Author Archives: Richard Barrow

Candle Procession and the Buddhist Rains Retreat

During the full moon of this month we celebrate the religious holiday of Asarnha Bucha Day. It commemorates the Buddha’s first sermon to his first five disciples. The following day marks the start of the Rains Retreat which is sometimes referred to as the Buddhist Lent. It lasts for about three months. This year, these two holidays are on 15th and 16th July 2011. These are public holidays and many people will go to the temple early in the morning to make merit. Then they will be back in the evening to take part in candlelight processions around the main stupa. They will also listen to sermons and many of them will make an effort to keep the Buddhist precepts.

In the days leading up to this Buddhist holiday, there are many parades around the Kingdom of Thailand of large candles that are given to monks at the temples. The candles are large enough to stay alight for the entire three months of the Buddhist Rains Retreat. However, some are much larger than others and certainly more beautifully decorated. The best of these can be seen in the annual parades in cities in Isaan such as at Ubon Ratchathani. I’ll be flying there next weekend and hopefully will be able to get some great photos to share with you. I have never been to the Candle Procession Festival in Ubon before and so I am very exited to be able to go this year.

One of my favourite festivals in Thailand for taking pictures is Tak Bat Dok Mai Festival at Wat Phra Phutthabat Ratchaworamaha Wihan in Saraburi Province. This always takes places at the start of the Buddhist Rains Retreat. This temple is famous for the Mondop at the top of a hill which houses a large Buddha’s footprint. Local people make merit by giving flowers to the monks. The flower is called Dok Khao Phansa and only blooms during this time of the year. The monks then climb the steep steps to the top of the hill. Then, after paying respects to the footprint, they descend the other side where even more followers are waiting. This time the lay people wash the feet of the novices and monks as they walk down the steps. This year this takes place on 15-16 July 2011 at 10 a.m. and 3 p.m.

The tradition of the Rains retreat dates back to the time of the Lord Buddha. He made it a rule that during the rainy season monks shouldn’t go wandering around the countryside as they could damage crops and insects underfoot. So, for the next three months, the monks have to choose a temple where they will stay. Tomorrow I will be going to take pictures at a mass ordination of an expected 20,000 monks. This is traditional for Thai males to become a monk at least once in their life. In fact, they are not considered a full man until they do so. If they work in a government office, then they are entitled to paid leave while they are in the monkhood. These days they usually only become a monk for a couple of weeks. However, if they become a monk during this time, they have to stay until the end of the Rains Retreat as no-one is allowed to leave during this period.

Prayers for HM The King

On Saturday, Thai people all over the country were invited to take part in Buddhist chanting called “Phra Paritr”. This was done as a tribute to His Majesty the King on the auspicious occasion of his 84th birthday anniversary this year. The Phra Paritr religious ceremony took place simultaneously in both Bangkok and the provinces on Saturday, 25 June, starting at exactly 3:29 p.m.

Phra Paritr ceremonies date back to ancient times and are performed to bring good health and ensure protection from all forms of ailment and evil. In Bangkok, it was held at the Temple of the Emerald Buddha and was presided over by Her Royal Highness Princess Soamsawali. It was also broadcast live on NBT and Radio Thailand. At the same time, a number of temples in the provinces also held simultaneous events.

I took these pictures at Wat Pichai Songkram in Samut Prakan Province. Government officials and local people were invited to take part in this important event which was also attended by 99 monks. Everyone was asked to wear white. During the ceremony, the lay people were urged to refrain from drinking alcohol during the upcoming Buddhist Rains Retreat which lasts for three months. They were asked to do this in order to make merit for His Majesty The King.

Honey Offering Ceremony at a Thai Temple

Over the weekend I went to take pictures at a Honey Offering Ceremony at Wat Khan Lad in Phra Pradaeng. I have never heard about this event before though apparently it takes place every year. Officially it should take place on the full moon day of the 10th lunar month which is around September. However, they decided to move it forward this year to make it more convenient.

As well as the Honey Offering Ceremony, the local people were also celebrating the Mon Culture. These people were originally from Burma but settled here hundreds of years ago. I am told that offering honey is an old Mon tradition where the local people dress in their traditional clothes and come to the temple to offer honey to the monks. They do this in order to make merit.

Honey has always been important in many different religions including Buddhism. This dates back to a time when the Buddha was meditating in a forest. He was in need of nourishment and an elephant and a monkey brought him fruit and honey. This event is celebrated in Buddhism around the world on the full moon day in September. There is also a Buddha image depicting this scene with the Buddha sitting in Western style.

Candlelight at Wat Phra Dhammakaya

There are over 40,000 temples spread across Thailand. Many have a similar style though some are very unique. For many foreign tourists the colourful Thai temples are often a highlight of their holiday in Thailand. The Phra Dhammakaya Temple in Pathum Thani Province might not be your typical Thai temple. The main building resembles a UFO more than traditional Thai architecture. However, it is just the vastness of the place that impresses you the most.

I have seen pictures of this place before, but it wasn’t until yesterday that I was lucky enough to go and visit for the first time. To say that the place is massive is really an understatement. When it was first established back in 1970 it covered an area of 80 acres. This has since increased to over 1,000 acres. It took me about half an hour of driving around before I found the main building. Luckily I had aimed to arrive early. But, even still, when I arrived there were already thousands of monks and an estimated 60,000 female Buddhists all seated and waiting for the start.

This is a closer picture showing the dome of the main building. As you get closer you can see that it isn’t a smooth dome. In fact, it is covered with 300,000 Buddha images made from silicon bronze. Each image is 15 by 15 centimetres with a base of 18 centimetres. The formula for the concrete of the main building and the bronze in the Buddha images were designed specifically so that the whole place will last more than 1,000 years. Inside there are apparently even more Buddha images with the final aim to have 1 million of them in total. The steps below the dome are for the monks. Unfortunately I wasn’t able to go and take a closer look here. Maybe next time.

The Dhammakaya Cetiya covers an area of one square kilometer. It is split into four zones. The first three zones are the dome itself and the area where the monks sit. The biggest area is Zone 4 which completely encircles the dome. During the event that I attended there was an estimated 60,000 female Buddhist lay people all dressed in white and each with their own candle. Although this is a large number, they were on only one side of the dome. It is reckoned that the area that completely encircles the dome has enough room for one million to sit and meditate together.

These lay people were here as part of a 7 day course to learn Dhamma and meditation techniques. During this time they had to wear white and strictly keep the 8 precepts. They didn’t all do this at Wat Phra Dhammakaya, but everyone came together on the last day of the course to meditate and pray and also to receive a certificate. I have been impressed by many different kinds of events in Thailand but this certainly was in my top ten. Just the scale of the event is really amazing. So many people coming together with the same aim and purpose. I believe that they have a mass ordination in July and hopefully I will be able to attend this as well to take pictures.

Wat Phra Dhammakaya has experienced its share of controversy. According to an article in Wikipedia, in 1999 and again in 2002 the temple’s abbot, was accused of charges ranging from fraud and embezzlement to corruption. Julian Gearing of Asiaweek commented that Widespread negative media coverage at this time was symptomatic of Wat Phra Dhammakaya being made a scapegoat for commercial malpractice in the Thai Buddhist temple community in the wake of the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis. Apologies to Wat Phra Dhammakaya were published in full after the Thai newspapers and TV channels concerned were successfully sued for slander.


View larger map

There are a number of events organized by Wat Phra Dhammakaya during the year. It is not the kind of place that you can go as a tourist to take pictures. However, you are welcome as a Buddhist. When I was there last night I spotted a few foreigners dressed in white. I drove there from Samut Prakan via the Outer Ring road in just 45 minutes. From Central Bangkok it might take you a little longer to reach the temple. They have free bus services from Sanam Luang on Sundays and Buddhists holidays (from the main gate of Thammasart University) from 7-8 a.m. You can also take buses 3, 4, 10, 13, 29 and 39. The map above shows the location of Wat Phra Dhammakaya.

Wan Phra is the Buddhist Holiday

If you are a Christian, then you would know that your sabbath day is every Sunday. It is the day that you should go to church with your family.  Buddhism also has a sabbath day called “wan phra” in Thai. You could translate this as “monk day” or maybe “holy day”. However, as Buddhism is based on the lunar calendar, you will find that “wan phra” is on different days of the week each time. The two most important days are the full moon and new moon. The other “wan phra” days are on the quarter phases of the moon. In all,  there are 4 days a month when the monks don’t go out on their alms round and the local people go to the temple instead.

Obviously it is more convenient when “wan phra” falls on a weekend. But, a lot of people still go to their temple early in the morning before they go to work. I took these pictures this morning of students from my school. We arrived at the temple just before 7 a.m.  To make proper merit you need to prepare the food specifically for the monks. You cannot use leftovers. These days people are so busy that you will find that at most temples there are stalls set up selling food for you to give to the monks.  Once you have the food, you should crouch on the ground and raise the tray above your head in quiet contemplation.

On “wan phra” and some of Buddhist festival days, the monks are not lined up to receive alms. Instead, their alms bowls are placed on a long row of tables. People go along this line and place rice into each of the bowls. If they have Thai desserts or curries in plastic bags, they then put this in another bowl. It shouldn’t be mixed in with the rice.  This food is then taken to the kitchen to be shared among the monks later in the morning. After the lay people have presented their offerings of food, they next paid homage to the Buddha image.

At about 7.30 a.m., earlier in other temples, a monk will ring the temple bell by beating it with a stick. This is the call to prayer. After the lay people have finished making merit, they make their way towards the community hall where all of the monks are already sitting on a low platform. We didn’t stay for this today as we had to go back to school. For about an hour, the monks take part in chanting. During this session, a senior monk also gives a sermon, and asks the lay people to recite the eight precepts. For normal Buddhists, there are only five precepts. However, on “wan phra” days, many Buddhists like to keep the eight precepts.

The eight precepts that they have to recite out loud are as follows:

“I undertake the training precepts…

(1) to abstain from taking life.
(2) to abstain from taking what is not given.
(3) to abstain from unchastity.
(4) to abstain from false speech.
(5) to abstain from intoxicants causing heedlessness.
(6) to abstain from untimely eating.
(7) to abstain from dancing, singing, music and unseemly shows, from wearing garlands, smartening with scents, and beautifying with perfumes.
(8) to abstain from the use of high and large luxurious couches.”

Novice monks and nuns have ten precepts. Monks have 227 precepts. They have to recite all 227 on the full and new moons every month.

Alms Giving to 12,600 Monks in Bangkok

Early on Sunday morning, thousands of lay people from Bangkok and the surrounding provinces, came together to give alms to an estimated 12,600 monks. The event took place along Ratchadamri Road in front of Central World. About 800 meters of the road from Ratchaprasong Intersection and towards Pratunam was closed to traffic.

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The Most Venerable Phra Phromamatee, member of the Sangha Council, was the master of ceremony and the presiding monk. Mom Ratchawong Sukhumphan Boriphat, Governor of Bangkok, and Mr. Virun Techaphaibul were the Chairmen for the event.

For Buddhist people, this year is very important as it is the 2,600th anniversary of Buddha’s Enlightenment. This is now the second mass alms giving that I have attended this year. The other took place back in April in Samut Prakan Province. Today’s event was in commemoration of Visakha Bucha Day which takes place on 17th May this year.

Visakha Bucha Day is one of the most important days in the Buddhist calendar. It takes place every year on the full moon of the sixth lunar month. Three important events happened on this day. These were the birth, enlightenment and the death of the Lord Buddha. Buddhists make merit on this day by going to the temple to offer food to monks and to listen to sermons.

The road in front of Central World was completely covered in white sheets. In addition, there were ten red lanes which marked the path to be taken by the 12,600 monks. Many of the lay people came early in the morning, even before the sun came up, in order to get a good spot. I was there at 5:30 a.m. and there was already hundreds of people there.

After chanting and a sermon, the monks then started to file down the paths between an estimated crowd of 100,000 lay people. In normal alms giving events that I have attended, the monks would start accepting alms straight away. However, as there were 12,600 here it wasn’t possible. So, they all filed down to the end first. Once all of the monks were on the red carpet, the lay people then started offering food to the monks at the same time.

The majority of alms offered were dried food as well as personal necessities such as soap, shampoo and toothpaste. Like the mass alms giving in Samut Prakan, most of the donated food will be sent to 286 temples in the deep south of Thailand. Proceeds will also be used to sponsor the Robe Offering Ceremony for the entire year.

Due to the on-going troubles in the four southernmost provinces in Thailand, it is not easy for the monks living there to go out on their daily alms rounds. In fact, monks have been targeted and shot dead in the past. The event today was organized to give them both moral support as well as dried food.

There will be another mass alms giving event later this year. Like this one, I will announce news of this on my Twitter account @RichardBarrow as well as on my Facebook page. Feel free to add me as a friend. We also have a new website for Thai Travel News where we will post more details as and when we receive it.