Thai Buddhist Cosmology

Last weekend, our class drove up to Chiang Rai. For those who are confused, as I was before coming to Thailand, Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai are two different places. According to my roommate, in the Lanna Kingdom (where I am), most of the towns and cities start with “Chiang”, perhaps so each town’s name matches with the rest.

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After about two and a half hours driving, we arrived to our first stop: The White Temple.

White Temple
White Temple

Stating the obvious, this place is beautiful. With most Buddhist temples being gold and red, a lot of tourists think, “How does this temple relate to Buddhism?” Especially when they see random stuff like this…

The predator (right?)
The predator (right?)

or this…

Smoking kills
No smoking please

Well, the White Temple is full of symbolism. That’s how it relates back to Buddhism. In fact, it’s incredible how much this temple speaks about life on such a subtle level. Unless you understand Thai Buddhist cosmology (just a bit), there’s no way you’d catch on to what story the temple is telling.

A Lesson in Thai Buddhist Cosmology

When Westerners think of the word and space, we might think of where humans live (Earth), as well as heaven and hell. Thai people don’t think of the world in that way. In Thai Buddhist cosmology, there is something called cakkavāla. Cakkavāla is the term used to describe the infinite number of spherical world systems. Stay with me, this could get confusing (I get kind of lost at this point too, so I’m going to jump ahead).

Within the cakkavāla worlds, the one we live on is called Jambudvīpa. Jambudvīpa is also referred to as the rose-apple continent, although I’m not sure why. Within Jambudvīpa, there are another three worlds. When grouped together, these worlds are referred to as traiphum.

You should know this before I move on: Buddhists believe in rebirth, not reincarnation. The two are different. Reincarnation derives from Hinduism, in which it’s believed that a person’s essence, or soul, is reborn into another body. In Buddhism, your rebirth is based on the balance of your karma (good vs. bad). So, traiphum can also describe the logical placement of a person’s rebirth, or where you are going to be reborn based on the karma from your previous lives.

Confused yet? I’m not done.

The three worlds in this traiphum are described respectively: sensual desire, including misery, suffering, happiness, and pleasure; material form, which are the 16 Brahma (god) realms; and formlessness, which includes infinite space, infinite consciousness, nothingness, perception, and non-perception (you might recognize this as the void).

We live in, you guessed it, the world of sensual desire. In this world, it is a cycle: birth, pain, death, repeat. In each life, Buddhists try to balance out their karma so they can get out of this cycle. (I don’t know about you, but I’m over this BS cycle too).

Attaining enlightenment means a person has transcended this cycle, or reached nibbana. An enlightened person’s karma has been balanced, thus she/he no longer has to live in the repetitive cycle of suffering. Anybody can reach enlightenment, but probably the most well know to have done so is the Buddha.

The Buddha can transcend all worlds within the traiphum as he pleases, which we cannot.

The White Temple tells the story of this cosmology with symbolism. Now, here’s some more pictures:

The bridge heading into the ordination hall.. the hands reaching out are hungry ghosts, which are unsettled beings who are always hungry (sounds like torture, right?)
Bridge leading into the ordination hall.. the hands reaching out are hungry ghosts, which are unsettled beings who are always hungry (sounds like torture, right?)
Bridge into the ordination hall again, minus hungry ghosts
Bridge into the ordination hall again, minus hungry ghosts

Obvious from the picture above, no photographs were allowed inside the temple. So, check out the temple’s bathrooms…


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Shout out to the artist, Chalermchai Kositpipat. He studied in Bangkok in the ’50s and has won a lot of awards.


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