Go to the Mirror: Meeting the Emerald Buddha
“The Temple of the Emerald Buddha is the most spiritual place I’ve ever been to in my life, anywhere in the world.” My friend Sandra told me this the day before I was to leave for my first trip to Thailand. It’s hard for any place to live up to a buildup like this, but I wanted to find out for myself. I wanted to see the Emerald Buddha not as a tourist, but as a Buddhist visiting a historic temple.
Wat Phra Kaew, the temple’s Thai name, is the home of the legendary emerald-colored Buddha. Made of green jade, the statue only measures about half a meter in height. However, it is reputed to have magical powers that help protect whichever country it resides in. Taken by the Lao--who also claim rightful ownership--in 1552, it was recovered by the Thais in 1778. The temple that houses it is the most sacred site in Thailand, and every Thai would wish to visit at least once in his/her lifetime, just as every Muslim hopes to make the hajj to Mecca.
I entered the main gate of the temple grounds, and was immediately awestruck by the beauty of the complex. Otherworldly, it was like visiting the Emerald City of Oz. On the other side of a large green field, I could see the spires of three towers, one golden, one green and copper-colored, and the last a stone tower rising up out of a small temple. Other small shrines and spires dotted the grounds. Next to them stood the four-tiered dark blue roof of the main temple. After traversing the long walkway, I entered the temple grounds, welcomed by a stone statue of the smiling, gap-toothed “Hermit Doctor” in a yoga pose. He was surrounded by flower garlands and burning candles. On the walls surrounding the temples and towers were beautifully detailed scenes from the Hindu myth, the Ramayana, gold paint glittering in the shadows. There were also giant mythical temple guardians, with faces of monkeys or tigers. Statues of other mythical creatures, half-human, half-bird, smiled at me.
I made my way to the temple itself. The façade was mostly made of multi-colored glass tiles forming golden patterns, and larger ceramic tiles with Chinese-style floral paintings. The window frames had more smiling divinities carved in. Outside the entrance, Thais were lighting incense and candles, making offerings of jasmine garlands, in front of an altar with statues of mythical birds and cows, and the Chinese Boddhisattva of Compassion, Quanyin. The sound of temple bells drifted through the air.
Walking through a line of grinning lion statues, I entered the temple sanctuary, and found myself in a large crowd, pressed against many other Thais and tourists. The altar was spectacular, with literally dozens of Buddha statues, their arms outstretched in the poses of “no fear” and “stop fighting.” The small Emerald Buddha was perched on top of a very high throne. In my fragile, sensitive mind state, on only my second day in Asia, I was overwhelmed by the crush of people, by the tourists talking animatedly about their cameras and DVD purchases, by the endless array of statues, vases, and images. Remembering Sandra’s words, I tried my best to give myself a chance to feel the spirit of the temple. Despite my attempts, I could not relax into the meditative state I hoped for. After only a few minutes, I decided to leave.
While walking toward the exit, I noticed that there was a picture of a lion on a mirrored surface in front of the exit. The large frame had several interlocking mirror panels, reflecting several angles. “There must be a reason why this is here,” I thought. Even though no one else seemed to notice it or pay it any attention, I decided to look into the mirrors.
What I saw was myself---and the Emerald Buddha—together in the same frame.
My life was changed in that instant. In that moment, I suddenly understood the famous Buddhist saying, “Look inside: you are the Buddha.” It is not the Buddha you are looking for—it is yourself. I understood that the reason for having so many Buddha statues in each temple was to remind people that there are so many Buddhas, that everyone can be a Buddha, or a potential Buddha--including you.
This is part of Thai culture: the belief that you should treat all beings as if they are Buddhas. Of course, we all sometimes fall short of this goal, but this is a big part of why Thais are famous for their smiles, their welcoming ways, their kindness and hospitality. The Buddhas are also smiling.
I returned to my spot on the floor and sat for many minutes in rapt ecstasy, thankful for the mirror that showed me myself. I then wrote a poem:
I first saw myself
in the mirror
looking at the green
looking at me
Wat Phra Kaew, the Temple of the Emerald Buddha, is known to every taxi and tuk-tuk driver in Bangkok. It is part of the Grand Palace complex, located across from Sanam Luang field in the Ratanakosin district. You can also walk there from the Tha Chang pier on the Chao Phraya Express line. Make sure to dress properly—no shorts or sleeveless shirts.
Just south of Wat Phra Kaew is Wat Pho, another massive temple complex that houses the giant Reclining Buddha. Wat Pho also includes the Thai Traditional Massage School, an excellent, inexpensive place to relax and unwind after exploring the temples.