Buddhism, in specific Theravada Buddhism, is one of the largest cultural influences on Thailand and makes up a large part of the fabric of Thai society. A whopping 94 percent, according to the U.S. Department of State, of Thais identify themselves as Buddhist and the king of Thailand himself is required to follow the Buddhist religion. I myself have now joined the ranks.
My uneven breath matches my rushing blood as I kneel and look toward the five women sitting before me in dark orange robes. I carefully put my hands together as if in prayer, as I bow three times, starting from the top of my head and ending right below my ribcage. I place my hands on the ground and touch my head to the floor. I awkwardly shuffle forward as the monks begin to chant. I offer a flower, donation and candles to the monk at the forefront, the first female monk in Thailand. I begin to chant.
I vow to take refuge in the Buddha, the Dhamma (Buddha’s teachings) and the Sangha (monks) three times. With this, I have begun my transition to Buddhism. These three things are at the core of Buddhist tradition.
Following, I chant in an earthy, song-like quality vowing to adhere to the five precepts of Buddhism aided in pronunciation by the Venerable Dhammananda Bhikkuhuni.
I vow to not harm other living creatures, to not take what is not given, to not commit adultery, to not lie and to refrain from consuming intoxicants. These five precepts are the “rules” of Buddhism.
With these vows and the blessing of the monks before me, I have now become a Buddhist.
Those close to me were a bit surprised when I told them I became Buddhist. They weren’t surprised I had chosen Buddhism, but rather were surprised I chose to follow any religion at all. I had been born a Catholic and then decided to follow no religion, only my spirituality.
The decision to join a religion was not a hasty one for me. I have disliked how many people use the institution of religion for their own personal gain rather than following the concepts of being kind and helping others that the majority of religions hold.
In the end, the reason I chose to join the religion of Buddhism, was not necessarily to practice its traditions, though I’m eager to learn them and participate. It was to practice the core of Buddhist belief in loving kindness and compassion, awareness and consciousness, and constantly working to improve oneself and bring oneself to further enlightenment in a more intentional fashion, as more of a lifestyle than a religious practice.
Although I knew a little bit about Buddhism before I came to Thailand, I still had much to learn. Over the past few months here, through going to temples and studying the Thai culture and the religion itself, I gained a much greater understanding of Buddhism and its beliefs and practices. It intrigued me to say the least.
As I went deeper into my study of Buddhism, I found many of the spiritual values fit to mine. I identified with its focus on loving kindness, compassion, and toleranceI also found its concept of the impermanence of things and how this can help the habit of letting go rather than allowing things to fester fascinating and to be a valuable perspective and practice.
For me, who has been faced (as many others have) with many stressors from school, work and disturbances in everyday life, this concept of letting go helps me remember to not take things too seriously and to reach a state of peace and acceptance. This has also helped me to remain positive even in tricky situations.
Further attractive elements of Buddhism were the focus on consciousness and awareness of yourself, others and the world around you. This also helps to keep the strong feeling of peace and calm in a storm of emotions. This consciousness and awareness relates to the Buddhist concepts of releasing oneself from desires and worldly attachments. I have taken this on as a mechanism for self-improvement to keep on my path to feeling greater self-acceptance and letting go of my insecurities.
The concept of karma attracts me to the religion as well with its mindfulness of what you put out in the universe is what you get back. So, if you intentionally do good things rather than bad things, good things will come back to you, and if you choose to take the other path, you will face the consequences. This reinforces my aim to be mindful of others’ feelings and to act in such a way that benefits others and not just myself.
A fellow student at Webster Thailand and friend of mine, Oakar Aye Aung, a sophomore from Burma, grew up with Buddhist teachings. His focus in the religion is also spiritual, but he continues some of its traditions.
Aung has adapted the Buddhist concept of karma to his own beliefs in the form of the Law of Attraction (directed positive thoughts to bring more positivity to one’s life). The Law of Attraction is more of a mental exercise than a physical one. In this way, it differs from karma (karma=intentional actions, law of attraction=intentional thought), but it moves toward the same end goal of improving one’s life and increasing positivity.
Aung said he will go to the Temple once a month when he is home in Burma and still chants with the badee (similar to the Rosary in some Western religions) once a day as a part of religious tradition. He said he tries to practice ideals of Buddhism such as living in the present moment and being aware and conscious of your emotions to not be too affected by things as well.
Otherwise, he said he likes to pick and choose things from different religions to practice in his everyday life, not being limited to just one ideal. He said, for example, though he likes the accountability Buddhism calls for, he also likes the concept of forgiveness in Christianity. Aung said one thing he dislikes about all religions today is the tendency of religions and its followers to use religion as an excuse for politics or to focus on their image rather than doing good.
“[People do things because] they want something,” Aung said. “It’s self-driven and for recognition rather than for the sake of good.”
The idea and practice of religion has changed immensely over time-from being the sole authority, to slowly losing its hold on much of the younger generations. Even with a tendency away from religion in this generation, belief in something bigger has not faded for many. Aung, I and countless others have simply turned toward a more spiritual rather than traditional side of religion.
I hope through upholding the core concepts and principles of Buddhism and being more aware I will be able to bring more light to my life and others’. I know I will always remember my journey into Buddhism starting in this truly magical time here in Thailand.