Thailand – February 16, 2000
We spent the first two months of our trip in Central Americaá Mayans, wild animals, Spanish Catholicism mixed with ancient Mayan beliefs, beautiful fabrics and masks and plenty of rice and beans.
I had been to Asia twice before with Dick so my thoughts were very curious and excited to see yet other cultures so different from our own!
I don’t know much about Buddhism but as our trip unfolds in Thailand, Laos and Cambodiaá between jet lag and adjustmentá in those first few days I begin putting together some of what this ancient religion means.
It begins with the orange-clad closely shaven monk walking down the street barefoot. In the early morning dawn hours of Chiang Mai, you see them with big silver bowls obtaining their days meal from all the local people (in Laos the women of the household would kneel at 5:30AM on woven mats outside their doorsteps and scoop a handful of cooked rice for each monk that passes by). What moves me the most is the instant concept of ‘helping your fellow neighbor’, of sharing your earthly possessions so freelyá of brotherly love. One does not see it so blatantly in the US. It is done much for formally and removed in the States through soup kitchens and relief agencies, etc.
The next thing you see are the shiny Wats – big, gold-domed highly decorated with green mirrors and ceramic tiles. Balustrades of dragons and snakes great you and carry you up to see a huge Golden Buddha flanked by incense and artificial flowers. You must remove your shoes to enter this monastic complex, which endears you to an instant sort of reference even if you don’t know exactly what you are revering.
One morning at our hotel, I noticed one of the women’s jobs was to adorn the small shrines that are located in the corner outside of each Buddhist’s property (even the huge modern shopping malls have huge shrines) Sometimes they are miniature replicas of each building. I was told they are called “Spirit Houses” to keep all the evil spirits housed outside of the real house. Little statues of animals, Buddhas and people with artificial flowers and garlands decorate the shrine. The women each morning put out fresh yellow mums in vases, trays of real food, which included baked chicken, rice wrapped in banana leaves, fresh fruit along with burning incense and a cup of water in case the spirit is thirsty. A prayer is said with folded hands. Little strings of jasmine and rosebuds were hung. I read they symbolize the beauty that life holds and as the flower diesá the impermanence of life going inevitably towards death (We were also reminded on two other occasions when our driver in Bangkok had a car accident with us wiping out the front of a taxi and when a host of a dinner decided the first course should be steamed ‘duck tongue’).
As I was walking with the kids, I mentioned that everything they are seeing has some sort of religious symbol – some meaning about life. As I was thinking about all that we had witnessed (there was even a shrine inside our hotel), I thought that Buddhism, because of all the shrines everywhere, keeps the religion central to life. It dwells on the beauty of nature and the peacefulness of your soul (you see this in every monk you see living so simply and quietly). As I ponder my own centeredness, I cannot help but think that Buddhism does show you the skills by which to attain this sort of centeredness. The quiet, the natural beauty, the meditativeness of living, the kindness toward your fellow man.
Because of this religion, as a traveler, I feel a sense of comfort and contentment. I was thinking about all this when several days later, Alex, our oldest, said, “Mom, I don’t know why but I feel so much better here than in Guatemala. I feel safer. I feel I can walk down the streets in the evening.” I smiled because it was not just a feeling I had about this countryá our children thought so, too!