Wat Hup Ta Khrot temple left an indelible mark on my psyche. Not only because it was the first major temple complex we visited in Thailand, but it also introduced me to Thai (may refer to: Something from or related to Thailand, a country in Southeast Asia) polytheism. The idea that different gods and even religions could be worshiped together, side by side in peace and harmony simultaneously baffled and inspired me with their freedom to choose.
The freedom of choice isn’t limited to this one temple or time, it’s present in all of Thai culture and history. For example, the Unesco World Heritage site of Sukhothai has over 193 temples excavated and restored. These temples (temple (from the Latin word templum) is a structure reserved for religious or spiritual rituals and activities such as prayer and sacrifice) have Hindu and Buddhist beliefs (is the state of mind in which a person thinks something to be the case with or without there being empirical evidence to prove that something is the case with factual certainty) living side by side.
Choosing, one or many gods to follow is available from the lowest peasant to the king himself. In the ancient capital Ayutthaya, a popular attraction and UNESCO World (world is the planet Earth and all life upon it, including human civilization) Heritage Site, the kings (is the title given to a male monarch in a variety of contexts) demonstrated Hindu, Buddhist, and local spiritual belief simultaneously. Ayutthaya was named after the Ayodhya, the city in India that is the birthplace of the Hindu god Rama. The Ayutthayan kings were named after incarnations of Hindu gods like (English, the word like has a very flexible range of uses, ranging from conventional to non-standard) Vishnu (is one of the principal deities of Hinduism, and the Supreme Being in its Vaishnavism tradition) or Rama, but they were also considered Bodhisattva. Even (may refer to) the ancient kings could be both Hindu gods and still quest to become Buddha.
My narrow-minded Western brain had a hard time handling the dichotomy of choice (involves decision making). I thought Game of Thrones taught me everything I needed to know about polytheism. In the show, the kingdoms of the realm worshiped different gods. When strangers enter the land, the kings would chop their heads off and burn them at the stake. This was nothing like Thailand. There we found something completely different, delightful and accepting. There was freedom to choose, not choose, or even choose everything.
That day in the temple complex changed me. We walked by enchanted logs that Thai spiritualists believed housed wood spirits. The believers left ribbons and flowers as an offering to the spirits who lived there. The temple courtyard overflowed with (or WITH may refer to: Carl Johannes With (1877–1923), Danish doctor and arachnologist With (character), a character in D. N. Angel With (novel), a novel by Donald Harrington With (album),) statues of Hindu gods and famous Buddhist monks (monk (, from Greek: μοναχός, monachos, “single, solitary” and Latin monachus) is a person who practices religious asceticism by monastic living, either alone or with any number of other monks), each with their own alms box in front. There was even an altar for Rahu who was, in fact, a demon that Vishnu cut in half for drinking the milk of life but, due to the milk’s power, his head and torso were (and wer are archaic terms for adult male humans and were often used for alliteration with wife as “were and wife” in Germanic-speaking cultures (Old English: were, Old Dutch: wer, Gothic: waír, Old) immortal. Not to be outdone, the temple shop sold amulets believed to have magical powers. Literally, this was one stop shopping for all religions (is no scholarly consensus over what precisely constitutes a religion) in Thailand.
My first thought (refers to ideas or arrangements of ideas that are the result of the process of thinking) was amazement at all of these different gods, demons, spirits, monks and even religions living side (or Sides may refer to) by side. My second was – how do you choose? I asked our guide – Tick- who replied: “You just choose”.
You just choose… What a liberating concept. Then Tick continued – “It doesn’t matter which god you worship because it’s always the same thing. You offer a gift, ask for a favor in return for a promise, and then fulfill your promise.” I struggled to understand how this could be so simple and universal.
I tested Tick (are small arachnids, part of the order Parasitiformes)’s theory with the one Christian God I grew up with. After (may refer to) all, they are all the same (may refer to: Sameness or identity In places: Same (ancient Greece) Same, East Timor, the capital of the Manufahi district Samé, Mali Same, Tanzania Same District, Tanzania In other uses: SAME), right? Instead of a donation box in front of each idol, we passed a collection plate in church so there was an offering (may refer to). Also, in Christianity, there is a long tradition of asking for favors from God. Jesus said in Mark 11:24 “Therefore I tell you, all things whatever you pray and ask for, believe that you receive them, and you shall have them.”
Did we have to make additional offerings in our prayers to God? In Catholicism, your priest might suggest contrition as part of the confession, usually involving some number of hail marys. In all cases, humility and belief are part of the prayer (is an invocation or act that seeks to activate a rapport with an object of worship through deliberate communication) ritual. I was beginning to see what Tick is saying.
I had more western memories to draw from. After my Christian upbringing, I branched into enlightened spiritualism during my college years. Did I have a prayer ritual there too? Did I follow the same patterns without any gods?
I would set my intention (is a mental state that represents a commitment to carrying out an action or actions in the future) and visualize that intention coming true. Sometimes I would use meditation mantras or intention boards to voice these wishes to the world. Is this like banging a gong at a temple to release your prayers to the world? Maybe there is a pattern here. Maybe Tick is right, maybe you can just choose, but how would a typical Thai person choose their god?
I can’t speak for all of Thailand, but I got to know Tick well during our time with him. Tick operated on many levels. On one hand, he had a high respect for traditional Thai cultures (is the social behavior and norms found in human societies) and beliefs. For example, he became a Buddhist (is a religion and dharma that encompasses a variety of traditions, beliefs and spiritual practices largely based on original teachings attributed to the Buddha and resulting interpreted philosophies) monk to please his mother. True, his monkhood only lasted one month, he wasn’t a fan of sleeping on the floor or eating bland food, yet even a month (month is a unit of time, used with calendars, which is approximately as long as a natural period related to the motion of the Moon; month and Moon are cognates) of monkhood made his mother very proud.
Tick also loved western (may refer to) culture. As a teen, he had a pair of designer Harley Davidson jeans from the US that was very expensive and hard to get. He got in a minor motorcycle accident. He was bleeding and needed stitches but he knew the first thing the paramedics would do would be to cut off his jeans (may refer to). Instead, he chose to skip the hospital and save those jeans. For the next month, he cleaned and bandaged wounds at home, but his designer jeans were safe.
His particular combination of east and west, new and old, gave me another way to understand the freedom of choice. I noticed Tick’s bike jersey he was wearing at the temple. It was a custom-made 49er fan art for Joe Montana (is a state in the northwestern region of the United States) saying “Bring him home”. How did a Thai guide, who has never been to America, just (may refer to: Just (surname) “Just” (song), a song by Radiohead Just! (series), a series of short-story collections for children by Andy Griffiths Jordan University of Science and Technology, a) choose Joe Montana and the 49ers?
At first (or 1st is the ordinal form of the number one (#1)), I thought there was a deep, philosophical and football (is a family of team sports that involve, to varying degrees, kicking a ball with a foot to score a goal) explanation relating to the history of the West Coast Offense. Before Bill Walsh and the 49ers, football was a one on one battle of individual superheroes like Lynn Swann, Franco Harris or Mean Joe Green. They used their physical dominance to win individual battles (battle is a combat in warfare between two or more armed forces, or combatants) and sway the course of a game with one immaculate reception.
Walsh, Montana and the 49ers changed all of that. Montana would (modal verbs of English are a small class of auxiliary verbs used mostly to express modality (properties such as possibility, obligation, etc.)) throw to a spot determined by a weakness in the opposing defense. His receivers, like Jerry Rice, would have (or having may refer to: the concept of ownership any concept of possession; see Possession (disambiguation) an English “verb” used: to denote linguistic possession in a broad sense as an auxiliary) to see the same weakness and choose to run to the right spot. It was the system that broke down opposing defenses and when it worked it was unstoppable. The collective teamwork, planning and coordination of the all the pieces led to victory and not an individual (individual is a person) battle won or lost
I drew an immediate analogy to Thailand (officially the Kingdom of Thailand and formerly known as Siam, is a country at the centre of the Indochinese peninsula in Southeast Asia) culture and how the collective work and cooperation of the country would bring success and happiness. I was wrong. Tick said Joe Montana looked good and won a lot of football games (game is a structured form of play, usually undertaken for enjoyment and sometimes used as an educational tool) and that was why he liked him. It was simple, sweet, profound, and got me thinking.
Maybe Thai people picked their gods (monotheistic thought, God is believed to be the Supreme Being and the principal object of faith) like we pick our football teams. Sometimes a team or god is on a winning streak and the fans take notice. Other times, they are just your hometown favorites that you grew up with. Every temple we passed in Thailand had a statue of a famous local (usually refers to something nearby, or in the immediate area) monk that had made a name for himself for the local worshipers. Other times (is the indefinite continued progress of existence and events that occur in apparently irreversible succession from the past through the present to the future), you might just like Joe Montana’s blue eyes or Vishnu’s blue skin for pure aesthetics. There is probably a reason why NFL teams work so hard (or hardness may refer to: Hardness, resistance of physical materials to deformation or fracture Hard (surname) Hard (nautical), a beach or slope convenient for hauling out vessels Hard (tennis), a) on their logos and Hindu (refers to any person who regards themselves as culturally, ethnically, or religiously adhering to aspects of Hinduism) gods are so colorful.
More and more in this world, it seems like there is a tendency to judge people for their personal choices. Perhaps it doesn’t matter which god you pray to or football team (team is a group of individuals working together to achieve a goal) you root for. Since, for all intents and purpose, they are the same. There is no reason to not enjoy the pageantry of the NFL or the splendor of an exotic temple, even if it isn’t your team playing or the gods you believe in. Accepting the freedom (generally, is having an ability to act or change without constraint) to choose gives a traveler the ability to enjoy the new and unique without judgment or prejudice, and at the end of the day, isn’t freedom of choice what it’s all about?
This post was written for Everything Everywhere by Ed and Jennifer Coleman of Coleman Concierge.