The golden pagoda glowed like a noon sun. I squinted as I walked between pillars covered in gold mirrors and through a door trimmed in golden paint. The ceiling rose, three stories. Golden spirals and golden diamonds outlined the paintings of the stories of the Buddha. Across the room, sitting on golden pillows and wrapped in orange robes, sat a line of monks. They chanted and swayed as they lifted and dropped hand-fans. Their eyes were closed, their faces expressionless. I joined the seniors and children that sat cross-legged in front of them.
A tiny bell chirped. The worshippers bent down, praying toward the chanting monks. I followed, struggling to keep control of my muscles as I added more strain. To take my mind away from the pain I focused on the calming chants. As the pain faded and I let me eyes explore the monks: Large ones with marbled muscle, chubby ones like the Chinese laughing Buddha and ones of only skin and bones that resembled the original Buddha, during his months without food while meditating under the Bodhi tree.
The hot and spicy aroma of Thai food followed the wind into the temple. Men, in white shirts and black pants came in and laid trays in front of the monks. The chanting stopped and the monks ate. The worshippers watched in silence as spoons scrapped and jaws chewed. The monks rose, leaving their plates behind and walked out. Nuns collected the half-eaten food and split it among the worshippers. They invited me to join.
One of the key principles of the Buddha, called a precept, is that you should not kill. Likely every religion has this as a feature commandment. In Buddhism it goes beyond humans to include animals. You would assume this would make the monks vegetarians. It doesn’t, the Buddha has another principal that overrides this one. Monks must accept what is given to them. If meat is given, then they should honour the gift and eat it. Because people in poorer countries put a high value on meat, they donate lots of meat. Nearly every dish overflowed with meat.
Here are the five precepts of Buddha, the five dearest commandments that someone must follow in order to reach enlightenment:
- To abstain from killing.
- To abstain from stealing
- To avoid sensual misconduct.
- To abstain from lying.
- To abstain from fermented drink that causes heedlessness.
These five created the foundation for the original ideas of Buddhism, like every religion, has changed and merged with the cultures that it has mixed with. Today Buddhism is very dynamic across South East Asia. Here are give ways that Buddism really changes as you cross borders.
1. In Thailand, where Buddhism has had a lot of time, resources and the freedom to develop, monasteries are everywhere: Deep in the jungle and in the heart of every city and town. In Thailand almost every man becomes a monk for at least a short time during their lives. Many of these monasteries have an English-speaking abbot. There are also many special monasteries that exist to teach foreigners. This is in stark contrast to Vietnam where Buddhism was repressed for generations. In Vietnam you can still find monasteries, but they are often much smaller than the ones in Thailand and with far fewer monks as well.
2. In all of South East Asia, you can find modern Buddhists who pray for good luck and you can be blessed with good luck by monks as they sprinkle you with water and chant. In Burma this desire for good luck goes a step further. Many of the people, especially the men, will get tattoos from monks. Tattoos which have been blessed to hold supernatural powers, powers to protect the wearers from bullets, to help the wearer earn more money, and even to help the wearer learn faster at school.
3. Who doesn’t like the idea of reincarnation? Live, die, and then live again. In Cambodia my friends often ask me what I want to be reincarnated as. Since I am a vegetarian they believe I can choose what I will reincarnate into. I told them I would be an eagle. In Thailand the idea of reincarnation seems to be more frightening than rewarding, many people have confided in me, that because of their sins, they are afraid they might reincarnate into insects, and then to be stepped on for their next thousand lives. In Burma, women often hope to be reincarnated into men, but that’s probably related to the sexism more than anything else.
4. As far as religions go, Buddhism is one of the least sexist, allowing women a lot more freedom than many others. However, in Burma, when a woman and a monk are walking towards each other the woman must sit down and take her shoes off. The belief is that women should show their respect to monks by not approaching the monk, moreover, she must take her shoes off to make sure that she doesn’t accidentally step on his shadow, which as part of him, is still sacred, and to make sure she doesn’t show the souls of her shoes to the monk, which is a taboo.
5. Monks in every country sustain themselves by asking for donations in the early mornings. The best place to see this is Luang Prabang, which is a small town with a big monastery. As soon as the sunrises thousands of young monks walk the streets collecting food, money, and anything people want to give to them. In some of the larger tourist areas, you can often find monks coming out later, when the tourists are awake, and asking for donations. Usually this works out very well, tourists love practising the local culture, and monks love the extra donations. In Ko Pipi I once saw a drunken backpacker give a Monk a bottle of whiskey. The Monks smile didn’t waver; instead he gave it to a shop owner a minute later. The monks have to use what you give them, but use can apparently mean re-gifting.