Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Wats the Big Deal?

Dog days at the dog wat, Wat Ketkaram.

There are a few things that Southeast Asia has in spades: chilies, bananas, stray dogs, smiles, and temples. In the past three months, we’ve stepped barefoot into more Buddhist temples than we have in our entire lives. In fact, we went from zero to fifty-odd in the span of a few weeks, and we knew virtually nothing about temple architecture or practice before we arrived. We had a lot of learning to do, and luckily we were able to participate in a full moon ceremony in Mae Mut to see what active temple life is like. But there are still hundreds of details and intricacies—the symbolism of certain architectural flourishes, mysterious numbered boxes stuffed with paper like mail slots, the meaning behind poured water—that we’re still trying to unpack. Thus we preface this post with the warning that we are not experts, have probably gotten things wrong, and could have learned a lot more had we not been petting so many temple dogs.

Each temple has its own flavor, and sometimes even its own zodiac animal theme, but common to all of them is the sense of it being a living space. What felt really special to us about all of these wats was how there were so many people there simply to worship. Even at Doi Suthep, which is crawling with multinational tourist bugs, including ourselves, there were Chiang Mai University graduates in their robes, walking circles around the chedi for merit, giggling girls shaking out fortune sticks, people bowing their heads for a monk's blessing. Even at Chiang Mai’s so-called Silver Wat, which is lit up in rotating neons at night, there are monks engaging in nightly “monk chats,” where visitors are invited to chat with disciples about the way of the Buddha. We sat in on one of these and found it interesting, if a little difficult due to language difficulties. (This was before we learned any decent amount of Thai.)

The ordination hall at Wat Ket

What Makes a Wat?
When we say we visited a wat, we mean not just one temple building, but rather several buildings comprising a small campus, populated with circular tables, people relaxing, and napping dogs. Each building serves a particular function, and some larger compounds repeat buildings, but the central ones are: the bòt, the ordination hall where monastic ordination takes place (and women aren’t allowed), and the wíhăan, which houses Buddha images of different sizes, colors, and materials, and is where both everyday worship and special ceremonies takes place. Generally the whole thing has a wall around it, but wats always seem to have multiple entrances, and often you can just walk in 24/7. This would be a little inconsiderate at night, though, as a group of monks lives on the premises. Monks’ quarters are set back from the most public portions of the courtyard, and are given away by clotheslines billowing with bright sheets that look like they were dip-dyed in orange peels and saffron (which they used to be). Finally, there is what you might know as a stupa, or in Thailand a chedi: a domed or pyramidal tomb with a single point rising up to the sky, usually believed to house a venerated monk’s ashes, or even relics of the Buddha.

Most noticeably, every surface of a wat is decorated with gold and multicolored shards of glass, or elaborate wood carvings, from stairway railings to window shutters and gutters. There are steps leading up to the door, and the railings are most often a serpent of some kind, although the type will vary depending on the regional influences: Thai areas with lots of Chinese contact often feature dragon hybrids; Laos had elaborate carvings of naga, sacred water serpent deities; and then there are chimeras and griffins and all manner of lizards... anything with scales goes. The naga also guarded the Buddha during meditation, and appears abstractly in the roofline: the roof tiles are his scales, and the swooping eaves mimic his head. The rooflines are also tiered into three levels, corresponding to the Buddhist triumvirate: the Buddha, his philosophy (dhamma, and the community (sangha).

Well, Wat’s the Best?

We first discovered Wat Ket (pronounced more like “Get”) when we were in Chiang Mai the first time, in early December 2013, before we had ever set foot on a Thai farm. We were just wandering down sidestreets after missing the eating hours of Khao Soi Prince, and suddenly there was this enormous wat complex, and dozens of dogs, because Wat Get’s theme is the Dog Zodiac. The place is littered with canine statuettes in brightly painted plaster, pint-sized and slightly ridiculous, while their life-sized, friendly, sometimes scrawny versions splayed themselves on the cool tile stairs or wagged their way around our knees.

We spent a while just walked around, taking pictures and scrutinizing our new friends for fleas, before we discovered a MUSEUM overrun with wooden knickknacks and vines. From the outside, it’s just a rough-hewn one-story wooden building with the sign “MUSEUM” over the door, but inside is a maze of rooms packed floor to ceiling with artifacts of mysterious origin and little explanation. Most appeared to be Thai, with some other Asian elements thrown in (Chinese jade horses, Japanese porcelain, Lao silks). There was an entire glass case stuffed with antique silver swords, and the walls were plastered with fans and faded temple decoration—old wooden rooftips, painted signs of the Buddha’s sayings. One corner is entirely taken up by a canopied bed belonging to a former head abbot, leading us to believe the building was originally the monks’ quarters. The lighting was dim, and two small rooms that evidently contained display objects simply had no working lights. Here and there, there was a caption on a display case or beside something hanging on the wall, but much of the collection was just kind of sitting there in transparent cases or on tables, loosely organized according to what sort of stuff it was and what civilization produced it. Some of these artifacts looked extremely valuable, both historically and monetarily, and hopefully this museum will find a wealthy benefactor to support research.

Six weeks later, when we returned to Chiang Mai, we stayed just around the corner from Wat Ket. One day we stopped in again, to check in on the museum (which was closed for the evening). As we left, we passed a few young men and one older man by the gate playing pétang, the Southeast Asian version of the French pétanque. Step got really excited, having played this game with some older Parisian gentlemen in the Jardin du Luxembourg, and joined these guys for a game. None of them were monks, but it turned out that the young men were a team. Step had played on the same side as their coach, which is the only reason any points were scored.

Wat Umong—also known as the forest wat—is located on the fringes of Chiang Mai As its nickname suggests, Wat Umong is nestled on a wooded hillside on a huge lot amid various trails and even a large pond. Its campus is unusually large; it appears to be a kind of many-limbed Buddhist education center that hosts regular meditation retreats advertised completely in English. In a courtyard, there’s a replica Pillar of Asoka; there are pithy words of wisdom painted on wooden signs nailed to trees; there’s a meditation zone surrounded by Buddhas complete and incomplete, including a head bigger than a beach ball. On a patio, you can walk among stone friezes standing on end showing mythological scenes, accompanied by a plaque in English arguing passionately for universal religious tolerance.

To us, though, the interior of the temple building itself was by far the most magical part. Built around seven hundred years ago (!), the temple is a brick and lime complex of arched tunnels and brief sets of steps, allegedly built to house a clairvoyant monk who may or may not have been prone to insane wandering. The complex looks nothing like any other wat we’ve ever seen. The front wall has three parallel entrances. At various tunnel ends, and in many alcoves along the walls, Buddha statues are ensconced among flickering candles and smoking incense. All of the tunnels have low ceilings—at least one was literally too low for Pil to stand up fully, giving you an idea of the scale of life for 13th-century Thai people. It’s like being in an ant colony. It feels impossible to walk quickly here, or to make loud noises. At the Buddha shrines, people from all over were kneeling, lighting incense, bowing their foreheads to the floor, or silently meditating.

There are a few other unusual structures, like a building entirely devoted to mural art by monks (both visiting and Thai), and a small island in the middle of a reservoir overrun with cooing pigeons and a lone rooster.

Our last highlight is Chiang Mai's Doi Suthep, where Step took a million photos, so those will be up in our next post. She admits that she has a problem, but will not seek help.

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