The magic of Makha Bucha
Makha Bucha Day; an important Buddhist festival celebrated on the full moon day of Māgha in Cambodia, Laos, and Thailand, and on the full moon day of Tabodwe in Myanmar, affords Buddhists a chance at reprieve.
It's an opportunity, however brief, to look beyond the bitter debate over the selection of Thailand's next Supreme Patriarch, which this month saw monks clashing violently with soldiers.
The Culture Ministry's Religious Affairs Department is urging devotees, and particularly schoolchildren, to actively seek to replenish their faith through prayer and involvement in Makha Bucha commemorations.
For the past week people have been visiting Weruwan Buddhist Park in Sanam Luang, a temporary recreation of the bamboo forest in India where the Lord Buddha preached to 1,250 monks on the day now observed annually as Makha Bucha. The park closes after tonight's schedule of events.
The ministry planted thousands of gold and green bamboo trees around an air-conditional tent filled with displays on the teachings of the Buddha and eight of Thailand's most venerated monks, including Buddhadasa Bhikkhu, Luang Poo Wean, Panyananda Bhikkhu and Somdet Phra Nyanasamvara, the late Supreme Patriarch. The exhibition covers the Buddhist precepts, such as the admonition to refrain from all vice.
In the early mornings there's an almsgiving ceremony, followed by a sermon and a ritual circumambulation of the site. Each evening, nearly 100 monks chant beneath a statue of the seated Buddha, thumbs held to index fingers. According to legend, this was the pose he assumed while delivering his final sermon, the Ovadha Patimokha, to the faithful on this day more than 2,500 years ago, an event that occurred nine months after his enlightenment.
Religious Affairs Director General Kitsayapong Siri said the polished brass Buddha statue was specially made for the recreation of Weruwan Forest. It is 59 inches tall and 32 inches wide and sits in the same pose the Lord Buddha adopted that day."
Thursday evening saw dozens of lay people dressed in white, mostly elderly, seated on mats in shared prayer. A pair of German tourists joined them, their hands raised toward the Buddha in a respectful wai.
"We were seeing the landmarks and came across this ceremony," Andre Nanjoh said with Sarah Farran at his side. They hail from Bavaria. "Even though we don't understand the language, a spiritual ceremony like this is fascinating. It really demonstrates the faith of Buddhists. An official invited us to join."
Foreigners of course aren't the only people lacking knowledge about the story behind Makha Bucha Day. Many Thai Buddhists are unaware of the meaning and message involved.
The Lord Buddha's Ovada Patimokha sermon to 1,250 members of his enlightened audience has come to represent the clergy's fundamental rite and is referred to as "the heart of Buddhism". These were the monks he personally ordained - all having arrived to pay him homage on the full moon of the third lunar month, each on his own initiative, from different origins, without being summoned.
The principles the Buddha set out for the priesthood remain unchanged, as Phra Prom Wachirayan, abbot of Wat Yannawa and one of the organisers of the park event, explained.
"The principles can be condensed into three major guidelines: to do good, to abstain from bad and purify the mind," the abbot said. "Adopting these teachings in the modern day and in so complex a society leads to peace of mind. And if individuals are happy, society will be happy, as well as the country."
There's also the ministry's free merit-making Chao Phraya River cruises, with monks serving as guides and teaching about the temples' history, murals and significance. Running from 8.30am to 4.30pm today, the boats stop at nine riverside temples.
Wat Rajasingkhon is the first stop, with its compelling Ayutthaya Era architecture and a bronze statue of Luang Por Daeng dating to the early Rattanakosin Period.
Wat Worachanyawas fronting on Charoen Krung Road was built during the reign of King Rama I and is best known for its delicately carved monk's pavilion. Wat Yannawa in Sathon district, another Ayutthaya-era structure, has a chedi and viharn forming the shape of a Chinese junk, as commissioned by King Rama III, to remind people what the fast-disappearing vessel looked like.
Wat Kalyanamitr in Thon Buri is a mix of traditional Thai and Chinese architecture and features a giant seated Buddha in the main hall.
Wat Arun is instantly recognisable with its Khmer spires, erected in Rama II's time. Wat Rakhang Kositaram Woramahawihan is known as the Temple of the Bells. Wat Kahabordi has the Sagkham, a beautiful golden Buddha statue.
Wat Thewarajakulchorn boasts an enormous main chapel. Wat Rajathiwas Rajaworavihara, where King Rama IV was a monk, was erected by Rama V and his son Prince Narissaranuwattiwong.
The ceremonies wrap up at around 7 tonight with a candlelit merit-making walk.