When I paid my first visit to the Kingdom in 1977, I had a basic understanding that Thailand was a Buddhist nation. It was an understanding similar to my understanding that the first Atomic Bomb had something to do with uranium – in other words the harsh reality was that I knew nothing.
Of course there was no problem in that ignorance. Thais in general then as they are now are fairly easy about Farang indifference to their religion. This possibly has something to do with one of the great tenets of all schools of Buddhism, which is that proselytizing is frowned on. Of course Thais tend to be pleased when foreigners express an interest in Buddhism, but conversely can be dismayed at the sight of Farangs pointing their feet or treating Buddha images with disrespect. The stories of ignorant foreigners sitting on Buddha images and copping the full wrath of the law are legendry.
Now of course whilst to many foreigners, Buddhism in Thailand is just a colourful backdrop to their holiday in Thailand (and lets face it – Buddhist Temples and Monks have launched millions of beautiful photographs) other Farang’s have discovered that it is an opening window on Thai culture.
But in looking through this window many Farang including myself have sometimes ended up confused and scratching our heads. The growing influence of Buddhism has been one of the success stories in the west over the past 30 years. It has come about on one hand by the rejection of a materialistic explanation of life and at the other pole the rejection of an explanation of life based purely on faith. The emphasis in Buddhism on not accepting anything purely on faith and where the path in many respects is more important than the destination has a direct appeal to many westerners.
But once in the Kingdom the budding western practitioner of Buddhism occasionally will hit the confusion wall. He/She may have concluded that Buddhism is the great contemplative religion but subsequently is confronted by a devoutly Buddhist country that is highly intuitive but without a great deal of empathy with the contemplative path. In short Buddhism and its practice in Thailand tends to more felt than thought about.
What does the still interested Farang practitioner do in these circumstances? How to deal with animist practice and the not to occasional sight of sloth in the Sangha. Not only this but also the difficult path of understanding Merit making without out at times finding it a tad mercenary. My observation and solution is not to sweat it but rather in trying to see things from a Thai perspective. Just appreciating the enjoyment and spiritual fulfillment that Thais get from their living religion can be very enriching.
When I journey to the Kingdom, I now look forward to attending ordinations, Kathin and other ceremonies not only for their spiritual significance but also for the simple enjoyment of just being there.
The great paradox in my view is that whilst Thais have a great feel for Buddhism they quite often try to explain Buddhism to foreigners rather then give them room to feel it. Hence the sometimes fierce boredom of organised tours of Thai temples. I saw a classic example of this last year – not in Thailand but in neighbouring Laos but I hope the example is still valid.
As mentioned in a previous Blog, Luang Prabang is a stunningly beautiful town of 36 Temples. We visited many of these temples and were entranced by their beauty. At one temple we came across an organised party of about 30 French tourists. Although some of the tour party was attentive, the rest of their compatriots were quite frankly “templed” out. Several of the party remained outside of the temple having a smoke, whilst inside I saw a French woman sitting on the floor against a pillar, her mouth agape and gently snoring in the still warmth of the temple.
Today I still believe that their attitude would have been different if they were allowed the space to simply take in the beauty of the temples that they visited rather than instead being lectured about that same quality.
But no matter how well a Farang can learn to appreciate the Thai feel of Buddhism there will be times where an “East is East and West is west “ situation comes about. An example. About four years ago a village friend called Sahm was driving us back down to Bangkok. Sahm knows his way around Thailand the same way an experienced Taxi driver knows every street in London. As it was just outside the airport and on our way he asked whether we would like to visit the controversial Wat Dhammakaya with its famous/infamous golden “flying saucer” temple. We agreed.
Once at the boundary of the temple Farang and Thai soon parted company (culturally at least). My disquiet with the place started to grow from the moment uniformed guards made me surrender my video camera. Inside the temple complex I found the eerie quiet unsettling. The huge and somewhat crude Sala (as big as an airport terminal) that was being constructed with the wind howling through it was weird. Sahm on the other hand was entranced by the place – throughout the two hours that we were there, I was to hear him say repeatedly – “Big”, “Big”.
At the end of the day we were just two average Blokes – One Thai the other Australian, but we both observed in our minds two totally different temples. Who was right?
But in many ways Wat Dhammakaya was an exception in my experience of Thai Buddhism and over time have learned to accept what I perceive to be some of the idiosyncrasies of its practice in the Kingdom.
But getting back to the feel. I can remember a few golden hours that I once spent in the grounds of the Temple in the village of Ban Phutsa in Isaan. A cousin of Mali’s who had left the village a few years before had come back for a visit. He wanted to visit one of the village monks who was a childhood friend. We walked down to the Temple in the cool of the afternoon. Monk and friend were reunited and sat on the steps of the temple Sala yarning and smoking fat hand rolled cigarettes. I spent most of the time strolling the grounds of the temple and enjoying the beautiful sunset.
Finally it was time to go. The monk had walked back into the Sala and returned with a bunch of bananas, which he gave to me to take back to the house.
I don’t know what prompted the gift but I deeply appreciated the generosity and above all, its warmth.