It is common to believe that Buddhism is a religion, but it is more kinda spiritual, symbolic meditative philosophy and lifestyle.
Thailand is one of the countries in Asia with the highest number of buddhist people, 95% out of almost 70 million! And with a lot of temples. If you want to visit every temple in Thailand and visit 2 every day it will take you 57 years before you have been to them all!
In 2009 my wife and I were returning home from Nakhon Sawan after visiting a friend and his family for a few days. We had to change from bus to “Speedvan” in Phitsanulok in order to get the rest of the way to Udon Thani. The bus station was almost empty except for a few college students and a group of 4 Monk’s in their safran coloured robes.
When I was walking around trying to find shadow for the strong sun I was approached by one of the Monks and after the usual thai greetings he began to speak to me in almost perfect english – wanted to hear where I came from, what I was doing for living and about my visit to Thailand, nice chit-chat about everything and life. Of course he asked me about my faith and I told him that I was buddhist and in my mind has been buddhist since I was about 17 years old but first recently officially had left the Christian faith. I had upheld my “membership” of that faith due to respect for my family and my son.
The Monk, probably around 40-45 years old, smiled and wanted to know why and then, after looking me straight in the eyes, he said while placing his right hand on the left side of the chest over my heart:
“… there is no “god”, no magic beings in the sky, there is no need for religions, no need for churches, mosques or temples – your whole body is your temple and your heart and mind is your Buddha – everything you need is inside yourself!
There is no heaven above when we die, there is no hell below! Heaven or hell is here and now in our life and it is up to you where you want to live, heaven or hell is your choice, you decide! Not happy with your life? Change it! The only one who can change it is you!
Remember Buddha was a human being like us, he was never any “god” and did not want to be worshipped as some “god”!
“We are all buddhist from birth, but most don’t know this”
From that moment on we had a very good debate about personal faith, but had to finish because the “Speedvan”/Minibus had come to pick us up. Still today I am a little sad that we could not continue our debate and I never saw that Monk again.
When you are in Thailand, maybe for the first time, you can’t avoid being amazed by all the beautiful temples, Buddha statues and “spirithouses” everywhere, literally – even outside many officebuildings, factories, shops and private homes, all over, everywhere! When you see buddhists at the temples go down on their knees and bow three times in front of a Buddha statue you might think that they “pray to Buddha”, but they actually don’t. The Buddha statue is more of a symbol for that this is a place where you can meditate and pray to you “inner Buddha”, your heart.
If you get up early in the morning, just after sunrise, you will see Monks on “Alms Round” walking down the streets on bare feet, walking in a line, each with a bowl and then people comes out from their houses offering them food they place in the bowl. It can be almost anything eatable or drinkable, some give a handful of hot steamed “sticky rice”, others give a little cartoon healthy milk or juice, others give fruit or a chocolade bar. Sometimes the Monks (can be from one Monk to several, maybe ten or more) stop and give a chant for saying thank you, wishing you good health, luck in life and happiness before they move on, but most just walk by, stop shortly to receive the food and walk on usually without saying anything.
The food offered is the Monk’s breakfast, but they are never allowed to ask or beg for food or any other things. When the Monk’s have passed some people get ready to go to the local Temple for breakfast bringing more fresh food which they arrange on plates and let it pass among the Monks.
When the Monks have collected food from each plate brought to them, they perform chants with the locals who are sitting on the floor in front of the Monk’s. The Monk’s are sitting on a little plateau in the Temple. After the chants there is breakfast for everybody.
According to the rules the Monk’s are only allowed to eat two times a day, early morning and before noon! The rest of the day and following night they can only eat some fruit, drink coffee or tea etc., using the day to meditate and for education
Generally there are two different kinds of Temples, each following different traditions/rules in the Therevada Buddhism, which is the most common buddhist practice in Thailand.
Usually you will notice the many big or small Temples in the cities and villages around Thailand. But besides them is the Jungle Temples (Forest Temples) hidden in and around the woods usually a bit away from the villages and looking more “humble”. Monks in these Temples has to follow stricter rules than the Monks at the Village Temples and is more close to the original buddhism philosophy.