"What is the appropriate behavior for a man or a woman in the midst of this world, where each person is clinging to his piece of debris? What's the proper salutation between people as they pass each other in this flood?" - Buddha
I almost bought traveling books for Malaysia, Cambodia and Thailand. I'm glad I didn't. Mere words scratched on a bunch of pages couldn't begin to capture the reality I experienced by word-of-mouth and mere coincidences.
The last three days of our five-week trek through southeast Asia was spent in the (young: early 20-somethings) backpackers' haven of Koh San Road, Bangkok. The drab, mildewy hostel in which Christina and I stayed was at the heart of party central. We didn't realize this when we booked it online. We just saw "rooftop pool" and were sold. Besides being strewn with half-naked, obnoxiously drunk kids vibrating to beats with no beats and horrible lyrics, the roof was OK. At least there was a beautiful view of the city.
There were all kinds of noises all the time: Rastafarians and their reggae; backpackers and their boozing stories; taxis and their inebriated passengers; street masseuses/shopkeepers/food "tuk tuks" and their salivating clients...
Perhaps it was precisely because the level of noise was so uniform that Christina and I slept so soundly these last few nights together. It was a form of silence that nothing disturbed. But I think probably we were also drained.
We left our self-induced hell every chance we got: one day Christina took a taxi "tuk tuk" (something similar to a motorbike tricycle with a tin roof) around the city to sightsee, I spent another day in the financial district with a friend who was visiting from the Philippines. And on the morning of our last day, Christina and I went to The Grand Palace.
Established in 1782, this complex consists of the royal residence and throne halls, government offices, and the renowned Temple of the Emerald Buddha (it was like the Thai version of the White House, only sparklier).
North of the King's dwelling lies the Royal Monastery of the Emerald Buddha, one of the most venerated sites in Thailand where people convene to pay respect to Buddha and his teachings. While Christina took pictures of the breathtakingly vibrant buildings, I slid off my shoes, walked out of the relentless afternoon sun, and stepped onto the cool marble floors of the temple.
I knew nothing about Buddhism. I still know very little. The only thing I could see from my journey was that Thailand is a country so attached to this religion that their temples' roofs (typical Buddhist architecture) are literally clawing at the sky. It seemed pretty severe to me, and beautiful, like the green, yellow, red and blue scales of a snake.
Maybe it was the extreme heat, but I have little memory of the temple on the outside: some smell of incense, some play of light and shadow, some burst of colors. What happened inside is what stayed with me.
The air changed upon entering the sacred and elaborately clad temple. It was still and silent, with only the echo of pattering feet against stone floors. Indeed the smell of spicy incense and the candied perfumes of jasmine and lotus flowers had been wafting out from inside.
Immediately I saw the random pattern of sitters, arranged shoulder to shoulder on the floor. Those who were still at the door entering were dipping teethy-looking lotus bulbs into a gold tub of water and dabbing their foreheads. Those already inside had their hands naturally together in reverent worship, dipping their moist foreheads to the marble three times in prayer. And then they stared upward.
So it went the first time I saw a Buddhist pray: quick, necessary, physical, muttered, striking. "The universe makes sense to them through these eyes," I thought. And for the first time in a long time, the idea of organized religion didn't negatively stir me. Actually, it was quite the opposite.
Next to me was an elderly Thai woman in a simple blue frock. She was alone, next to her looked to be her groceries for the week. Her thin lips were painted red, and she was smiling with such goodness that I couldn't help but smile too. I followed her gaze up to the Emerald Buddha. It was enshrined on a golden traditional Thai-style throne made of gilded carved-wood (known as Busabok) and was carved from a block of jade that was first discovered in 1434. In front of the high gold alter stood two larger Buddha images in gold. The walls of the ordination hall are decorated with amber and gold mural paintings, depicting selected events of Buddha's life.
I studied the room patiently; my breathing was shallow.
"Sawadeka (Sa-wa-dee-ka)," came a small voice. It jarred me from my thoughts, whatever they'd been. My eyes followed it. The older woman was smiling at me - it was she who had said "Welcome."
"Sawadeka," I said, pressed my hands together in front of my chest, and dipped my head with respect.
With warm brown eyes she again glanced at Buddha and then back at me. She dipped her head sideways slightly, suggesting I pray with her.
Without a second thought I did.
On my knees, keeping my hands pressed firmly together, I leaned my head to the floor three times in sync with her. It felt good to bring my forehead to the ground. Immediately it felt like a deeply religious contact, even if I didn't know with what or whom.
"Kob Kun Kaa," she said when we'd finished. I thanked her in return, and then she picked up her bags and shuffled silently out of the temple.
I don't know how long I stayed inside for, thinking, meditating, daydreaming, whatever one calls it. But something made me want to stay in that space. A germ of religious exaltation, no bigger than a mustard seed, was sown in me that moment. Maybe it will one day germinate.
Dusk was beginning to break outside, overcast with warm wind, and the sky had turned into a dense blanket of grey clouds that looked like bunched-up, dirty cotton sheets. I found Christina; it was time for us to head to the airport, it was time to go home.
My feelings - my reverence - for southeast Asian culture can perhaps be imagined, but they can hardly be described. There's no real way to experience these things, no proper thing to see or do, no appropriate way to think in retrospect. From what I can tell, Buddha felt something similar: "Live and love," my Koh Samui neighbor Jeff believed. They're right. What better way to live?
Sarah T. Schwab is a Sunday OBSERVER contributor and Fredonia State graduate. Send comments to
or view her Web site at www.SarahTSchwab.com