By Jonathan Ng
It is like being underwater, that flood of noise from the chanting monks. My head bobs in the surf of closed eyes and swaying bodies. White-clothed pilgrims sit around me on the large maroon rug that covers half the room. Our bodies slant forward, and our hands fall on each other’s backs.
An oscillating fan circulates softly in the corner. The room is hot, and the air is thick. There is a shuffling in the crowd as the chanting breaks. This metaphysical world that we’d constructed dissolves, and we breach the spiritual trance like whales surfacing for air.
This physical space of prayer that appears before us is simple and relatively unadorned. A coarse, rectangular maroon rug covers the tile floor below it, and halfway around the perimeter of this rug lay mats, where monks in burnt orange robes chant. This atrium that shelters us contains three different sections, all of which serve separate purposes. Two carpeted sections are prayer and meditation spaces for worshipers. Flanked by these two prayer areas, the middle space of the atrium opens to a larger shrine of a white-robed Buddha, from whom the temple derives its name, “White Dragon Temple.” Sayings like “a good heart leads to a good day” adorn a wall of the temple, and carvings of white dragons curl around the pillars of the center atrium.
Each year, hundreds to thousands of worshipers come to the temple to practice “chanting and meditation techniques to obtain a higher level of spiritual awareness,” stated a senior disciple, Lou Ji Yee. From the capital of Thailand, Bangkok, Lou Ji Yee acts as the translator for the “White Dragon Temple.” Educated at an international school in his younger years, Yee left a career at a US military research development center in Thailand after having felt a higher calling and meeting with one of the temple elders, See Fuo, by chance. This higher calling to service drives many of the temple’s disciples to wholeheartedly help others achieve their greatest successes.
The temples’ services do not merely stop at worship and spiritual practices: leaders in the temple provide counseling and guidance to its members, and both serves the direct community and those outside of the country as well. Attracting disciples from places like Hong Kong, Singapore, Canada, Australia, and the United States, people from all walks of life frequent Sri Racha—the town where the temple resides, which is 120 kilometers south east of Bangkok or a two and half hour bus ride—to pray. Many of these travelers come during special religious festivals that happen four times a year.
As confirmed by many of the temple’s disciples, these spiritual festivals allow for temple leaders to reinforce the belief that people should be “in harmony with nature” through “spiritual blessings with the use of lotus flowers, candles, and spiritual water.” Monks also augment this bonding aspect of the celebrations by chanting and guiding temple members.
Though catering to many of these international worshipers, the temple first and foremost seeks to nurture the surrounding town and its people. As assiduous servant-leaders of the community around them in Sri Racha, the spiritual disciples provide economic, physical, and psychological support to the community. From projects like helping to refurbish local schools to employing local people in the area, the White Dragon Temple’s reach extends far within the community. By attracting the foreigners from other countries, the temple pools donations to help support these communal projects in the town area.
Because of an increase in followers in recent years, multiple projects to expand the grounds began in the early 2010s and were completed a year ago. With these physical expansions, activism increased in the town even further than the temple’s spiritual epicenter.
Over my lifetime, I have seen these changes through the additions of buildings and new coats of paint on the wall, and though these changes reverberated through the temple and more generally in the town, this place has become a home.
Granted, I have never spent more than four days in prayer at the temple in Sri Racha. My faith has not always been axiomatic either. Instead, religious acts, though important in themselves, leave an indelible mark on the morals that I choose to uphold. It is not the way in which I seek our faith, but the lessons that help guide me to being a better servant-leader on the friends, people, and world around me.
Perhaps, I am, as poet Charles Olson put it, “a complex of occasions,/themselves a geometry/of spatial nature…forever the geography/which leans in/on me I compel.” I embody the memories and experiences that I’ve tethered to this place of worship, and it has become more than merely a place for spiritual discovery. I have come to know the disciples that surround me, the local townspeople who have become fixtures in my life, and I understand the followers who visit the place, both new and familiar. I am tied to the White Dragon Temple, to Sri Racha, to Thailand—it is a place that colors my memory in kaleidoscopic hues.
RELIGION AND THE LAND
After many years of practicing Buddhism in Thailand, my experience expands beyond the immediate community in Sri Racha. In recent years as I have visited the White Dragon Temple, the social unrest in Thailand has crept into the religious aspect of my trips.
Religion exists as an innate piece of the landscape that etches itself into the small details of Thailand. It occupies both a very physical presence within the community and also a mental one. According to the Office of National Buddhism, 40,717 Buddhist temples exist in Thailand. Of these temples, a large portion resides in Bangkok, Thailand’s capital.
As shown by a report gathered from the World Tourism Organization in 2016, the data displayed a staggering number of tourists—about 30 million, a little less than half of their population—and the tourist industry makes up about approximately 12% of Thailand’s GDP. According to the same report, religious tourism alone draws a significant portion of these tourists, both locally and internationally.
Aside from being an important tourist element, Buddhism plays an important part in the lives of Thai people—an estimated 94% of all Thai people practice Buddhism in the country according to a Central Intelligence Agency report. Time and time again, there have been movements—in 1997, 2007, and 2014—to concretize Buddhism as the nation’s official religion. The Thai Constitutional Drafting Committee (CDC) has, however, remained “neutral in the relationship between the state and religion” as cited from an article by Khemthong Tonsakulrungruang.
Though the government’s ideological stance on religion is decidedly impartial, significant ripples exist in this seemingly placid surface, and religion morphs into a central focal point in many instances, whether the Thai government takes an intimate position on it or not. Faith remains a link to the personal lives of common citizens and royalty alike. King Bhumibol’s funeral on October 14, 2016 featured traditional Buddhist funeral rites with the ritualistic bathing of the king’s body and the chanting of orange-robed monks. Adding to this ceremonious burial, his body resided in the Temple of the Emerald Buddha so that people could pay their respects to the revered king, who provided stability for his country for 70 years. Though the king in Thailand did not hold any true, legislative power, he was a reverential symbol for the people of the country. His majesty’s death occurred at a moment of tension in the country as a number of attacks rocked Thailand and has only caused this pressure to spillover. Religion is something that connects people in Thailand yet, at the same time, can be a divisive element as is evident from attacks that have occurred in the nation over the last few years.
In the span of less than a day between August 11th and 12th of 2016, 11 bombings hit five provinces in Thailand, killing at least four Thai nationals and injuring 36. These bombings occurred almost a year after one of the most devastating attacks in Thai history in Bangkok, which killed 20 people and wounded 125 more. What’s more, these attacks coincided with the Queen Sirikit’s birthday. On August 17, 2015, Uighur militants splintered the Thai state as they bombed the Erawan Shrine. Though the motives for the attack were more aimed at the states’ repatriation of Uighur refugees, the targeting of the temple was calculated: not only is the area around the shrine a densely populated area but also, it is frequented by many tourists. These acts of terrorism that assail the kingdom have left many Thais scared and unsure in a time, without a unifying leader. Known epithetically as the “land of smiles,” Thailand has had little to smile about in the last few months.
In light of this tumultuous time in the nation’s history, religious institutions like the White Dragon Temple became integral in steadying the country’s course. Through the diligent service that the temple provides for the community, it is a rallying point for many frightened Thais. See Knok, the central spiritual leader in the temple, and his followers have proved to be a “stabilizing element in the wake of the King’s death,” especially in Sri Racha, by continuing with their public works projects—providing educational help, burial services, food distribution, and a variety of other support structures.
These actions from local community leaders have started to mend the fractures that occur on a national level.
I returned to Thailand in August of 2016, during the bombings in the southern provinces of the country. The tension was palpable, especially in Bangkok where pictures of the queen hung on storefronts with sanguine captions like “Long Live the Queen.” It felt like a nation waiting with bated breath.
On one day during this visit, I bagged fruit and food for followers and local community members alike. Three young men from Sri Racha, around my age, stood next to me in the assembly line. All three, slightly wirily built but of different heights, wore the white garments of temple goers but with an addition on their fingers—skull rings, a sign of the local gang. They spoke Thai, and I spoke in Chinese and English. The difference between us seemed so diametrically opposite. Yet in that moment of bagging food, distinctions dissolved. Though initially stumbling with the first few loads of food, we fell into a rhythm with our work. The cadence of shifting palates of food and thump of vegetables into bags kept time with our human tempo. We worked as one body.
With each bag I loaded onto the palates, I could measure the burden on the community of Sri Racha lift slightly. In the glimmering eyes of the young men that I worked with, I could see the brightness of Thailand’s future. Beneath me, I could feel the flexing and contracting of a nation, not torn by conflict but ready to rebuild and strive onward if only for a moment.
Jonathan Ng is a junior English and Political Science double major in Morse College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.