evening: Retreat in the Forest.
Buddha spent the rain retreat on his own in the forest which was attended by elephants and monkeys.
Thursday: Meditating in the yoga posture. The Buddha will make a vow of not moving until he finds the cause of suffering and its ending.
Friday: In Reflection. The Buddha wonders how he can explain the cause of all suffering to others.
Saturday: Sitting in meditation, protected by Mucalinda’s cobra hood
Buddhism and Vagabonding?
I have never been a philosopher nor a great religious person. But it’s easy to comply with Buddha’s teachings as part as our ethical code. Compassion, Virtue and Meditation as practical solutions to manage our desires feel right.
In many instances during our trip we could feel disappointed by a situation or we had different expectations for the day. It was easy to let the feelings/passions of the moment roam free and not be happy, when we actually had all the reasons to be.
So, trying to be more aware of the instant, concentrating on our feelings and taking a few minutes everyday to meditate are the learnings we got from the past few weeks.
Additionally, the idea of enlightenment or Nirvana seems to be pretty universal to mankind for its transcendental character. Regardless of the race, sexe or age, human beings are ultimately looking for ways to be fulfilled and content.
For more details on Buddha, you should watch the great PBS documentary:
The Noble Eightfold Path to achieve Enlightenment. It is said that they are more a set of “recipes” to try in real life rather than hard commandments from the Buddha.
|Wisdom||1. Right view||Viewing reality as it is, not just as it appears to be|
|2. Right intention||Intention of renunciation, freedom and harmlessness|
|Ethical conduct||3. Right speech||Speaking in a truthful and non-hurtful way|
|4. Right action||Acting in a non-harmful way|
|5. Right livelihood||A non-harmful livelihood|
|Concentration||6. Right effort||Making an effort to improve|
|7. Right mindfulness||Awareness to see things for what they are with clear consciousness;
being aware of the present reality within oneself, without any craving or aversion
|8. Right concentration||Correct meditation or concentration, explained as the first four jhānas|