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Friday, 08 June 2007

The Temple of the Reclining Buddha

Written by Melissa Romualdez
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Coming from a Southeast Asian country myself, I find it difficult to think of any destination in Asia as “exotic” or completely removed from what I know. The intermingling of cultures in our corner of the world is so beautifully prevalent that, standing on a busy sidewalk in the humid tropical weather of Bangkok, with car horns blaring and vendors displaying their wares, I almost fancied myself back home in my native Manila. The familiarity of Thailand and its warm, welcoming atmosphere was altogether comforting. Yet, the subtle differences that Bangkok offered me ensured that I always had something new to discover about Thai culture. Nowhere was this more apparent than in the practice of its ancient religion, Buddhism.temple

Unlike the Philippines, which is the only predominantly Catholic country in Asia, Thailand’s population is almost entirely Buddhist. Places of worship are as numerous in Bangkok as 92.5% silver stores or hot pink taxis. These temples, architectural marvels in themselves, also serve as must-see tourist destinations for anyone interested in Thai Buddhist culture. The Grand Palace is a favorite, as is the Emerald Buddha near the banks of the Chao Praya River. When I visited the city at the end of 2006, I was fortunate enough to see one of its most famous landmarks, the Temple of the Reclining Buddha.

Situated just a few blocks from the Grand Palace, the Temple of the Reclining Buddha is actually a collection of smaller structures surrounding the main temple in an enclosed complex. The buildings are decorated in the traditional Thai style, with carved marble, jade, and colored enamel spires so tall they almost disappear into the sky. No detail is spared in the decoration of the temples, which boast golden arches over narrow doorways leading into cavernous, incense-filled rooms. These lesser temples are worth seeing, though better left undisturbed during times of common worship. The Reclining Buddha itself, however, is a sight not to be missed.

buddhaThe statue is housed in a huge temple, but it eclipses so much of the space that there is hardly room for more than a narrow pathway encircling the Buddha where tourists and worshippers can walk. The Reclining Buddha is nearly twenty stories in length when measured vertically and completely covered in gold, with black marble soles inlaid with mother-of-pearl. As the name implies, it lies on its side, its right arm curved to allow its head to rest in the palm of one hand. Simultaneously massive and elegant, the awe that this statue inspires is undoubtedly one of the main reasons for its popularity.

I visited the temple on New Year’s Day, considered a holiday in Thailand, as it is in Western countries, but with a much more spiritual slant.

Before entering the main temple, I was asked to remove my shoes along with the rest of the people in line. I will never forget the moment I stepped into the presence of the Buddha. From outside, the chants of the monks and worshippers were muffled at best, but once inside, they filled the awesome space with a deep, resonating vibration. It was like being drawn into a state of absolute meditation and calm. People knelt in front of the barrier separating them from the statue, holding incense and touching their foreheads to the cool marble floor. I could do nothing but stare at the Buddha, entranced.

devoteeAs I circled past the intricately decorated soles of his feet, I caught a glimpse of a long line curving back to where I’d come from and snaking around in a sort of half-figure eight. The people in line were holding bowls of coins and, as they passed along the wall of the temple, would drop one coin into each silver receptacle attached to the wall at waist level. There seemed to be at least a hundred of these receptacles and even more people. Curious, I questioned a tour guide and was told that this was a New Year’s tradition in Thailand. The coins were meant to represent prosperity and good luck for the coming year and everyone in Thailand went to temple to perform this duty on the first day of January. I was moved and fascinated by the idea.

What struck me most was the solemnity of the people holding the coins; some of them had their heads bowed in prayer, others pressed their palms together with their fingertips touching their foreheads. This, coupled with the resonating chants of worship, made the experience at once spiritually uplifting and deeply humanizing. Though not Buddhist myself, I certainly felt the Thai’s devotion to their religion and their culture. I believe no one present in the temple that day could have failed to do so.

Many tourists go to Thailand to enjoy the incredible shopping in its capital city or the beautiful beaches in its southern towns, but there is another equally fascinating side of the country that exists. This quiet devotion and steady spiritualism in their places of worship are as much a reflection of the Thai people as their city streets filled with life. When visiting the country, it is always worthwhile to see as many sides of it as possible in order to experience the fullness of this amazing culture.

© Melissa Romualdez

Last modified on Sunday, 16 December 2012

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