Whether a Buddhist or not, all can show respect, pray, and make an offering at the temples of Thailand. However, bear in mind not all temples are the same. Contrary to popular belief different temples can have different meanings. There are temples devoted to the Queen, to the city of Bangkok, to those who have passed over, and more. Because of this there may be slight differences in how you make an offering and the praying. Generally speaking though, the offering consists of the same items….candle, flower, and incense.
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Wai Phra is the name of an offering. The candle symbolizes the enlightenment of Buddha. At the same time, this candle can represent the light of the teachings of Buddha. The flowers speak to the purity and beauty of these teachings. The incense can stand for different things. Sometimes three incense sticks are used. In this case, each stick represents something different. They are…the Enlightened One (Buddha), his teachings (Dharma), and the Buddhist community (Sangha). These three together are known as the Three Gems (or Jewels) of Buddhism (Quick Introduction to Thai Buddhism). Whenever only one stick of incense is used at the temple it can represent the spirits, or it could just be because you are at a smaller temple that is saving costs.
When arriving at a temple, first take off your sandals. If you have never been to Thailand then you will want to buy sandals when you get there. They are much easier to take off before entering temples and residences, which you will do often per custom. Buy a kit at the temple that includes the necessary wai phra items. If nobody is present, take the items and leave money behind. Now is the time to make the offering. Again, some temples are different. I’ve been to temples where the candle is first, then prayer, followed by incense with flowers given last. At others I have lit candle first, flowers next, and then incense. If you’re unsure just follow what others are doing.
After lighting the candle, let some wax drip from it. Then place your candle in the wax until it hardens and holds the candle in place. Off to the side is usually a place to put your flowers in water. Other times you may just be laying your flowers down near the Buddha image. Light the incense with the flame of the candle and then place in the nearby container with sand. Sometimes you will pray with the incense in hand as you wai. Other times, you may be holding both the incense and flower in hand as you wai. You may also place the piece of gold leaf on a Buddha statue if one was included with the other items.
Now let’s talk quickly about prayer form. Place hands near chest level with palms together as the fingers face up, called the wai (Explore the Wai in Thai Culture). When you arrive to the Buddha image for prayer, you will sit so that you are lower than the image. One should bend knees under the body, and oftentimes off to the side as well. It is disrespectful to face your feet with toes pointing toward the Buddha. The feet are the lowliest part of your body and considered the dirtiest. To sit cross legged as in meditation is not the way to pray at the temple (with the exception being for the elderly due to physical limitation). While sitting, you will now wai three times, each time touching your hands to the floor afterwards. After three times, you can wai again and hold the pose as you pray.
Finally, I will discuss making merit. This is the act of doing a good deed in the hope of receiving good karma. A great way to make merit is by giving money. Those at the temple use the money to help with it’s upkeep. At some temples you will see several different Buddha images lined in a row. Each Buddha will be in a different pose or position. These represent the seven days of the week (Buddha Poses for Days of the Week). Your day of the week will be the day you were born on. At the same place you purchased your wai prah kit may be some coins. You can make your donation to the temple and receive these coins. You may notice one coin is bigger than the others. Visit each Buddha and offer a coin, saving the biggest coin for your day of the week.
Hopefully this information will help those who want to visit a temple in Thailand and pray. Even if you think you are doing things awkwardly, do not worry. Thai people will notice and appreciate your intent of showing respect. Others may even lend you a helping hand. Above all else, what’s important is that you are respecting the way of the Thai people.