Thais observe new year New life: Thais herald a new year and, for the Buddhist faithful, a clean slate.

January 02, 1996|By Amy L. Miller | Amy L. Miller,SUN STAFF

Following a Buddhist tradition as old as the religion's founder, nearly 200 Thai natives from all over the East Coast gathered in Silver Spring yesterday to ponder the past year and plan how to improve in the coming one.

Thai music and rhythmic chants drawn from Buddhism's five precepts accompanied their resolutions, made during an International New Year's Day ceremony in a temple the 20-year-old congregation completed this summer.

In Pali -- an Indian language Thai tradition considers the language of the Buddha -- members promised not to kill, not to steal, not to engage in sexual misconduct, not to lie and not to consume intoxicating drinks or drugs.

"This is not only a new day, but a day to set up a new framework of things," said Saeng Noiwan, a member of the 1,200-family Wat Thai congregation that also celebrates the traditional Thai Buddhist New Year in April. "It's a day to follow a new, improved formula."

Buddhism is an Eastern philosophy that follows the Sixth century teachings of Siddhartha Gautama, known as the Buddha. Buddhism has more than 300 million followers worldwide, and variations are practiced throughout Asia.

Members said there are about 100 families in the Baltimore area who follow the Thai tradition of Buddhism. These families travel to Silver Spring to find fellowship with others from their native countries, they said.

According to Buddhist tradition, hours of meditation prior to a New Year's observance lead members to realize which of the precepts they may not have followed during the year, Mr. Noiwan said. The next day, the slate is wiped clean -- but members are expected to do better in the new year.

"Without that realization, you cannot be ready for your new life," he said, noting that lay members must successfully follow the five precepts before they can begin considering working on the 227 rules monks must follow.

"From midnight on, you start a new life," he said. "Today, you begin as a new person."

New Year's ceremonies for the congregation started about 10 a.m. yesterday as families from Maryland, Virginia, Delaware and from as far away as Florida gathered in the $1.2 million temple.

Eighty percent of the congregation's members are of Thai descent, said Dr. Krita Apibunyopas, a Baltimore pediatrician who is the congregation's vice president. The rest are from countries such as Cambodia, Laos, China and Malaysia, and from the United States, he said.

At yesterday's ceremony, adults and children removed their shoes, entered the sanctuary and knelt in front of a life-size image of the Buddha. The golden statue, on a platform above the congregants' heads, was adorned with flowers and ornaments.

"The Buddha image is always above us," Mr. Noiwan said. "Even in the home, it must be up high, not down on the floor."

Similarly, the five monks that lead the congregation sat on a platform on the right side of the sanctuary.

"The monks sit higher than us because we don't want our heads to be over their heads," Dr. Apibunyopas explained. For that reason, members always remain on their knees in the temple, he said.

On the left side of the temple, teen-agers dressed in native attire -- many from Thai-American homes -- played traditional music they had learned from a teacher sent from the University of Fine Arts in Bangkok. Each year, a teacher comes to teach the children, Dr. Apibunyopas said.

After the lilting, rhythmic chants, members of the congregation offered food and flowers to the monks. In the Buddhist tradition, monks are spiritual role models who help others "make merit" by donating food and clothing.

"It's a variation on being more blessed to give than to receive," said a congregation member who declined to give his name. "This is not begging, but accepting donations. It's a thin line that's very important to the culture."

Members then served lunch to the monks, which is their last meal of the day. After the monks finished eating, all the participants shared more than 80 varieties of traditional Thai food brought to the ceremony.

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