Buddhism vs. Christianity! FIGHT!

Posted by: James on: Thursday, 12th January, 2012

“And it’s a tense match-up here at the Olympic Stadium. God opens with a plague to Buddha’s solar plexus – looks like Old Testament strategy to me.”
“That’s right, John, but Buddha’s on classic form – look he’s just sitting under the bodhi tree weathering that plague. Oh what’s this? He’s released the many-headed naga in a vicious attack. And JC is tagging in at this point for a special move – there it is – he’s turned the other cheek. Could be another disappointing draw, John.”

Actually, for the purposes of this post, I’m not concerned with doctrines – much less fighting styles; more with how religion impacts lifestyle. Hopefully I’m going to go some way towards explaining why a tourist can visit the UK and remain completely ignorant of religious practices, while this would be virtually impossible in Thailand.

I come from a broadly Christian background, but I was essentially allowed to make up my own mind about what I believed (for which I am very grateful). I’m now technically agnostic, I couldn’t comfortably cross myself in front of an altar and I don’t know many people who regularly go to church or who say their prayers before bedtime. I do dislike it when tourists answer phone calls in quiet places of worship.

Thailand has a practising majority of Buddhists for whom religion is a regular, integrated feature in their lives. One of the most obvious things you notice coming from a Christian background is that Thailand has more Wats than the electric T-Rex fence in Jurassic Park. (A Wat is a temple. No apologies.)

Okay, so what? There are lots of churches and cathedrals back home: I recently heard a tour of Europe described as “ABC – Another Bloody Cathedral”. The difference is that the temples here are not only really obvious, but they’re still being built in grand old fashion: people are still painting the things. I’ve included some pictorial evidence below:

Monk painting a statue.

A monk painting another shade of gold onto the base layer of gold to achieve that special depth of sparkle.

Naga (in progress)

A naga ready to have the detail (and perhaps some nice mirrored bits) added.

Chofah being added to temple

The holiest part of the temple – the Chofah – being added to a temple. What you don't see in this picture is the group of orange-swathed monks each holding part of a long string tied to the Chofah and blessing it as it goes into place.

I’ve not seen church construction in the UK ever in my entire life, but I see it quite commonly here and it’s not like I’ve been looking for it.

Another obvious difference is in the form taken by interactions with the religious institution – and perhaps there would be a less stark contrast here if the Catholic church still sold ‘indulgences’ (essentially donations in penance for your sins).

Devotions in Thailand are small, frequent and diverse. Again, I’ve taken a couple of snapshots:

Oil burningPeople adding oil to a burning candle in front of the day of their birthday. This is one of many ways to make merit and – see to it that you receive good karma. I’ve never been able to do this as I don’t actually know which day of the week I was born!

There are unfinished statues everywhere – and you can help finish them! All you do is grab some gold leaf and rub it in. The finished effect is great, but they tend to be a bit messy while they’re in progress.

You can also give to monks, offer flowers at temples, light candles and incense. You can get a blessing from a monk, which involves some words, some flicking of water and getting a piece of white string tied around your wrist.

At the beginning of this post I mentioned that I really don’t like it when a tourist disrupts the harmony of a sacred place, but somehow in Thailand it doesn’t apply in the same way. The reason is simply that once the locals have made their genuflections and received their blessing, they are quite happy to smile and pose for the camera in front of a massive gold Buddha – I’ve even seen someone point a camera at a monk as the monk blessed him. This doesn’t seem to bother anybody – least of all the monks.

Religion in Thailand gives you so many ways to interact on a daily basis. It’s colourful – literally – and it involves the whole community: it’s common practice for young men to ordain as monks for a short time to gain merit and learn some Buddhist teachings. You see them everywhere and of course you can give them food in exchange for merit (they aren’t supposed to touch money).

Perhaps it’s because I’m a foreigner, but I can’t help but love this interactive religion. You can even ring the huge racks of bells outside the monasteries and it’s accepted. Kids and adults both do it – there’s no venerable and serious religious teacher to come out and tell you off.

Fruit shake stall in front of the watTemples also help out the locals: above is a picture of one of my favourite fruit shake stalls outside the walls of a wat. She’s getting the power for her blenders from a cable leading from the wat. I’m not saying Christian churches don’t help anyone out – they are known for their charitable roles – all I’m saying is that there is a much larger division between secular and spiritual. Here, they are often seamlessly integrated.

Good thing/bad thing? Well, just because I like watching it doesn’t mean I’m going to start believing it. I don’t believe that you can earn karmic merit by paying to set free a cage of sparrows that will just be re-collected for re-release at a later date – I think that probably comes under ‘preying on the gullible’ and I think of many of these practices in the same way that I would think of Catholic indulgences: a dubious money-making scheme that supports the religious institution.

The thing that I do appreciate is the very different attitude of Thais to their faith – these religious practices are alive and they blend in with secular Thai life, and it’s a great spectacle even if you don’t share the faith.

2 Responses to "Buddhism vs. Christianity! FIGHT!"

If I have remembered your birthday correctly, the internet tells me you were born on a Tuesday.

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A fairly loose blog about the places I go and the things I think. May also include left-leaning social commentary derived in part from video games.

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