To live a pure unselfish life, one must count nothing as one's own in the midst of abundance.
-- The Buddha
Wats, the temples of Thailand are fun places filled with lots of pretty decorations where tourists can go play, have fun, take pictures, let their kids climb on things and enjoy the occasional shows, plays and demonstrations that go on. ???
A few months ago I watched a group of some 15 happy tourists dressed in their shorts and loose, comfortable shirts and tops, romp into a Wat, taking pictures and having a great time. They didn’t seem to take much notice of the rather large crowd of impeccably dressed Thai people. They shouldered their way into the crowd to take pictures of the incredibly colorful and intricate ‘parade float’ which seemed to be the tourist attraction and photo-op of the day. In typical Thai style, the family, friends, and general mourners of the late city founder whose funeral it was did their best to maintain their placid dignified decorum. The parade float was of course the coffin and it’s decorations.
Wats are temples. Sometimes lavished with incredible wealth and fantastic decorations. All of which are donations by individuals making merit to the Buddha. Wats are community centers. Often, Wats are schools. Sometimes they also host local government offices. The Wat is the center and heart of the community. It often is a place where the local festivities take place. And funerals.
But a Wat is NEVER a place where one shows disrespect in any form to the Buddha, other people, or anything which has been built by people making merit. To show disrespect at a Wat by dressing or acting inappropriately is disrespect to the Buddha, to the community, to the founder or founders of the Wat, (very often a highly revered senior Monk, a Sangha), and disrespect to every person who has ever made merit at that Wat, if you think about it.
With all that in mind, by all means feel free to visit any Wat in Thailand. From the moment you enter the temple grounds, it also becomes /your Wat/. Yes, your’s. For you to enjoy, often walking back in time. A place of peace and tranquility where you can be at ease from the world you left outside for a time; where you can reflect, meditate perhaps, or simply appreciate a few moments of solitude.
Unlike churches and most religious institutes, the Wat exists solely for the individuals who visit, and for generations to come. Everyone who visits a Wat needs to keep in mind it is their temple and in enjoying it, you also should consider taking some small effort in maintaining it, even if only symbolically. This can be as simple as being respectful to the Wat and the people there. After all, you are really being respectful to yourself. If you wish to donate to the Wat there are usually collection boxes here and there. All money is spent on the Wat. There are no paid employees or administrative costs.
You will commonly see monks at the Wats. The younger ones are usually novices, essentially, school children. One should keep in mind the spirit of what a monk is. An individual who has given up, renounced, all worldly ties and possessions. The monk owns nothing and has retreated from much of the world.
There are a few do’s and don’ts when you encounter a monk. Roughly, depending on how much you wish to involve yourself with ‘your’ Wat, the scale would be:
* You can entirely ignore them. This is fine and quite acceptable. Just don’t show disrespect as in shouldering them aside or talking over their heads. Just common courtesy is expected.
* You can chat with monks. As nearly all monks are scholars, many of them are quite willing to talk. Maintain proper decorum is all that is expected of you. You can ask the monks about their personal history or the history of the Wat.
* You can ask the monk to give you a tour of the Wat. If the monk has duties, he may send a junior monk, if available.
* You can demonstrate your respect to the monk if you wish. If standing, with feet together, you may give the correct ‘wai’. (If you don't know the correct wai that is reserved only for monks, just keep your hands at your sides or clasped behind you and give a slight bow at the waist or nod of your head.). If the monk is seated, you must either maintain a respectful distance (15 feet or more is a good idea) or lower yourself below his head. Normally this means taking a seat. However, be careful! You must never point your feet towards a monk or a principle Buddha image. Why is this? The senior monks /are/ the Wat. They are the keepers of the wisdoms, the traditions, and the maintainers of the Wat itself.
One common mistake most westerners make is to view monks as individuals. While this is quite acceptable in casual circumstances, when the monk is undertaking any formal duties he becomes an extension of a tradition and mind more than 2500 years old. He is without ‘self’, a personification of the temple and a life shared by all other monks.
* You may also make merit directly to the monk which is exactly the same as putting money in a donation box. When doing this you should obey the same rules of being respectful.
* As the monk has renounced worldly ties and bonds, there are a few things that are not appropriate to give to monks such as alcoholic beverages, cigarettes or the like or other things which are viewed as ‘catering to the senses’ of taste, smell, etc. As well, contact with the opposite sex is forbidden in the same light. Only a man may hand something directly to a monk. If you are female and no male is present you may place your offering on the floor before the monk. More than likely, the monk will place a tray on the ground for you to place the offering in. There may also be temple laypersons about who will come and assist you. The best and commonest things to give to monks are basic foods (for the monk himself) or money to help maintain the temple. Keep in mind a monk has no money of his own, may not spend money on himself and gets all his food from donations.
With all that said, welcome to the temples of Thailand. They are, at least for a few brief moments in time, your temples to enjoy and appreciate.