Monasteries are the centre of Buddhist life. The Sangha (Buddhist community) lives in the monastery, although these are not closed communities just for the monks and nuns. The ordinary lay Buddhists take an active role in the Sangha by visiting the monasteries for worship or study.
The most important, and often most beautiful, building is the shrine hall which ideally faces east, where the sun rises. Within the shrine there is always a Buddha figure, and often a relic of some Buddhist holy person or even the Buddha himself.
A Monk's Life
Monks are never allowed to eat after midday, so they just have an early lunch and nothing else. They are usually busy people. They practise two things the Buddha taught: the first is to encourage wisdom and understanding within themselves, and the second is to do all they can to help others.
For the first, the monks practise meditating for part of the day. They sit down and become quiet and still within themselves so that they achieve clear and attentive awareness of what is actually happening. If they hear a noise they really listen to it, and whatever they see they really look at, not allowing their thoughts to interfere. In this way they learn more deeply about the nature of things.
During the rest of the day the monks follow the second practice, which is to help others. Often they are teachers in schools. The monastery often has a building which serves as a school, where local children can attend in order to learn reading and writing about Buddhism. They learn about the use of herbs and how to heal illnesses. Some monks learn about crops and help the villagers to grow the best ones. When a baby is born the parents usually ask a monk to give it a name. Monks use their skills to help people who are sick.
What goes on in a Wat
A Wat is collection of buildings looked after by monks and serves the community. Wat means monastery in the the Thai language.
In the past there were not hotels or inns in the country. Travellers who went from village to village did not have a place to stay for the night Often they went to the Wat and asked permission to sleep there. Nowadays there are more hotels but, even so, a lot of people still spend nights at the Wat, especially when there is a big festival. Country boys often live at the Wat while they go to school or college in the towns.
Parents bring their young children to play there while they chat to each other. The Wat is a centre of the whole community. Yet it also has rooms which are silent and peaceful. If someone is unhappy, they are welcome at the Wat. They may simply sit in the serene atmosphere and, if they do not want to speak to anybody, that is all right. The monks will never ask questions but they are there if someone does want to talk.
Visitors can go to the main hall where a statue of the Buddha stands. They bow to it, seeking comfort from thoughts of the Buddha. Bowing is very important in Buddhist countries. When people bow they go right down to the ground and put their forehead on the floor. They do it slowly, keeping in mind the purity, radiance and peace of the Buddha, it is an act of humility - putting the ego-self low and the Buddha high.
Shrines and Temples
A Buddhist temple is called a Vihara. Buddhist worship there whenever they can. They take of their shoes before going into the Vihara, then light candles and incense in front of a statue of the Buddha.
Buddhists also offer gifts of flowers and food to the Buddha. While they do this, they recite special verses, called gathas. On days when there is a full moon, special ceremonies are held. Simple white clothes are worn. One ceremony which takes place at the Vihara before midday every day is Dana, the offering of food to the monks and nuns.
Buddhist shrines and temples are build to symbolise the Five Elements of the faith i.e. earth, fire, air, water and wisdom. Each Element has a symbolic representation which is present in the structural appearance of the temple or shrine. These symbols are arranged vertically beginning from the base with a square (symbol of earth), followed by an oval (air symbol), a circle (fire symbol), a horizontal line (water symbol) and finally a vertical line, representing wisdom.
Shrines and temples are centres of Buddhist social life, not just places of worship. Many shrines and temples contain fine examples of religious architecture and paintings and sculptures of the highest quality.