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I experienced a sensory overload the first time I visited Wat Phra Kaew in Bangkok, Thailand. The orange, green and gold tiles on the multi-layered roofs of the temples shimmered in the sunlight. Massive golden chedis soared into the sky. Wind chimes hanging from the temple eaves tinkled as they swayed in the breeze. The smell of lotus blossoms and joss sticks being burned as offerings was in the air.

Last month I made my third visit to Thailand as the co-leader of an annual mission trip that my congregation sponsors along with the Thai Community Church. The purpose of the trip is to create relationships with Thai Christians who hold a 2 percent minority in a nation that is 95 percent Buddhist.

Buddhism in Thailand

To my mind the most beautiful buildings in every town I have visited are in the temple complexes known as wats. When I review the pictures I’ve taken in Thailand, I always discover that half of them are of temples. When I think about it, I realize the same is true of my travels in Europe and America. Whether it is the Notre Dame in Paris or St. Peter’s in Rome or the church buildings in Forest Park, arguably it is the houses of worship into which residents have invested their wealth and talent.

Monks are everywhere in Thailand. One estimate is that there are 300,000 men ordained to wear the orange, brown or saffron colored robes. That’s one out of every 200 Thais.

There is a clear, two class system in Buddhism, with the monks comprising the upper class. For a lay person to “make merit,” i.e. to chalk up points and come out better in the next reincarnation, is to give food or money to monks as they make their daily alms walk in the morning. In Thai airports there is a special section furnished with easy chairs reserved for monks. And, if they are wearing the robe, they always get free rides on the water taxi.

I’ve been a pastor for almost 30 years, and I can’t remember anyone in Forest Park thinking they were making points with God by slipping $20 into the Christmas card they sent me. Another difference is that many if not most Thai males “ordain” as a monk, anywhere from a day to three months, at some time in their life. Some do it to make merit for a deceased parent. Others do it as kind of a rite of passage and intensive confirmation class and bar mitzvha all rolled into one.

Prayer vs. Enlightenment

The Buddhism I encountered in Thailand was very different than the religion I had studied in college. The books I have read all talk about Gautama (who became the Buddha) as a wealthy young man who left an affluent life and through meditation attained enlightenment. He then shared his insight by preaching the Four Noble Truths, which taught that the way out of suffering is by detaching oneself from craving and desire. What the Buddha taught has nothing to do with a relationship with God or spirits. In his memoir “Phra Farang,” a monk in Thailand named Phra Peter Pannapadipo states, “There is no prayer in Buddhism, since there is nobody to pray to or seek requests from.”

Yet in every wat I have visited, I have seen people praying, not meditating in search of enlightenment but making requests to some higher power and offering incense or money or eggs or lotus blossoms in the hope of getting a response. Many Thais have confirmed that Buddhism in Thailand is a mixture of the Buddha’s teaching and many aspects of animism, i.e. a belief in a spirit world.

For example, many homes and businesses will have what is called a “spirit house” in their front yard. About the size of a bird feeder, a spirit house is a shrine in which offerings can be made to appease both good and bad spirits. Next time you enter a Thai restaurant, look for a spirit house somewhere near the front door.

When I reflected on my own experience in Forest Park, I realized the same is true about us. Mexican Christians sometimes mix Native American beliefs with the religion taught them by Spanish missionaries. Some Jewish folk will talk about the “evil eye” and will smash a glass at their wedding to satisfy the trouble making spirits that something has already gone wrong. And if you observe how Lutherans behave, you might conclude that coffee and donuts after worship are more important than the bread and wine in communion.

Fourth of July

I was able to witness my first Loi Kraton this year. Loi Kraton is a festival at the end of the rainy season in November, when Thais give thanks for life sustaining water and at the same time attempt to let go of past mistakes, sins or bad experiences. They do this in two ways, both taking place at night. One way is to buy a little 8 inch in diameter boat made of banana leaves filled with fresh marigolds, a candle and a joss stick. You then light the candle and the incense, put a little money in the boat and send it off floating down the river.

Another way is to launch what amounts to 4 foot high hot air balloons. The balloons are really big paper bags with a torch fixed to the opening at the bottom. When lit the torch fills the bag with hot air and the flying luminary ascends thousands of feet into the air.

As I sat on the banks of the Ping River in Chiang Mai, I watched hundreds of golden luminaries float into the night sky and thousands of candles floating on the water. It was quite beautiful. Along the river the crowd was something like what you experience at the Taste of Chicago.

As I savored the beauty, I turned and asked one of the Thais with me what percent of the people in the crowd were really engaging in this festival as a spiritual experience. She thought for a minute and replied, “10 percent,” and pointed to a father who was showing his son how to launch his little banana boat into the river. For the rest, she said, it’s kind of like how Americans do the Fourth of July.