Monday, February 22, 2016

Chang Mai, A Very Buddhist City

Our hotel in Chang Mai, Thailand is in the “old city”, which is contained in a big square surrounded by a crumbling ancient wall and moat. The “old city” looks only slightly older than the newer parts outside the square. The biggest difference seems to be the size of the streets. Our van driver from the airport had to leave us at the corner because the van was too big to drive down the narrow lanes. We walked the rest of the way to our hotel, past small restaurants, tailor shops, tiny convenient stores, and guesthouses. It reminds me of the narrow alleyways on Mykonos, Greece, but not as white. Tourists are everywhere and always present in the old city, lots of Chinese, but also people from all over the world.

Thailand is predominantly a Buddhist country and in Chang Mai temples or wats are everywhere. "Wat" means enclosure in the ancient Pali language and these religious enclaves are surrounded by walls that separate them from the secular world. Within the walls are temples, shrine halls, bells, Chedis or stupas(large cone structures often with gold leaf on the outside) and more. The temples and structures are elaborate and ornate, inside and out. They make the cathedrals of Europe seem plain. Almost all the temples are open and free to the public, but shoes must be left on the steps outside.  
Statues of Buddha are within each temple with the largest one being the center piece. There are no chairs or benches to sit on. To pray, one kneels on a rug which lays on the immaculate tile floor in front of the altar. Buddhist etiquette requires that one’s feet never point toward the altar. Some of the Chinese tourists kneeled at the altar to pray, but very few westerners did, perhaps they had trouble getting down on their knees and back up again.  

Where there are wats, there are monks. While visiting one large wat, two young monks
beckoned me to sit on a bench near them. When I did, they began asking me questions about myself, where I’m from, how long have I been in Thailand etc. One of the Monks spoke pretty good English, the other didn’t. They seemed happy talking with me and I assumed they called me over because they sensed a depth of understanding that I was somehow projecting. After all I’ve studied Buddhism since the 70s and have attended many Buddhist groups in the US including Vipassana groups that originated here in Thailand.  They asked if I had a question about Buddhism, and I did.

My question was: If Buddhism is a non-dualistic religion, who are they praying to? And isn’t it true that if one prays to any form of outside entity, whether it be a spiritual entity or physical entity, one is entering the dualistic world, the world of suffering, and wouldn’t that be defeating the purpose or to coin a Buddhist phrase, wouldn't one be  mistaking the finger pointing to the moon for the moon itself?

But before I had a chance to ask my question, another western couple came over and began talking with them and they seemed to lose interest in me.  So much for my, “I am special” theory, which probably was my Buddhist lesson of the day.

Buddhism here is complicated. I can’t begin to understand the meaning of all the ritualistic practices. Practitioners bow to statues and offer incense, pour oil, ring bells, get blessed by monks and walk around chedis chanting. There seems to be no end to it.  It’s definitely not the simple Buddhism I studied in the US--meditating, practicing mindfulness, compassion for all living things.  In a college class in the early 70s, the Buddhist Monk teacher told us that all of the teachings of Buddhism are contained in the placing of your shoes before entering the temple.  

We visited Wat Prathart Doi Suthep. It’s way up the mountain just outside the city. At the base of the mountain is Chang Mai University. Monks used to have to walk from there up the mountain path before getting to the steps. Tourists can chose to do this also or be driven right up to the base of the steps. We chose to be driven thinking that if we walked up the entire mountain, we may not be able to get up the 300+ steps.  The Wat grounds way up on the mountainside are spectacular and overlook the city. Katie and I wanted to enter into some spiritual aspect of the place, not just wander around gawking and taking pictures like everyone else, so we decided to walk three times around the giant golden chedi.  Laminated chant cards are in a basket at the entrance and one is supposed to read them and silently chant while circling the chedi. But the words were so foreign to us, we decided to mentally chant the universal Tibetan Buddhist mantra, Om Mani Padme Hum. As I began to slowly walk on the path, I became aware of people behind me. I felt like a slow moving
vehicle going up a steep hill followed by a line of cars. Each time the path widened, three or four people scurried past me, but I “religiously” maintained my slow pace.  Thoughts entered my mind What’s their hurry? Are they trying to get this over with quickly? One young man hurried past me listening to ear phones. It seems that everyone here is just going through the motions, evoking the magic formula that will take away all their troubles. I kept walking slowly and chanting, Om Mani Padme Hum and sensed a separation between my thoughts and my awareness.  By the time I was on my third circle, I was in the zone, peacefully putting one foot in front of the other, a part of but untouched by the whirling world around me.


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