A Tale of Temples
The past few days I have been meandering around the old city of Chiangmai, popping in and out of the many Buddhist temples scattered everywhere. Chiangmai is the temple capital of Thailand, hosting in the 2 km square old city and surrounding area more than 300. There is an expression common across southeast Asia that I became familiar with in Nepal: “Same, same, but different”. This is a perfect description of visiting multiple temples. On the surface they all kind of look the same; there is a large central pagoda-like building hosting inside an enormous golden statue of the Buddha which spans the wall. Surrounding the central prominent Buddha statue are a plethora of smaller Buddhas with various poses made out of different materials. Surrounding the statuary are colorful flower arrangements. In some cases there are also bronze or wax models of important monks or pictures of the royal family. Along one wall down the side of the building are wide platform chairs available for monks wishing to sit or meditate. The main floor is uncluttered and bare, sometimes covered partially with a thin carpet, where worshipers can sit or kneel. Scattered around the building along the rest of the walls are other types of icons, statues, wall paintings or candles. So a quick glance in one temple will convince you that “if you have seen one, you’ve seen them all”. There are differences, however, noticeable on close inspection and I learned more about those differences on a tour I took today.
One of the most important temples in the area is Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, referred to as Doi Suthep for short, located on a hill overlooking the region about 30 minutes from the city center. The temple, or Wat in Thai, is reputed to hold a relic from the Buddha housed in its ornate golden stupa. Because of the temple’s importance and rich history I decided to find a guide for a tour of the complex. My experiences in Nepal illustrated how interesting it was to visit the temples early in the morning so I was happy to find a guide who included as part of the tour exposure to and participation in the daily morning ritual of the giving and receiving of alms.
Consequently my guide, Tam, picked me up at 6:10 am and we headed out of the city to Doi Suthep. As it was early there were not many people on the roads, but I saw orange robed monks, young and old, walking down the streets with their alms bowls. Just before reaching the temple, we stopped at a village market to buy some food for giving the monks during alms collecting. While we were doing that I observed nearby four young monks in the process of receiving food from a woman and her child. The food was put in the alms bowl, the woman bowed, and the monks chanted their thanks. After that instructional example I felt ready to participate. We returned to the car and headed up the hill to the temple. Parking at the base of the steps I had a moment of deja vu. The temple, sitting on the top of a hill, required an ascent of 306 steps reminding me of the “monkey temple” in Kathmandu. The steps in front of me, however, were much wider and shallower than those in Nepal making the climb much easier. Perhaps the difference is due to the less abrupt change of altitude in the terrain in Thailand?
When we reached the top of the steps and entered the temple complex a family and a few others had already gathered with their offerings prepared so we joined the group. Around 7 am about 20 monks appeared and filed past in a line. Those of us waiting placed our offerings in their bowls as they passed. When all had passed the monks lined up in front of us in two rows and chanted their blessing. Tam told me that they were chanting blessings for health, happiness and success in life. I had gotten quite lucky in my selection of a guide as Tam had been a monk for about 15 years. During the course of the morning as we walked around the temple, he explained the background and nuances associated with monastic life in Thailand. It was an excellent tour as I learned a lot about Thai Buddhist practices which differ from what I had been exposed to in Nepal.
What struck me the most about the Thai practice was the extent to which Buddhism and its philosophy was woven into the social, cultural and to a certain extent, political fabric of the country. The monasteries, which admit children as young as six, have been the main source of education for the population for centuries. Historically parents, especially those with few resources, would send their sons to the monasteries for quality education. Monks, in addition to being provided an education, are taught the importance of and expected to do community service. In turn, the communities around the temples support the monks – providing via alms the food the monks eat every day, and occasionally labor or time if needed for projects. So the system is very synergistic for all parties, creating a strong cultural fabric. In addition as monks can decide to leave the monastery at any time and become lay people, this reinforces the importance of supporting the local monastery.
Tam mentioned that the number of young people interested in being monks has declined recently due to the increasing availability of education for all as well as the influence of modern communications. However as Thailand seems to be the center of education for all monks following the Theravada tradition, there are many monks arriving from other southeast Asian countries – Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Japan, China and Sri Lanka – for training. Being female, I had to ask about opportunities for women. Apparently women can be nuns and also female monks (very rare). The difference between the two, I was informed, is the number of rules required to follow. Nuns have only a handful, but female monks over 300. (Male monks have slightly less than 300.)
As we toured the temple grounds Tam gave me a running commentary on the statuary and the purpose behind all of the different poses depicted in the various statues of the Buddha. He also pointed out the differences between the Thai, Burmese, Chinese and Indian forms of the Buddha, something I had not paid attention to before. He showed me the different buildings in the complex, explained their purpose and how they were used. In addtion he shared with me the daily schedule for both the “city” monks, those in yellow and orange robes, and the “meditation”monks, those in the brown robes. It was an incredible morning and I learned so much!
On the way back to the city leaving Wat Doi Suthep we stopped at a meditation temple complete with constructed caves for extended meditation sessions. Tam had been a meditation monk and spent six years at this temple so again I had a great tour. While we were there we ran into one of his former students who was getting set to walk the hour into town to Chiangmai University where he studies at the Buddhist Univeristy located on campus. We offered him a lift. As he was majoring in English we had a nice chat along the way. There are two Buddhist Universities in Chiangmai. One is in the old city at Wat Chedi Luang and the other is part of Chiangmai University. Both institutes sponsor a program called “Monk Chat” , aimed at providing the monks studying English an opportunity to practice by speaking with tourists. I had stopped by and chatted with some young monks the day before at Wat Chedi Luang. Son, Tam’s student who we were delivering to the Chiangmai university campus runs the other one—it’s a small world!
We finished the tour with an early lunch of Pad Thai at a center where young women being released from prison learn vocational skills to help them acquire jobs. At the site we visited, which is in the middle of the old city, women learn massage, cooking, weaving, coffee barista, and how to run your own business. Apparently the massage facility is fairly well known on Trip Advisor and hence there is usually a wait list for appointments. As a monk Tam taught meditation and self-awareness twice weekly in the prison which is why he knew so much about the rehabilitation effort (there is also a parallel program for men too). I quizzed him quite a bit about the program as it was very intriguing. All in all a very informative, interesting morning. Later today, around 5 pm, I am going to place myself at a temple to listen to the evening chanting.
And some more random pictures: