Last Friday was Visakha Bucha day in Thailand and many other parts of the Buddhist world*. This is the holiest day in Buddhism, commemorating the day when Gautama Buddha was born, attained enlightenment, and passed away. On this day, believers gather at temples to worship and recall the wisdom, purity and compassion of the Buddha.
In Thailand, Visakha Bucha observance began during the Sukhothai period (around 700 years ago), because of the close religious relations between Thailand and Sri Lanka. Sri Lankan monks came to propagate Buddhism in Thailand and were highly respected. Thai monks also went to study in Sri Lanka. It’s believed that those monks introduced this ceremony to Thailand around that time
While many people arrive at the temple early in the day to make merit by feeding the monks, many more go in the evening to participate in a ceremony known in Thai as wian tian. (wian = circle, tian = candle)
The core of this ceremony involves a procession three times around the bot, or main sanctuary, of the temple. Depending upon the temple, sometimes you will proceed around a Buddha image or a chedi (a stupa containing relics) instead. Regardless, believers carry the traditional offerings: a candle, three sticks of incense, and a lotus blossom.
The candle represents enlightenment, with knowledge being the source of light in a dark world. The three incense sticks represent the Buddha, the Dhama (his teachings) and the Sangha (the monks). As for the lotus, the roots of a lotus are in the mud, the stem grows up through the water, and the flower lies above the water, basking in the sunlight. It is a common symbol in Buddhism because its pattern of growth reflects the progress of the soul from muddy materialism through the waters of experience to the sunlight of enlightenment.
On this day, and especially during this procession around the bot, believers are encouraged to meditate, reflecting on the teachings of the Buddha and how they can better follow the Five Precepts:
- To refrain from taking life (non-violence towards sentient beings)
- To refrain from taking that which is not given (not committing theft)
- To refrain from sensual (including sexual) misconduct
- To refrain from lying (speaking truth always)
- To refrain from intoxicants which lead to loss of mindfulness (specifically, drugs and alcohol)
We went to Wat Phra Ram IX (King Rama IX Temple), a more modern temple founded by the current King of Thailand. This beautiful temple follows traditional design but features a resplendent all-white exterior, stark compared to the elaborate decorations more common in Thai Buddhist temples.
There were several thousand people present including about two hundred monks and novices. While some people were already making their procession around the bot, most were listening to the abbot’s sermon, a lighthearted parable about the importance of remaining true to Buddhist teachings even in the midst of contemporary life.
After the sermon was over, the monks led the crowd on the procession, a nearly endless stream of believers, some chanting, some walking silently, some chatting pleasantly amongst each other as Thais enjoy doing even at religious events.
I shot some footage after we had made our rounds and have compiled it here for your enjoyment:
Observing various religious ceremonies is interesting because there are some aspects that are very universal (or, at least, common across many faiths and traditions) while other aspects are very characteristic of local culture. I’m not a religious scholar so I won’t expound on those observations. Suffice it to say that it was a beautiful ceremony to participate in.
*because of calendar differences, some countries observe Visakha Bucha on different days, but most of the time it falls in April or May.
Hello, Chris. Reading your entry and listening to & watching your video has brought me a calmess that is doing me some real good this morning. Thank you. Peace, Barbara
Speaking of sentient life…My friend has this strict policy against eating sentient animals…but he considers pigs, cows, octopuses, and marine mammals to be sentient.
I love your picture of the monks. The blur of their movement is so cool!
Hi, Chris. I’m wondering if you would allow me to post this blog on another network where I’m active, “ART heART eARTh,” on the ning network: http://art4heart2beearth.ning.com/ ? My friends there would really appreciate the information, the sentiment, and the beauty of the post and the ceremony. If you’d rather I didn’t post it, that’s okay too. 🙂 Barbara
Do you carry a tripod with you??? And what camera did u use to take these pics? Thanks!
@jojobaDESIGNS – Barbara, I’m glad you really found this entry useful and I’d be happy to have you re-post it.
Thanks for the shots and the informative post. An enlightenment of sort.
@TheCheshireGrins – Glad you liked that photo, Meg. I initially thought the monks and the crowd they were leading were going to walk the smaller circle directly outside the sanctuary, but then they started walking the outside one instead. After some scrambling I found myself some steps on which to set up and the picture just kind of came together.@yang1815 – Andy, I usually have my gorilla tripod in my bag. In this case I brought a taller tripod as I knew basically what the scene would be. I’m shooting with a Panasonic Lumix TZ3, which has a nice wide lens (28mm) and 10x optical zoom. It is about two years old and if I manage to find $400 sitting around with nothing better to do (ha!) I would like to upgrade to the Lumix LC3.
@Wangium – After being a vegetarian for about two years during school, I can appreciate the broad definition of “sentient” that your friend employs. For me – maybe not quite as good a Buddhist as he – I just try to ensure that the animals I eat have had a good quality of life, raised in a sustainable manner instead of a Confined Animal Feedlot Operation. Plus, I kill mosquitoes, so I’m likely going to be reincarnated as a lump of coal or something.
@Norcani – Very clever comment.
Ok, I don’t get this part at all and I really would like to find out why.Animals are grown to be killed for meat.It’s farming. What’s the difference between humane and inhumane treatment?Am I so devoid of empathy?Short answer is yes, but logically speaking, there is nothing humane about raising an animal if we were just going to kill it and eat it in the end, right?So, please explain to me why it is so important to raise animals in a humane way.Thanks.
@christao408 – Very nice. I’ve always been an ultracompact P&S type guy and I also have a DSLR for other purposes. But I think for my next P&S camera I will get an extended zoom one! 🙂
As a Buddhist (in HK), we also celebrate by gathering inside the temple and do a ceremonial bathing of a small Buddha statue. I remember there maybe some kind of ceremony like that for the Thais, right?
The chant is so similar to the mantras and chants in a Hindu temple. Great pictures Chris.
@christao408 – Thank you, Chris! Feel free to visit the site & check the post. 🙂
Cute kid! Great pics.
@Wangium – We really should set up a call to have these conversations. =)
There are a few reasons that come to mind why the way we treat animals is important:
First of all, there is the basic ethical issue. Yes, the animals are being raised for consumption, but that doesn’t mean that causing stress or suffering, docking their tails, or raising the animals in conditions so cramped they can’t even turn around, is appropriate. Because these animals are dying for our benefit, treating them ethically while they are alive is all the more important.
But let’s consider the more practical, logical side of things… since you may not want to empathize with the plight of animals:
CAFOs – Confined Animal Feedlot Operations – which unnaturally pack animals into tiny spaces and treat them poorly – cause all sorts of problems including environmental pollution, health and safety issues and the excessive, preventative use of antibiotics leading to increased antibiotic resistence. The true costs of these problems are often hidden, but one visit to a community that has a large chicken or pig CAFO and you’ll start to see (or smell) them very quickly.
Another issue is one of nutrition. Animals that are raised in a more sustainable way (practices that are inherently more humane for the animals) produce healthier products for us to eat. Grass-fed beef is lower in bad cholesterol and saturated fats. Free-range chickens produce eggs that are higher in Omega 3s. Nutrients are higher and the amount of energy consumed in order to produce a unit of food is lower than in CAFOs.
A good book to read on this issue is Michael Pollan’s “Omnivore’s Dilemma”. He explores the differences between the different agricultural types and even the ethics of meat eating. While he lands firmly on the side of the meat eaters (as do I) he does explore how different ways of raising animals produce very different results in the meat and dairy products on our tables.
@yang1815 – Yeah, a P&S is convenient. I have an SLR but it is too bulky for most situations. Interstingly, the zoom is a feature I haven’t used all that much. For the most part, I would trade a wide angle and good low light performance for an extended zoom. Unless you are on a tripod, a zoom is going to be shaky.
@curry69curry – That’s what Thais celebrate as Songkhran, the Thai new year. That’s where the water splashing “fun” evolved from – the ceremony of washing the Buddha statues and respectfully pouring water over the hands of elders.
@ZSA_MD – @CareyGLY – Glad you enjoyed them.
@ZSA_MD – I think the chanting may be similar because it is done is Pali, which is derived from Sanskrit, right? So the roots are in India and Hinduism.
The first point you made about treating them with respect reminds me of this native American or Inuit story about hunting. When they hunt animals, they made sure to use every part of the animal’s body as possible and they give them a proper burial with utmost respect. I am starting to understand why.The second part, I think I do notice the difference in the way animals are raised in their meat qualities. When I eat chicken in southern Taiwan, raised free range, the meat is a little tougher, but in a good way.Now I understand.Thanks.(Was it too easy to convince me or you made a really good argument?)
great job…..like reading a tour guide book very detailed
@christao408 – I just like the nicer optics found on most extended zoom cameras. 🙂
@Wangium – Don’t know if it was too easy or not. Maybe you just gave up? =D
Yeah, that concept of the Native Americans’ respect for the creatures they hunted (and all the rest of nature) kind of gets to the heart of the matter, not just about how we treat animals we raise for food, but our entire relationship with the food systems, environment, and the rest of the world around us. We no longer have any sense of what the things we consume require, in terms of resources and labor to produce. That’s why I’m a proponent of community gardens – at least we can get back to the earth in some way and grow a little bit of our own food, appreciating how much effort it takes.
@agmhkg – Glad you liked it.
@yang1815 – That’s a good point, Andy. The optics tend to be better, but the extended zoom is still a feature that I don’t use very often.