(This blog is from the Summer of 2016.)
Buddha’s birthday, which is also his enlightenment and death day, is celebrated on the first full moon in May. This happens to have been today! On this day, Siddhartha was born to a wealthy family in India, where he was secluded from poverty, sickness and death. After his 20th birthday, Siddhartha began venturing out of his palace, and encountering the realities of human frailty. Siddhartha was impressed, and decided to leave the palace in order to find the cure to universal suffering.
As roughly 95% of the population in Thailand follows Theravada Buddhism, Buddha’s birthday is a public holiday in Thailand. To learn more about Buddhism, we took a trip to Ko Kho Khao, where GVI usually helps at a Buddhist temple, to both volunteer and accompany a prayer. Upon arrival, monks greeted us with both large smiles and brooms. It was time to get to work. Rake the leaves outside, clean the temple, and wash the bathrooms. Although at home none of these activities would have ever sounded pleasurable, the smell of incense and the crowd that was beginning to gather for prayer a couple of hours later, made the experience enjoyable. After quite some sweating, we were greeted by the group raking leaves with a pile of mangos that the monks had helped them take off the surrounding trees. YUM!
The prayers started some time after. We gathered inside of the temple, which albeit simple, was beautifully decorated by flowers and delicious Thai meals that families had brought as offerings to the monks. The monks sat on a raised platform surrounded by plates of fruit, cooked rice, soups, meats and flowers; all others sat on the floor just below. The swarm of Thai words inside the temple quickly subsided as the monk started praying. Although I could not understand the prayer, I could feel the energy that rapidly collected inside that room. It was nothing like I had ever experienced before. Unlike other times this past week, there was no “aha!” moment, where I connected what I was seeing to something that I had experienced before. I felt my vision of the world grow, I felt more understanding — I gained perspective. Most of all, though, I realized the beauty of Buddhism. Although we were clear foreigners, the people at the temple were open to our visit. Not only did they guide us through the prayer, we were also offered food for lunch. Rice, fish, curry, noodles, fruit — all for our enjoyment, even though we had come into their space. I am grateful for this experience at the temple; all I could think of during my time there was how I wanted to learn more about Buddhism. And… through a great surprise, the afternoon activity was a meditation class. Although we only meditated for 15 minutes, the rest of the two hours were spend learning about Buddhism, enlightenment, and the importance of practicing meditation. What a wonderful way to celebrate Buddha’s birthday in Thailand!