I had a few hours to kill yesterday morning. My train from Laos arrived early at 6am and I couldn’t check-in to my hotel until noon-ish. I dropped my bag off at the hotel and just took my iPad and Kindle with me. I was going to go to a coffee shop and read the Irish Times on my iPad and check my email and Facebook, you know, modern world things. On a whim, I decided to go to a local Wat or Thai Buddhist temple. I was feeling in a calm contemplative space and wasn’t too keen on getting spaced out by the photo luminescence from my iPad or sundry gadgets. Going somewhere quiet seemed just the ticket.
Wat That Thong is a local working Wat and not really part of the tourist trail. The word temple is a bit misleading as Thai temples are more like medieval monasteries than modern day churches. This one covered a large area and had several temple like structures as well as a school, health clinic and lots of other buildings. Many monks live there as well. The complex is built on the grounds of two older temples, Wat That and Wat Thong. For that they combined the names and named it Wat That Thong. Inside the main temple there’s a golden Buddha image and that’s where I went. I first thought I would just sit and rest and take in the atmosphere and this is what I did.
I belong to the school of ‘see one golden Buddha and you’ve seen them all.’ I’ve been to several temples in Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos, even one in Malaysia, and they’re all much of a muchness. I’m not trying to be irreverent here but SE Asia Buddhism is very specific to the culture and history of the region and, to me, seems very inaccessible and foreign. This means that I’m in the position of being an observer and not really a participant although I consider myself a Buddhist and have done so for almost 50 years, but more about that later.
The temple was similar to others I have seen. The main shrine was in a large hall beautifully decorated and containing one huge golden Buddha and several smaller ones. The way this one was arranged reminded my of my days as an alterboy in Dublin back in the 50s. Our local church, St Gabriel’s, had a main altar and two side ones, one to Mary and I don’t remember who the other one was. I used to serve 7.30 mass there every morning for a long time. I remember the devotion I used to feel in those days although I knew, but couldn’t afford to admit, that there was no god there on the altar and that the statues were just plaster and that the whole thing was just made up. Even in those days my head and heart were split apart. Nevertheless, I did feel devotion. I could compare this memory to what I observed in the Thai people and how they related to the Wat, monks, images of the Buddha etc. I tried to put myself in their shoes by remembering how I used to feel. Of course this didn’t work, it just started to make me feel alienated.
I was thinking these thoughts as I was sitting in the temple just taking in the calmness of the place and letting memories from my own past bubble up. There were about a dozen Thai people already there, just sitting or chatting quietly amongst themselves. Nearly all were elderly and most were dressed in rainy season robes which means that they were lay people who had taken temporary ordination during the rainy season. There was one monk there sitting on a chair and reading some text. I wished to talk to him but guessed that he didn’t speak English, as few Thais do. He also didn’t invite me with his eyes to connect with him. Thai people, or at least the ones I have observed, tend to mind their own business and only make brief eye contact with strangers. This was very obvious in places of enforced intimacy such as long distance train journeys. I spent a lot of time in sleeper carriages with Thai people and they generally left me alone unless I initiated contact. I did this a few times but the language barrier was frequently a big problem. I did share a 4 berth carriage once with two young men who were on a business trip. They were delightful and I felt “adopted” into an extended family. They made sure I got food and water from the attendant and wanted a photo of me with each of them. This was sweet. I was a bit shocked at first about the differing concepts of personal space Asian people have. The two men folded their bodies into what I, as a European, consider personal space. I immediately experienced this as both an existential threat and erotic. Of course, it was neither. I practiced a technique I have learned during my stay in Asia, I yielded! This has happened several times. For some reason, Chinese tourists like to have their photo taken with me. Go figure!
During the time I was there, several locals came and went and made donations of flowers or money, prostrated before the Buddha images and prayed for a while. I noticed the gentleness in their gestures and the kindness in their glances when they interacted with each other. I found this very beautiful and refined. Generally, I really appreciate the lack of aggressiveness in Asian men. Maybe the work ‘lack’ is the wrong one to use as it suggests an absence of something. When I compare groups of Asian men with groups of Western men, I value the refined consciousness and social cohieveness of Asia. I always feel safe here, even around groups of young men.
Anyway, after about half an hour, I decided to get off my chair and meditate. Just as I settled myself into meditation posture, dozens of monks floated in, their saffron robes and gentle natures very pleasing to the eye. It was time for morning prayers. A senior monk chanted the Refuges and Precepts in the old language of Pali used during the Buddha’s lifetime. I have chanted these thousands of times during my days as an active Buddhist and knew them off by heart. I struggled to follow the chanting as the Thai accent and intonation meant that I could not really understand what was being said. Nevertheless, despite a reluctance to being different, I chanted what I thought was right and it went ok.
It is considered very bad form in Buddhist SE Asia to sit higher than a monk so the monks sat on a raised platform in the front of the temple. This meant that I could see them. I was surprised at how very young some of them seemed, some just like schoolboys. There was only one older monk. I got thinking about my own days as a Buddhist practitioner when I lived in communities and was on an ordination pathway. This was with the Friends of the Western Buddhist Order (FWBO), now the Triratna Buddhist Community. The movement was formed by an Englishman, Sangharakshita, in the 1960s and integrated western philosophy and experience with traditional Asian thought and practice. I remembered my days in the shrine rooms of the FWBO and how disparate a group they were. I mean as Westerners. There would be blond ones and dark ones, hairy ones and bald ones, expensively coiffured ones and raggedy-headed ones, tall ones and short ones, skinny ones and big-boned ones, calm-eyed ones and wild-eyed ones, ones of this world and ones out of this world as well as the occasional other-worldly one, door slammers and door closers, self-contained ones and uncontained ones, quiet ones and noisy ones, big bony noses and pert little buttons of noses, bit flappy ears and little ones like seashells, bulging eyeballs just about to pop out and inscrutable little slivers, eyebrows like they came from the Sargasso Sea and ones like a manicured English lawn, etc etc etc. you get the drift! The Asian monks I observed all looked fairly similar, at least in outward appearance. They all had short dark hair, Thai features, etc. They all had their differences, of course, but the similarities seemed far greater that the differences. To my noisy European monkey mind this appeared very harmonious and pleasing and indeed pure.
I noticed as well that most of the monks were not at all focused during the ceremony, which did go on a bit. They fidgeted a lot and were constantly adjusting their robes, which looked fabulous by the way. I think being a monk in Thailand is like national service. But that is none of my business really. As I constantly do over here, I struggled to be consistent with my own beliefs and opinions while at the same time being open to a culture I don’t really understand. I think this is called being congruent.
The ceremony ended, all went their separate ways and I went back to he hotel to check-in, shower, change my clothes and have a nap. Ah, the hard life!