It didn’t take me long to see the Buddhist influence in Chiang Mai. Walk down any street and you’ll see at least 10 different statues, shrines, or even temples. As saturated the city was with the Buddhist faith, it is one of the religions that I know the least about, but it was super interesting to explore during our 6-weeks in Thailand. As I suspected, over 90% of Thais follow Buddhism, followed by Islam at about 5% and Christianity at around 1%. The remainder is made up of a little Hinduism, Sikhism, and a few tribal religions, followed by an extremely small population of non-religious people.
Buddhism is the world’s fourth-largest religion with over 520 million followers, or over 7% of the global population. Buddhism originated in ancient India as a Sramana tradition sometime between the 6th and 4th centuries BCE, spreading through much of Asia. To many, Buddhism goes beyond religion and is more of a philosophy or ‘way of life’. The Buddhist path can be summed up as:
(1) to lead a moral life,
(2) to be mindful and aware of thoughts and actions, and
(3) to develop wisdom and understanding.
Since I come from a Christian background I had many questions, here are some good facts to know.
Was the Buddha a God?
He was not, nor did he claim to be. Siddhartha Gotama was born into a royal family in Lumbini, now located in Nepal, in 563 BC. At 29, he realized that wealth and luxury did not guarantee happiness, so he explored the different teachings religions and philosophies of the day, to find the key to human happiness. After six years of study and meditation he finally found ‘the middle path’ and was enlightened. After enlightenment, the Buddha spent the rest of his life teaching the principles of Buddhism — called the Dhamma, or Truth — until his death at the age of 80.
What does “enlightenment” mean?
Honestly, in all my research, this one still is confusing to me … I found it best explained by the Bodhi Monastery. They said, “We follow the Dhamma to fully know what should be known; to abandon what should be abandoned; and to develop what should be developed. These are the goals of the Buddhist path and the three accomplishments that mark the attainment of enlightenment.”
What did Buddha Teach?
The Buddha taught many things, but the basic concepts in Buddhism can be summed up by the Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path.
- The first truth is that life is suffering i.e., life includes pain, getting old, disease, and ultimately death. We also endure psychological suffering like loneliness frustration, fear, embarrassment, disappointment and anger. This is an irrefutable fact that cannot be denied. It is realistic rather than pessimistic because pessimism is expecting things to be bad. lnstead, Buddhism explains how suffering can be avoided and how we can be truly happy.
- The second truth is that suffering is caused by craving and aversion. We will suffer if we expect other people to conform to our expectation, if we want others to like us, if we do not get something we want,etc. In other words, getting what you want does not guarantee happiness. Rather than constantly struggling to get what you want, try to modify your wanting. Wanting deprives us of contentment and happiness. A lifetime of wanting and craving and especially the craving to continue to exist, creates a powerful energy which causes the individual to be born. So craving leads to physical suffering because it causes us to be reborn.
- The third truth is that suffering can be overcome and happiness can be attained; that true happiness and contentment are possible. lf we give up useless craving and learn to live each day at a time (not dwelling in the past or the imagined future) then we can become happy and free. We then have more time and energy to help others. This is Nirvana.
- The fourth truth is that the Noble 8-fold Path is the path which leads to the end of suffering. In summary, the Noble 8-fold Path is being moral (through what we say, do and our livelihood), focussing the mind on being fully aware of our thoughts and actions, and developing wisdom by understanding the Four Noble Truths and by developing compassion for others.
Are other religions wrong?
Buddhism is also a belief system which is tolerant of all other beliefs or religions. Buddhism agrees with the moral teachings of other religions but Buddhism goes further by providing a long term purpose within our existence, through wisdom and true understanding. Real Buddhism is very tolerant and not concerned with labels like ‘Christian’, ‘Moslem’, ‘Hindu’ or ‘Buddhist’; that is why there have never been any wars fought in the name of Buddhism. That is why Buddhists do not preach and try to convert, only explain if an explanation is sought.
Here’s are my data points from Chiang Mai:
- There were literally temples everywhere in Chiang Mai. Honestly, I would venture to say hundreds.
- Most of the temples are old and though they can very in size, both big and small, they are all beautiful.
- Since over 90% of Thais follow Buddhism, most all the churches are Temples.
- The Buddist faith doesn’t abide by the concept of traditional “services,’ rather Temples are always open for prayer and meditation.
As for, what does “Sunday” mean, since the Buddhist faith is really more a lifestyle, the concept of a “Sunday” also doesn’t really apply. In general, I found Chiang Mai to be calmer, quieter, and generally more peaceful than any other place we’ve been. I can’t help but attribute much of that to the Buddhist faith.
Here are a few temples around Chiang Mai: