A missed ‘moment-of-truth’ with Thai hospitality
Discovering the supposedly vibrant and exciting life in Bangkok from behind a screen is perhaps not the best turnabout for an enthusiastic and inquisitive student whose horizons just begin to open.
One year ago, I was enrolling with much excitement for a minor in the far-away Thailand, knowing that travelling there is nothing but few paperwork and the purchase of some plane tickets.
But…plot twist! A global pandemic stepped in and brought me to enjoy (or at least attempt to) the much-expected Thai experience sitting at my desk. Thus, I started feeding my unfulfilled desire with online material that could bring me closer to understanding, if not actually feeling Thai hospitality, with the hope that one day I will live it for myself. So, as the title says it, this blog is rather a ‘wannabe’ impression of Thai hospitality and the beauty of Buddhist spirituality after a virtual, yet careful exploration made by someone who deeply wishes to experience it.
Thai hospitality and the Buddhist notion of service
You can find the term of ‘hospitality’ at the core of Thai people, within themselves. In fact, it has its own specific term ‘atithisatkara’ which is being brought up by the Buddhist Sanskrit. Broken down into words with a stable meaning, it means doing ‘kara’ something good ‘sat’ for a guest ‘atithi’ which is commonly translated as ‘hospitality’.
However, what is the Buddhist perception over the term ‘guest’?
Apart from the meaning shared above, ‘atithi’ refers to a person who does not have a permanent residence and keeps on wandering around, constantly being on the go. What is more interesting is that this wanderer has no specific time of coming and so, it is unprevented and might come at a random, or at a wrong time.
The guest is God- and God comes unexpectedly
Throughout my research, I have found out that there is abundant information about the planned giving which mainly refers to what, when, and how to give offerings to the monastic community. However, the unplanned one seems to be addressed within Buddhist stories where most of the time people are interacting with monks who are coming at the wrong time and unpredicted by the host.
Although the first type of giving defines the religion itself and the organized ritual of offering, the later one constructs the basis of the Buddhist concept of hospitality.
Adoring God is a form of hospitality and hospitality is a type of adoration.
Thai Buddhist people believe that the way they treat a guest highlights their relationship with the divinity. The Buddhists have to make the God feel like a welcome guest. Likewise, the guest will be treated as being the God itself.
What is one supposed to do in order to treat the guest virtuously when it arrives unexpectedly at the wrong time?
These situations are mainly described in the ‘Divine stories’ where people suddenly meet with guests who represent Buddha. They are described in all of the cases as being ‘arhats’ meaning that they are worthy and deserving of offerings, outlining at the same time that every guest or human being is worthy of a kind treatment. The stories promote the behavior of Buddhists who are seeking for karmic results by doing something virtuous in unexpected situations in exchange for merits. It came as a surprise to find out that some of the stories present faithful people doing good deeds even during moments of crisis.
One example of such a situation is ‘The Story of Mendhaka’ where a man and his family run into a guest while struggling to keep the head above water during a harsh period of famine. The guest was hungry and tired and although the food stocks were almost over, all the family members managed to feed the traveler with their last pieces of food. As a result of this kindness, all the food stocks were refilled immediately as a reward.
This karmic approach towards doing a good deed is met in every of the Divine stories. And interestingly, the attitude of helping someone in need even when one is not ready or prepared is very much praised.
My favourite Buddhist story is ‘The Story of a Gift of Dirt’ which is centered around two little boys who are meeting Buddha. As a recognition gift, one of the boys said that he would give him some barley meal and throws a handful of dirt instead into his begging bowl with the hope that it will suffice. Subsequently, the boy asked the enlightened one for being a king that would serve the Lord Buddha. Not long after, the man saw the aspiration and compassion behind the kid’s words and accepted the gift of dirt.
What is to be learnt from this story?
There is another linkage between Buddhism and hospitality which emphasizes the relevance of having a good intention before doing a virtuous deed. In the story, the little boy did not have any barley, yet he wanted to offer some to the man. Instead, the kid gave a handful of dirt with little utility for Buddha. However, the boy had a good intention in feeding the man and he proved that he had faith leading to the acceptance of the gift.
What does faith represent and why is it even more important than the act itself?
The faith in Buddhism is the currency that the giver can use to ‘buy’ spiritual growth. It is believed that the rewards received in exchange for a good or bad deed are not complete if they are not empowered by faith. In fact, being able to show that the act performer has a certain belief is a requisition of Buddhism.
What have I understood out of it?
Be it experienced or not, the Buddhist hospitality made me understand for sure that the core of a good deed or thought lies within myself, not necessarily outside of me. I have learnt that being virtuous is not something planned, but unexpected and whether I am ready or not, I have to at least show faith in my actions. In the same manner, being kind to a friend is not any different from being hospitable to a stranger (guest) in need. After all, the good provided to a person will come back sooner or later as I have taken in from the karmic approach. In this way, I can grow on a spiritual dimension, and together with that, become more aware of my actions.
Buddhism and gastronomy
Food, ‘anna’, has a different purpose to the followers of Buddhism than what we might have got used to in this Western society. We crave sweets, we crave snacks just to satisfy our tasting buds, or most of the time simply because we are just bored. Buddha had a distinct opinion about consuming food. He believed that if you step on the path of craving, that road takes you straight to suffering. Additionally, the second path was identified as ignorance.
According to Buddha, food is not for fun, but it is to provide the body with the necessary nutrition. It is not for enjoyment, but to relieve the hunger and maintain a healthy life. He also encouraged eating moderately and suggested not eating after noon.
I do not eat in the evening and thus I am free from illness and affliction and enjoy health, strength and ease.
Next to that, it is important that we find the balance in the size of the portions as well. Overeating creates difficulties while breathing, tears down the energy, and leads to laziness and tiredness. On the other hand, not consuming enough food results in losing the body’s strength, its healthy pigment, and its ability to function effectively. That is the reason why one needs to find the perfect balance.
Wisely reflecting, I use alms-food not for fun, not for pleasure, not for fattening, not for beautification, only for the maintenance and nourishment of this body, for keeping it healthy, for helping with the Holy Life; thinking thus, I will allay hunger without overeating, so that I may continue to live blamelessly and at ease.
Gastronomy is a form of art. It is the way in which you prepare the food, the way you put it on a plate so that it is appealing to the eye and in the end how you consume the food. It is a process that you can use to create a great experience together with other people.
A deeper understanding of tastes
The fundamentals of the gastronomy are the different tastes of the food we eat. The basic tastes that we are used to are sweet, sour, salty, bitter and, in the last decade, umami also became familiar to us in the Western world. After digging into the topic, I discovered that Buddha recognized even more flavours. He added bland ( ‘alonika’), pungent ( ‘katuka’), mild ( ‘akhārika’) and savory ( ‘khārika’) to the primary tastes. Having a deeper knowledge about the principles of gastronomy helped to build up a more diverse cuisine.
Fine or coarse, much or little, one can eat anything made with love. Indeed, love is the highest taste.
It is worth mentioning that Buddha was not vegetarian, however even today a lot of nuns and monks are still strictly avoiding meat and meat products in their diet (‘āhāra’). This has more reasons; one explanation can originate back to the fact that not everyone could afford to buy meat. Another cause was not to kill the animals just to satisfy one’s hunger when there are also other nutrition sources available. Even from the plant-based diet the followers of Buddhism rather preferred the so-called non-root vegetables, because fruits, leafy vegetables, pulses, or grains do not have to be dug out from the soil and with this, the hurting of small animals living under the ground can be avoided.
Can we differentiate killing?
It was also interesting to get to know why Buddha was actually not vegetarian. He recognized the difference between direct killing and indirect killing. Direct killing means that the person slaughters the animal or makes someone else do it, while indirect killing refers to buying the meat of an already dead animal. When Buddha received different opinions on this matter, he further explained that every single vegan or vegetarian person tends to kill animals even if it is not intended (for instance while walking) and also the vegetables or fruits they consume have been sprinkled with pesticide.
The monks, nuns, and followers of Buddhism most frequently still practice vegetarianism because they feel that they are participating in creating a world where less cruelty exists.
Stories from travelers and more
Now, this is the section of the blog in which I try to portray Thai hospitality from the eyes of people who went there and felt it on their own and I bring to light more interesting facts about Thai culture. As explored above, it is clear to me that hospitality and Buddhist teachings are inextricably connected, but how does it actually feel to be a tourist there? What do the lucky souls that interacted with Thai culture have to say about this? To answer this question, I navigated the internet in the search of those who have been there and decided to share their experiences.
‘The Land of Smiles’
As more and more tourists discovered its beauty, Thailand became referred to as ‘one of the most remarkable and welcoming in the entire world’ and earned its nickname of ‘Land of Smiles’. From my research, the so-praised Thai hostmanship is not a myth nor an exaggeration. Inherently driven to do good as a fundament of the Buddhist philosophy which grounds their way of living, the kindness, the warmth, and the utmost care Thai people show to their guests is much confirmed in the writings of all the travelers I read. Things that might seem insignificant such as thanking a visitor for checking a menu even without choosing to eat there or genuinely apologizing for charging by error a dollar more for a meal are situations in which foreigners found themselves and wrote about afterwards.
Returning to its nickname, it has been obviously given because Thailand is indeed a country recognized for its “smiling culture”. Smile, ‘yim’, is not only a means of affirmation of strong professionalism and hostmanship by hospitality workers, ‘yim’ is much more than that. It is deeply ingrained in Thai culture being displayed in personal, social, and professional affairs and encompassing different meanings. In fact, there are even studies made by specialists identifying types of Thai ‘yim’ and their connotations.
Henry Holmes and Suchada Tangtongtayy are two such authors that describe in their book “Working With The Thais: A Guide to Managing in Thailand” 13 types of ‘yim’. Although they do it with the aim of familiarizing foreign professionals with the Thai business environment, these types of smile could be easily acknowledged by anyone who has the chance to get in touch with the Thais. So, let’s see what smiles we can encounter.
- Yim thak thaai/ ยิ้มทักทาย: the smile of politeness and convenience around someone you barely know
- Yim cheun chom / ยิ้มชื่นชม: the smile expressing admiration or pride
- Yim thang nam taa/ ยิ้มทั้งน้ำตา: the smile that either wants to express extreme happiness or hides extreme sadness; context is very important for interpreting this one
- Fuoon Yim / ฝืนยิ้ม: the rigid smile used when a situation is not entirely pleasant
- Yim mee lessanai / ยิ้มมีเลสนัย: a smile used to cover an unshared immoral thought
- Yim yaw / ยิ้มเยาะ: the smile used for teasing someone or instead of the “I told you” phrase
- Yim yoh-yae / ยิ้มเหยาะแหย: the smile that encourages the interlocutor to resign himself/herself to the situation and see the positive side
- Yim sao / ยิ้มเศร้า: the smile of sadness
- Yim haeng / ยิ้มแห้ง: the smile suggesting a dry attitude towards a rather tense situation
- Yim dor dhaan / ยิ้มต่อต้าน: the smile expressing disapproval of someone/something
- Yim chuead chuean / ยิ้มเชือดเฉือน: the smile of the winner in front of the loser
- Yim suu suu! / ยิ้มซื่อซื่อ: the smile of support and inspiration
- Yim mai awk / ยิ้มไม่ออก: the smile constrained by other overwhelming emotions; although, one can clearly state that these smiles are not natural, this smile is indeed a visibly forced one
After going through each of these different smiles, we could agree that Thai communication is defined by diplomacy, respect, and empathy. No wonder why tourists feel so welcome and cherished in the Thai setting.
Personally, I could say that I somehow had the virtual experience of Thai hostmanship through the online Language Club offered by the university where I had the chance to interact with a few Thai students. The all-smiling attitude and positiveness was there from the very first meeting and allowed my conversation partner and I to open ourselves to the Thai language more easily. The dedication they had to help us learn and the encouragement were always felt by my partner and I despite our lack of talent 😅 and, sometimes, poor internet connection.
Unfortunately, we had to cancel the last classes because of bad connection issues that wouldn’t facilitate our communication anymore and they genuinely apologized for the problem as though it was their own fault. They even offered their help outside organised classes by giving us their social-media contact. I found that really moving.
One other tourist writes about the art of meditation or ‘Nang Samadhi’ as it is called in Thai and connecting with the mindfulness of the Thai culture by practicing it at the various existing Buddhist retreats. The majority of the monasteries in Thailand offer free courses, however, choosing to meditate in an authentic Buddhist retreat might be a bit tougher having to comply with stricter rules since you train with monks who treat this practice with considerable seriousness. The location and the architecture of the places make the perfect ambiance for the start of a peaceful introspective journey with yourself and once you get into that energy, the rigid rules will become your new normal.
Another option would be the luxurious retreats that come with a rather more personalized way of introducing you to the art of “Nang Samadhi” and which are not free anymore, obviously. It is up to every individual who wants to embark on this journey how he/she wants to pursue it. In the end, the goal is to harmonize with your inner self, to improve your concentration, to become more self-aware, and to reach an equilibrium with the surrounding nature.
I would definitely try meditation in a real Buddhist retreat if I were there. If meditation is not really something you would go for, but you would still like to sense the sacred Buddhist spirituality, simply visiting all the breath-taking temples would be the best way to charge yourself with the energy you are looking for.
This is a tiny bit of what Thailand is famous for in the eyes of the travelers as blogs and websites go on and on about the beauty of this country. And I myself could go on and on imagining how I would enjoy all this beauty while reading insatiably about all of it.
Here’s a video that might enlighten you more:
Thai hospitality: A future promise?
Given how much this avid desire pushed me to kind of scrutinize Buddhist hospitality and Thai culture, on the whole, I might as well make a promise to myself that I will fulfill it. This attempt of mine of learning about and getting more familiar with the Buddhist notion of service and life ultimately is nowhere close to me being an expert in the field. On the contrary, I feel like this is just a superficial exploration and once I can truly break the boundary of looking from the outside, I will be able to say that I know more. Until then, this will remain a living crave of a much curious and intrusive student.
- Rotman, A. (2011). Buddhism and hospitality: Expecting the unexpected and acting virtuously. Hosting the stranger: Between religions, 115-122. https://www.smith.edu/sites/default/files/media/Faculty/Rotman_buddhismhospitality.pdf
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