A Thai temple

Not every Buddhist temple is set up for outsiders wishing to saunter in and grab a meditation pillow. Just a few doors down from the Zen center stands a Thai temple. I couldn’t find a website, so I called the phone number and spoke with a resident monk. I asked if there was daily mediation. In a thick accent, he explained that meditation and chanting took place in the sanctuary twice a day. I asked when and he offered the hours and I thanked him.

A few minutes before the evening session on a weekday, I arrived at the temple. The openings in the high gate—one for foot traffic and one for cars—were both shut tight. I loitered in front, thinking someone would come to unlock them, but no one did. A few days later, I phoned again to make sure I had the times right. The same monk answered. “You called before,” he said. He assured me that my information was correct. Then it occurred to me to ask, “Am I permitted to attend?” “Of course,” he said, though he seemed surprised by the request. “Tomorrow?” I asked. “Of course,” he replied.

The following evening, the opening in the gate for cars was ajar. Beyond was a scene of hustle and bustle. I could see through to a kitchen as two young men worked diligently scrubbing pots. Another attended to a small pond outside while still others carried large tables from one end of the courtyard to the other. Some wore ordinary Western-style clothes, and some donned the traditional marigold-colored robes. These were unlike the robes that the monks wore at the Zen center, which were subdued hues but ornately layered with folds as complicated origami. The robes here looked to be a single swath of fabric wrapped around the body and casually tossed over one shoulder, leaving the other bare in the mild afternoon air. The color shocked in its vibrancy, but the loose drape was relaxed. I stood watching them, but no one paid me any attention. Finally, I approached the kitchen door and caught a young man’s eye. He was wearing shorts and flip flops. “Meditation?” I called to him. His English was not so good, but he understood what I was asking. He came out of the kitchen and motioned for me to follow him. We went around to the back of the building and he pointed to a door up a flight of stairs.

Inside, I was greeted by the older monk I had spoken with on the phone. He bowed slightly and welcomed me. At last, it dawned on me what was going on. I was being permitted to observe their spiritual practice, but not necessarily to participate.

13 thoughts on “A Thai temple

  1. I can’t help but think, “How like “religion.” It reminded me of those times you visited a Christian church where you were not allowed to take the emblems. Just observe “our” way.
    There surely must be more to “God” than this attitude. It just seems to me that so many folks are so hungry to have a “special” relationship with God at the expense of keeping others out giving no credence to the fact that we’re all on the same path and that if there is a God, he/she/it can do no more than love us all. Somewhere, I read, “Love never fails.”
    I’ll be interested in your next segment with this Thai meeting.

      • I wouldn’t be surprised if I missed the point. Most likely I will enjoy Corinna’s account of what went on once she got into the right place to observe their spiritual practice. I was picking up on the part at the end where she says: “I was being permitted to observe…..but not participate.” In my woo-woo fantasy world I want the human family to recognize its oneness, specialness, uniqueness whether atheist or believer and that it doesn’t take belonging to a particular religion or practice although they may be used as stepping-stones to self realization and fulfillment.

        • A fair point and well made, sir. I definitely can’t and won’t argue with your ‘woo-woo fantasy world’ ideas. Regards…

  2. Ummmmmmmmhhh,…I don’t want to sound negative here, but most of the practices that involve ‘exclusion’ or non-participation for ‘outsiders’ are set up that way for a valid reason. Namely, that they (insert your faith of choice) wish you to be properly and completely AWARE of what you are doing. They want you to understand it’s significance, it’s gravity, it’s effects, it’s import.

    By being aware and cognizant of exactly WHAT you are participating in, you avoid disrespect to yourself and to the practice in which you are engaging.

    Also and usually the priest/monk/etc. has some measure of control over whether to use his/her own judgement about including you. That was my experience when I, a non-member, was given communion at a closed communion church.

    Perhaps this Thai temple practices something similar?

    Yours in Christ

    • I hear what you’re saying, Patti, but I think there is something to be said about the non-member’s personal thoughts about participating: First, “Do I want to?” Secondly, “If I do what will it mean to me?” Giving the freedom to self-select stimulates ones thought processes. This may be the steppingstone to wanting to learn more and resonate, or not, to the explanations given. Giving people the freedom to be gives them the freedom to choose while making them feel like an outsider creates thoughts of separation.

  3. And the freedom to self select also includes abiding by the rules as you are presented them, and either choosing to participate further or saying ‘not interested’. You ALWAYS have the freedom to ‘be’. That cannot be taken away from you. The freedom to be part of one thing or not, is also completely available.

    As long as the option for learning more and making that decision is available, I have personally no problem with the concept.

  4. I felt a bit of resistance in me to what Patti said about exclusion of a person from spiritual practices being based on the need for that person to be “aware” of what they’re doing. First, who gets to decide whether or not someone is “aware”? Second, we all know that we learn something by doing it, so why can’t awareness come to a person as they’re taking part in the spiritual practice? Let’s take Holy Communion/Eucharist for example. If you believe that it imparts grace to the receiver, why not let “whosoever will” receive it, because grace is for all and because in receiving it, the person will become more aware of God, rather than less aware? Third, to Patti — I know you to be a follower of Jesus, as am I, and the Jesus I know didn’t exclude anyone because they weren’t aware. His encounter with them gave them awareness. So I guess I’m on this little soapbox today to say that I don’t think there should be performance standards for a seeker to be forced to comply with, in order to know God.

  5. I have a different interpretation of this situation. In the first place, this particular temple and its community are probably not set up to relate properly to Americans who walk in off the street (or even call first). Neither the person Corinna spoke to on the phone nor the one she encountered at the temple spoke much English. This says to me that their temple is oriented to Thais presently living in the States, and they probably don’t have any meetings intended for non-Thai-speaking folks to attend (otherwise they would certainly have told her about them). And quite likely they have had experiences with well-meaning Americans who have almost no understanding of what they’re about stumbling in and disrupting the whole affair. So they may be very wary of welcoming Americans in, while at the same time, as the two people she encountered showed, not completely opposed to having “foreign” visitors.

    She might easily have happened on another temple that would be much more used to visitors and ready to relate fully to them. There are also, of course, many Theravada centers in this country set up and staffed by good old Americans (usually known as “insight meditation” or “vipassana” centers). In any case, there is no reason to think that the people at this temple were at all hostile or unfriendly toward visitors.

    If you want to compare this with Christian churches, imagine someone coming into a U.S. church speaking no English and not evidencing any understanding of what goes on in one (or at least, someone whom the worshippers there would assume to not understand). How would the staff and members of that church welcome such a person? They would likely try their best, but it could be awkward.

    Grace as Christians understand it extends to all persons; Buddhists believe that the possibility of enlightenment is open to all sentient beings — not only humans, but animals, hungry ghosts, (temporary) residents of hell, and others. It’s just that there are some practicalities that sometimes present temporary obstacles.

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