Did you know that Buddhism is the second most practiced religion (behind Christianity) in 13 western U.S. states (including Oklahoma!)? I didn’t (until recently, anyway). Nor did I really know a darn thing about it. So I brushed up a little in preparation for my January Asian adventure.
First stop: Bangkok.
The most visited sites in Bangkok include a handful of huge Buddhist temple complexes (“Wats”), mostly arrayed along the Chao Phraya river that runs through the heart of town. There’s one at the Grand Palace called Wat Phra Kaew; there’s one right next door called Wat Pho, and one just across the river (with the tall towers) called Wat Aron. Wat Pho is home to a 160-foot reclining Buddha – a Buddha statue the size of a US Navy patrol ship, casually lying on its side with its head propped on its right arm. The legend is that a “reclining” Buddha isn’t sleeping or resting – he’s just so “enlightened” he’s practically floating: that’s the standard pose in Nirvana.
Depending on your definitions, Buddhism isn’t necessarily even a religion at all. It’s theoretically “non-theistic” which means it doesn’t (necessarily) involve a god or gods. Buddha himself is believed to have been a teacher/philosopher who lived 2500 years ago in India. Technically, he’s not considered a god, and in theory neither he nor those statues are worshipped or prayed to – though to an outsider that’s just what it all looks like when Buddhists bow down with their palms pressed together in front of their faces. (Come to think of it, though, they did pretty much that same thing to me when I walked into my Bangkok hotel lobby). They say those ever-present gilded statues of Buddha are just there to remind them of the qualities and teachings of Buddha.
Bangkok was just a short stopover on the way to a three-week stint in Burma, so there’ll be much more to come from my foray into the Buddhist world.
If you’re like me, you can’t think of a visit to Bangkok without thinking of the 1980s song “One Night in Bangkok.” Written by a couple of members of ABBA, it’s actually about an international chess tournament set against the backdrop of some of Bangkok’s seedier aspects.