Buddhism and Hinduism
A trip to Southeast Asia is the perfect excuse to broaden any understanding you have of Buddhism, Hinduism, and even the Chinese philosophies of Confucianism and Taoism. In a strict sense, only Hinduism is a “religion” based on the worship of deities. The other three belief systems, though replete with temples, iconography, texts, priests and monks, are really philosophies that do not rely on any god for gravitas.
Most countries in Southeast Asia are heavily Buddhist. The one major exception is Malaysia, whose sultans have kept it officially Islamic since the 14th century CE. Both Thailand and Cambodia weigh in at over 95% Buddhist, with the famous Wat Phra Kaew in Bangkok being one of the most revered Buddhist sites in the World. The Temple houses the Emerald Buddha, a jade figure of a seated Buddha perched on an enormous altar of gold. The walls of the temple have the life of Buddha painted on them in serial fashion, reminiscent of the stained glass Old and New Testament images in Sainte Chapelle in Paris. The temple is a must-see for any tour of Bangkok. The iconography adorning the outside of the buildings in the complex is as fascinating as the stunning interior.
Bangkok is particularly well endowed with significant Buddhist Temples, including a) Wat Pho, home of the massive Reclining Buddha, b) Wat Rachanadda, with its metal castle reputed to have a relic of Buddha, c) Wat Suchat, with its towering Buddha, and many others. For an electronic guide to Thailand’s temples, download Temples of Thailand Guide: Bangkok, Ayutthaya, Sukhothai | Approach Guides. The Angkor complex in Cambodia has a number of ancient Buddhist temples, like Bayon and Ta Prohm. Each of the major ports of Vietnam have Buddhist temples and pagodas.
Knowing something about Buddha and Buddhism would be beneficial for any traveler to Southeast Asia. As the story goes, a Nepalese prince across the Himalayas had a personal epiphany about the meaning of life. In the famous anecdote, Prince Siddhartha Gautama left his sheltered palace life and encountered aged, diseased, and suffering subjects. This depressed him and he gave up his posh digs for the life of a beggar. While meditating under a Bodhi (fig) tree, he achieved his understanding of Life. As the “enlightened one”, he became known as Buddha. The location of this Bodhi Tree is preserved at the Bodh Gaya Temple in India which you may visit. For an excellent discussion of the life of Buddha, in the context of contemporary India, check out Meeting the buddha: on pilgrimage in buddhist india edited b. You can give it a shot yourself, by checking out Buddha in Blue Jeans: An Extremely Short Simple Zen Guide to Sitting Quietly.
The particular brand of Buddhism in Thailand, Myanmar and Cambodia is Theravada, which came by way of Sri Lanka. China and Vietnam are predominantly Mahayana Buddhism. The distinction between the two relates to the specific texts and teachings used by each to produce enlightenment. Our Vietnamese tour guide characterized the difference by saying in Theravada Buddhism, each person becomes enlightened based on his or her own behavior. However, in Mahayana Buddhism, enlightenment is only attained when everyone attains it. He noted that Theravada adherents tended to be more self-reliant, where Mahayana followers tended to wait for others to take action. An interesting cultural observation. The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching: Transforming Suffering into Peace, Joy, and Liberation is an understandable primer on Buddhist principles.
The great majority of temples and iconography you will see in your travels throughout Southeast Asia is Buddhist. However, there is also a sufficient Hindu cultural influence that may warrant some review. The essential epic is the Ramayana, (pronounced “ra-MY-yun na). Almost every folkloric presentation you may see throughout SE Asia will include episodes from the saga. This is the story of Rama, the blue-skinned hero of Indian legend. This story is so important to Indian audiences that a 42-episode TV series has been produced and remains one of the most popular TV shows in India. Throughout gift stores and galleries, you will see pictures of a blue-skinned god-like figure. It is Rama. He has a constant enigmatic smile, similar to the Mona Lisa, which is a reflection of his understanding of the fickle nature of Life. A significant percentage of the male population of India is named Rama, as well as the kings of Thailand. He’s a big deal. I suggest an excellent book that relates the ancient epic to contemporary India called, Arrow of the Blue-Skinned God: Retracing the Ramayana Through India. It is a great introduction to this important tale.
In addition, pick up a paperback version of the short The Bhagavad Gita (Classics of Indian Spirituality). This is the essential set of verses of the The Mahabharata (Penguin Classics), the other major Indian epic. It is considered a holy text. The Bhagavad Gita (Classics of Indian Spirituality) is a conversation about life, fate, faith, and morals. It is presented as a conversation between the warrior hero, Arjuna, and Lord Krishna, who is acting as Arjuna’s charioteer. There is a fascinating passage where Krishna, in a final effort to convince Arjuna of his authority, reveals a glimpse of the incomprehensible glory of the divine. It is dazzling, powerful and astonishing to Arjuna. There are parallels to the visions of heaven described in Revelations or the last Canto of Dante’s Paradise.
Hinduism is an extremely complex set of beliefs, encompassing a wide range of structures. In most temples you will find altars dedicated to Brahma (the creator), Vishnu (the preserver), and Shiva (the transformer). You will also find a lot of images of Rama. To get you started, try The Essentials of Hinduism: A Comprehensive Overview of the World’s Oldest Religion, or Hinduism: A Very Short Introduction.
Spectacular Angkor Wat, (“City Temple”), was originally established as a Hindu temple dedicated to Vishnu. Its five prominent towers represent the five peaks of Mount Meru, the mystical home of the Hindu gods. One of its primary carved murals is the struggle between good and evil in a major tug of war. Vishnu adjudicates in the middle while teams of good and evil, anchored by characters from the epic Hindu story, Ramayana, pull in either direction. Other murals include a complete depiction of the Ramayana epic.
Singapore also has some major Hindu temples, including Sri Veeramakaliamman and Sri Srinivasa Perumal in Little India and Sri Mariamman in Chinatown. All are open to respectful visitors. The iconography is astonishing. Vietnam’s beach town of Nha Trang has the Cham Po Nagar Temple, dating from the 7th Century. Four of the original eight towers remain and the site is very active with devotees.
Confucius and Lao Tzu
The Chinese influence in Southeast Asia brings with it the teachings of its eminent thinkers, Confucius and Lao Tzu.
The Temple of Literature in Hanoi is dedicated to Confucius, with a statue of the philosopher himself. The temple is a symbol of the Chinese influence in the Hong River valley. The best way to get a sense of his messages is to dive into The Analects (Oxford World’s Classics). You will find lessons dedicated to a life of moral fortitude. Confucius was convinced that his fellow man was capable of responsible thought and deed. After decades of neglect, the Chinese are beginning to resurrect these teachings.
Lao Tzu was an enigmatic character who disappeared after contributing his masterwork, Tao Te Ching, the foundation of Taoism. The verses are beautiful and evocative, even in translation, though their meanings are not always apparent. The essential thought is that life should be led in harmony with the natural “Way” which will lead to responsible thought and action. See what you think: Tao Te Ching.