Thai-Chinese Temple

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.

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Making Merit

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.

The counter where we make our donation. The materials for prayer are directly to the right of the counter.
The counter where we make our donation. The materials for prayer are directly to the right of the counter.

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.

If it’s not a bad year for our zodiac animal, then we can bypass the shrine downstairs, pictured here, and head upstairs.
If it’s not a bad year for our zodiac animal, then we can bypass the shrine downstairs, pictured here, and head upstairs.

The First Altar

IMG_3736The 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.

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The lantern where incense is lit and receipts are burned. Burned receipts go into the metal structure to the left.

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

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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.

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IMG_3746Then 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.

Kuan Yin

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We’ll first visit Kuan Yin. Although Kaun Yin was originally portrayed as a man, now she takes on a female form. There are various legends about her, so I won’t get into them here. She’s called the Goddess of Mercy, and is revered as an Immortal. Her full name means “Observing the Sounds of the World,” and was given to her because of a legend that her head was split into thousands of pieces, and restored as eleven heads, enabling her to have a better purview of the sufferings of the world. This, plus multiple arms created from a similar cause, gives her the unique gift of being able to reach out to the needy in all directions. As you can probably surmise, she represents the embodiment of compassion and kindness. She’s also believed to be the protectorate of women and children, and viewed as the Goddess of Fertility.

Guan Yu

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Next to Kuan Yin is Guan Yu. Guan Yu was a Chinese general serving under warlord Liu Bei in the late Eastern Han dynasty. He’s one of the best-known Chinese historical figures, and as a result much lore has arisen about him. He was deified in the Sui dynasty and is still worshipped today by many Chinese people. He’s an important figure in Confucianism, Taoism, and Chinese Buddhism. As for the latter, he is said to protect the Buddhist dharma—that is, the teachings of Buddha—as well as the monastery and the faith itself. The stories goes that he appeared one night before the Zen master Zhiyi and asked him to teach him about the dharma. After receiving his instruction and devoting himself to the dharma, Guan Yu vowed to be the guardian of temples and the dharma.

Pu-Tai

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Commonly known as the Laughing Buddha, this bodhisattva should be the most familiar. Many people confuse him with the Buddha (as in Siddhartha, the founder of Buddhism), but he is not one and the same. He’s based on an eccentric Chinese Zen monk who lived over 1,000 years ago. Because of the monk’s benevolent nature, many people regarded him as an incarnation of the bodhisattva who will be the “Future Buddha.” In China, he is known as the Loving or Friendly One. He has become the deity of contentment abundance. Many people believe that he can bring them financial success. Rubbing his belly is also seen as good luck, bringing wealth, good fortune, and prosperity. Hence his image in many businesses.

 Laozi

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Our last stop before we finish our prayers will be Laozi. It took me quite a bit of work digging up information on this one, as he goes by many different names depending on the culture. He definitely plays a major role in Taoism—the philosophical founder, credited with writing Tao Te Ching, and even revered as one of the highest deities in Taoism and traditional Chinese religions. As Buddhism draws from Taoism, it’s no surprise that he would be an important figure for both. Moreover, some stories hold that Siddhartha Gautama actually studied under him. Laozi is also said to have taught Confucius as well. As you can guess, this would make Laozi a very important figure for Chinese philosophy, pervading many permutations of Chinese thought. Buddhists also believe that Laozi aids Guan Yu in protecting the temple, so the two sit across from each other oftentimes, as is the case at our particular temple.

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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.

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Notes:

  • 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.