If you take the 50th Street exit off the crosstown expressway, go south across the Palm River, turn left at the first light, and then, soon after the railroad tracks, turn left into the big parking lot, you will be transported to a different mindset, a completely different approach to life and being: Wat Mongkolratanaram, Tampa’s Thai Buddhist temple (map).
Westerners usually have misunderstandings about what Buddhism is and what’s going on in the ceremonies they may have glimpsed. A one-sentence definition of Buddhism: an approach to living that reduces suffering. No one claims that Buddha was a god and all the bowing is an expression of respect, not worship. Should you care to enter the temple itself, please remove your shoes, and maintain an attitude of quiet respect.
Thai Buddhism is based on the earliest Buddhist writing. As Buddhism spread from country to country from its origins in northern India near the Nepal border, more and more writings were added to the Buddhist canon. Theravada Buddhism, the Buddhism of Thailand and Sri Lanka, doesn’t accept those later scriptures. However, all branches of Buddhism accept the first writings upon which Theravada is based. Tampa has an extensive Buddhist community with Lao, Sri Lankan, Thai, and Vietnamese temples as well as Chinese, Tibetan, and Japanese Buddhist groups.
sticky rice steaming
Every Sunday, starting about 10:30 AM, the families of Wat Mongkolratanaram prepare an enormous feast of traditional Thai foods for anyone who comes, and all are truly welcome. The prices are miniscule. Your only difficulty will be in deciding what to eat.
There is a multitude of desserts—Thais seem to love sweet foods. There are also savory “desserts” such as chopped sweet potato, banana, and taro root (the stuff from which Polynesians make poi) deep-fried in an enormous wok and sprinkled with sesame seeds. Of course, there’s all the usual main dishes such as pad thai and various curries. Food are prepared without hot spices so each person can add hot peppers to their own taste (or not).
My favorites are the soups. You have a choice of what you want in yours (fish balls?, onions?, peppers?, thick or thin noodles?) as well as a choice of the basic broth (chicken or beef). Another western mistaken belief is that all Buddhists are vegetarians. This isn’t true. Theravada Buddhists are not. In addition, some Tibetans are not. Even within vegetarian cultures, there are varying degrees; some are much stricter than even vegans are (who eat no eggs or cheese or milk), by eating no garlic, onions, or mushrooms (plants that die when harvested). So, don’t be surprised by all the meat on Wat Tampa’s menu!
pots of soup
There are also tables where one may buy plants and religious articles such as incense, Buddha statues, etc. But…the main even on Sundays is the food and sitting beside the restful Palm River, accompanied only by the sounds of wildlife and, usually, recordings of dharma talks by monks softly playing in the mellifluous Thai language.
spirit house and picnic tables beside river
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