If you’re anything like me, then you’ve probably read The Dharma Bums and/or watched 7 Years in Tibet with a smoldering jealousy of the protagonist’s flirtations with the romantic eastern religion of Buddhism. Temples (or “wats”) are EVERYWHERE in Thailand, and when confronted with the opportunity to act out such fantasies, the decorum and traditions are likely to intimidate even the most suave of Brad Pitt wannabes into an embarrassed silence.
For nearly a year that was the case for me. After several casual (and often group) temple visits, I recently decided it was time for me to figure out what in the name of Buddha you are actually supposed to do at a temple visit. I conned some Thai friends into guiding me through the whole visit and this is my report.
It’s Not Tank Season Any More, Bro
The first thing to know about visiting a Buddhist temple is that modesty is paramount. Exposed shoulders and knees (with some leniency for the latter in male attire) are extremely taboo, and in some cases expressly forbidden.
I know you’re really repping that Urban Outfitters loose-fit tank look, but consider that Buddhist monks aren’t even allowed to touch women. (When offering food or alms, a monk must set down a traditional tray for women to set their offerings upon, to avoid any accidental physical contact.) So the least you can do is cover up those recently sunburned shoulders and trade your designer daisy dukes for some baggy elephant pants.
While we’re on the topic of monks and general etiquette, let’s talk about our hands and feet. Whenever you directly greet a monk (including outside of the temple), make sure to give him a respectful “wai”—the Thai version of shaking hands. Place your palms together, fingers fully extended and pointing to the sky, and raise your hands so that the knuckles of your thumbs are touching your nose and the tip of your pointer finger is near your hairline. While making this motion, give a slight bow and remember to smile!
No Footsy at the Temple
Next up are those dirty, sandal-tanned feet. In Thai culture, feet are considered both literally and figuratively the lowest part of your body. Regardless of whether you’re in the temple or Burger King, NEVER move anything with your feet, and never show the bottoms of your feet to anyone. Just think of your feet as extended middle fingers and try to avoid directing them toward anyone, exponentially so for monks.
If you’re lucky enough to receive a water blessing, or a simple conversation with a monk, make sure to sit with your feet tucked underneath your butt (facing away from any Buddha images or other monks). Monks will sit cross-legged and above you. But hey, they’re not allowed to after noon and must walk everywhere barefoot, so don’t be jealous of their lax foot etiquette.
Paying Merit at the Wat
Now that you’re at the temple and not causing too much of a scene, it’s time to pay merit to your day of the week.
I don’t know about you, but I had no idea what day of the week I was born on until I came to Thailand. Every day of the week has a different color, set of attributes, and image of Buddha assigned to it. A simple Google search will tell you what your day of the week is. Unless you were born on Wednesday—then you need to know if you were born in the morning or the evening (I’m being dead serious).
Somewhere on the temple grounds, probably in the most crowded spot, will be a row of various Buddha statues with offering bowls in front of them. Before paying your “merit,” you’ll need to light three sticks of incense. They’re usually sitting in a bowl next to the offering area, and next to them should be a gigantic candle. If the fence post sized candle isn’t lit, there will be a lighter somewhere nearby.
Light your three incense sticks in the flame of the mega candle and don’t blow on them! Your breath has evil spirits or something; I don’t know, but it’s bad luck to encourage the embers with a little extra help.
Now, you’ll go to the statue that represents your day of the week, and kneel in front of it. It should go from left to right with Sunday being the first one (don’t forget that you special Wednesday babies have two statues). Put your hands back into the wai position with the incense held between your palms, and wai the statue three times. Technically, you’re supposed to recite a lengthy three verse chant in between each wai, but we’ll save that for the next visit.
Deposit some money in to the offering bowl, and enjoy the fresh feeling of karma!