Today I visited Wat Hau Lamphong to see the Wat and temple. In Thai Buddhism a Wat is a sacred area/district that houses monks and a temple; it is an entire collection of buildings that usually has a temple in the middle of the buildings surrounded by buildings used by monks to study. The temple is open to the public, the monks study buildings are private. Thai’s visit a Wat to give gifts to monks, receive a lesson and prayer from a monk or to pray in the temple.
I read in the paper many Thais were visiting Wat’s and temple’s for the new year- to offer a prayer for those that have died and to bring good fortune during 2010. Wat Hau Lamphong was crowded, amazingly so.
My visit began with a gift for the monks; Monks live off donations and gifts, you can buy a gift pack for monks in every grocery store in Thailand and most 7-11 stores. Yes, there are 7-11’s in Thailand (everywhere) and, yes, you can buy one of the recommended gifts for a monk in the 7-11. The gift is usually consists of pre-packaged food and milk and will sometimes include a robe.
Giving the gift is a great experience, a monk is seated on an elevated platform in a small room, everyone with gifts removes their shoes, enters the room, kneels for a lesson and prayer and gives the gifts to the monk. The entire gift giving and blessing process is very respectful, but informal and lasts about 10 minutes.
I am still learning about Buddhism and attempt to follow protocol, I sweat with the fear of being “that American” bungling around during a key moment in the lesson or prayer. The lesson and prayer are spoken in “old language” Thai, I do not know what is being said so I bow when everyone else bows. My visits to Wats and temples have always been with Thai friends that can help guide me through the process.
The monks are very friendly, I think they enjoy seeing a farang at a Wat or temple. There is no reason to be tense or afraid, just smile and follow along with what the Thai people are doing.
On to the temple. The room where you provide the gift to the monk and receive your lesson and blessing is located almost directly under the temple stairs. The outside of the temple, like most other temples, is beautiful, very ornate and colorful.
As you approach the temple entrance you will notice visitors laying flowers, lighting incense and placing the incense in pots at the entrance; gifts to Buddha.
There is no admission fee to the temple, you can make donations in various donation boxes throughout the temple. When you are ready to enter, just remove your shoes and go. There are no monks in the temple and no guide, you are free to kneel, to pray or just to look around.
A visit to a Wat and temple is not like attending a church service in America. While the level of respect one should show is the same, a visit to a Wat or temple is more casual, part of a normal day rather than an event that dominates an entire day, more of a stop to pay respect, not attending a planned service.
I believe this is due to Buddhism placing a large emphasis on freeing the mind through meditation and absorbing the lessons taught by monks through individual thoughts. It appears you are encouraged to think, pay your respects and pray according to your own agenda rather than taking part in a larger service. Inside the temple you will notice people sitting for long periods in prayer while other people kneel and say a quick prayer; most people stop in many different places at the temple for a short prayers.
The ringing of bells is one of my favorite part of visits to temples, it’s fun. The first time I encountered this was in a temple in Tokyo, you ring a massive bell to “wake up the Gods”.
In Thailand the ringing isn’t as dramatic, but there are many more bells. Maybe I like the ringing since it’s simple, I get it, no understanding required, say a prayer, any prayer, ring the bells. Smile.Want to really ring the bell? Go ahead. Want to say a long prayer and lightly tap on the bell? Great.
In Bangkok there are over 400 Buddhist temples.