There are three must-do Buddhist temples in Bangkok: Wat Pra Kaew at the Royal Palace, Wat Arun across the Chao Praya River from the palace, and Wat Pho, just south the palace. Wat Pra Kaew houses the Jade Buddha, probably the most sacred object in all of Thailand; Wat Arun is a set of gleaming white spires covered in delicate porcelain, with its golden statue of Buddha sitting serenely in a pose recalling the moment he triumphed over earthly illusion. Ironically, both icons are remarkably…small. You could carry the Emerald Buddha under one arm.
So when faced with the 46 meter (151 feet) long, 15 meter (49 feet) high Reclining Buddha at Wat Pho, I couldn’t help but think there may have been something of a Napoleon complex among the original builders.
Wat Pho is one of Bangkok’s oldest temples, perhaps around 400 years old (Bangkok is young city by Old World standards, around only 600 years old), and is the birthplace of Thai massage. It’s not “officially” a holy site, but the sheer size of its Buddha makes it a popular place and a UNESCO site. Being so close to the palace, and predating the royal chapels of Wat Pra Kaew, the wat enjoyed “royal monastery” status and was the earliest public education institution on the county, gathering over 1000 gilded statues of the Lord Buddha along the way. Some are big, others small, these ones standing, those ones in a lotus position. Most of them are in the cloisters, and gave me a little bit of the golden glory of the bag daddy further inside the temple grounds in the Viharn, the Temple of the Reclining Buddha.
Most wats in Thailand are actually more like compounds. There is usually one main shrine, but then a slew of subsidiary buildings ranging from royal ossuaries to lesser chapels with smaller Buddha icons to holy libraries to reliquaries. Wat Pho is no different; there are 12 sacred sites to keep the camera busy…provided you aren’t in Thailand smack in the middle of the monsoon season like I was. To avoid the torrent outside, I skipped the foreplay and went straight straight for the gold. Which the Reclining Buddha is covered in, FYI.
Buddhism 101: whenever you see Buddha lying down on his right side, it is recalling the moment of his death and just before he enters parinirvana, the Nirvana-After-Death. His cycle of reincarnation is done, and he shuffles off his mortal coil to enter the true realm of self. This is what you see at Wat Pho, although the serene gaze of the man belies any morality. He looks remarkably content, but then, under such a circumstance, who wouldn’t be?
The Reclining Buddha isn’t set against a wall like most statues; you can walk around the whole thing, and it’s pretty much all I could do here. Most temples invite visitors to sit down and contemplate the Universe, but the Viharn is so small and the Buddha so big that people have to keep at a constant pace to avoid a monster traffic jam (and Bangkok already had plenty of those). Of course, his front side is the most popular, but around back are 108 bronze bowls to make offerings, the number reflects the 108 “auspicious characters” of the Buddha.
Between breaks in the rain, I did manage to check out the chedis, or grave monuments, of Wat Pho that hold the ashes of members of the Thai royal family and the Pha Ubosot, another temple with a Buddha icon, smaller but far more complex than the whopper in the Viharn. Oddly enough, it is actually the most important building on the site; the Temple of the Reclining Buddha, for all its popularity and sheer size, is actually one of the minor sanctums at Wat Pho.
An “ubosot” is an ordination hall, the place where all the ceremonies are done. Every Thai temple will have one and they are wildly ornate, centered on a fabulously bejeweled pyramidal altar, itself decked in sigils of Thai sovereignty and watched over by golden templars, with a gently smiling Buddha in a seated position at the summit. That position, particularly how he holds his hands, says a lot. At Wat Pho, the Buddha’s hands are in his lap in the dhyana mudra, the position of meditation and symbolic of wisdom. It was the position the Buddha was in when he attained enlightenment. You’ll see it a lot.
Thanks to all the crowds heading to the Reclining Buddha, the Phra Ubosot is actually pretty quiet. It was here that I could sit down and reflect (making sure I never pointed my feet at the Buddha, which would be highly disrespectful) to the sound of rain falling outside. That was kinda cool.
The Phra Ubosot is the perfect example that a visually “busy” setting can actually be tranquil and calming. It’s common practice to have every little experience of the Buddha’s life no matter how insignificant to be painted in living Technicolor across the walls of Thai temples. But it sort of acts like visual white-noise: I’ve been to Buddhist temples all over Asia, and it is amazing that the faith that inspired such simplicity in Japan could also be all about the razzle-dazzle in Thailand and still be just as serene.
And in a world as crazy as this one (and a city as crazy as Bangkok), however you get serenity is how you get it.