I’ve never really fully understood the art of prayer. As a boy, certainly I was herded with my equally oblivious acned brethren into the pine pews at the Cranhill Parish Church in the East End of Glasgow. Back then we would sit giggling about adolescent nonsense while the Minister, Mr. Reid, droned on in the background about God and baby Jesus, and he would try his absolute best to reign us in ever so gently into the whole concept of religion through contemporaneous interpretation of New Testament parables.
While the Good Samaritan, in the bible, came to the aid of a desperate, ailing Jewish fellow, he was now the fine young man who carried old Mrs. Jackson’s groceries all the way home from the Cooperative one dark, cold, rainy evening, and so on. But this kind of creative elucidation was a tough sell to interest us, and for all his almighty efforts, Mr. Reid had a Herculean task on his hands.
My best friend back then was Andrew Denholm, aka Dougal. I believe he was nicknamed so because his hair looked like Dougal the dog’s on the TV Show, Magic Roundabout: Although the true origin of his moniker would later become a point of contention, denial, and a mystery to most. But I’m sticking with the hairstyle lineage. I recall, in Polaroid detail, sitting next to Dougal in Cranhill Parish Church one Sunday, decades before iPhones, as he stared solemnly skyward during a particularly long recitation that revolved around a shepherd and a wayward flock of sheep. Ten minutes or so in, we were out of jokes and immature observations and after what seemed an eternity, the Minister closed his book, gazed mournfully downward, and got to our favorite part, “Amen.” And as I turned mercifully to Dougal he broke from his heavenly gaze, looked me directly in the eye and asked: “Guess how many light bulbs there are on the ceiling?”
But when you grow up and you travel a bit you see that praying is actually quite serious and popular and people don’t usually giggle during it. For example, Wat Paknam Bhasicharoen is a colorful, fascinating five hundred year old Buddhist temple located across the Chao Phraya River in one of those endless indistinguishable suburbs of western Bangkok. While many of these types of temples appear similar from the outside the interiors are often surprisingly different. This one has multiple dissimilar levels for prayer and on the top floor has an unusual tall multicolored glass stupa in a luminous, emblazoned room. Praying here, in what could pass for Elton John’s bedroom, can actually be fairly interesting.
Nevertheless you don’t just launch in shamelessly asking for daily bread, although I do imagine the overall idea is broadly the same. In these places of reverential worship, you do have to pay some attention to the little things: No hats in Europe, no shoes in Asia, yes hats in Israel. As far as the great Buddha is concerned, the statues are merely idols and when you pray, you may address the statue or trinket as you pay your respects directly to the great teacher himself. The process of prostration throws you open to your deity whereby it’s some variation of 1.) on your knees, 2.) arms to the chest, 3.) touch your head and nose, then 4.) hands down on the floor, dutifully followed by 5.) head bob to the surface, making sure you line up the elbows and knees. This part of the process is fairly easy to follow and you can practice it most places outside of Glasgow.
It’s the messaging that I find to be a little more elusive. Paying your respects is one thing, but I’m pretty sure people just ask for all sorts of stuff, and when I look at some of them they’re obviously not getting what they’re asking for. Not that I’m knocking them of course, as they are faithful, which is arguably virtuous.
And as you snoop around, there are what seems like a thousand Buddha effigies in the Wat Paknam, but this is a metric that is often touted and flouted in various places of worship such as the highly recommended elongated wooden Sanjusangendo Hall in Kyoto, Japan, that is host to a millennium ancient gold-lacquered Buddhas. And there is the Angkor National Museum in Siem Reap where there is a wonderful, but somewhat random, collection of the figurines. To make a grand the Museum at Angkor has taken an approach reminiscent of a wholesale sports trophy outlet: Angkor’s museum is rightfully criticized for simply filling a big room with Ayutthaya-era Thai idols that have no aesthetic connection to Cambodia’s Angkor Wat. But will the tourists from the East of Glasgow notice? Yes..…