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“Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.” – Dorothy, The Wizard of Oz!
In a feeble attempt at jet-lagged humor, this was probably the first thing we said in the van from the airport to our hotel in Bangkok. I expected to feel as far from home as I’d ever been when we traveled to Thailand. And I did. We all did. What I didn’t expect was to also feel so very at home. And, in a surprising way, I did.
When we chose to travel to Thailand, we did so in part for the shock of being in a whole new world. The landscape, the architecture, the food, even the traffic patterns were wildly different from what we’re accustomed to. We drove past acres and acres of geometrically precise rice paddies. We toured dozens of gleaming gold temples. We shopped in street markets filled with fruits we’d never seen or tasted (I won’t even get into the stalls of crispy fried crickets and silk worms). Daily we were filled with awe at the skill of our driver and gratitude that we’d decided not to rent a car.
These are exactly the type of challenges we hope for when we travel. We believe it’s good for us to get out of our bubble to see and experience other ways of life. In our minds, travel is a way to stay open-minded, curious and humble about this immense world we share.
While nothing that we saw, did or ate in Thailand felt even a little familiar, daily something less tangible was giving me a curious sense of homecoming. It took me a few days to figure out what it was. When I did, it was almost as surprising as the country around me.
For the first time in my life, I was in a place where people were living their busy, bustling, very worldly lives with a spiritual focus. Ever since I first stumbled into a yoga studio and back into church, this has been my somewhat counter-cultural intention. For over a decade, I’ve felt certain that yoga can help me “walk the walk” rather than simply “talking the talk” of my faith. So I practice, I ponder, I write and I teach. And, on some wonderful days, I feel like I’m actually doing it! To wander into a culture whose very foundation is this intention was profound for me.
Thailand is a deeply spiritual country. Community life revolves around the local Buddhist temple. (93% of Thai people are Buddhist.) The towering gold stupas that top each temple pepper urban, suburban and rural landscapes alike. These shining spires and the countless golden statues of Buddha, make the temples appear quite rich. Yet, our guides told us that not only is everything in a temple a gift from the community, but everything is shared back as well.
We saw firsthand how the community cares for the temple and its monks when we ducked into a local temple for a few minutes of refuge from the heat (my LORD Thailand is hot!). Even this non-touristy temple was breathtaking. As our eyes adjusted to the opulence, we noticed donation boxes dotted every altar. While we cooled down, people from all walks of life – business men, old women, young moms with a toddler in tow – popped in to kneel for a quick prayer and to drop an offering in a box. These temples were quiet and felt “religious” like houses of worship do, but they were bustling with the comings and goings of life on a non-Sabbath day in a way that our church at least is not.
On one of my favorite mornings of the trip, our guide picked us up quite early to join the community in giving alms to the monks. He had told us the previous day that it is quite normal for families to prepare extra food for breakfast each day. Yet his words did not prepare me for the people lining the sidewalks with these wrapped up extra meals to give to the monks. On the way, we stopped at a stall and bought prepared meals for our offering. Then we found a place along the monks’ route. After we placed our gifts into their alms bowls, the monks offered us a blessing in return.
As we watched, we noticed that on these walks each monk receives more food and drink than they could possibly consume in a day. Some monks were walking back up the hill to the temple carrying bulging bags of food and drink. Our guide told us that the monks share the food they receive as alms with the less fortunate in the community surrounding the temple. With these simple gifts, daily the monks and the community complete the circle of giving and receiving.
The temples provide more than simple sustenance. They are also schools. Not only do monks and prospective monks study at the temples, but they open their doors – to classrooms and dormitories – for children of families too poor to provide a proper education for their kids. The temples also open their doors to the poor and indigent. They provide a safe place for people to come sleep and even to live for a little while when they have nowhere else to go.
We could actually see trappings of this generous, welcoming approach. Inside many of the temples we visited, I recognized statues of Hindu deities that I’ve come across in my yoga studies. One temple we visited was designed just like a western church, complete with stained glass windows. When we asked, our guides described an open faith that easily welcomed elements from other religions to support people in their efforts to draw closer to God in their daily lives. There was no fearful or judgmental talk of other people “doing it wrong.” Rather, there seemed to be a long tradition of willingness to listen to and learn from other faiths.
Listening to our guides describe the roles temples played in everyday life – and getting glimpses of it myself – was inspiring. To see trained religious men see needs and reach out without hesitation or thought is beautiful. But this was so much more than that. We were seeing regular people just like us, with families, jobs, and lives, pause to care for the monks, the poor and even stray animals. Witnessing so many put their faiths into action in their daily lives was humbling.
I return home surprised and a little awed at the gifts of travel. We left home hoping to experience a place that was wholly foreign. We left home hoping to learn, to stretch and to grow a little bit. All of these hopes came to fruition plus an unexpected one. Our trip around the world landed me squarely at home with regards to the way my yoga practice has been teaching and inspiring me to live. I find myself back in “Kansas” with a renewed passion and vigor for my practice and my faith. This might just be the best souvenir ever.
“Live in such a way that those who know you but don’t know God will come to know God because they know you.” – Unknown