It seems like wherever you go in Thailand there is a temple. Even villages often have impressive temples. The tourists are all busy clicking away on their cameras and admiring the structure, the gold leaf and the fancy carved shapes of the temple.
And when they have seen a dozen or so temples they get tired of them and proclaim that they all end up looking alike after a while.
The Thais look at their temples with very different eyes. They see many aspects that are totally hidden from the tourists. Not that anyone is trying to hide anything, but you really have to live in Thailand to understand why the temples are so important to the Thais.
And no, it is not their fancy shape. There are some dilapidated temples and even old temple ruins that are highly revered. Why is that?
Historical and cultural memories
Or the temple might remind them of a special occasion when a member of the king’s family visited.
It might bring up memories for them of an earlier time in their history.
Maybe it reminds them that they themselves helped build the temple, or that their name is engraved on a thin metal plate which was placed inside the Buddha statue.
All of these examples are invisible and meaningless to a tourist, but they are deeply meaningful to the local Thais.
Thai temples are quite different from Christian churches. They have many functions besides being places of worship. Christian churches have certain times when there are services, and this is the only time when the congregation assembles.
At other times the church might even be locked. But even when it is open, you generally only see an occasional visitor come in for a prayer. The atmosphere outside of services is very quiet. Loud noises are considered inappropriate and disrespectful.
In contrast Thai temples do not have regular services at fixed hours when the congregation assembles. Instead there are many events happening. Here are just some examples:
- Every morning the monks go out and collect alms.
- Some temples host regular markets on their grounds.
- Thais recognize many “Buddha days” throughout the year. On those days there are often special ceremonies in the temples, and people are streaming in and out of the temples all day long.
- Even during the construction phase there are frequent ceremonies and gatherings. Often the Buddha statue is carved by a group of artists right in front of the congregation.
- Sometimes the locals organize a fund raising drive. Then a “money tree” is carried by a large procession to the temple where the funds are presented to the monks. These events can be quite raucous with people drinking, loudspeakers blasting out music or chanting, and local musicians doing drumming sessions.
- Some Thai temples host massage shops or healing events
- The resident monks have daily chanting sessions.
- Some temples have “monk chat” sessions where monks answer questions by the audience. Those are normally done by Thai monks in the Thai language. However in temples that are frequented by westerners, those chats are sometimes in English as well. I have even seen western monks holding chat sessions.
Blessings by monks
Thais engage the monks for many events. They include marriages, funerals, the opening of a business, the completed construction of a house or anything else they want blessed. This involves hiring the monks for a fee to attend the ceremony and chant for a certain amount of time.
Most ceremonies are not complete, actually they are unthinkable, without the presence and the blessing of monks. Thais also seek out personal or individual blessings by monks in the temple.
Some temples specialize in providing meditation retreats. Many Thais will spend one or several days at such temples to purify themselves. Some of those temples cater to foreigners and every year thousands of them spend between one to two weeks at such meditation retreats.
In the old days temples were often the only places to get an education. They were the school system. Nowadays Thailand has a normal public school system, but to this day temples function as an important educational institution.
Traditionally all young boys spend some time as novice monks. This might be a few days or a few months. During that time they shave their heads, study Buddhist principles, learn meditation and are trained to be aware of a spiritual aspect of life.
Purpose in life
Thais have a deep connection to their Buddhist culture. Their temples are focal points that serve to remind them of their purpose, their goodness, their connection to a higher source, and a deeper meaning of life.
Good karma and after life
Buddhists believe in karma (the law of cause and effect) and in reincarnation. The monks in the temples always emphasize the importance of living a life that results in good karma and an elevation to a better life in this one and in subsequent births.
Buddhism is often seen not so much as a religion, but as a way of life, a code of conduct, a set of moral principles. The monks are the proponents and examples of this life style.
Thais offer merit on a regular basis. This means they offer flowers, incense and money in their temple while praying for whatever benefit they desire. Most Thais do not make a distinction between praying for spiritual or material benefits. Prayers might be for a better job, more money, a good wife, a child, a solution to a problem, the cure of a health issue, etc.
Residence of famous Thai monks
Some temples in Thailand have the distinction of having been built or inhabited by famous monks. They might have been highly spiritually evolved, they might have inspired the construction of an important road like Chiang Mai’s Kruba Sivichai.
Or they might have been famous healers, or they were closely connected to a Thai king, or they lived an ascetic life in a cave which later became an unusual temple.
To sum it up, when we look at Thai temples, we mostly see the exterior, the architecture, the design. When the Thais look at the temples, they see a social fabric, part of their history, a pathway to a better life, and a connection to something that gives meaning to their lives.
The author, Shama Kern, has been living in Thailand for over a decade. His wife is a Buddhist and Thai citizen.
Shama can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org