WORLD INTERFAITH HARMONY WEEK –
THE SIXTH DAY
What I Learned about Welcoming the Stranger
It was a warm clear day I had been to Bangkok, in the past, and we had limited time. I decided to leave the small group and use public transportation to visit Wat Phra Kaew, Temple of the Emerald Buddha.
It had only been two weeks since Thailand’s beloved King Bhumibol Adulyadej died at 88. He had ruled the country for 70 years.
As I made my way to the water bus station I realized I was caught up in a wave of people heading in the same direction. It became clear these were mourners paying their respect to the only king they had ever known.
As I entered the station it was a sea of black and white the traditional colors of mourning. We had been advised before we left the ship to dress in these colors if possible. I was in white. I had stopped to sign a book of condolence at one of the memorials set up and a woman who was greeting mourners came up to me and pinned a small black ribbon with a crystal teardrop at one end on my blouse. She thanked me for caring about their grief and pain.
The king’s body was lying in State at the Grand Palace and the temple is on the extensive palace grounds.
I looked at the lines coming from many directions growing every minute and almost gave up. But I needed to change money and get local currency. The clerk, at a stand in the station, must have noticed my hesitation and directed me to a short line, obviously, of tourists. I moved forward paid for the “ferry” and turned to find where to go. A woman in uniform tried to explain but decided to take my hand and gently move through the crowds of people to a separate dock. I thanked her and asked her name but between my poor hearing and the length of her name it got lost. We smiled at each other and she went back to her post. After a few stops we made it to the landing for the temple. I followed the crowd, figured out how to pay for the entrance and joined the throngs of people visiting the temple; some to see a world wonder and others to meditate and be renewed.
Wat Phra Kaew is the most sacred Buddhist temple in Thailand. It’s most revered centerpiece is the 45cm Emerald Buddha carved from one piece of jade. Only the king or crown prince is allowed to touch it.
In the temple, I meditated for a short time, thanked God for this amazing opportunity, and prayed for the people of Thailand.
After leaving the temple, I explored the numerous and exquisite structures and shrines keeping an eye out for a monk to whom I could give The Interfaith Peace Project material. I always have some brochures when I travel.
In one of the gardens, next to a tent with the Royal Couple’s Portraits, I saw a monk. I approached him and introduced myself. I was delighted when he responded to my greeting in English, albeit, with a thick accent. I offered him the brochure reaching in my bag for additional material since he spoke English. He thanked me without taking it. He motioned me to a chair in the tent and sat one chair away from me. He asked if I would place the materials on the chair between us and explained he could not be touched by a woman. He then glanced over the material and asked me if he could video our conversation. I said, “yes.”
Within a minute, he moved a camera on a tripod from someplace else in the tent and started asking questions about The Interfaith Peace Project. When he realized the center was in the San Francisco Bay Area, he told me he had spent a year in Alameda living at the home of a Presbyterian minister and his wife while he was studying. When he told me his name, Chaophraya, he pointed past me and said the same name as the river so he knew I understood. We spoke for some time. He told me he got goose bumps when I told him about the work The Interfaith Peace Project was doing.
Someone motioned to him and he excused himself but asked if I had time to stay. After a short while I realized he was calling to me and motioning for me to join the group he was now with.
I was introduced to a group of seven or eight Buddhists from Chile. One of the women, a doctor, spoke English and while we were speaking Chaophraya retrieved some of the materials I had given him. He gave them to the woman with a short explanation. The group wanted pictures of their pilgrimage and encounter with Chaophraya. I offered to take the pictures but they insisted I be included in the photos. It was time for me to leave and meet my friends for the trip back to the ship. Chaophraya and I agreed to stay in touch.
I was a stranger no more.
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The Interfaith Peace Project