By Francesca Fletcher
Buddhism is deeply ingrained in Thai culture, and the most visible signs of its prominence are the glittering temples that are to be found in every settlement.
No holiday in Thailand is complete without a visit to these important holy places. But unless you are well versed in Buddhist practices and principles, it can be hard to be sure if you are avoiding offence.
Follow these simple steps to ensure that you are being a culturally aware and respectful visitor.
1) BE QUIET
Temples are places of reflection and meditation. Regardless of whether or not worship is taking place while you are visiting, it’s important to keep your voice down - you don’t want to deprive people of their right to think and pray in peace.
2) DRESS MODESTLY
Instagram can give a really false idea of what’s ok to wear to a temple: scrolling through lots of pictures of tourists in beautiful dresses that display bare shoulders or have thigh-high splits, it’s easy to think that anything goes. Let’s be clear: in a temple, you are expected to dress modestly and failing to do so will offend Thai worshippers.
In some very strict Bangkok temples, torn jeans or leggings are banned. But generally speaking the rules are a little more relaxed than that. Your clothes should cover shoulders and knees and be high-necked. And common sense applies here - crop tops are not suitable and if your shirt is sheer it defeats the object of covering up.
3) REMOVE YOUR SHOES
Shoes are dirty, metaphorically and actually. They’re covered with dust, mud or worse, and shedding them at the temple steps represents your intention to cleanse yourself physically and spiritually before entering this holy place.
Step over the threshold, not on it. Protective spirits are believed to live in the threshold step, so if you place your foot on it you will bring bad luck to yourself. If you can remember, step into the temple with your left foot and leave it with your right foot first. The left is symbolic of your mortal, sinful self, and your right suggests your cleansed, spiritual self. So entering with your left and exiting with your right demonstrates how your time in the temple has transformed you.
4) WATCH YOUR FEET
Once you’re inside the temple, don’t lose sight of your feet. Because of what they represent, it’s disrespectful to point them in the direction of other worshippers or of the Buddha. Sit crosslegged or kneel with your toes facing the back of the temple.
5) THINK ABOUT YOUR BODY LANGUAGE
To show respect to the Buddha image, try not to turn your back to it. Buddha images, whether they are statues or paintings, are created to show honour to the Buddha and give worshippers a focal point for their offerings and meditations. By turning your back to it you are showing a dismissive attitude, as you would if you raised yourself above a Buddha image.
Approach facing the Buddha and when you are ready to leave the temple, back away from it until you are quite a few metres away. If you are taking a photo of the Buddha don’t pose with your back to it.
Be observant of monks around you, too. You should not be higher than a monk, so if you are passing a seated monk, lower your body by crouching or move past on your knees. When you wai to a monk, you should be most reverential - bow your head and raise your hands in prayer position to your forehead.
6) BE A RESPECTFUL PHOTOGRAPHER
Most temples graciously allow photography. But use your common sense here! Avoid using flash and don’t take photographs during a ceremony or communal worship. Thais meeting in sincere devotion and meditation do not want to feel like exhibits or attractions. Remember that you are entering a space which is central to many people’s daily lives and to their sense of spiritual well being.
When you enter the temple, you should kneel resting on your heels and bow three times to acknowledge and honour the triple gems: the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha.
Raise your hands in prayer to your forehead, bow forward from your hips and press your hands and head to the floor. Repeat three times, when you arrive and when you leave.
Practitioners of Buddhism profess to take refuge in these three foundations of their faith. Honouring the Buddha is, of course, the first and central priority - and not only the Buddha himself, but the enlightenment that he embodies. The second bow acknowledges the Dharma, the Buddha’s teachings, which state that following the Four Noble Truths will release a person from fear and ignorance. The third shows reverence and gratitude to the Sangha, the community of monks, nuns, Buddhist teachers who share Buddhist wisdom with their followers.
8) LOOK BUT DON’T TOUCH
Don’t touch the art on the walls, the altar, the Buddha image, or any monk. Don’t put your feet on the temple wall to fasten your shoes. Don’t ring bells if you don’t understand what they’re for. If in doubt, keep your hands to yourself!
If you are visiting the temple with your significant other, resist the temptation to hold hands or kiss. Public displays of affection, while tolerated for the most part, are definitely frowned upon in holy places.
9) DON’T DISTURB WORSHIP
Yes, you’re on holiday, and yes, you might not return to Thailand soon. But try to respect the environment and situation you are in. Your photographs are not more important than the worship of those around you and your conversation can wait.
10) PUT YOUR PHONE AWAY
It can be so challenging to clear your mind and focus on the present moment, especially when your phone is buzzing away in your pocket with IMs and DMs and memes and snapchats.
In Buddhism though, mindfully existing in the present is a vital way of reducing suffering and promoting good action. A useful article on the history of mindfulness quotes Jon Kabat-Zinn, the founder of MBSR, who said: “Quite simply, the future is not here. . . . The past is already over. We have to deal with things as they are in the moment. . . . Healing and transformation are possible the moment we accept the actuality of things as they are.”
So turn off your phone, take some deep breaths and enjoy the moment you’re in.
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