Thai Temples for Dummies
Part I: What’s a Wat
When I first visited a Thai temple, I did so at the behest of my Thai significant other. As it turned out, that was a wise decision because I had a personal guide to shepherd me through the Buddhist temple’s unfamiliar and unfathomable rituals. All of which would have otherwise had me bewildered, bemused, and befuddled. Another benefit of boldly going where I‘d never gone before with one who was wise in the way of the “Wat”, was that it prevented me from committing a series of egregious gaffes, blunders and faux pas’. It was literally a case of monkey see – monkey do as I merely mimicked my mentor’s every move. If you happen to be an intrepid soul who wishes to wander amongst a wat without the benefit of a local benefactor, or if you plan to traipse through a Thai temple accompanied only by your foreign friends, the following primer on Thai Buddhism, Thai Temples, and Thai Temple taboos may enhance your overall understanding and more importantly, save you from an embarrassing moment or two.
Before delving into the domain of Buddha, it’s not necessary, but also not useless, to have a basic grasp of what Thai Buddhism actually is. Around the 5th century AD, Indian monks introduced a form of Buddhism known as the Mahayana school to Southeast Asia. Eight centuries later, as Buddhism in India declined, Hindustani Buddhism of the Theravada school crossed over from Laos and Cambodia to become the state religion of Thailand’s great, great, great grandfather – the recently established Kingdom of Sukhothai. Since then the Hindustani influence was significantly diminished during the early reign of the Chakri Dynasty (1782 to present), and Chinese Buddhism of the Mahayana school arrived in Siam, along with thousands of Chinese immigrants from mainland China. Today, the majority or 90% of the Thai population follows the Theravada school of Buddhism. The remaining 10% are disciples of various forms of Buddhism, follow other religious denominations or are atheists or agnostics.
Before Buddhism took hold in the Land of Smiles, the ancient Tais were followers of Animism, a form of spirit worship. Because early Thai Buddhism developed alongside of the ancient spirit religion, many Animistic beliefs which protected the superstitious Thais from the gods, ghosts and demons of the spirit world were incorporated into Thai Buddhism. That’s why certain rituals borrowed from the world’s oldest religion are still performed today. However, instead of an Animist priest, a Thai monk now presides over the ceremonies that placate the local spirits and ghosts. Chinese astrology and numerology, as well as the practice of wearing talismans and charms also play a prominent role in modern Buddhism as practiced by the average Thai.
In short, disciples of Buddhism are searching for “perfect enlightenment” and a deeper meaning to their existence. This is done by investigating the hidden meanings of the mind, the universe, and of life in general. Enlightenment is not revealed by some divine being, it is discovered. Discovery is made on an individual basis, and can only be attained through purifying one’s mind and by reaching the deepest level of meditation. It is said that anyone who follows Buddha’s path, regardless of race, class, or gender can reach the goal of perfect enlightenment. “Making merit” is another important aspect of Thai Buddhism. Merit is made by the avoidance of doing anything that can be remotely construed as bad, whilst striving to do only good deeds. Going to temple, regular meditation, doing good deeds, and making merit will all further one’s journey on the road to nirvana and perfect enlightenment.
Wat’s a Temple
In Thailand the word “Wat” has absolutely nothing to do with the English word “Watt”, which was named after the Scottish scientist Joseph Watt who in 1882 was recognized for devising a system to measure commercial power produced by water and steam. In 1960, his watt was also adopted as the international unit for measurement in the electric power industry … but I digress. Since I’ve just established what a wat isn’t, given the subtitle of this article, a few words about what a wat actually is would probably not be amiss. In the Thai language, the word for a Buddhist temple is “wat”. This term was derived from the ancient language of Pali, which was once used in classical India. The word wat however, does not refer to a temple per say. It is in fact, a reference to all of the structures found within the walls of the temple complex, as the word wat literally means “enclosure”.
Buddhist temples can be found in virtually every nation across Southeast Asia. In the Land of Smiles there are 40,000 plus temples unequally divided between various Buddhist orders. The importance that a Buddhist temple plays in the role of the average Thai’s life can never be overstated. It is where they go to prey to the image of Buddha for good health, good fortune, and prosperity. It is where they go to make merit and seek advice from the monks on important issues before reaching a decision. It is also a communal meeting place. In addition to being of great spiritual and social significance to the people of Thailand, Thai temples are among the most impressive and elegant edifices to be found anywhere in the Kingdom. Rich in history, these stunning structures have been constructed in a mixture of architectural styles, each of which reflects its religious heritage. Collectively they contain endless examples of objects d art, comprised of carved reliefs, colorful murals, exotic sculptures, and innumerable images of Lord Buddha ranging in size from miniscule to mighty. That’s probably why temple hopping has always been a must when in Thailand. Some foreigners however, fail to view these places of prayer out of fear that they might unwittingly disrespect its decorum, offend its officials, or otherwise perturb its patrons. There’s really no need to be intimidated, as the Buddhist monks and Thai people are more than eager to share their religion. Therefore, novice, neophyte, and foreigner are all welcome in these sacred places with open arms and of course, a smile – provided that a few basic rules of etiquette are followed. All of which will be made clear in the following articles devoted to Thai temples for dummies.
Part II of Thai Temples for Dummies, titled “What’s in a Wat” will explain the purpose of the structures on the average Thai wat building by building.