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       Buddhism in Bangkok 

   

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Thais worship the Buddha, his 300.000 monks in the country and the many more Buddha idols. Thais also worship the spirits of their ancestors. Bangkok, the Thai capital, is the biggest Buddhist city in the world. The mega city is modern and also very traditional.

Let yourself be guided into an oasis of tranquility right in the heart of the buzzling town. On the famous temple grounds of Wat Pho you have the rare occasion to get to know Ajahn Piyobhaso. The monk will lead you to the treasures of Thai art and culture which are closely connected to and influenced by Buddhism. Ajahn Piyobhaso talks about "matter and mind" and introduces into the Buddha's teachings of how to overcome suffering.
You will learn about Thai massage - offered on the temple grounds. You visit a huge amulet market, where you can buy talisman with energetic power. You get to know remarkable traditional spots where ghosts and spirits even cats are worshipped for good luck. And if you do not believe in miracles, you sure change your mind. Take a boat ride on the Chao Praya River to find out by yourself at Wat Phailom.
 
 

Bangkok: Spirits, Monks and Buddhas

We are right in the centre of bustling Bangkok – it’s the evening rush hour.

Behind the high walls of Wat Pho tranquility, serenity and mystery prevail.

A great site to retreat.

The temple grounds are the most famous, the oldest and one of the largest in Thailand.

To describe this extraordinary Wat there are only superlatives.

The architecture is outstanding – the ornamentation unique. Golden roofs glitter - even when there is no sun.

Through centuries Thailand's monarchs have encouraged the best craftsmen and artists to build, enlarge and maintain the royal temples. It was the ambition of the kings to create and use Wat Pho not only as a spiritual Buddhist refuge, but also as the centre of Thai arts and knowledge.

Today the numerous temples and the monastery on the 20 acre large compound house a splendid collection of Thai cultural heritage.

The Assembly Hall - with a majestic Buddha statue - was built when Bangkok became the capital in the 18th century.

Thai society is very much influenced by Buddhism. Buddha images are most sacred symbols. Everybody treats them with respect.

You do not stretch your feet pointing to the Buddha!

To get a picture taken in front of the Buddha, you must not turn your back to the holy statue!

Buddha images do not represent any god, though. They are a reminder for believers to continue on their path striving for good Karma.

To get acquainted with the many rituals - worshipping the Buddha starts in the temple.

Thai Wats – the temple grounds – do not require the piety of a church.

A Wat is a social meeting point. Buddhists – individuals or groups - come here to play, to learn, to celebrate or to have family reunions.

Wat Pho offers lessons in art. Drawing and painting courses are popular.

Skilled artists are the instructors. Motifs are mostly connected to Buddhism.

Thais love to eat. Their anniversaries are celebrated with big meals – often commemorating anniversaries of deceased family members: the tenth or the 20th return of the day the grandfather or a dear aunt have passed away.

In Thai society second to Buddha images monks are most respected. Even the king bows to the monks.

Head shaved novices in saffron robes – sometimes as young as five – are educated in various monasteries all over the country. These boys also are to be honoured like their grown up fellow monks. Even by their parents.

Thai monks are quite an attraction for Westerners. Don’t be surprised when the men in saffron sometimes approach foreigners. They are told by their abbots to practice their English.

 

Not everybody – though – has the chance to meet monks who lead you through the temple premises - and explain the holy Buddhist sites.

Every Wat has a Bodhi Tree – an offspring of the Holy Tree in India under which the Buddha, the founder of a new world religion, found Enlightenment.

Worshipping the Buddha here – for many – is a special event. Thais follow the Rule of Theravada Buddhism, the so called Doctrine of the Elders who first wrote down the teachings of the Buddha. Tharavada Buddhism came to Thailand 700 years ago. From Sri Lanka.


Ajahn Piyobhaso (English sound)

Surrounded by glamorous fairy tale golden artwork the temple commemorating the enlightenment of the Buddha is a major attraction for the visitors.

Inside there is a gilded Buddha statue. The Buddha’s head is protected by the many heads of a huge serpent.

Ajahn Piyobhaso (English sound)

More than 500 monks live in Wat Pho’s monastery. They belong to the Sangha, the order of the Buddha. They are to preserve the religious principles. They shall teach the Buddhist way of life.

Wat Pho’s library is a source for study and teaching. It is a sacred Place. The monks come here for spiritual guidance.

On display in the Scripture Hall there are handwritten palm leaves -  in the ancient language Pali.

Buddhism stresses the principle aspects of existence:

Dukkha or suffering,

Anicca or impermanence

and Anatha or emptiness of intrinsic values.

Ajahn Piyobhaso (English sound)

Chedis, richly ornamented steeples, symbolize the god-status of former kings. Chedis house relics of the Buddha and of holy men – ashes, bones or hair or teeth.

Ajahn Piyobhaso (English sound)

150 years ago King Mongkut, Rama the Fourth, unified the country.

The common language Thai and Theravada Buddhism were to be the backbones to build the nation. Mongkut was a monk for 27 years before he became the absolute ruler. He tried to reform the religion. Mongkut wanted pure Buddhism cleared from beliefs of magic, gods or spirits. The reformer King pledged to study the original Pali texts of the Buddha. Mongkut, however, did not encourage to practice meditation - an essential for Theravada
Buddhist doctrine. The king felt meditation was mystical.

The royals were open for the cultures of their influential neighbours in the west and north. From China, the big neighbouring country in the north, huge rock statues were brought to Wat Pho.

The impressive sculptures guard the entrances to the various sections of the Temple grounds.

Ajahn Piyobhaso (English sound)

Venerable Piyobhaso leads us to one of the biggest attractions in Thailand: to the Vihara of a huge Reclining Buddha.

The glittering image of stuccoed bricks gilded with gold leaves is 43 meters long and ten meters high.

The statue shows the Buddha’s passing on into Nirvana.

Since the gigantic construction is regarded as one of the wonders of the modern world, it is indeed subject to legend and mystery.

Ajahn Piyobhaso (English sound)

The feet of the Reclining Buddha are five meters long. The virtues of the Buddha are praised on the soles. More than a hundred Mother-of-Pearl inlays show auspicious signs of the Buddha.

At this holy site people donate coins to the temple – to make merit for good Karma. Good Karma is desired to lead a better life – in the next life : after rebirth.

Ajahn Piyobhaso (English sound)

As a centre of science Wat Pho was chosen to conserve medical knowledge. Especially to the illiterate poor who could not afford a doctor. Illustrations at the temple walls depict the main medical trouble points of the body. 150 years ago a school was established to teach herbal medicine. Here visitors can get a taste of traditional body treatment.

Nearby, at Herbal Mount, stone made statues show hermits practicing Yoga. Thais honour hermits for their knowledge. Hermits are said to know best what methods achieve the well-being of the body and the mind.

Ajahn Piyobhaso (English sound)

 

Yoga was introduced into Thai culture long before Buddhism spread to Thailand. Yoga came from India and has its roots in Hindu philosophy.

Thais strictly following the Theravada teachings regard the Yoga-Body- exercises as a welcomed addition to Buddhist mental practices.

 

In this unorthodox atmosphere you may like to get an introduction into Yoga.

Here you can also learn about precautions against illnesses of the body.

The key is „Thai massage“, a specific therapy for various symptoms and ailments.

From head to toe the whole body is treated – usually for one hour.

Head massage against headache or migraine,feet treatment against pain in ankles, heels and toes.

Basic massage techniques are pressure on specific points: muscles, tendons and veins.

The masseurs press with their elbows, with their thumbs, their hands and even with their feet.

Monks, of course, are treated by masseurs. Because monks are not even allowed to shake hands with women.

Mostly masseuses look after the other wellness seeking clients.

The Yoga part of 'Thai massage' is the stretching of

of the body.

While treated under the strong hands of their benefactors the beneficiaries sit or lay down - on the stomach and on the back, on the right side and on the left.

Thai massage was passed on from one generation to the next - without any written instruction. To preserve the knowledge of his time, King Mongkut issued a decree that all massage procedures were to be published in an official Medical Text book - written not in any of the dialects, but in the nation’s common language Thai. Thai massage also a backbone for the nation’s unity.


client
(English sound)

Many of the masseurs in Wat Pho have learned the job right here. Like Pui they often come from rural areas where poverty prevails. Pui's family of ten depends on the money she sends home from Wat Pho – the unique place where extraordinary nourishment is given to body and mind.

Rural Thailand reaches far into the big metropolis. Not only alongside the Klongs – the many canals through Bangkok – the supernatural is still part of daily life.

Thais passionately follow the doctrines of the Buddha – who has cautioned

not to believe in gods. Nevertheless the people cling to spiritual paths they inherited from their animistic ancestors - beliefs of gods, spirits and ghosts.

At the Buddhist Wat Mahabut a special spirit is worshiped: Nang Naak.

Many years ago Nang Naak was a pregnant young woman who died while her beloved husband was at war. Since then Nang Naak’s powerful spirit – which can do good and bad - frightens the neighbourhood.

On an altar Nang Naak’s idol is showered with presents of all kind.

Dresses, body lotion, house hold utensils or electrical entertainment devices fill a prayer hall at the place where Nang Naak was buried.

Spirits of dead pregnant women are fierce. Presents shall shall please the spirit and redirect negative powers to become positive. Worshippers ask Nang Naak for help. Nobody coming to this Wat would sneer about animistic belief and practices.

In order to encourage the spirit to fulfil their wishes, the idol is covered with gold.

Nang Naak was raped before she died. As a spirit she took revenge. She killed her tormentor and also people from her village. Since she was so much in love with her husband, she continued living like a human being,though.

When her husband returned home, neighbours told him, that his wife had died and was now a ghost. Living together with Nang Naak again the husband refused to accept the warnings.

But when some day Nang Naak dropped a lemon - which fell through the floor boards of their Klong-home on stilts - and when she stretched her arm five meters to retreat the fruit – then finally also the husband was convinced that Nang Naak was dead.

The story of a woman’s intense love reaching beyond the grave is a famous folk tale and one of the most popular movies in Thailand.

The role of quite a large number of monks and their affinity to the supernatural is undisputed.

Chavian Tipwan, Astrologer

Many worshippers coming to the Wat and to the spirit shrine also see the astrologers on the temple grounds. Everybody wants to know about the future.

When shall the wedding be? What day, what minute should a contract be signed? For decision making even the royal family employs experts who know the course of the planets.

The Buddha had frowned on astrologers. Fortune telling monks in Bangkok explain, however, that their predictions can help people who suffer. „To protect yourself from danger, you must find someone who can foretell the future,“ they argue.

Mysteriously looking trees are regarded as homes of a spirit. Into colourful wrappings - bound to please the spirits – handwritten notes are posted - with wishes to be fulfilled.

The tree next to Nang Naak’s shrine is known as a source for good luck. Rub intensively below bark and crust - and recognize your lucky number for the lottery!

The old tree - many years ago struck by lightning – is most frequented the day before the winning lottery numbers are drawn. Among the fortune seeking visitors there are many young men. They come to see Nang Naak’s shrine for help. They try to avoid the draft to the army.

 

Not only animism flourishes at the Wat. Buddhist virtues are practiced as well. The banks of the canal are good places to make merit. At the Wat you buy living creatures in captivity – to set them free.

A Buddhist nun blesses animals and their benevolent buyers. The life of every creature, big or small, shall be protected. Buddhism pays special attention to non-violence. Loving kindness towards every breathing being is an important doctrine of Buddhism.

Merit-making near Nang Naak’s spirit shrine is quite popular with young couples.

Only until they find out that the freedom they have given to the molested creatures does not last long. Their fish and turtles are caught again and sold to vendors - for others to buy - for merit-making.

With around ten million inhabitants Bangkok is one of the most crowded Cities in the world. Just like in the old days when canals were best to travel from one side of the swamps to the other, today again the waterways are the fastest traffic routes through Bangkok. If you do not want to be stuck for hours in the traffic jams in the streets, you take an express boat. Boat stops are ever so often near a Wat.

Buddhist monks do not have to pay for the journey. And everybody on board is happy about them. The presence of a monk in a vehicle is said to ensure safety.

Every Buddhist male is expected to be a monk – at least for a short time. Many decide for the robe and the precepts before they get married. The men can decide for how long they ordinate: three days, three weeks or a life time.

Bangkok is also the biggest Buddhist city in the world. Since the metropolis has developed rapidly in recent years, it has become attractive especially for poor people in rural areas. Within the last 50 years Bangkok has doubled its population.

Still, the majority of Thais are farmers living up country, producing rice which is shipped down the Chao Phraya. Bangkok’s harbour is one of the main trading hubs in Asia - with goods coming mainly from Japan, China and the Americas , with exports sent to India, Europe and Australia.

A lot of trade is directed in Bangkok’s Chinese and Indian quarters bordering the river in the centre of town. Personal links to relatives in the big neighbouring countries in the north and the west are helpful to stimulate the economy.

Politically Thailand has managed for centuries to stay independent. Unlike India and China Thailand survived western colonialism without occupation.

Bangkok’s Royal Palaces are regarded as a symbol for an independent nation.

The Amulet market – a short walk from the palaces - may delight everybody who believes in supernatural powers. The market attracts also traders and collectors.

For most Thais amulets are as essential as Buddha images. Amulets, they believe, give strength to repulse all evils. Each amulet is for a special purpose. The more amulets you wear around your neck, the stronger you get against all aggressive attacks and temptations.

It is not long ago that the government handed out amulets to soldiers at war. To convince the fighters that they would return from the battle field  unharmed.

Energy in amulets derives from a number of secret sources: they may include precious gems, healing plants or even cremated ashes of holy people. On auspicious dates influential monks get together in the temple to charge the amulets with power. The meetings start at night. The monks – connected with holy strings - chant Buddhist verses. The ceremony might last for several days.

What might look obscene to casual onlookers are amulets for fertility. Believers put these talismen into their hair or attach it to a string around the waist.

In Bangkok alone there are more than 500 dealers trading in amulets.

The older the talisman, the more respected the monks who charge them, the more expensive they get.

There is not much mystery about the genesis of these amulets everybody can afford. Some are produced right behind the counters. Often by the vendors themselves. The amulets consist mainly of wooden frames surrounding gems or stones or clay – often with images of loved ones or heroes.

Most buyers will take their amulets to the temple to have them blessed by a monk.


Ajahn Lekh Sripronot (English sound)

The mega-city with its sophisticated architecture of the 21st century might give the impression, people are very modern. In a way they are. But just like millenniums ago when the Buddha brand marked astrology, people still are routed deeply in superstition and in Hindu belief.

In the middle of roaring traffic there is a shrine of the three-faced Hindu-God Brahma, the creator of the universe. People come here to worship the deity.

And to worship - the spirits.

And to pray to have their wishes fulfilled.

Colourful traditional dances make the side walk corner a stage of a theater.

The shrine – covered with presents - is considered to be magical.

Originally a spirit house was set up here. For good luck - to help build a hotel. But when several serious mishaps happened with the construction, the spirit house was replaced by this quite impressive Hindu shrine. Ever since there were no more accidents. The shrine became popular where vows are made in public.

Incense sticks are lit in permanently burning lanterns.

With the smoldering sticks in both hands the worshippers bow before the deity. They make the WAI, the traditional gesture to show respect.

Many kneel down to spend minutes in silent contemplation.

They ask the spirits to fulfil their special needs and individual wishes. Some make a vow: they promise to be good in the future, to help the handicapped and sick - or just be more friendly to their neighbours. Many worshippers ask the spirits for good luck in the lottery. If they win, they vow, they will donate some of the money to the temple.

Many of the short time monks do as laymen do. And nobody seems to mind.

Among the presents to please the god and the spirits there are also pig heads. The head represents the immolation of a human´s. A ritual abolished long ago.

To sprinkle holy water, though, is practiced where ever there is well-wishing.

For just a few Baths worshippers can hire mediums who - supposedly - have direct access to the spirits. And who can pass on the worshipper’s wishes directly.

It seems – in a way- spirits are like some humans. You can bribe them. And, they are fond of music and dances.

There are good spirits – like the ones of most ancestors – or the spirit of a good harvest – or the spirit to bring rain when needed.

The bad spirits – animistic belief claims – are from people who cannot be reborn.

When river boats pass spirit houses alongside the waterways they ever so often slow down – to pay homage to special spirits of the river. These spirits have extraordinary powers in the area they guard. The people living and working here make offerings.

Their spirit – they hope – shall protect them against wild currents, floods or draughts.

In the suburbs of Bangkok the changes during the last half century were less significant than in the city-center.

Since there are only a few bridges across the wide Chao Phraya, people depend a lot on ferries.

In Greater Bangkok there are more than 400 wats. One of the most peculiar ones is Wat Soi Thang.

In this temple a cat is worshipped which had two different eyes. Cats are to ensure good fortune.

Holy water shall help when worshippers concentrate on their personal wishes. The abbot of the monastery directs the event. He combines Buddhist rituals with the teachings of the Buddha.

All worshippers are covered by a big white cloth. The cloth protects against bad spirits. The transitions between pure Buddhism and superstition and worship of auspicious animals are fluent.

Siamese cats were held in temples long before Siam was named Thailand.

Cats had to safeguard sacred scripts which were in danger to be chewed up by rats. Superstitious people believe that cats are able to contact the Buddha directly.

The abbot’s holy water blessing ends the ceremony inside the temple.

Many of the pious people, however, continue worshipping. They wander around the lotus pond in the Wat’s garden. Lotus flowers are

of mystical origin. In Buddhism lotus represents purity of the body, of speech and of the mind - floating above the muddy waters of greed and delusion.


Wat Vorachanyawas combines Buddhist spirituality with social engagement. Lay people of the community teach various vocations to the jobless and underprivileged. Music courses are offered to learn to play traditional Thai music - mostly on stringed instruments,
which are either struck like xylophones or stringed like violins.

Instruments explanation (English sound)

There are more than fifty traditional music instruments – among them also flutes and gongs. Thai music is in duple meter and progresses from slow to medium to fast.

 

Very popular with girls are hair dressing courses. These are the models to start with. Cutting and combing and styling and drying are practiced with these less sensitive clients.

When a student is more experienced, she may continue to work with the models who come here also to get their hair styled for free.

The hair dressing studio in the temple is extraordinary.But the monks do not worry as to whether their social work bears fruit.

There are also classes for tailoring. Women are taught basic steps

how to cut and sew and stitch parts together – to make dresses or shirts.

Young men can learn how to fix broken home utilities. The tools may not be at the high end of modern technology. But the efforts the teachers undertake make up for that.

Decoration as an art is widely spread in Thailand. The course to learn fruit carving for table decorations is especially popular.

Every suitable fruit, mangoes in particular, become beautiful eatable sculptures. A former school teacher is instructing jobless women from the neighbourhood to lay foundations for a future job women can do at home.

O-Ton teacher

In a city where sculptures are present everywhere a course to learn how to create plaster figures cannot be missing. When the masks are dry, little art works are laid free: in white plaster all sorts of figures: animals and funny creatures. No Buddha images! Buddhas are holy.

Only specialists create Buddha idols in seclusion.

In Wat Vorachanjawas the students smooth the plaster, cover the figures with paint, let them dry and finally - sell them.

 

Bangkok the urban, the rural, the magic city.

A city where miracles do happen!

If you like to see a real miracle: go to Wat Phailom on the eastern bank of the Chao Phraya.

The monks claim their temple grounds are exceptionally fertile.

Their ponds have more fish then most other Wats.

In Wat Pailom you find huge cat fish endangered in other parts of the globe.

The fish are not the only attraction.

Wat Phailom is especially famous for its storks.

They nest on almost every tree of the large premises. Some of the bigger trees host more than a dozen families. But not a single stork chooses to raise his new family outside the bamboo groves of the temple grounds.

Every year in November some 40 000 storks come here from Northern India and Bangladesh. Here they breed and raise their offspring. Before the Monsoon starts in April, the birds fly back. When they return to Thailand next November not a single bird – again – nests outside the Wat.

Stork’s affinity to Buddhism? For Thais it may be a symbol.

The birds chose places to feel safe. Just as humans all creatures like to raise their young ones in an environment where they can develop unharmed.

The monks here love to tell the story of the Lord Buddha, when he was still a boy. He saved the life of a goose which fell victim to his hunting cousin. „Today the Lord Buddha is protecting the storks at Wat Phailom. Nobody dares to hunt here“, the monks say.

 

With the young storks in their nest the parents are busy to feed them.

While the mother protects the infants against the scorching January heat, the father collects frogs from the rice fields and the swamps nearby.

The young storks can fly six weeks after they hatch.

When they are strong enough for the long journey across the ocean, they leave their birthplace at the temple grounds.

 

When the elegant birds glide through the sky, longings for freedom arise.

Freedom is the taste of Buddhism.

We think of the Buddha and decide to let go.