Wednesday, 1 August 2007

Wat Ton Sai: my beautiful brush with Buddhism

On Monday morning I sat on my balcony picking candlewax off my toenails and leg. Nothing kinky I’m afraid, merely the hardened debris from a brief Sunday night visit to a small but spellbinding temple called Wat Ton Sai (On Nut Soi 29).

It wasn’t a planned trip. When it comes to organized religion, I’m a disbeliever of Richard Dawkins-esque proportions. My faith has the firmness of a mangrove swamp in monsoon. Imagine my astonishment then when within minutes of agreeing to go, I found myself walking three times around a thin but lofty bot (ordination hall) while clutching a bunch of fresh orchids, a burning candle and three sticks of fragrant incense.

I wasn’t alone of course. Sunday marked the start of Khao Phansa (Buddhist Lent) here, and the small barefoot crowds of young and old walking in a clockwise direction with me were here to mark it with the ritual ceremony known as wien tien.

It made for a stunning scene. A fringe of towering palms encircled us. Beyond, a gaping night sky was incandescent with torn sheets of downy clouds, lit up from behind by an alabaster moon. On the temples paved terrace, the softly-lit faces of freshly hatched kids marched through the darkness beside maa or por (mother/father), giggling with repressed delight as their incense sticks excreted plumes of sweet-smelling smoke. Each time we past the intricately gabled front porch, people wai-ed the large, gleaming standing Buddha image interned inside on a gilded platform. Once our rounds were complete everyone proceeded to adorn the temples front bai sema (sacred boundary stones) with their impermanent offerings of flame, fragrance and flora:

Squeeze this potent picture inside a bottle and you could power an engine fuelled on exoticism for a thousand years or more. No lie. It was the kind of eerie and strange and inscrutable scene the early 20th century travel writer Norman Lewis, would have scribbled about long into the night while sipping Gin and Soda off a verandah somewhere in Old Siam.

As fiercely as this ceremony rekindled my fondness for beautiful Buddhist ritual, it also lead me to an upbeat conclusion…

Thailand is a nation currently uneasy about its love affair with Buddhism. Materialism, laissez-faire monks and the lascivious allure of coyote girls, are just a few of the apparent foes of, what is not officially the state religion, but many protesting monks have recently made clear they would like to be.

Why bother? Here, etched in the solemn faces of this crowd, was proof that while temples today are less visited than malls, Siddhartha will have his faithful for many moons to come.

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