National Geographic : 1967 Jul
visitor from California said, "Isn't it sad, so many able-bodied men doing nothing." None of my Thai friends echoed this view. Prasit said, "The monk renounces the world and cultivates the spirit. To us, that is the highest type of man." Doing something good for the monks paying them respect, supplying them with the things they need-is a merit-making custom at many a ceremony: at a housewarming or at a cremation, at the launching of a ship, at the opening of a new hotel. I saw it at the anointing of a locomotive. Soon this locomotive, a blue-and-white diesel made in Japan, would pull a newly scheduled express on its first trip from Bang kok to Malaysia, some 500 miles to the south. Holy Oil for a Diesel Engine On a dais along the track, nine cushions had been set out for nine monks. A white cot ton cord stretched from monk to monk, then to a foot-high brass image of the Lord Buddha, and up to a headlight high on the locomotive. "The cord transmits a good influence," said a senior official of the State Railway. For half an hour the monks chanted, expounding the Dhamma and blessing the anointing oil. Another official slid on his knees from monk to monk, refilling their tea cups. The general manager of the railway mounted a ladder, dipped a finger into the gilded vessel with the blessed oil, and dabbed six spots below the locomotive's headlight. Then nine railroad executives knelt before the dais. Each handed to a monk a plastic tray with merit-making gifts: a lotus blossom; candles and matches; a toothbrush and tooth paste; a bar of soap and a towel; a box of detergent and a roll of toilet paper. Finally the senior monk sprinkled blessed water on us all. As we left, one of the execu tives said, "This was a privilege for me." And so, on the following morning, when I saw monks walk about for their daily gather ing of nourishment-early, before the traffic rush began-I knew that I had been wrong to think that they were begging. People were waiting for them. It was a privilege to put food into their bowls. To the Thai, food means kow: rice. Not so much to the princes, perhaps, or the West ernized, English-speaking elite of Bangkok, or to the aspiring middle classes; but to the vast majority, "to eat" is kin kow, "to eat rice." Whatever else one eats-fish or meat or fruit-is gup kow, literally "with rice." The rice is steamed or boiled, and spiced Land of Lord Buddha: This 5'/ 2-ton gold image in Wat Trimitr hid until recently under a coating of plaster, applied centuries ago to fool invaders. In 1955 the stucco cracked, revealing the treas ure. Pilgrims venerate both the precious original and its framed photograph. Colossal demons with upturned toes (opposite) guard the Temple of the Emerald Buddha; inside, the Thai cherish an other image-of green jasper-of the Indian prince and philosopher whose teachings mold their way of life. A follower pays respects (below) with flowers and incense at one of the country's 23,000 wats, or monasteries.