“With each day passing,
what have you been doing?”
– Buddha quote at Wat Umong
At the base of Doi Suthep is another temple that is unlike any others I have seen in Thailand. Taking a left off of the road that goes up to Wat Doi Suthep, and then passing some winding roads through a few neighborhoods, a tuk-tuk brought me to Wat Umong, the forest temple of Chiang Mai.
This wat has a quaint peacefulness to it in a very different way than Wat Doi Suthep does. It is spaced through with buildings that fit very well into the forest atmosphere. In between most of these are tiled pathways, similar in many respects to most of the sidewalks throughout the country, but in much better upkeep.
Down one path, you come to a large pond with an island in the center and 2 small bridges connecting it to the shore. Though it wouldn’t surprise me at all if this pond were artificial, it is still a nice little spot dotted with a few statues of important Buddhist figures.
I had chosen to come this day because a weekly lecture given by an English-speaking monk. I wasn’t quite sure where on the Wat grounds to find this lecture, though I quickly found him and a small group of about 10 foreigners all gathered in a gazebo not too far from this pond.
The monk was a reserved, though strongly spoken British man around 60. I walked in about 10 minutes, maybe more, after his lecture had started. It began with basics on Buddhism and how it impacts the lifestyle and mindset throughout Thailand.
Eventually, once he had begun taking questions, the unyielding bombardment of Christians and their monotheistic cousins to defend their own beliefs began as well. I can understand asking questions for the purpose of comparison when a monotheistic tradition is what you are approaching a religious analysis with. But simply trying to shoot holes in another’s religion using only your own as ammunition, it’s shooting blanks at a hollow target.
One intriguing question that did not come out as harshly, though, was what Buddhism’s take on gods, devils, and specifically a creator god was.
For a brief intro to Buddhism, read this next section. For those who are familiar, or don’t care, skip over:For those unfamiliar with the very basic founding of Buddhism, an analogy can be drawn to the founding of Islam and Christianity. Like these monotheistic religions, which emerged from the tribal religion (a religion which pertains to a certain group or groups of people) of Judaism, Buddhism, too, emerged from the tribal religions which make up Hinduism. From these tribal religions, in all 3 (Christianity, Islam, and Buddhism) a figure professing a new set knowledge emerges, and from a following the he gains springs a new cult, and ultimately a new religion. Siddhartha Gautama, the man who would become the Gautama Buddha (there are hundreds, if not thousands of Buddhas in the mythology of the religion) was born into a royal family and grew up amidst its isolated wealth. One day, he went outside into the real world, saw its suffering, and then renounced his wealth in an attempt to find a solution to suffering. In a long series of efforts, he achieved enlightenment. His decrees on how this is done then became the founding tenants of Buddhism, just as Jesus’ preaching or Muhammad’s prophecies did for Christianity and Islam.
To answer this question on gods and demons, the lecturer admitted, unexpectedly, that it doesn’t matter. Yes, Buddhism arose out of the belief system, and for the most part the cosmology of Hinduism is still incorporated into many facets of Buddhism, and representations of its deities are present at many temples. The closest thing to an ultimate deity in Hinduism is Brahma, the creator.
Rather than establish a cosmology or recognize a set of gods to worship as Hinduism, Christianity, Islam, or Judaism do, Buddhism is, he says, a system of self-betterment. It is not concerned with the universe, but with the self.
After the lecture disbanded, I continued around the large temple grounds. One of the rumors I had heard about this temple was about a system of underground tunnels. It turned out that they did indeed exist as 3 parallel and intersecting tunnels built into a large platform, on the top of which was a very large brick stupa.
While not the quasi-mystical intrigue of actual subterranean tunnels, these were interesting to walk down, and a few times a bit too short for me. At the end of each of the three tunnels was a monument of the Buddha. A path splitting off of their common connecting tunnel then led up some stairs to the stupa’s platform.
Walking down its outside stairs and back down to the base, I noticed a leafy garden littered with broken sculptures. It was a collection of Wat Umong’s Buddha relics salvaged from other wats. Some of the pieces were clearly very old, and many of the fragments were certainly unexpected.
Closing back in on the main area, I noticed a road heading up a small hill. Going up a short ways, it became clear that this was to the residences of at least a portion of the monks. I figured that was a path better left alone.
I unintentionally seemed to take the long way back to the main entrance, walking past many unfamiliar buildings before I got back to the parking lot. Unfortunately, my cab that had told me he would wait for about 20 minutes had no doubt left well over a half hour ago. So, I had to wait a while before another visitor came in their tuk-tuk, which I snatched up and took back into the heart of Chiang Mai.