Seeing the Light

24 Jun

Repeating patterns of mirrored mosaics, altar of side temple, Wat Chiang Man, Chiang Mai, Thailand.

Gorgeous glasswork at Wat Chiang Man, Chiang Mai.

There’s a brilliance about the light in the medieval temples of northern Thailand. It glints off mirrored mosaics, gold buddhas and gilded towers, off gaudy dragons and solemn elephants, illuminates great swathes of brightly coloured murals…

It puts the sombre stained glass gloom of European cathedrals to shame.

Glittering dragon, or naga, guarding temple, Chiang Mai.

Temple guardian, Chiang Mai, Thailand.

On Monday, after goggling at a few of the temples that scatter this 700-year-old city, we visited the student monks at the Buddhist University to try and understand more of their religion.

Buddhas on the ruins of a medieval chedi. Wat Chedi Luang, Chiang Mai, Thailand.

Ruins of a thirteenth century temple, Wat Chedi Luang, Chiang Mai, Thailand.

At Wat Phra Singh, in the old city, junior helped some attendants wash the Buddha relics, winding the handle which sends the water up to the top of the tallest spire.

Then we wandered down to Wat Suan Dok to talk to the student monks.

Novice monk walking through the graveyard of the abbots, Wat Suan Dok, Chiang Mai, Thailand.

Novice walking through the abbots' graveyard. Wat Suan Dok. Chiang Mai.

For all their grandeur, the larger temples, which are also places of learning, still feel like the campuses they are. Some have schools attached, where pupils in shirts so white they hurt the eyes ride bicycles to lessons.

Groups of crop-haired novices in flame-hued robes cluster in the shade around stacks of books, queue up for fizzy pop at the canteen, gather at tables around their laptops…

Novices studying in the shade, Wat Phra Singh, Chiang Mai, Thailand.

Studying in the shade, surrounded by sayings of Buddha. Wat Phra Singh.

Ah yes. The laptops.

In the old days, monks’ possessions were limited to their robes and shoes. For everything else, they relied on alms.

Now, the morning tradition of giving alms and receiving blessings remains an important part of Buddhist life in Cambodia, Laos and Thailand.

But today monks are allowed to own both mobile phones and laptops. As Rajid, one of the monks who came to talk with us, explained, “You can’t be a student today without access to the internet and a place to write your papers.”

There are monks in the forest, in meditative orders, who still live without mobile phones. But the telecommunications revolution has reached the temples too.

In fact, they don’t just study religion at the Buddhist University. The novice monks can build up knowledge in any area they please. Just not, Rajid explained, the practical.

Biology? Yes.

Medicine? No.

Wooden lanna Thai temple at Wat Chedi Luang, Chiang Mai, Thailand.

A beautiful environment in which to learn.

We’d wanted to learn more about Buddhism. So Junior’s question about a scene in a mural, where Buddha battles crocodile-headed demons on the river, was a good place to start.

“Before Buddha received enlightenment,” Rajid explained. “These are the demons of his mind. Trying to push him from the true path.”

But the purpose of the meeting is two-fold. The four monks we met had come from rural Cambodia, north of Phnom Penh, to study in Thailand and learn about the developed world. “Monks can’t travel for pleasure,” explains Rajid. “It has to be useful travel.”

So they wanted to learn about life in the West which, because of their vocation, they are unlikely ever to see.

Z talking to the monks at Wat Suan Dok, Chiang Mai, Thailand.

Explaining the Christmas stocking to student monks...

Which is how sir, assisted by his sketchpad, landed up explaining Christmas stockings, Santa Claus, easter eggs, badgers, foxes and rabbits to these four young monks.

He played his part rather better than I did. “What are the holy books of Christianity?” asks Rajid.

“Erm…” I say, brain scrabbling for the remnants of GCSE RE.

“You have Old Testament and New Testament,” he says. “Who wrote them?”

This puts me a little on the spot… I try and explain how the Old Testament overlaps with the Judaic Torah. Then I begin to list the books. “There’s Genesis, Exodus, Deuteronomy, Leviticus, Numbers, errr…” I pause. “There’s Isaiah, errr, Zachariah, err… Many books…”

“So some Christians believe in the Old Testament, others in the New?” he asks.

“Not exactly,” I say, realizing how little I really know about the global complexities of Christianity.

Thai Buddhism, by contrast, has three books only, handed down orally by Buddha’s assistants.

As we travel, Sir has been teaching himself meditation. When he needs to balance he will focus by standing fixed and chanting, “I am lighter than air…” During long bus journeys he zones out from Thai pop by adopting the lotus position.

So the guys helped him with his lotus position, introduced him to the notion of an object that you focus on to help your meditation, and explained the two different types of meditation that you practice. One for spirituality. The second to improve concentration on a task.

And has he seen the light?

Well… The monks run weekly meditation courses, overnight at their centre outside of town. And sir is interested in attending. Though less keen, it has to be said, on being woken at 5am by a gong.

Sadly, however, the course starts the next day. When I have already promised him, erm, paintballing…

Completely unselfconsciously, he pulls out a leaflet for the Extreme Sports Centre. Explains to his politely bemused audience the various arts of paintballing, xorbing, drift-karting, dirt-biking and bungy-jumping.

They nod, solemnly. “I think,” observes Rajid diplomatically. “That these things look a little dangerous for Buddhists.”

So. No.

Sir has yet to see the light. But if we stay a little longer here than we had planned, he may well see the forest meditation centre. And I may even talk him into the very early start.

Wat Suan Dok holds “Monk Chat” Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays from 5pm to 7pm. Thanks to Josie at Sleep is for the Weak for the writing prompt, light.

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8 Responses to “Seeing the Light”

  1. Jane Turner at 2:57 pm #

    Are you going to visit the White Temple north of Chaing Mai? It is well worth the visit – it is on GOOGLE.

    • MummyT at 3:53 pm #

      Wow! It looks amazing. Very reminiscent, as a project, of La Sagrada Familia…

      We came through Chiang Rai en route from Laos, and if I’d known I’d have broken our journey there.

      I will discuss with sir. He does love temples and monuments. But he has been objecting to Thai buses (it’s the Thai pop which gets him), so I promised him we’d travel from here to BKK by night train (which he loves) and not do tooo many big bus journeys.

  2. Wow what amazing pictures it looks lovely x

  3. Tammy at 11:23 pm #

    Personally, I don’t see why one couldn’t see the light while paintballing!

    Thanks for your comment on my light post, it’s fantastic to discover your blog. I’m from Thailand but have never lived there, it’s great seeing it and discovering parts of it I never have, through your travels. It’s wonderful what you’re doing with your son.

  4. Jane Turner at 1:58 am #

    Hope you make it there and continue to enjoy your wonderful trip.

    I went in Fabruary/March for a month – wish it could have been longer. I think you are very brave taking a 9 year old, but what an experience! What an education!

    I have got the travel bug really badly and booked a trip to China to see the pandas and all thing Chinese today. I have 10 months to wait.

    One day, I want to return to Indochina, it was my first experience of Asia.

    Good luck with the rest of your trip – how many weeks/days do you have left?

  5. porridgebrain at 2:26 am #

    Fabulous. I am so enjoying living variously through your posts, thank you.

    Makes me yearn for Thailand’s light!

  6. WifeoutWest at 12:07 am #

    That sounds fabulous. We are planning a campervan trek through North and South America next year, with a 3 year old. What a glorious childhood experience!

    • MummyT at 1:50 pm #

      and what a great thing to do with a littlie.. where are you going in north and south america?

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