Symbolism (Travel writing from Thailand)

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We are in Thailand, and I know we will be visiting many temples and seeing many depictions of Buddha.  I know very little about Buddhism, I realize, but I know that if I open myself to learning about symbolism, I will learn more.  We will see the emerald Buddha (made of jade), the golden Buddha, the reclining Buddha.  The material they are made of will mean something, and the position they take will also have significance.  The structure they are set upon will matter and the objects they hold will have symbolic meaning.  If I see a Buddha holding a lotus flower, the color of the lotus will have meaning, and also if the flower is open or partly closed.

So, we have not visited any temples yet, but we have been to the Mall!  The fancy Emporium mall, which is made up of three buildings full of all the international designer shops you could think of.  The employees wear all black with a golden swirly “E” pin, for Emporium. The prettiest girls work the floor and the plain ones the food stalls and elevators.

As with many nice malls, the Emporium Mall has huge beautiful lighting features hanging down, and colorful flower sculptures rising up from the paths lined with living greenery in pots.  And they have some permanent sculptures.  The first one of these we saw walking in was a lovely rectangular pond of water with bronze lotus leaves rising up, and white lotus flowers made of capiz shell standing out of the water on metal stems.  And at either end of the long rectangle stands a golden fox.

Now, I know a bit about the symbolism of the lotus, as lotus flowers are popular in Western jewelry.  The lotus flower is born in the muck and mud of the marshy pond but it rises up above the mess in all its pure beauty.  And the petals and the leaf repel water- they are of this world yet remain “undrenched” by the world.  Like the Buddha, like the lotus, we are born of the (messy) world, we live in the world, but we strive to be pure, to rise up (as we strive for enlightenment) unsullied and unencumbered by the world.

But why the foxes?  I googled to find the symbolism of the foxes and I find an ‘influential’ zen koan (story) which is many-layered and I don’t presume to understand.  It is a story to consider over a lifetime (you can read a version here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wild_fox_koan.)

In the story, the fox is a man who was a devout practitioner of Buddhism.  But when asked, he denied the influence of cause and effect, and therefore was fated to live out five hundred lifetimes as a wild fox. The error of denying cause and effect is thinking he might- while striving to be enlightened- be above cause and effect.  The cause is one’s actions in life and the effect is karma, and reincarnation.  Or, the cause is the knowledge that comes from suffering in life and the effect is the gaining of compassion.  I like thinking about compassion arising from knowledge, gained from living our messy lives.

So, as I travel in Thailand from an opulent, materialistic shopping mall to the most holy of Buddhist temples, I will be striving to see more than the surface, I will be considering the symbolism.  To begin, I will consider the lotus and the fox.

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10 thoughts on “Symbolism (Travel writing from Thailand)

  1. That photo is precious. I had never heard the story of the fox and I only knew a bit about the lotus. I love that your travels are inspiring you to seek out the symbolism. I’m a homebody, but you’re making me want to branch out and see new places. Happy (and safe) travels!

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  2. Beauty and symbolism in a shopping mall; not your usual venue for inspiration, and you found some! It sounds like you are taking full advantage of life abroad and learning all you can while you are there.

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  3. Love reading about your learning and that you are “there” in the midst of it. I know the many layers of life considered in Buddhism, and the symbolism that is prevalent. I hope you’ll share more, Fran, and happy travels!

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  4. Thailand in your title got my attention! I’ve made several trips. I will never forget downtown Bangkok on the night we arrived my first trip. It was after midnight and the doors of business were locked but the streets were like a flea market, a farmer’s market, and much more. Usually had a day arriving/departing Bangkok or Chiang Mai, but spent our time in jungle villages and refugee camps. Love those people. Love the beauty of their country. I look forward to more of your travel posts!

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  5. As an ESOL teacher, some of my favorite families were from Thailand. I remember the concern we all felt at the time of the Tsunami. I love how you crystallize your writing through the solid symbols of the lotus and fox. You have a gift for finding meaning in your experiences.

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