A Prayer to Buddha
On Saturday, December 2, 2000 I attended a Buddhist prayer service. I went with my co-researcher and key informant from class, Cheron Poolsiri. We went to the Wat Thai of Los Angeles. Wat means temple in Thai. This was a temple of the Buddhist religion. Cheron and I used many different methods to collect our information. We observed the monks in prayer, we participated in prayer, and we also talked to a nun, a monk, the regular temple attendees, as well as students from CSUN who had a similar assignment!
Well, we arrived at the temple around three o'clock in the afternoon. It looked nothing like I suspected. I thought that the architecture would be Americanized, but it totally reflected the culture. The main building looked like it was picked up off the continent of Asia and placed here in the Valley. (See picture on title page.) Not all the buildings are like the main hall, though. The temple buys up normal nearby houses, which they turn into homes for the monks.
Being familiar with the Wat, Cheron gave me the grand tour. I even got to go behind the scenes into the kitchen to see where they make the food. When we arrived at the main hall, I noticed that there were shoes outside the entrance. I figured we had to take our shoes off, so I asked Cheron and she confirmed my suspicions. We took our shoes off and entered the temple. A nun, an elderly woman all dressed in white, came over and greeted us. She obviously knew Cheron and they began to have a conversation in Thai. I just stood there. (Since everyone spoke Thai, and I had no idea about the customs, I would have to say that I most definitely experienced culture shock during this field observation.)
The nun made us perform a good luck ritual. We had to sit in a special position at the main altar, on our legs and knees with our feet behind us. She handed us each three sticks of incense and we lit them and prayed. She said words in Thai, which we repeated. After that we got up and went outside and stuck the incense in the dirt to complete the good luck ritual.
We put our shoes back on; it was time to eat! The cafeteria was under the main prayer hall. Cheron exchanged a five-dollar bill for these plastic chips. Apparently, the merchants are supposed to pay a kind of tax, and they use the plastic chips so that they can't pocket the money instead of giving it over to the temple. Anyway, we each got a bowl of noodles with beef and a beef broth. They also put a gray ball in it. The gray ball was actually a meatball, it tasted good, but its texture was rubbery. For desert we had good old normal ice cream bars.
The minutes went on, and soon it was time for the five o'clock prayer service, which we had come for. We went back to the main temple hall and took off our shoes. We walked on our knees (because you're not suppose to stand when the nuns are praying) and then sat in the same position we did for the good luck ritual. There were four monks, wearing orange-yellow tunics and sweat-jackets. They were sitting on a platform and chanting, leading the people in prayer. I thought there would be more people participating in the service, but there wasn't. There were only a total of eleven people, counting Cheron and myself, and half of them were nuns, the other half were middle-aged temple attendees.
Once we were seated, we had to bow three times to officially enter the service. The other participants were reading a book written in Thai and chanting along with the monks. Cheron and I did not know how to read Thai, so we just sat there. Occasionally, the monks and the other participants would bow, so Cheron and I would bow too. The bowing consisted of a full body bow so that your head and hands touched the floor. After about fifteen minutes of praying, we dismissed ourselves from the service by touching the palms of our hands together and making a slight bow with our heads. We crawled over to the couch where the monks usually sit when they are resting and we began to observe and take note of the surroundings.
I noted that the carpet of the main hall was red and the walls were white. The window frames were intricately carved, and there were paintings depicting scenes of Buddhist life on the walls. There were also a couple grandfather clocks and a counter in the back where you could buy incense and other products. The altar in the front of the room was huge. It consisted mainly of a giant golden Buddha statue, with many smaller Buddha statues around it. One of them was made of pure emerald. A giant blue backdrop was behind the altar. Unlit candles and glass flower-shaped lights, along with many real flowers were on the altar, too. The ceiling was very high; lights hung down from it. The doors were open, letting a cold breeze blow in. The smell of incense was about.
When Cheron and I were done taking notes we rejoined the service; just in time for the meditation part. The entire service consisted of thirty minutes of praying and chanting and five minutes of meditation. We meditated for the five minutes. The service concluded and we said goodbye to the nun who made us do the good luck ritual earlier. Cheron taught me how to say thank you and goodbye in Thai and how to do the bow to be respectful. By the time we left the temple it was night time and about 3 and a half-hours had past. This was a fun and interesting experience.
I went to the Wat Thai totally expecting an entirely religious culture, but when I arrived I discovered that most of the people were there mainly for the social aspects. They offer classes in dance and music for children, as well as classes for adults in reading and writing Thai. Many people go there just to eat, too. The food was very good, and the eating area was full of people. Children were playing basketball and soccer in a courtyard. There were even a few homeless people around taking refuge from the street. Everyone there seemed to be very nice.
If I were to go back for further study, I would definitely focus on trying to understand the Buddhist religion more. I would read up on it so I could understand what, exactly, the daily prayers are for and why the Buddhists have the customs that they do, and what the customs mean. I would also focus on the social-cultural aspects because the Wat Thai is not just a Buddhist temple; it is a society of people who are honoring their heritage by coming together and forming this community.