Every person has questions about our existence. Where did we come from and where do we go when we die? Some people believe that if you live a good life and follow God then you will be welcomed through the golden gates of heaven. Others believe that once you die it’s just emptiness and nothingness. But then some believe even though we all die, we never really end, we’re just reborn and we start a new life as something else. Some believe that the spirit always lives on unless we break the cycle of life.
Thailand is a predominately Buddhist country and although there is freedom of religion here, the Buddhist values are strongly engraved into every aspect of Thai society. It is even in the government because the King can only be King if he is a Buddhist. While in Thailand I’ve been to many temples, and I learn more each day about the Buddhist religion. Although I am Christian, I can say that I respect some of the teachings of Buddhism. There have been debates over whether or not Buddhism is a philosophy or a religion, and I think that it depends on the way it is practiced. In Thailand I see it as a religion. Thai people practice what is called Theravada Buddhism. This form of Buddhism mixes animism and Buddhism together. Therefore a lot of the rituals that are done, such as tying ribbons on trees, or setting up tiny spirit houses, are done to please the spirits, and the practices do not come from the actually teachings of the Buddha.
Buddha’s teachings were all about suffering. He thought that people had to realize that there was suffering, realize that there was nothing anyone could do about the fact that there was suffering, and then realize that having attachments to things is what caused suffering. If someone could detach themselves from everything like the Buddha then they would escape reincarnation. I find Buddhism interesting because it is a self-journey, whereas other religions depend on a higher being; a person who is Buddhist depends on themselves to reach these revelations. But even though it is a self-journey, it brings Thai people together in so many ways.
Whenever I go to a Buddhist Temple I watch the people as they kneel before the golden statue and then bow down. I watch as all the people pray for things like luck, fortune, and happiness. And then I study them as they perform rituals such as pouring oil into lamps, or walking around a pagoda three times with a lotus flower in their hands. They have so many rituals that they can perform in order to receive merit. It is believed that the more someone makes merit the better their next life will be. So many Thai people visit temples often to make donations to monks and to make merit. Temples are really the center of Thai social life. I went to a ceremony at a temple once and everyone was getting their blood pressure taken there. I found it odd but I just went along and got my blood pressure taken too. Like the blood pressure event, there are many events that happen at temples that unite neighbors and bring everyone together. That is my favorite part of Thailand. It is a very communal society, and I think the reason for that is because most Thais are standing on the same common religious ground and believing in the same things. I’m not saying that people can’t come together without this sort of bond, but it’s like the majority of Thailand is one big Buddhist family, and they are all aiming for the same goal and trying to be the same way. They all bow down to the same golden statue, and they are all searching for the same blessings.
I went to visit a temple called Wat Doi Suthep. It was at the top of a mountain, and I had to walk up an extremely long flight of stairs. While I was in the temple there was a monk who was giving out blessings. A bunch of people walked into the temple and all got on their knees in front of him. I decided to participate in the blessing with my friends. Everyone gathered around the monk with so much respect and lowered their heads as they placed their hands in the prayer position. The monk then started chanting and sprinkling water on everyone. Afterwards the people all went up to the monk so he could tie yarn around their wrists. None of them knew each other and none of them knew the monk, yet they were all there together and they all were looking to him as this wise leader.
To me the most wonderful thing about visiting all of the temples that I’ve seen has not been learning how ceremonies work or seeing the monks, but learning about how community works and seeing how everyone is in accord. If you learn about community in Thailand then you’ll learn a bit about Buddhism as well. When watching the people practice their religion I realized that although Buddhism is mostly a self-journey, when people come to pray, to give merit, or to celebrate there’s always someone else beside them.