Saturday, October 18, 2014

Thailand in Utah, my Sunday at the Thai Buddhist temple

This past Sunday, I went to the Thai Buddhist temple in Layton, Utah, named Wat Dhammagunaram. The branch of Buddhism practiced is known as Theravada, one of the main branches of Buddhism, and what is often called Buddhist orthodoxy.

Most branches of Buddhism people think of today (Tibetan Buddhism, Zen, various Japanese sects, etc.) are part of a larger branch known as Mahayana. Mahayana is similar to Protestantism in the fact that it's a term used for a very diverse group of sects with a similar origin and some underlying principles.

Theravada on the other hand is a smaller branch of Buddhism, mostly found in South East Asia. It's sometimes called the Little Vessel, with Mahayana called the Big Vessel. Though I have heard that followers of Theravada take issue with it being called the Little Vessel.

Theravada is the oldest surviving branch of Buddhism and is much closer to the Buddhism originally practiced by Buddha and his followers than any branch of Mahayana.

I previously visited the Japanese Buddhist Church in Ogden. In my pre-service blog for that, I talked about the general teachings of Buddhism. Rather than rehash that here, please visit this blog to learn more about Buddhism:

Main differences between Mahayana and Theravada Buddhism:

  • Mahayana has other buddhas, (often called Bodhisattvas) which are those who attain enlightenment and assist others to it. Usually seen as demigods in many ways. These beings are often prayed to (for lack of a better term) similarly to Catholic saints. In Theravada, there is only one Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama.
  • Mahayana often takes on local flavors of worship and doctrines and is much more adaptable to different cultures. Theravada is much more traditional and purist.
There are dozens of other differences. However, they require much more explanation about Buddhism than just the basics I'm willing to go into here. For now, this is the information you'll need to know for this blog. I encourage more people to learn about this old and diverse faith from other sources. It is fascinating.

So how was my time at the temple? I'll tell you, but first, this service was unlike any of the others, so I'll only be talking about the atmosphere, people, and service since there was no sermon and no message.


The outside of the temple is an interesting bit of architecture. I don't know much about traditional South East Asian architecture, but it certainly doesn't look anything like the local. The building kind of looks like a boat to me of some kind. I'm not sure if this is an intentional design. I'm not sure if I care for the look of the building on the outside, but it's definitely unique.

We had to leave our shoes outside the temple, common among Eastern religions. Once we were inside, we were no longer in Utah. Everything about the building was very Eastern, there were no pews, only a few chairs along the side for the elderly and those with disabilties, and most everyone was sitting on the floor with their legs tucked under them. I sat down next to them and tucked my legs under. It's a sign of disrespect to point your feet at someone in South East Asian cultures.

Everything in the room was written in Thai, there was no English anywhere. The monks talked to the people in Thai and Pali, and none of the service was translated into English. I was definitely in a different world.

There was a main altar at the front of the sanctuary with several statues of the Buddha, along the right hand wall were several chairs reserved for the monks, all of which were wearing the traditional saffron robes of Buddhism. There were several artificial and a couple real trees that people were hanging money off of, sometimes in strings, sometimes just one bill at a time. I'm not familiar with this custom, and don't know what it means, but it was pretty interesting.

I loved the atmosphere here. Very few places anymore can strike a sense of awe and otherness in me anymore on this journey, but this place did. I truly felt like I was no longer in the US but in a modern temple somewhere in Thailand.

The People:

The people were quite interesting. Mostly it was people from South East Asia, as I was told, mostly Thai and Laotian immigrants. Most were speaking Thai or Laotian and didn't speak to us. There was one nice man who introduced himself to us when we first got there, but then didn't say anything else. There was a really nice man from South Africa who did introduce himself to us and he kind of guided us through the service explaining everything, then had a nice talk with us afterward.

The people seemed very kind and jovial, though I was an outsider and didn't speak their language, they seemed very happy to have me and my friend there. I really enjoyed the people at the Thai Buddhist temple and would love to go back and talk to more of them.

The Service:

I didn't understand a word of the service as it was all in Pali and Thai. The nice man from South Africa, however, was kind enough to explain the service to me.

First you must understand that there are three central things in Theravada: the Buddha, the Dharma (the teachings), and the community (represented by the monks).

Following this pattern, there were a series of chants. The first set was done facing the altar with the Buddha, and honored the Buddha. The people sat on the floor with their hands together in a prayer position similar to how you see in India or when children pray. At various parts, they would then touch their heads to the ground similarly to how you see Muslims do during their prayers.

The second set of chants followed the same sort of format, but the people faced one of the monks who held a fan with some kind of writing over his face. They then did their chants towards the monk including bows. I assume this was to honor the Dharma.

After that, the third set was a set of chants to the monks following the same sort of format.

The people then went outside carrying various food items and money and put them into metal bowls lined up in a row. It was explained to me that these were the offerings to the monks and that the monks live off of these donations.

After this, people brought in the bowls and offered the things in them up to the monks, who put the contents into plastic bags and took them into another room. After this, the monks offered a blessing to all the people there, then said a chant for purification that also honored the ancestors. During this chant, people poured water into metal bowls in a slow trickle and then most drank the water out of the bowls. I was told this was a purification ceremony traditionally done in the culture.

The monks then left to go eat lunch. I am told that in traditional Theravada cultures, that the monks go and beg for food at this time, however, since we live in America where people aren't familiar with this custom, the monks instead go and share a meal which the community is invited to participate in once they're done.

While we waited for the monks to eat, several young women came out holding candles and performed a traditional Thai dance. It was very lovely to watch.

After their dance, a woman came out and did a traditional Thai hand dance, again, quite lovely to watch. Then, a few people came out and performed a song on traditional instruments. This was a very lovely way to pass the time as the monks ate.

After the song, one of the monks came in and said something in Thai, then said the only English phrase they uttered this whole time, "Lunch is served, help yourself."

Normally I don't include the after service meal (if one is served) as part of the blog, but because this is seen as part of the ceremony, I shall. The meal was served buffet style and featured a lot of Thai food, most of which I couldn't identify. After seeing the chicken feet, I decided to pass on those, then I told the people around me not to tell me what I was eating, but just let me enjoy it. I sampled most everything and it was, for the most part extremely good. The best things were what I chose to believe was a beef hash, and a nice dessert with coconut milk and beans. I even went back for seconds just to try more of their food.

Overall Experience:

This was quite a neat cultural experience. It was very traditional, but didn't feel stifling and oppressive. The people were very kind, the food amazing, the chanting inspiring. I would definitely return to Wat Dhammagunaram for another service and highly recommend it just for the cultural experience.

Additional Notes:

Still working on that blog for the Bible. Tomorrow I am going to visit the United Methodist Church. Sorry there's no pre-service blog for that, and that those have been missing lately. I'll try to get on top of that.

Until next time, peace be with you.

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