Buddhist is one of the oldest of religions, dating back some 500 years before the death of Jesus and the subsequent creation of Christianity, Catholicism, and Protestantism religions of Europe. Thailand however; has not always been a Buddhist country. As a matter of fact many people in society follow a mixture of Animism – belief that all things have life and feelings, and Buddhism – the search for nirvana and peace. Buddhism comes from India and Sri Lanka and was possibly introduced through trade routes or missionaries. It is said missionaries were sent according to the World Buddhist University. While Buddhism and Animism are practiced, only Buddhism is officially recognized as the religion of Thailand.
Thai society revolves around the teachings of Buddha, perhaps that is why people are so friendly, willing to help, and don’t mind chauvinistic travelers to come and use Thailand for pleasure. No matter the reason why the people of Thailand are happy, Buddhism still plays a major role in everyday affairs from the common people up to the highest power His Majesty the King. Buddhism teaches that to become enlightened and to gain complete Nirvana, one must pay homage to Buddha and be nice to everyone. You help your friends and family, support the temple, and pay respect to the monks.
In observing temples and the practice of Buddhism, there have been many interesting sights and scenes. The most important aspect of Buddhism is the relationship between the people and the temple. Without the people the temple would be nothing. No means of keeping the building up and taken care of. In addition to the relationship there is so much to understand about the temple. When seeing a temple it is common to notice people Wai to the temple from the street or bus. It is a sign of those individuals devotion to Buddha and his teachings. If visiting a temple it is important to remove shoes and to avoid stepping on the threshold of the doorway. It is believed that demons may enter the temple when someone steps on the door frame when entering a temple. Once inside the temple the grandeur of the vihara is apparent. Gold appliqué on the doors and windows shimmer in the sunlight. The murals of angels and demons, and some additional works depending on the temple, are carefully preserved and show the extreme detail monks put into decorating. The most important part of the entire temple is the image of Buddha. In the temples I have visited, the large and the small, there is a difference in public or royal temples. Royal are much more elaborate then public temples, yet the splendor does not waver. A royal temple may have more gold in the items that are on the altar. But most royal temples have a small Buddha image in a large hall. For example Wat Phra Kaow – Temple of the Emerald Buddha is the most elaborate in all of Thailand and the most sacred. Also the temple at the National Museum has a very royal display, which would make sense if it is part of the Front Palace that once stood in that area. While the altar may differ the architecture stays very similar especially the ratio of the Buddha to the size of the vihara.
When visiting a temple the ritual and motions of paying homage are very intriguing. Upon entering a temple one will choose a small area on the floor and kneel. The position of the feet differ for men and women. Once in position, a wai is made holding the thumbs to the fore head then placing them on the floor and touching the forehead to the floor then returning to the wai position. This is done three times, for Buddha, the Dharma, and for the community. Observations reveal that many people visit the temple for quiet others for contemplation. In any case, before leaving many people will give money (usually 20 THB), food, water, or sometimes flowers. Everything has its own meaning, flowers for beauty in the next life. Food, water, and money are seen as items that will be returned in the next life.
In addition to temple, households will also have a small alter for Buddha. It is interesting to watch the homage in this degree. The family will place a food offering and usually a glass of ice water. It is also good to note the importance of Buddhism in daily life, birth, marriage, and even death. After a friend’s father passed away there was an opportunity to see the funeral, although still not complete at this point. Entering the temple and listening to the prayers given to the body, it was fascinating. After the prayers there are offerings to the monks and the final farewells given by members of the family and friends.