Buddhist Practice in Southeast Asia

 Do the fish see the water?... 
Do the worms in the dung heap, see the dung they borrow through?
Does humanity see the world? You, my son, are but a thin thread, interwoven with many
threads of all colors, but you cannot see the tapestry of which you are a part. You are only one note
in a song that you cannot hear. Suffering, is the world, and the world is the same as suffering.
Are you saying that to be alive is merely to suffer?
Yes, it is the first of the Four Noble truths.

Conversation between Andrew and the hermit monk Puritatto in the novel The Plain of Jars

While the above discussion on the meaning of life sounds very profound, most Buddhists in Southeast Asia, similar to people in the West, separate their day to day life from their religion, and tend to compartmentalize it through ceremonies and rituals. Modern Asian society is considerably materialistic, in contrast to Buddhist philosophy, which holds that the material world, because it is driven by desire, is an illusory construct that inevitably brings pain and suffering.

The minimal requirement for a Buddhist is to follow the five precepts (since no one commands compliance, they are more like truths, in contrast to our commandments which are orders from God, hence the word precept). These are: abstaining from telling lies, stealing, improper sexual behavior, consuming substances which cloud the mind (e.g. alcohol), and of course the taking of life - that is, any life, not just human life. The basis for discouraging these activities is that they have a negative effect on the mind, obscuring the true reality. Because people are forced to participate in the material world, and consequently do not always follow these precepts (for example, most people eat meat, which encourages a disrespect for life), their formalized ceremonies are all the more important for them, as they provide opportunities to gain merit, which can compensate for their failings. The sum of all this results in karma, which determines the situation one is reborn in and the nature of one's next life. Bad karma would result in being reborn at a lower level, in extreme cases as an animal, or to wander without any rebirth at all, and remain a spirit. Merit may sound like grace to Christians, and karma as some sort of reward or punishment, but there is an important philosophical difference. Merit is a power, a force, and karma is a law of reality, like the law of gravity.

The general way to obtain merit is to be kind and compassionate, and may account for the typically somewhat milder nature of Buddhist peoples. Most followers, however, put great emphasis on more formal offerings, mainly to the monks and the Temple (the Buddhist church and clergy are referred to as the Sangha). This can be done on a daily basis, as almost every morning the monks go out on their alms round to receive the food offerings of the people (the sole source of food for the monks). On the days of full moon, new moon, first quarter and half moon, the monks do not go out and the devout should go to the temple to make the offering. These days are called Wan Pra, or Buddha days.

Other ceremonies, such as blessings for houses and fields, and special holy days that mark the Buddhist calendar, provide opportunities to gain a greater amount of merit. To hear the chanting of the monks, considered to have special power, can impart merit to the listener. The Pansa, sometimes termed the Buddhist Lent by westerners, is the holiest time of the year when monks and lay people pay more attention to their religious activities. To study the Dhamma, the teachings of the Buddha, is perhaps the most profound way to find religious salvation, and this is a recommended practice for the true believers.

ordination of a new monk

Of course, to be ordained as a monk is a way to gain the largest quantity of merit. However, this route is only open to men, as women cannot be monks (although they can be nuns). The way around this for women, is to have their sons, before they get married, become monks and gain the merit for them. This typically occurs during the Pansa, the religious period from August to October, when religious activities are intensified as mentioned above. In theory, this means that every male has had the experience of serving as a monk for at least 3 months in his lifetime. This practice is on the decrease however.

In contrast to lay people, monks must adhere to 227 rules, called the Pattimoka. They cannot eat after 12:00 noon, and are not able to touch a female creature. They are also not supposed to touch money, although these days it is common to see monks shopping.

Items of special significance include the sai sin, a sacred string used to channelize the power of chanting (and other special energies from monks), and water that is made holy by chanting and the drippings of candle wax. This holy water is used by people to perform the yat nam, the pouring of water on the ground to give merit to the deceased, and the rot nam, when young people sprinkle water on their older relations as a sign of atonement and respect.

In the old days, before and after the introduction of more formal schooling, temples actually served as the main educational institutions. Even today, temple boys and young novices often live at the temple (novices are boys who train as monks, but are underage - you must be twenty years old to be a monk)

Besides education, the temple has traditionally played a dominant unifying role in each village. Festivals, family-fare and carnivals, and other important social events take place there. The temple also acts as a local social welfare agency, recycling the donations made by worshippers by giving it out to the needy in the forms of food, clothing, and other goods

Other Links

Listen to some Pali chanting

click here

Watch a video clip of an ordination ceremony - this is a huge file, 13.5 MB, and requires a good internet connection
(Courtesy of Jan Mueller, APSARA Television, Cambodia) click here

Also see these websites:

Very Informative and full of resources - lots of free eBooks and other reading material

Also from Buddhanet: Excellent beginners manual for exercises in vipassana meditation - highly recommended
Meditation exercises manual

Vipassana Research Institute


Vipassana.com - offers an online course (requires fee)