Growing up, the only religion I knew was Buddhism, the kind with an large amount of deities. One for the ocean. One for money. One for health. The list goes on. My mom and I would watch horribly dubbed Hong Kong movies featuring the Monkey King, Kwan Yin, and other mythical beings and I swore they were real. I looked up to the Buddhas that reached the very difficult task of reaching enlightenment. We gave them offerings. We lit incense and spoke to them. We prayed to them. My mother and father were more like casual Buddhists though. They practiced it here and there and left most of the hard work on my grandmas and my aunt and uncles. They never pushed a religion on my brothers and I. That's not too much of a surprise because they never pushed anything on us. And what frustrated me back then, as I saw how active my friends' parents were in their pushing and prodding which I then equated to the quality of love. Oh boy, I was wrong. But if I knew half of the things I knew now back then…
As I got older and began to question, naturally, every fiber in my being, I inherently questioned my faith. The beliefs that I grew up with. The man or woman up above, if there was one or none. So I explored. I read books on what I knew first—Buddhism—and found out that there were so many sectors and types of Buddhism that it left me more discouraged than comforted. I took a class in college called “Soul Beliefs” and convinced myself that I was atheist…which lasted for a week. I went to church with my Christian friends, even attending Hillsong one Easter. I participated in my Jewish friends' holidays and pretended to be apart of their family. I contemplated fasting with my Islam friends and admired their dedication. And then I slowly realized—there is no one religion that I could possibly fit in. I loved every one of them while also finding fault in each of them. So I decided, "Fuck it, I'm going to believe what I want to believe." No labels.
So there I was. A 24-hour plane ride later from NYC to Thailand and with several hours of rest. My very good friend who is also a native (Thaya) and her friend who is a Temple expert (Amp) took us on a day trip to visit a Hindu Temple, a Chinese Buddhist Temple, and a Thai Buddhist Temple. Our very own tour guides, and amazing ones at that, gave us a full experience and guided us through three very different services.
(no pictures were allowed)
Right before we took our shoes off and stepped inside the Hindu Temple, we made a quick stop at a small street shop a hop away. We each bought a bag full of offerings—laced orchids, a small pineapple, a water bottle, candles, incense, a large leaf, some chive-like herbs, a bamboo, a small milk carton, and a piece of pastry. Once inside, we organized the offering on a large silver platter. We placed the pieces carefully in the platter, creating whatever symmetry we, but trust me, there are definitely skills involved in balancing a large water bottle and a pineapple without crushing the delicate orchid petals. Amp reassured us by calling our silver platter “pretty.” Phew. We followed Thaya and Amp and mimicked their every move. They lit their candles and laid their offerings in front of an altar of Hindu Deities. We squeezed in between a crowd of devout Hindus. Following Thaya and Amp, we each had our very own silent moment of prayer and followed up our prayers with three bows. After that, we were whisked away into the main building. Having lost Thaya and Amp in the building, we anxiously followed the Hindu monks signals. Leading us from one monk to another, they gifted each of us with a special prayer and sealed it with a mark in the forehead. We then joined Thaya and Amp on a long table full of deities. We all had matching marks on our foreheads—one red and two white dots. Thaya explained to us that now we had to take the orchid arrangement and offer it to one god of our choice. Hand in hand, my boyfriend and I placed our orchid in front of Ganesh—the Lord of Beginnings and the Remover of Obstacles. Taking our final steps around the Hindu Temple, we did another quick prayer to the god of the day of the week of our birth (which I actually didn’t know and thus guessed only later to find out that I was absolutely wrong) and to admire the place. After we left the Hindu temple, Amp told us to eat the pastry and drink the milk carton, the only offerings we had left from our original silver platter. “It’s like ingesting the blessings you just received.”
Chinese Buddhist Temple
We headed to the second—the Chinese Buddhist temple. On a traffic-filled route, Thaya gave us a handful of lotus flowers. She instructed us to fold the petals by grabbing each petal by the center and carefully folding it to one side. Once we got the hang of it, she told us to fold the rest of the petals with intention and prayer. By the time we arrived, I had folded 6 lotus flowers. We each held our own flowers. Thaya held a large bag of incense along with her flowers. At this temple, we didn’t need to take our shoes off at the entrance of the temple. However, Thaya told us that we must take our shoes off every time we prayed. Once inside and settled, she lit a large handful of incenses and gave everyone 16 incense sticks each. “Three per altar,” she said. We followed behind her closely with the 16 incense and lotus flowers. Monks walked among us and prayed near the altars. The gods looked quite familiar to me. They were the gods that I prayed to when I was young. The statues of deities wore lavish robes with many rich colors. Some had beautiful faces. Some had very scary faces. Some were men. Some were women. Some were….neither? The space looked just as lavish filled with reds, yellows, greens, and hints of blues. The patterns around the building felt infinite. We offered our flowers and incense. I spoke to the deities like I did when I was young. Yet, I spoke to them as the adult I am now. When we left the temple, we saw a huge line of monks enter. We waited until they passed to continue our path. I will never forget their young faces.
Thai Buddhist Temple
The last temple of the day was a Thai Buddhist temple. Amp and Thaya were in a hurry. We were late. It would be closing soon. Once we arrived at the front entrance, we quickly threw our shoes off and lit up some incense. All while trying not to light our lotus flowers on fire. The temple was massive. The biggest out of the three. It housed many little buildings. Unlike the Chinese Buddhist temple, this one was minimal. Only gold and white. Simple yet elegant structures. My boyfriend and I ran after Thaya and Amp as they entered the first small prayer building. Two female monks (and the only female monks I’ve seen all day) looked after the small prayer building and they were not very happy with our tardiness. “In Thai Buddhism, all Buddhists deities are male,” Thaya added. Greeting us on the altar were three monk statues. The statues foundation and structure were made with dark stone and it was covered sporadically with many bits of gold-like flakes. No bells and whistles here—no colors, no complex pattern the ceiling, no expressions on the deities faces, no exaggeration. After we prayed and placed three incense sticks on the altar, we made a small donation to the monks and she handed us three pieces of folded papers. Thaya instructed us to unfold a paper, revealing a gold flake, and to place a gold flake on each monk. Everything began to make more sense. Interesting. After painting the god gold, literally, we walked into another small building and bought a large gift basket. I didn’t know why. But I didn’t question it. I trusted Amp and Thaya and I trusted the faith. We then walked out of the building, into another building, and then walked up a narrow set of stairs. Sitting at the top of the stairs was a monk sitting with his legs crossed. He greeted us. We sat around him creating a half moon. They began to chant, almost instinctively. My boyfriend and I lowered our heads filling our eardrums with their soothing words. Such remarkable sounds. After the chanting, the monk handed us a small silver kettle of water and a bowl. We followed Thaya and Amp’s every move as the monk continued chanting. We took the kettle by the handle, just like they did, and poured the water into the bowl slowly as the monk spoke. He was praying for us. After his prayer and when the kettle was absolutely empty, we took the bowl of water outside the room and poured it at the root of a tree. We returned to the monk’s side and returned the bowl and kettle. We thanked him. As we walked out of the building, Thaya began to explain to us what the process meant: “What you just did is suppose to get rid of any enemies or bad karma that you’ve accumulated in your past life and current life. It is for good merit.”
Once we reached back out into the Temple courtyard, I saw that my arm had accumulated small goose bumps from wrist to armpit. I looked around. Everyone had similar faces. It wasn’t absolute joy. It wasn’t sadness. Or even tiredness. Thaya, Amp, and my boyfriend looked simply content. Their jaws relaxed. Their eyes soft. I smiled and as we all walked towards the nearby river. We all bought a bag or several (Amp) of fish food and fed the catfishes that called the river their home and involuntarily fed the dozens, maybe a hundred, pigeons that called the dock their home.
When I embarked on this journey to Thailand, I did not expect nor understood the extent of Buddhism practiced in the homelands. It's an absolutely intriguing, enlightening, goose-bump inducing experience. One that dives deeper in the spiritual beliefs I held as a child. As I prayed with my mom. As I spoke to Buddha, like he's my friend. And instead of feeling divided within myself and what I thought I knew, I felt at ease. I felt at home. I unconsciously practiced acceptance. I fell in love with the people’s passion in their faith. I admired their practice. How each petal, each offering, each sound, each movement had a rhyme, a reason, a meaning. Don’t get me wrong—my spiritual exploration is far from over but it’s far from the very beginning. And that brings me comfort.