Spiritual Observations in Thailand

Today as I was exploring Chinatown I noticed a large Chinese shrine (ศาลเจ้า) and two ladies praying. It seems they were office workers on their break time. Although I wish I could hear their prayers, I dare not get any closer as to appear rude. I watched as one lady prayed for over 15 minutes in the hot afternoon sun. It must of been important. Afterwards, she made an action resembling one pouring their prayers over their head. Oddly, I had seen First Nations people do the same action during a funeral while burning incense in downtown Toronto. Later I asked my coach Ed about this. He said, “perhaps the action is signifying to the spirit residing in the shrine to bless her”.

On the last day of the Vegetarian Festival, I noticed a huge ceremony taking place in a shop that sells Buddhist worship objects. There were monks, incense burning, flowers, chanting, colorful yellow signs, and of course – lots of people. As I was figuring out what was going on, I noticed an old man across the street ‘wai’ (bowing) toward the shop! Clearly it was to the building as there were no people in his sight. So who was he ‘wai’ ing (paying respect) to exactly I wondered? Ed offered some clarity, “its likely he was paying respect to a spirit [house] inside the shop”. Later I found out Thai people even ‘wai’ toward books and desks. At some famous shrines in Bangkok, the taxi drivers will even wai toward the shrine while they are driving!

It’s a holiday, so I went to visit a well known ‘wat’ (Thai temple) to observe Thai customs as I usually do as a part of language study. It also gives me a good chance to learn Thai architecture and history from the beautiful murals throughout. I watched as people were making merit an altar. This includes donating money, pouring of water over self, burning incense, and of course meditation. The two Thai ladies pictured wearing pink and green smiled at me as I intently watched. So I talked to them in Thai and introduced myself. They kindly explained many of the rituals and showed me around. We took off our shoes and entered one of the inner courts where the room was filled with idols and locals/monks doing all sorts of meditation. Many were holding encantation books, others were fully prostrated, another man reading off his iphone, others putting 10-20 baht in each of the merit (donation) boxes. I felt like Martin Luther frustrated and saddened when he took made his first pilgrimage to Rome. And it also reminded me of the reality of spiritual warfare and the importance of my mission in Thailand.

In class, we are learning about the verb ‘to be interested in’ (สนใจ). Each student had a chance to share what they were interested in. Mrs. ‘Tan’ from Malaysia, a very strict Buddhist, said “I am interested in knowing where my father went when he died, and I am interested to know where I will go when I die”. What a profound moment! Buddhism does not offer a clear answer to either, for a Buddhist’s destiny is based on how much merit they have accumulated. But we on the other hand know about our guaranteed salvation in Christ regardless of how much we have sinned.

At that moment, I thought about how difficult it is for a Buddhist to become a Christian. That their system is so heavily based on works, that exists the danger of ‘becoming Christian’ being another act of gaining merit. So much of life here is based on works. One day I was in the car with Ed and Sue driving out onto a very busy street. Sue had to turn right which meant she had to cross 2 lanes – a pretty crazy maneuver here in Bangkok. She jokingly remarked, ‘so who is going to “obtain merit” and let me through today??’

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