Tag Archives: Bangkok

Long Time No Monk Chat

22 Jun
Central altar in Wat

Central altar in Wat Phan Tao (1848) –  Chiang Mai, Thailand (2006)

I took an overnight train from Bangkok to Chiang Mai. Because I bought my ticket within an hour of the train’s departure from Bangkok, all the sleeper cabins in the train were occupied. I took a seat in the 2nd class cabin which was very nice, except that the seats had limited recline and this would be an 11-hour train ride with stops along the way. When the train pulled into the Chiang Mai train station at around 10am, my first task was to find a place to crash for the next 3 days. I had not reserved a room anywhere, but knew that Chiang Mai would have no shortage of hostels, guest-houses, and hotels available for roving chaps like myself. I stumbled along the city centre area until I found a decent-looking guest-house with a room available. I fell asleep immediately as I flopped on the bed. Chiang Mai sits at an altitude of about 310m (1,000+ ft) and is cradled by the serenity of green hills and mountains. So, the air has a coolness to it — free of the stifling heat and humid canopy of Bangkok.  Although it is the second most populated city in Thailand, it does not project the incessant push and pull crammed sprawl of a big city. It is like a pocket of tranquility — filled with evening mist, forested enclaves, and a laid back attitude. When I woke up in the early afternoon after my short snooze on that first day, I looked out of the window of my room and instantly tuned into Chiang Mai. I understood the vibe. I actually felt relieved to be out of Bangkok and was ready to just get on a bicycle and roll around with no agenda.

Wat Suan Dok

Wat Suan Dok

Chiang Mai was founded in 1296AD and was the capital of the Lanna Kingdom for nearly 500 years. During that period, it was the main rival to the Thai Kingdom of Ayutthaya to the south.  The bulk of the many Wats in Chiang Mai contain golden Chedis designed in the Lanna-style — like narrow golden bells.  The influence of the next door Burmese can also be found in many Chedis in the city which have square bases. Each Wat in Chiang Mai consists of 3 elements: 1) the “viharn” which is usually a spacious roofed area which serves as the assembly / meeting area for monks; 2) the Chedi or Stupa which typically enshrines some important historical or body relic; and 3) the Buddha statues or images within the main chamber room of the Wat. As I biked around the city, my eyes became fixed on a white dot nestled between some green hills in the distance. This was Wat Phrat That Doi Suthep or “Doi Suthep” as it was called. Legend has it that in the 14th century a monk from Sukhothai had a vision in which he was compelled to dig at a site somewhere in Thailand. He unearthed a shoulder bone fragment at that site and believed it to belong to the Buddha. He took the relic to the king of Sukhothai who attempted to verify the authenticity of the relic by conducting a ritual to showcase its miraculous properties. But, when the relic did not exhibit any kind of special or supernatural power, the Sukhothai king gave the relic back to the monk. However, the story of this relic had traveled north to Chiang Mai which at the time was ruled by King Nu Naone. King Naone was very interested in the monk’s story and summoned the monk before him.  When the relic was showed to the King, it split into two pieces. King Naone placed one of the pieces on the back of a white elephant which took off towards the mountains surrounding Chiang Mai. The elephant walked mid-way up one of the mountains, trumpeted 3 times, and then laid down and died.  The King took this as a sign that a temple was to be built on that site and the first Chedi was built there in 1383. Through the passing centuries, a large platform with multiple Chedis and a statue of the white elephant were constructed at Doi Suthep. I visited Doi Suthep on my second day in Chiang Mai and walked up a huge staircase framed with Nagas (Hindu serpent deities) which led up to the hill-site of Doi Suthep. The views of Chiang Mai from Doi Suthep were incredible.

Rod iron Buddha Image window from Inside the viharn at Wat Suan Dok

Wrought iron window of Buddha image from inside the viharn at Wat Suan Dok

The other piece of bone that came into being after the relic had split in front of the King was interred within one of the Chedis af Wat Suan Dok (Flower Garden Temple) which is one of Chiang Mai’s oldest surviving temples. It dates back to 1373 and the temple is also the site of Mahachulalongkorn Rajavidyalaya Buddhist University — an important Theravada Buddhist school where monks from all over Southeast Asia come to study. Wat Suan Dok has a program in conjunction with the university where monks meet foreigners interested in Buddhism. This program is called “Monk Chat” and I was hoping to make it to one of these sessions while I was in Chiang Mai. I headed west on my bike and because I wasn’t paying attention, I over-shot Wat Suan Dok. By the time I figured out that I had gone too far, I was in a very leafy area filled with tall trees. I decided to make a left turn onto one of the quiet side streets shooting away from the main road and to my delight I came to Wat U Mong. Wat U Mong is an idyllic forest monastery filled with meditation tunnels and stone Chedis. Wooden signs with sayings of the Buddha are tacked on hundreds of trees throughout the monastery grounds. I had arrived here completely by accident. I hopped off my bike and wandered.

Meditation tunnels - Wat U Mong

Meditation tunnels – Wat U Mong

I ducked into the meditation tunnels and sat on the cool tiled floor. I couldn’t believe how easy it was to focus my thoughts inward while inside the tunnel. I had not planned on trying to meditate — it just naturally happened. The tunnel was like a big neural pathway to facilitating meditation. A portal. The monks who had dug these caves really knew what they were doing!  I had one deeply meaningful and personal reflection which hit me like a lighting bolt while I was in the tunnel. I still remember it now — 8 years later as I type this. It is not something that I would share as part of this blog – but I do believe the realization I was able to attain in that tunnel at Wat U Mong was something that probably would not have come to me during the usual pace and activity of my life.  When I emerged out of the tunnel, I walked up to a clearing on a small mound and there before me was one of the most horrifying Buddha images that I had ever seen. This image was obsidian black — a blackness that accentuated the gauntness of the Buddha’s face, the jutted implosion of his ribcage, and the disintegration of his arms and legs.  I adjusted slowly to this Buddha which was strikingly incongruent to the usual brightly gilded and beautiful Buddha images I had seen in Thailand and throughout Asia.

Fasting Buddha - Wat U Mong

Fasting Buddha – Wat U Mong

This was the “Fasting Buddha” — a stark depiction of the Buddha when he hit a near dead-end in his quest for enlightenment. At that point in his life, he was following the ways of the strict ascetics of his time who believed that self-denial and deprivation were the proper spiritual paths toward attaining supreme knowledge [See post: “Wilderness” – http://wp.me/p2Bq4y-2n%5D. I began to understand why this image looked like some alien creature with little trace of any humanness — it was meant to serve as a reminder that even the Buddha had previously failed on his journey towards enlightenment and this failure took him to the brink of death.

Administrative Office / Monk Chat - Wat Suan Dok

Administrative Office / Monk Chat – Wat Suan Dok

As the afternoon was turning into night, I got back on my bike and double backed towards Wat Suan Dok. I had a funny feeling that the Monk Chat program would be closed because it was after 5pm. I pedaled as fast as I could. Within a few meters of my entrance to the temple grounds, I saw a modern-looking administrative building which I thought may be connected with the program. I was right. I entered the room and it appeared the place was closed. Sure enough, I saw a sign stating that the hours for Monk Chat were 9:30am to 5pm. It was now 5:35pm. My shoulders slumped and I turned away. As I was walking out, a voice called out to me. I looked back and there were 3 smiling monks before me. I went to greet them and they told me they were novice monks from Cambodia who were students at the university there.  They said that the official Monk Chat program for the day had finished, but wanted to know if I was interested in talking with them anyway since they wanted to practice their English. I excitedly agreed and sat down with them in a small room.  Since I was fresh off my experience in the meditation tunnels of Wat U Mong, I told the monks about it. I tried to explain how unbelievable it was to journey so nakedly inward in a flash of moment and come to an important realization that would otherwise elude one given the bombardment of distraction in everyday life.

Eson and friends

Eson (middle) and friends

One of the monks seemed very interested in the experience. His name was Eson and we shared some personal histories with one another for nearly an hour. When the monks had to finally get up and leave, Eson and I exchanged email addresses and for 3-years afterwards we continued to correspond with one another. In his last email to me, he told me that he had to leave the Sangha (the monkhood) in order to go back to Cambodia and help his family with their financial situation. He was going to become a taxi driver in Phnom Penh. I’m sad to say that we lost touch after that. He was probably around 20 to 22 years old when we met that day at Wat Suan Dok. He said something to me then which sounded funny and simple at the time, but has grown in its meaning to me over the years. He said people have “monkey mind” — meaning their thoughts, acts, behaviors, and wants dart like a monkey jumping from branch to branch of a tree. It is not in our nature to stand still and to focus in order to truly have intent behind any act of our mind, speech, or bodies. When one learns to quiet the mind, body, and speech in order to act with purpose, then that’s how spiritual growth takes root. But, that’s a skill one must learn and practice with tenacity over time. It is not easy. We are also all susceptible to outside forces that knock us off the branch — a branch we think we have under our control. I think back to the smile on Eson’s face when we said good-bye and then I envision him behind the wheel of his cab, navigating traffic as he adroitly drives a passenger to where they need to go. There’s a symmetry in that scene and my chat with him. I like that.

Remains of The Wat-age

26 Apr
The Reclining Buddha of Wat Pho -  Bangkok, Thailand (2006)

The Reclining Buddha of Wat Pho – Bangkok, Thailand (2006)

“Bangkok” is not the actual name of the city. The name kicks off with “Krung Thep” (which means something like “village of wild plums”) and consists of several adulatory words strung together and pronounced in rapid fire Thai which describe the city’s key hallmarks — one of which (not surprisingly) is that this is the place where the Emerald Buddha resides. Another part of the name is the call out that unlike Ayutthaya — this city is “impregnable”. Just like its verbose sprawl of a name, Bangkok is a free-wheeling, international mecca attracting all sorts of colorful characters. On the surface, a visitor to the city is bombarded with rush-hour traffic along with the incessant commercialism and hedonistic glitter of a behemoth capital of the tropics, but if one takes the time to go behind this facade, the steady pulse of Theravada Buddhism can easily be experienced in the countless temples (wats), shrines, monasteries, and other grounds of contemplation not yet swallowed up by rampant urbanism.

File created with CoreGraphics

Head of Reclining Buddha at Wat Pho

I start first with Wat Pho which is a restored temple built over the grounds of what was likely the oldest Buddhist temple in Bangkok. The Wat Pho complex is adjacent to the Grand Palace/Wat Phra Keo (Temple of the Emerald Buddha). The current temple design of Wat Pho was created in the early 1800s by King Rama III and houses a 43m (141ft) long Buddha in the lion/reclining pose. This Buddha is tightly squeezed within the temple and has the facial and body characteristics found in the  classical style of the Sukhothai period. The Buddha is made of a brick core and a plaster exterior that has been covered and smooth over with gold foil. Its face bears a slight smile — reminiscent of the smile of the stone Reclining Buddha of Gal Vihara in Sri Lanka (see “The Colossi of Gal Vihara” at http://wp.me/p2Bq4y-kR).  While not as long as the reclining Buddhas I’ve seen in Burma (i.e., the Shewethalyaung Buddha in Bago, Burma built in 994AD and 55m long — see “The Python Who Was Once A Monk” at http://wp.me/p2Bq4y-wW; or the 65m long Chaukhtatgyi Buddha in Rangoon — see “William of Yangon” at http://wp.me/p2Bq4y-s1), the feet of the reclining Buddha at Wat Pho contain a unique artistic flourish.

Mother-of-Pearl feet

Mother-of-Pearl feet

The statue’s feet are 3m high and 4.5m long and the bottom of each foot has been meticulously inlaid with mother-of-pearl. These mother-of-pearl soles have then been carved and divided into 108 rectangular tiles which depict specific Buddhist iconography and symbols — such as cranes, tigers, elephants, lotus blossoms, and altars. Within the center of each foot is a dense circular flower petal design which invokes the wheel of the Dharma. Behind the statue, the 108 panels of each foot are echoed in the form of 108 bronze prayer bowls placed in a row where coins may be donated by visitors.

The central prang of Wat Arun

The central prang of Wat Arun

Across the Chao Phraya River from Wat Pho and the Grand Palace complex is one of Bangkok’s best known sites — Wat Arun (Temple of the Dawn). This temple is lit up each night and sits on a site that dates back to the 17th century. When the Emerald Buddha was carried away from Laos and brought to Thailand, it was first placed by King Rama I at Wat Arun until Wat Phra Keo was constructed. Wat Arun has a steeply terraced middle tower (called a “prang”) that is influenced by Khmer design. The ashes of King Rama II are enshrined within the grounds of Wat Arun since he is credited with restoring the temple during his reign. Traces of the origin story of the Emerald Buddha (see previous post: “The Jewel of the Chao Phraya” at http://wp.me/p2Bq4y-DJ) are found in the history of another important religious piece in Bangkok — the Golden Buddha of Wat Traimit.

The Golden Buddha of Wat Traimit (2006)

The Golden Buddha of Wat Traimit (2006)

The temple of Wat Traimit contains what is to believed to be the world’s largest solid gold statue: a 5.5 ton/5500kg Golden Buddha in the “vanquishing of Mara” pose. This Buddha is about 3m tall and gold to its core — unlike other “gold” Buddhas which are actually brick or stucco-based with gold-foiled exteriors. But, for over 200 years this statue sat in Wat Traimit in obscurity. It was believed to be one of the remaining intact stone Buddha images that were transported to Bangkok from the ruins of Ayutthaya and nothing more. No one suspected anything about the statue’s true nature until the 1950s when the statue fell during an attempt to move it. At first the workers assigned to moving the statue thought they had broken the statue because of the big crack that appeared. But, as they took a closer look at the cracked statue, they saw something flickering back at them. They chipped away the plaster coating and the gold Buddha emerged. It was thought that the monks at Ayutthaya had purposely tried to hide this priceless image from the invading Burmese by disguising it under a coating that would make it look like the other stone Buddha images of the old capital. When I visited Wat Traimit, the temple was in a state of disrepair and the Golden Buddha sat on a simple platform under a flat roof with little else. In 2010, the Thai government in conjunction with the Thai Sangha finished construction of a large new temple where the Golden Buddha was then placed. This new temple also has a museum section devoted to the history of the Golden Buddha.

The Standing Buddha of Wat Intharawihan

The Standing Buddha of Wat Intharawihan

Tucked off a small avenue near the busy King Rama VIII Rd in the northern district of Bangkok is another temple of note — Wat Intharawihan. At this Wat, there is a tall Standing Buddha (32m high and 10m wide) which dates back to the Ayutthaya period (17th century). This Standing Buddha has a particularly striking face with a large triangular nose. This face made such a lasting imprint in my mind that 2 years later when I was in Singapore I saw its doppleganger at the Temple of 1,000 Lights. This temple in Singapore was built in 1932 and contains a large (15m height/300 tonnes) seated Buddha known as the “Sakya Muni Buddha Gaya”.

Sakya Muni Buddha Gaya at Temple of 1000 Lights - Singapore (2008)

Sakya Muni Buddha Gaya at Temple of 1000 Lights – Singapore (2008)

When I learned that the person who had commissioned the construction of this temple and Buddha was Thai, I was convinced that this person had to have been influenced by the face of the Standing Buddha of Wat Intharawihan. The 2 faces are like mirrors of one another — although constructed out of different materials and built many 3 centuries apart.

Wat Saket atop the Golden Mount

Wat Saket atop the Golden Mount – Bangkok

Phu Khao Thong or the Golden Mount is a man-made hill that is found in the center of Bangkok. On top is Wat Saket — a chedi with gold foil applied to its exterior. Inside this chedi is a relic of the Buddha that was brought from Sri Lanka. The hill itself is actually the remains of an enormous brick chedi that was in the process of being constructed, but due to poor design and engineering this structure collapsed. During the passing centuries, the bricks eroded and the onslaught of rain and mud resulted in the formation of a big lump. King Rama V then oversaw the conversion of this lump into a hill with trees,vegetation, and a series of steps and pathways were built in order to lead people to the top where Wat Saket pierced the sky.

Wat Benchamabophit (Marble Temple)

Wat Benchamabophit (Marble Temple)

In the late 19th century, King Rama V finished building another temple in Bangkok — Wat Benchamabophit (or the Marble Temple). This tranquil and impeccably designed temple has an air of modernism about it — although it is now over a 100 years old. Inside the main temple hall is an exquisite Buddha image that was cast in 1920.  I happened to visit the Marble Temple after the tail-end of a heavy, but short rainstorm. From the moment I entered the temple grounds, all the chaos and blight of the Bangkok summer felt wiped away as if hit by a flash flood.

The Lotus Buddha inside the Marble Temple

The Seated Buddha inside the Marble Temple

The masonry and the lines of this temple are immaculate. The Buddha within its core sits serenely before a canvas of sea-blue. I felt cleansed — and it wasn’t because of the rain. It was because I had been quickly absorbed into the quiet bosom of this sacred space. I can remember singing along to “One Night In Bangkok” when it first came out in the 80s. I never really paid attention to the lyrics until the time of my first trip to the city. There’s a line in the chorus of the song that says “you’ll find a god in every golden cloister.”  No doubt this line may have various interpretations. But, it takes on a literal meaning when you do actually explore the side-streets (or “soi”) of this city because there is usually some golden image there to greet you. Some like the Golden Buddha of Wat Traimit are on celebratory display. Others may be hidden beneath plaster coatings, but maybe — if one goes beyond the cacophony of Khao San Road, the sleek din of Sukhumvit, and the carny pleasure of Patpong — these still await discovery.

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