Hidden down a narrow, curved side street in northern Naklua, behind a neighborhood of collapsing old, dark wooden homes that harken to the pre-modern days of Bangkok, lies a Thai-Chinese merit-making temple. As I have often accompanied my girlfriend on visits to this temple, I’ve become quite familiar with the rituals involved with going there. Add to that the Chinese artistic trappings that sharply distinguish it from a typical Thai temple, and this place becomes a precious gem in my mind.
It’s not very rare that Chinese culture sits so obscurely among the Thais. A small glance at the ancient history of Thailand informs one that the original Tais were a group that migrated from China. On top of that initial migration, Thailand has had a long history of Chinese immigration. Many Thais can trace in their ancestry a Chinese grandmother or great grandfather. And though Thailand’s attitudes towards Chinese immigrants oscillates between hatred on a level of Nazism (seriously, the Chinese were called “the Jew of Thailand” during that era), and passive tolerance, Chinese culture has always maintained a strongly noticeable influence on Thai culture.
The relationship between Thai and Chinese culture and history is important if one is to understand the rituals of a Thai-Chinese temple. For although the imagery found therein are unequivocally Chinese in nature, the beliefs and customs that revolve around them are suspiciously Thai. If you’ll indulge me, I’d like to give you a tour of these images and rituals, and do my best to give a rough summary of their histories and significance. Keep in mind, I’m not expert, but a mere tourist trying to be a journalist.
The entire purpose of this temple is making merit. Chanted prayers do not occur here. In fact, in the three visits I’ve made, I’ve not once seen a monk. Outside the temple is what I’m fairly certain is a morgue. Parked outside the morgue are many ambulances. Thus, the service that this temple offers to its community is to give the unclaimed deceased a proper dressing and burial. For example, if a man without any living or contactable relatives is killed in a motorbike accident, after some time has passed for relatives or affiliates to come forward to claim the body, he is brought to this temple.
Of course, this admirable service costs money. Luckily, Buddhism has within its core tenets the practice of making merit, which is the accumulation of good deeds and thoughts. Making merit contributes to one’s growth towards spiritual liberation. So when we enter the temple, we’ll donate money. And through such means, their services are rendered.
After we pay, we’re given a receipt and instructions for prayer. Then we collect the materials of ritual after paying another small donation. These materials include a bottle of oil, a box of candles, and a package of incense.
The First Altar
The second floor is mostly a rooftop terrace, except for the shrine to the Buddha. Our first stop is the altar to all Buddhist deities. This simple stone altar, pictured left, features no image of any bodhisattva or Buddha. Here, we light three incense sticks in the lantern, and pray.
It’s unclear to me what exactly prayer is to a Thai Buddhist at a Chinese temple. It seems that devotees pray for just about anything that, say, a Christian would pray for: health, safety, and prosperity for one’s self, one’s family, one’s friends, and one’s community. However, more progressive, or, shall I say, more agnostic, adherents view “prayer” as meditation on the precepts that the Chinese deities represent.
In either case, we pray with the aroma of incense soothing our nostrils. Then we place the incense in the urn upon the altar.
Next, we burn the receipt verifying our donation. One must not become attached to the monetary value of our devotion.
Then, we pour oil into the lamp—a symbol of filling our future with fuel for prosperity, goodness, and spiritual serenity.
The Shrine of Buddha
Behind the altar is a roofed shrine to Buddha. Inside are a myriad of Buddha images behind glass. This is where the bulk of our prayers take place. We first light the candles in the lantern and place them among the other candles left by other practitioners.
Then we light 17 incense sticks—three for each of the five urns before the images of the Buddha, and one in each urn on either side of the shrine entrance. We pray. Then we place them where they belong. Finally, we pour oil into the lantern.
Other rituals take place in the shrine. When clerics are present, there are multifarious acts of merit or meditation. The only one I’ve partaken in, which doesn’t require a monk’s assistance or guidance, is a lighthearted sort of lottery. One grabs an emptied bamboo shoot filled with wooden dowels, each with a number on the end inside the shoot. One shakes the bamboo container in an up-and-down motion until one of the dowels frees itself, protruding outward from the rest. This number coincides with one of many pieces of paper that detail a fortune, quite akin to a horoscope. If the fortune describes something lucky, it is kept, and will apply to that month. If it is an unfortunate fortune, it is left at the temple and thereby nullified. It’s important to note here that the Thais see this activity as entirely fun and don’t often take the fortunes to heart.
Visiting the Bodhisattvas
Instead of annoying my fellow “visitor” (reader) with the repetition of the same exact ritual as it occurs at the other four shrines, I’ll here describe it once. Then I’ll give a quick introduction to each deity.
The routine should be familiar by now: light three incense in the bodhisattva’s lantern, pray, place the incense in the bodhisattva’s urn, and then pour oil into the lantern. If a devotee has a special request from that bodhisattva, they may leave a donation in the bodhisattva’s donation box. There’s no illusion about where this donation goes. The deity doesn’t magically collect the money. Instead, the temple clerics collect it and apply it to the maintenance of the temple.
And that’s it. After we visit Laozi—the sixth and final altar, we descend the stairs and exit the temple, having made our merit for the day. One last thing to mention is that not all Thai-Chinese temples feature the same images, deities, rituals, or even purpose. What I’ve shown you applies this temple only. You’ll have to discover the others for yourself.
- As I am no expert in this subject, please forgive me if anything I’ve mentioned is wrong, misleading, or incomplete. If you have a better knowledge and wish to correct or augment my information, please feel free to do so in the comments.
- I can cite a few of my sources, beyond what I’ve been told about Buddhism by either university professors or my girlfriend. For information on the bodhisattvas, I cross checked Wikipedia articles with religionfacts.com. For a better understanding of the relationship between Taoism, Confucianism, and Buddhism, I consulted the following article: http://www.demystifyingconfucianism.info/confucius-laozi-Daoism-and-Buddhism.
- Interestingly, the Thai name for Laozi, though difficult to Romanize, yielded search results that were dominated by articles of his deified title in Taoism. So it seems Thais regard him as more than just an important philosophical figure, but as a god.