apsara — in Hindu tradition, one of the heaven-dwelling dancers, all female, who perform for the pleasure of the gods. The Khmer Hindu temples are adorned with many relief carvings of apsaras, and also housed large troupes of dancers who participated in ceremonies there. In Indian tradition, the apsaras had musician husbands, called gandharvas, who accompanied their dances, but the Khmers seem to have ignored the musicians and celebrated only the dancers. (According to Wikipedia, apsaras is a singular form, and one should write apsarases as the English plural. But this is so contrary to everything we saw and heard in Cambodia that doing it would feel bizarrely pedantic.)
Avalokiteshvara/Kwan Yin — The Mahayana Buddhist tradition recognizes and honors several bodhisattva figures by name. In ancient India and Cambodia, one of the most prominent of these is Avalokiteshvara, called the Bodhisattva of Compassion. He was so greatly revered during the period when the rulers of the Khmer empire professed Mahayana Buddhism that one of the French conservators of Angkor, Maurice Glaize, described Avalokiteshvara as "the principal divinity of the kingdom." In China, however, traditions of the Bodhisattva of Compassion merged with native religious traditions in such a way that this bodhisattva is honored not as Avalokiteshvara, but as a female figure named Kwan Yin or Guanyin, sometimes called the Goddess of Mercy. She is honored in many places, and Kwan Yin images can often be found in Thai Buddhist homes and even some temples.
baray — a rectangular reservoir created not by digging into the earth, but by piling it into dykes to hold the water in. By building barays in such a way that water could flow out only in smaller quantities and at higher levels than it flowed in, the builders ensured Angkor a constant supply for drinking, fishing, and agriculture. Several early kings built barays, some of of them very large. The biggest, West Baray, is five miles long and more than a mile wide. East Baray is almost as big. Most barays are dry now, but the small one where Srah Srang is built was full when we saw it, and about two-thirds of the huge West Baray still has water in it.
bodhi tree — According to tradition, the Buddha became enlightened while sitting in meditation at the foot of a certain tree. The Indian name for this species of tree (a member of the fig family) is pipal (pronounced like "people"), but because of the religious tradition, English-speaking Buddhists generally refer to it as a "bodhi tree": bodhi means awakening or enlightenment in Pali. In Sinhalese, spoken in Sri Lanka, the same species is named bo, and for this reason many 19th-century accounts of Buddhism in English (based on information acquired in Sri Lanka) refer to the Buddha meditating under "the bo-tree."
bodhisattva — a being who has either achieved enlightenment, or has come to the threshhold of that state (beliefs vary), but chooses not to escape the cycle of rebirth, suffering, and death. Instead, the bodhisattva compassionately uses the wisdom gained in the process of spiritual advancement to help others follow the same path. Mahayana Buddhists conceive bodhisattvas as taking a vow not to enter Nirvana until all sentient beings have become enlightened. The concept of the bodhisattva (from Sanskrit bodhi 'enlightenment' and sattva 'being' — that is, "a being whose essence is enlightenment") is found in Theravada Buddhism, but is much less central than it is in the Mahayana tradition, and does not include the vow to postpone entrance into Nirvana until all sentient beings can enter as well.
chedi — a bell-shaped monument whose usual purpose is to enshrine sacred relics or the ashes of royal persons or important monks. A more generic name is stupa, but chedi ["CHED-ee"] is the Thai word. Each country or region seems to have its own style: Sri Lankan stupas are smooth and domelike, with an inconspicuous point; Thai chedis are more ornate and have high, slender points. Lanna, the old northern Thai kingdom, has a style of its own, with octagonal sections stacked on a square base, and only the uppermost part being round in cross-section.
demon (Asura) — In Thai temples, demons or ogres — powerful humanoid figures with grotesque faces — are often represented as temple guardians, a duty they share with nagas and singhas. Khmer temples have, in addition to nagas and singhas, powerful but quite human-looking guardians called dvarapalas. But the Khmer temples also have sculpted representations of the Asuras, a tribe of supernatural beings who once rivaled the gods (Devas) in power, but were defeated and subordinated. In time they came to be associated with powerful and destructive passions like anger and pride, and in the Indian epic Ramayana (also beloved in Thailand, where it was called Ramakien) a thoroughly demonized group of Asuras are the hero's adversaries. Their appearance as guardians of the holy places suggests that, like the nagas and singhas, they were thought to have a good and helpful side even though they could be dangerous.
Dhamma — The Pali word Dhamma — which is Dharma in Sanskrit — can be used in reference to the scriptural body of the Buddha's teachings, or can be used more simply to mean "the truth about the way things are." When a monk gives what Christians might call a sermon, Theravada Buddhists call it a Dhamma talk.
garuda — in Hindu tradition, a creature that is part man, part bird. Garudas are said to be natural enemies of nagas, on which they feed, and sometimes serve as mounts for the gods. They are more often represented in Khmer temples than Thai temples, although Wat Phra Kaew in Bangkok is a major exception. Presumably the Thais (at least in the 19th century) were willing to ignore the tradition of hostility between garudas and nagas and let them share the duties of guardianship. It has also been suggested that the elaborate winglike ornaments on the eaves of temples built in the northern Lanna style developed out of stylized representations of garudas.
gopura — a Sanskrit word (pronounced 'goPOORa') for an entrance tower, a common feature in Khmer Hindu temples. Sometimes a gopura is just a tower with a door through it, set into a plain wall, but sometimes it can be a large and imposing building. The main gopura at Angkor Wat is so wide that it takes the place of a very long wall all by itself. Gopuras are found not only at the outermost entrances to a temple, but also at the point of entry for each of the successive stages into which the temples are divided. At Preah Vihear, the gopura at the entrance to each stage hides what is behind it. Since admission to the ceremonies performed at each stage required higher and higher social status as one went upwards, the gopuras may have served as checkpoints for keeping out worshippers who lacked the necessary credentials.
karst — This term comes from the name of a specific area north of Trieste, Italy in what is now the republic of Sovenia. (The name Karst is German, reflecting the time when this region was ruled by Austria.) The area is full of limestone formations characterized by caves, underground streams, and sinkholes, all consequences of limestone's susceptibility to erosion by water. Karst has become a common noun used for similar areas where the landscape is formed primarily of limestone. In northern Thailand and in Phang Nga Bay and the adjacent coastal area, we saw karst structures that included mountains, buttes, and islands with very steep sides, all showing the typical hollowing and tunneling effects of erosion.
Kathina — a one-day festival (pronounced ("ka-TEE-na"), held any time between the full moons of October and November, at which laypeople (individually or as a community) make offerings for the monastery's support. Within these limits there is no fixed date, and each wat sets its own. Coming at the end of harvest, the festival is generally an occasion for rejoicing. The offerings traditionally include cloth to be made into monks' robes.
Khun — a title of respect (pronounced "koon" with the oo as in took) given to all Thais of higher than working-class status. Like the Japanese suffix -san, it is the same for men and women. Otherwise it is exactly like our Mr., Mrs., Ms., etc., which until a few centuries ago were also reserved for those who enjoyed a comparatively high social status.
kratong — a small floating basket or box, traditionally made of banana leaves, that Thais launch on rivers or lakes to celebrate the Loi Kratong ('float a kratong') festival in November. The kratong contains flowers, burning incense, and a lit candle (and sometimes a coin or two, if the launcher, who customarily makes a wish, feels that this will help).
kuti — (pronounced KOO-tee): a cottage or hut where a monk lives alone. Unlike city wats, where the "temple monks" live in large dormitories, forest wats have small individual dwellings scattered among the trees, where the monks can practice solitary meditation — an attempt to get back to the spirit of the earliest Buddhist monastics. Traditionally, kutis are raised above the ground on posts or high foundations (as are many rural dwellings in Thailand) for the practical purpose of minimizing intrusions by animals and insects.
mae chee — a Thai Buddhist nun. The order of ordained nuns established by the Buddha did not survive in Southeast Asia, and mae chees are not bound by the many rules that govern members of that order. Unfortunately, they do not have anything like the high status of monks, either. Mae chees are usually older women, often widowed, who choose to live in monasteries and devote themselves to serving the monks. In recent years, however, a few women have taken mae chee vows and gone on to become highly respected teachers of Buddhism.
Mahayana — The school of Buddhism that developed in India and was later carried to China, from which it spread to Korea and Japan. (Tibetan Buddhism also sprang from the same root, but developed in some distinctively different ways.) Because it places a high emphasis on the compassionate self-sacrifice of the bodhisattva, followers of this tradition came to call it Mahayana (the 'Greater Vehicle') in contrast to the older Buddhist tradition, which they named Hinayana (the 'Lesser Vehicle). Not surprisingly, this label was rejected by its recipients, who prefer to call their tradition Theravada ('Way of the Elders'). The traditions are sometimes distinguished by referring to the Mahayana tradition as northern Buddhism (which includes the Tibetan school) and the Theravada tradition, which flourishes in Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia, as southern Buddhism.
mondop — a building, usually on the grounds of a large wat, used to store sacred scriptural texts and sometimes other ceremonial objects. The name is derived from Sanskrit mandapa, which means 'anteroom.' At the small Khmer temple called the Thommanon, in Angkor, the mandapa was located next to the central shrine and served as an entrance to it. If this pattern was familiar to the Thais, they may have chosen this name because a scripture repository is generally located close to a temple, although the two are quite separate, and the mondop couldn't be thought of as an anteroom. In northern Thailand, the term used instead of mondop is ho trai.
naga — a mythological water serpent of giant size and frightening power, often represented with multiple heads. (Naga means "serpent" in Sanskrit and Pali.) In Thai temples they share with singhas and demons the duty of guarding the holy places against trespassers and evil spirits — traditions the Thais adopted from the Khmers. In Thailand, temple nagas are often sculpted so that their serpentine bodies form the railings of stairways, with their many heads rearing up at the lower end. We saw naga railings in Angkor also, but they were horizontal, bordering walks and terraces rather than stairs.
In Thai Buddhist temples, one often sees images of the Buddha sitting in meditation on the coiled body of a naga, who raises his several heads above the meditator. This derives from a tradtional story that, once when the Buddha was meditating, he was sheltered from a powerful rainstorm by Mucalinda, the king of serpents, who spread his hood to keep the rain off the Buddha's head and shoulders. Although he had a cobra's hood, Mucalinda is not reported to have had more than one head, but it seems that other folk traditions have become involved in the story. Like demons and singhas, nagas represent powerful and frequently uncontrolled forces that can be dangerous but can also serve benign purposes.
pindabat — the morning "alms-round," in which monks receive offerings of food from laypeople. In Theravada Buddhist countries like Thailand, monks walk every morning through residential neighborhoods, carrying their bowls, and the lay people come to the roadside to put food offerings into the bowls. This is done in the morning for two reasons: one is that Theravada monks are required take their nourishment before midday; after that they can't eat again until dawn of the next day. The other reason is that, in the hot countries of Asia, morning is the traditional time to prepare food for the day, so it's the most convenient time, from the laypeople's point of view, to share their food with the monks. Because of the strong belief that supporting the Sangha is a meritorious act, people consider the pindabat a welcome opportunity rather than a burdensome obligation.
rishi — In the earliest Hindu tradition, found in the Vedic texts, a rishi is (to quote Wikipedia) "a singer of sacred hymns, an inspired poet or sage, or any person who alone or with others invokes the deities in rhythmical speech or song of a sacred character." Later Hindu tradition regards rishis as both saints and sages, and — nowadays, at least, as confirmed by Google — the word rishi is frequently translated 'hermit' (in the context of solitary meditation, not antisocial reclusiveness). The same word, with the same meaning, has been adapted into both the Thai and Khmer languages. The ideal of the rishi has found no formal place in Buddhism, but (like many Hindu traditions that have made their way into Thailand) it is honored on the popular level. (An article in the Asian Wall Street Journal, found on the Web, reports that the rishi is one of several popular tattoo subjects for men who believe that tattoos can have power to affect the lives of those who wear them. Others are Ganesh, the elephant god; Hanuman, the monkey god, and a menagerie of animals believed to have one kind of power or another.) Images of rishis are found here and there in wats — for example, the small contorted figures of carved stone that demonstrate healthful yoga positions at Wat Pho in Bangkok are described in the wat's own website as rishis. Perhaps their arrangement on a tiny artificial "mountain" — a traditional site for solitary hermit-style meditation — helps account for this identification. In many of Angkor's temples (particularly those built by Jayavarman VII) there are relief carvings of rishis sitting crosslegged in meditation. The fact that meditation is a point of contact between Hinduism and Buddhism may have appealed to that king, who was a Mahayana Buddhist but honored both traditions. (The Hindu purist Jayavarman VIII, a generation later, had carvings of the meditating Buddha scraped away, but left the rishis alone.)
sala — a building with open sides and a roof supported by pillars. This is an architectural, not a functional designation. In a temple compound, a sala could be a simple meditation hall, an audience hall where visitors are received, a wihan, or perhaps even a bot. Some salas, though mostly open, have some sections of external wall.
Sangha — a Pali (and Sanskrit) word that means "assembly" or "association." In Theravada Buddhism, it refers to the community of ordained monks: all of those who have undertaken to obey the rules that govern monastic life.
singha — means "lion" in Pali and apparently also in Sanskrit, although the Sanskrit form is sometimes given as simha. With nagas and demons, singhas belong to the classic team of temple guardians: powerful, scary, and dangerous, but capable of doing great good if they're on your side. Whether the idea originally came to India with the original Indo-European migrants, or was later imported from Persia, or came in with Alexander's Greeks, the lion has been a symbol of power and invincibility for as long as anyone can remember, and its adoption as a guardian of holy places isn't surprising. India had lions (and still has at least a few), but few people in Southeast Asia — unless they traveled widely — ever saw one, and the sculpted representations are often quite imaginative. (In some cases they look curiously similar to the lions drawn by medieval Irish manuscript artists, who had no more idea than the Thais did of how a real lion looks.)
spirit house — a small house-shaped shrine, raised on a post, that Thais and Cambodians set up near houses or other buildings. A relic of earlier, pre-Buddhist religions, the house is supposed to compensate the earth or tree spirits whose dwelling places may have been disturbed or destroyed in the process of construction. As further offerings to the spirits, many people (and businesses) place fresh flowers and food in the spirit houses every day. Some people in Thailand connect spirit houses with Hindu tradition; we were told that the owners of a new spirit house would need a brahmin rather than a monk to bless it.
Theravada — A school of Buddhism carried from India to Sri Lanka, where it was not affected by the changes in practice and emphasis that turned Indian Buddhism into what was later called Mahayana. Followers of that tradition, whose name means 'Greater Vehicle,' called the older tradition Hinayana ('Lesser Vehicle'), but the name the older school chose for itself is Theravada, which means 'Way of the Elders.' Theravada Buddhism was carried from Sri Lanka to Southeast Asia, and today is followed not only in Sri Lanka, but in Burma, Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia. (The Buddhism of Viet Nam, the remaining Southeast Asian country, is within the Mahayana tradition, owing to China's strong influence on Viet Nam throughout its history.) The traditions are sometimes distinguished by referring to the Theravada tradition as southern Buddhism and the Mahayana tradition — followed in China, Korea, Japan, and, (with some significant differences from those three countries) Tibet — as northern Buddhism.
ubosot or bot — the building on the grounds of a wat where the monks gather for meetings and for ceremonies specific to the monastic community. The longer name is the Thai adaptation of Pali uposatha, derived from the Vedic Sanskrit upavasatha, meaning "a day of preparation, often involving special observances." Uposatha days occur at every new moon, half-moon, and full moon. At these times the monks gather to make decisions about the community's business and to hear the monastic rules (all 227) recited. By a rule going back to the Buddha's time, only one building in a monastery may be dedicated to this purpose.
In Thai monasteries, the bot is surrounded by eight boundary stones that define an area called, in Pali, the sima ('seema'), so that whatever is inside the building is inside the sima. This is relevant especially to ordinations, during which the ordained monks must sit within the sima and the candidates must come up to the boundary and request admission to their community. Although a bot and a sima are not identical, their occupying essentially the same space means that ithere's little or no practical difference, and in the northern Thai dialect the name for the building is sim rather than bot.
Although a temple compound may have several temples (wihans), it can have only one bot. The bot is necessary for the compound to call itself a wat — otherwise it can only be a "Sangha residence." Architecturally, bots and wihans are similar, having an open veranda in front (and sometimes, especially in northern Thailand, in the rear as well), and typically a triple roof, steeply pitched and tiled in bright colors. From the outside, the only consistently visible difference between the two is the boundary of sima stones surrounding the bot.
wat — Derived from the Pali word avasatha ('a dwelling for pupils and ascetics'), wat is used in the languages of Thailand, Laos and Cambodia to mean 'monastery.' But this English word isn't a perfect translation. Many Christian countries have both monasteries, in which monks reside, and churches, in which priests or ministers officiate. In any of these countries a person can participate actively in Christian worship without ever visiting a monastery or meeting a monk. In contrast, when Thais want to attend religious ceremonies, they go to a wat, where monks are in residence and officiate at all ceremonies. Monks are the only Buddhist "clergy" in Thailand; the Theravada tradition has no equivalent of a minister or priest. There are many kinds of wats, some of them large, brilliant showcases for the piety of former kings and nobles, others small temples that serve rural villages or urban neighborhoods, still others isolated in the countryside where forest monks live and meditate in small kutis among the trees.
wihan — A temple building (pronounced 'WEE-hahn') on the grounds of a wat. It usually contains a shrine where people can pray and make offerings. A large wat may have several wihans, some of them housing important Buddha images. Architecturally, bots and wihans are similar, having an open veranda in front (and sometimes, especially in northern Thailand, in the rear as well), and typically a triple roof, steeply pitched and tiled in bright colors. From the outside, the only consistently visible difference between the two is the boundary of sima stones surrounding the bot.
This glossary last updated 3-5-2007