Visitors will have heard the term ‘making merit’. What does it mean? Asia Lifestyle Magazine dives into Buddhism and makes it easy to understand.
As a visitor to Thailand for the first time; the experiences, food, people, religion and culture can be a little overwhelming and resemble a wonderland of mystical adventure. Orange-robed monks are seen early each morning receiving their offerings from local people in the communities that surround their temples: the monks are keepers of animals and the centre of the religion that is observed by over 95% of the population. Thāmbūn, alms, the adornment of temples, blessings, offerings, incense and spirit houses – what does it all mean?
Prince Siddhartha Gautama founded Buddhism in India in the 6th Century B.C: after 49 days of meditating under the bodhi tree; he became Buddha, otherwise known as the ‘Awakened One’. Many centuries later, one of the oldest religions practised today: Buddhism, arrived in Thailand having become deep-rooted across Asian continents. In Thailand alone, there are some 30,000 temples or ‘wats’ and over 300,000 monks. Every teenage Buddhist male in the country is required to become a monk for some time before reaching the age of 20: they will stay in their temple for up to three months. The youngsters are thought to receive positive karma and merit for this duration of study and hardship.
Monks are highly revered and are friendly souls; they endure hundreds of rules by which they must abide; they must have a simple life. Monks have no personal means of support. Thus they need to seek ‘alms’ of which considered acceptable are food, clothing, shelter and medicine, and in turn, they share merit and good will. What is thāmbūn or merit-making? It means to perform an action or ceremony to increase virtue according to the Buddhist principle of karma: to celebrate a birthday, wedding or a housewarming by releasing animals or groups of monks chanting. For lay-people or those that are not monks, this refers to offering food or essential items to the monks and donating money to temples or people in need.
Buddhist temples are ‘guarded’ by a menagerie of seemingly terrifying mythological creatures, many from Asian legend. Garuda is probably the most familiar beast that appears to be human but with a birdlike head, wings and talons. They are wild opponents of those who intend evil, are hugely influential but compassionate; and is the national symbol of Thailand. The garudas are thought to have had a long-standing quarrel with nagas, the snake-like creature that also protects temples. Yaksha, in spite of his fierce and demonic appearance, takes care of precious things.
A spirit house is a shrine to a protective spirit of a specific place – most houses and businesses have one placed in an auspicious location, usually in a corner outside the property. The house is traditionally a small open-sided, roofed structure and mounted on a pillar. The houses are intended to provide shelter for any spirits that could cause problems for people if not appeased and often include images or carved statues of people and animals. It is a long-standing tradition in Thailand to leave offerings of food and drink, the favoured drink in recent years is red strawberry-flavoured Fanta. People believe that friendly spirits will congregate to enjoy free food and beverages and that their presence will serve to keep more harmful spirits at bay. The popular belief is that ‘red’ Fanta is used as an offering as its colour is indicative of animal sacrifice. Burning incense is symbolic as an offering to spirits and can aid in prayer.
There are many Buddhist holidays throughout the year; Visaka Puja commemorates Buddha’s birthday, death and enlightenment. Thai Buddhists will gather with lit candles at one of the many temples across the country. Khao Phansa marks the three-month period in which monks retreat to their temples for study and meditation. Songkran is probably one of the most famous festivals as it marks the start of the Thai New Year: this giant water fight symbolises the washing away of sins and any bad luck from the previous year and originates from the practice of pouring water over statues of Buddha.
Buddhism is a sophisticated, yet complex ‘religion’; the Four Noble Truths contain the essence of the Buddha’s teachings 2500 years ago "I teach suffering, its origin, cessation and path. That's all I teach", was declared after forming a deep understanding of these principles during his meditation under the bodhi tree. These are: the truth of suffering (Dukkha), the truth of the cessation of suffering (Nirodha); the truth of the origin of suffering (Samudāya) and the truth of the path to the cessation of suffering (Magga). The BBC compared him to a physician. In the first two Noble Truths he diagnosed the problem (suffering) and identified its cause. The third Noble Truth is the realisation that there is a cure. The fourth Noble Truth, in which the Buddha set out the Eightfold Path, is the prescription, the way to achieve a release from suffering.