The following is from an email to Linda H. from her friend Janet who is currently serving in the Peace Corps in Thailand.
Of course I can only write about what I have witnessed thus far. Some is observation, some speculation, some interpretation. I also sent another volunteer’s perspective about being a monk for one week. Farong, by the way, means foreigner and refers to all western/white foreigners (not black).
There are two major branches of Buddhism—Theravada and Mahayana, Thailand practices the first one.
Observation: The monks make their early morning walks, always the same route, through the village. The women, for the most part, wait in front of their houses with baskets of sticky rice, bundles of fruit and small plastic bags of hot soups (monks are not allowed to cook for themselves). Their feet are bare and, as the monks stop, the women raise the food to their foreheads and bow their heads in supplication. They kneel in the dirt beside the road and the monk blesses them by saying a few words. The women stand and put the food in the golden bowls that the monks are carrying. This is done to gain merit, to be a good person, to have a better life in this one or the next.
Merit making activities include offering food and other basic necessities to monks, making donations to temples and monasteries, burning incense or lighting candles before images of the Buddha, and chanting protective or merit-making verses from the Pali Canon. Some lay practitioners have always chosen to take a more active role in religious affairs, while still maintaining their lay status. Dedicated lay men and women sometimes act as trustees or custodians for their temples, taking part in the financial planning and management of the temple. Others may volunteer significant time in tending to the mundane needs of local monks (by cooking, cleaning, maintaining temple facilities, etc.).
People also go to the wat (temple) and lay food on the alter, first kneeling, bowing three times from the pray position to their foreheads on the ground (wei). Sometimes they pay 20-30 baht for a lotus flower and sticks of incense which they light and put in the sand at the base of the alter. Twice a month on the full moon and the new moon, more people go to the wat in the morning, give food to the monks, and pray. People give food and water so they will have food in their next life. All the food must be prepared and cooked or able to be eaten raw such as fruit. These monks do not kill or cook, but do eat meat. I went this morning with my friends and took pictures which I will send. The people dressed in white stayed the night. They only eat twice a day, same as the monks. The monks hold a very important, highly respected role in the community.
Many houses have their own spirit houses which can be decorated with flowers, fruits, gilded ornaments. Here the Thai (mostly women) kneel, wei, and pray. To wei can also be to put the hands in pray position and bow the head. This is done by students for teachers, to older people, etc. They are taught at an early age to wei five groups: the Buddha, the Buddha text, monks, teachers and parents.
The men often become monks for 1-4 weeks, months, years, or forever. Women can also be monks but it is not as common. Young adult males have ordination parties where hundreds of friends, relatives, and neighbors are invited for food, liquor, and dancing. I’ve seen traditional Thai drums as well as a d.j. and seductive, scantily clad go-go girls (some of which are men). One morning celebration we danced behind the freshly shaved and now bald and eyebrowless young man 3 times around the main temple and in front of 6 large speakers blaring Thai music. Then had a sit-down lunch with 8 different dishes, alcohol and soda.
Some mornings the local wat plays music and chants—the dogs immediately start whining and howling—it’s almost harmonic and very humorous.
I am not totally sure what goes through their minds as they bow to the Buddha but from what they have told me, they ask for things like money, good health, and happiness—material desires. I went with one co-teacher to this famous temple in Kurat who made wishes and threw coins into fountains and bowls wishing for money. She happens to be in debt to the bank and at the school (there’s a lending system among the teachers) because she loves to buy expensive clothes. She was thrilled for me (but I think somewhat envious) that my fortune read that I would get a lot of money in the future. This kind of thinking, to me, is not what I associate with Buddhism. At my house is an alter and my co-teacher said I should give flowers every day, wei, and pray so that I will be beautiful in my next life. I said I didn’t care about being beautiful but really wanted to learn Thai language so maybe I should give the Buddha my English/Thai dictionary.
My teacher friends asked if I wanted to perform tamban—earn merit. So I contributed 20 baht to a temple and with that I was to ask for happiness or health or whatever. That, to me, seems contradictory—I should just give for the sake of giving especially if I want to earn merit. I ended up wishing happiness for my teachers.
In schools the students say something to the Buddha every morning and wei three times. They also say a prayer at lunch and every event/ceremony the candles are lit at the shrine and a prayer is said. Last week for three days the school was closed and grades 4, 5, 6 went to a wat to pray, meditate, and walk slowly while praying. It’s amazing Thai students can be quiet for long periods of time. They learn the chants by heart.
I just finished reading a book on the Buddha doctrine (Tipitaka) and how important it is to be preserved just as it was decided on 2500+ years ago. The Tipitaka provides the standards against which beliefs and ways of practice in Buddhism can be checked. It is by the Doctrine and Discipline found in the Tipitaka that they can judge whether certain beliefs or ways of practice, as well as any behavior are right or wrong, whether they really belong to the Buddha’s teachings. For these reasons, one of the important functions of the monks is to memorize and study the Tipitaka, It is, however, 45 volumes which gives some insight as to why schools concentrate so much on rote memorization. Supposedly there are a few monks in Myamar that know the entirety. The rules for monks comprises 8 volumes.
I just attended part of a funeral. The most interesting part, I missed because I was working. Traditionally the funeral lasts three to five days. The first day the coffin is in the family’s house; the community comes and sits in the main room while the monks chant for about 30 minutes. This is followed by a sit-down dinner with lots of food. The community can come and sit with the family any time of the day as well. The second day the coffin is rolled to the crematorium (just a small temple set down a side road) and the body is burned (this is the part I missed). That night we met again as the monks chanted and we ate again. Women in the community prepare and serve the meal. This time my host mother took me to the back of the house where I met some of the family including the widow who is 8 months pregnant (the husband was 40 when he died). She was surrounded by family that had come from Bangkok and different parts of Thailand. The third and fourth nights chanting and eating again. The fifth day people met in the morning and ate breakfast.
Superstition: 1. My Issan neighbor blessed my house the first week I was here and cleared it of ghosts (too bad it wasn’t snakes)—we went to the front yard, knelt, prayed, and lit incense while she chanted. There is a strong belief in ghosts and that they will hurt you. 2. My host family back during training had me throw powder at the base of a special tree and “read the numbers” so they could buy a lottery ticket (I couldn’t see a thing). 3. People who do win the lottery attribute to dreams they had, a bird knocking on their window, numbers that mysteriously appear. 4. My school had a Binding the Soul ceremony for me so I would not be fragmented and disconnected while living and working in BonNongsala. A priest is hired for the occasion, not a monk. He usually resides over weddings, funerals, whatever ceremony you might want performed. The centerpiece (an elaborate piece made of rolled banana leaves, flowers, and candles) for my ceremony included an egg, sticky rice, and a sweet—nourishment for my soul. This just may be tradition—not sure what the people really believe about a Soul being called to one location. It was very meaningful to me, however; I felt accepted by the community. 5. The full moon is often the time when celebrations occur and people visit the wat.