I’ve said many times now that I no longer believe in coincidences, and I have yet to be shown a reason to change my mind on this. Upon arriving in Lomkao, I set a goal to start reading more often. Out in the jungle of Lomkao, I have much more time to read than I am used to and I want to take advantage of it – maybe even improve my reading skills, which I always complain are inferior. Curiously, the only book I brought with me was Life of Pi by Yann Martel – a book that I have already read, and long considered one of my favorites. A book that talks of Hindu mythology, Buddhism, man’s connection to nature. Coincidence?
You may remember me mentioning Ramayana in my post about the Grand Palace – the story of the evil Ravana who took the form of a deer and kidnapped Sita, Rama’s consort. This is a story I initially learned years ago in my yoga teacher training, and it has somehow resurfaced already three separate times during my journey. Once, at the Grand Palace, a second time during the OEG traditional Thai performance dinner, and a third time reading Life of Pi.
But the real coincidences are less recognition of commonalities and more alignments of deeper meaning with all that I am experiencing.
Over the years, I’ve developed a distaste for organized religion, mostly due to the examples I have witnessed in America. People blindly following rules to live their life by without questioning where they come from or what they mean; people expressing their “love” for all of God’s creation while simultaneously taking from and destroying this creation without a second thought; people lashing out at others in efforts to claim the “best” religion or the “right” path, etc.
It wasn’t until I explored spirituality in my yoga practice that I began to look at the concept of religion in a different light. Witnessing Buddhism first-hand has opened my mind even further.
“Grains of rice lie about, as well as a flower just beginning to wilt. Many of these items are anointed with dabs of yellow and red.
On the shelf below are various articles of devotion: a beaker full of water; a copper spoon; a lamp with a wick coiled in oil; sticks of incense; and small bowls full of red powder, yellow powder, grains of rice and lumps of sugar.”
Walking through the rice fields of Lomkao, driving through hills and hills of rice fields in Chiang Mai, witnessing the offerings at Doi Suthep temple in Chiang Mai, reading Yann Martel’s description of symbols of devotion – these “organized religions”, Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam and more, are nothing like what I have ever observed before.
Rice is deeply ingrained in Thai culture and religion (pun intended). What the Earth provides to give us life is celebrated and cherished. Hindu gods take the form of animals – much like how yoga asanas, or poses, are based on animals – we learn from them and appreciate their sacrifice as contribution to our own lives.
I remember reading in How to Train a Wild Elephant by Jan Chozen Bays that a common practice in Taoism is to treat each and every material object with such delicacy as you would the finest jewel. By doing so, you lead each action with gratitude, appreciating the ease these material objects bring to your life, acknowledging how privileged we are to use them. Tea cups, flowers, spoons, bells, coins, incense, candles – all presented as sacred offerings, all appreciated fully.
When we visited the Temple of the Emerald Buddha at the Grand Palace, I remember one of the other teachers admiring the gold, the embroidery and jewels of the massive structure leading up to the Emerald Buddha and remarking, “How ironic. The Buddha was supposed to be against material goods, and yet they place millions of dollars of gold at his feet.”
An interesting thought, though what the Buddha really discouraged was attachment to material goods, not the goods themselves. And, in reality, what better way to practice letting go of material attachments than to place the most appreciated and cherished materials in the hands of the divine, in a sacred, and yet inaccessible, trove.
It was a rainy day at Doi Suthep Temple in Chiang Mai. The crowds were much smaller than usual, and the wind encouraged the hundreds of bells around the temple to sing continuously. The temple does not allow shoes – as feet are the lowest part of the body, and thus the furthest from the spiritual crown of the head, dirty shoes have no place in the presence of the Buddha. In cold bare feet, we circled the gold temple, walking slowly and feeling every step, one toe at a time. People held lotus flowers and prayed while walking, leaving the flowers at the foot of the temple. We dripped holy water in gold tea cups over smaller gold statues, joining cascades of water with the raindrops. We crawled on our knees to the shrines, keeping our head lower than that of the Buddha, and lowered our foreheads to the ground as we prayed.
The story of Doi Suthep tells that one of the Kings of Thailand, who had relics of the Buddha in his possession, consulted his white elephant on where to take the divine objects. The King and the white elephant rode for miles up the mountain, until the elephant trumpeted three times consecutively, turned three times in a clockwise direction, and then fell to his knees to let the King off of his mount. The King knew: At the top of Doi Suthep is where the Buddha’s relics belong.
As we learned and gazed in awe, Monks circled the temple, preparing for the upcoming holiday. May 29th was Visakha Bucha Day – the day the Buddha was born, reached enlightenment, and passed. Buddhists travel for miles to come to the temples, some making farther journeys than others.
But holidays are not the only reason for such travel. Leaving Doi Suthep, a nice Malaysian man said hello to Jenn, Ashley and I. (Ashley is a great friend we met at our hostel and was lucky enough to experience much of Chiang Mai with). This man explained that his wife’s uncle recently passed, and as soon as they heard the news, they rushed to Doi Suthep to pray. Soon after, his wife joined us. She did not speak English, but her face expressed much more peace than I anticipated after hearing of her loss.
The gold embellishments, the articles of devotion and impressive statues are attempts to showcase the beauty these temples hold, though the true beauty is not seen, but felt.