In late June of 2004, I had the unique opportunity to participate (as the groom) in a Thai wedding ceremony at Wat Buddhapradeep of San Francisco, a Thai Buddhist temple located in San Bruno, California. What follows is primarily a description components of my own wedding, but where possible I'll try to point out differences between what you might see in Thailand and what you'll see in the States, as well as the symbolic significance of some of the elements of the wedding ceremony.

Some Background

Weddings occupy something of an odd place in Buddhist cultures. A religion that holds celibate monks and nuns as its ideal is bound to have a somewhat ambiguous relationship with family life, and the history and variety of Buddhist marriage services reflects this. Thailand inherits its marital practices from local folk sources and Theravada Buddhist tradition, resulting in a mixture of elements in the modern Thai wedding.

As far as we can tell (mostly from scriptural sources like the tipitaka), in the early days of Buddhism there was no such thing as a 'Buddhist wedding'. Weddings were considered matters of the sphere of family, village, and folk religion, and would be conducted in accordance with local tradition. The Buddha provided guidelines for selecting proper partners, based on the idea of the third precept, and described general principles for the obligations of husband to wife and vice-versa in a popular scripture from the Digha Nikaya, the Sigalovada Sutta (DN 31).

Aside from these two elements, there was little involvement of the Sangha in marital affairs. According to one old Thai tradition, monks were not supposed to be present at a marriage, as they were primarily responsible for funeral preparations, and anything involved in death should be kept away from a marriage, which was meant to be filled with symbols of fertility. Marriages were thus generally performed outside of temples by respected friends or family members. The couple might visit a temple together before or after the wedding to make donations, in the hopes of making merit for their new marriage, but monks would not directly participate in the marriage ceremony.

Over the years, the two elements of the marriage- the visit to the temple and the service conducted by family- began to merge, resulting in larger involvement by Buddhist monks in the marriage ceremony. Monks are still generally present for only a portion of the ceremony, but the entire wedding service may take place inside a temple.

Setting the Date

While the Pali scriptures include mention of the Buddha prohibiting monks from engaging in fortune telling, astrology is alive and well in Thai religious life. Both monks and non-monks engage in fortune-telling and astrologic traditions that are steeped in Buddhist symbolism. One of the most popular applications of this tradition is in choosing important dates- and marriages are no exception. Prior to my wedding, my future father-in-law contacted the temple, providing them with information about the date and time of my and my fianceè's births.

I'm not sure if the calculations were complicated by the fact that my wife and I were born less than 24-hours apart, but the resulting calculations indicated that the two days immediately prior to our Western-style wedding (yes, we had one of those too) would be particularly inauspicious, and that the ceremony must begin prior to 10:20 A.M., Pacific.

Obviously, I am unable to make any determination about how these facts were arrived at. A Thai service often involves offering food to the temple monks, which limits the range of available times to the pre-noon hours (Theravada monks traditionally eat only a single meal a day, and must eat before noon).

Preparations

Our preparations for the ceremony were minimal, particularly when compared with the rather elaborate nature of many Western weddings in the United States these days. As we were planning to make an offering of food to the monks, we contacted a local Thai restaurant (the excellent Thai Pepper on Deanza Blvd. in Sunnyvale, CA, if you're ever in the neighborhood) and arranged a large food order. The order included a favorite dish for both me and my wife- pineapple fried rice for her, and larb for me (a delicious and very spicy salad of finely chopped meat). Including a food that is special to the bride and groom is a common symbolic gesture.

We had contacted the temple several weeks prior, and the abbot had begun preparations there. Generally, several monks are required for a wedding service- four is standard, I believe. There were fewer than the requisite number in residence at the temple at the time of our wedding, so the abbot contacted other temples in the area (I'm guessing the one in San Francisco or Fremont) and arranged for other monks in the area to travel to the temple for the service. Five monks ended up participating in our ceremony.

The Main Event

After our families had gathered at the temple, the ceremony began with my wife and I bowing to the main image of the Buddha at the temple, and lighting a rack of candles and several sticks of incense. As with many elements of the ceremony, these actions are performed jointly, with both participants holding the first taper that is used to light the rest of the candles and incense. The rack of candles before the Buddha was lit from right to left, though I am unclear what, if anything, is the significance of this.

We then turned to kneel before the abbot, who sat with the other four monks on a raised platform along one of the side walls of the temple. We then performed a series of chants; the abbot or another monk would recite a passage, and we would then repeat it. Here I would advocate some more preparation for anyone who is about to be web in a Thai temple: learn your lines before hand. Neither my wife nor I knew the specific passages that we were reciting by heart (I knew or recognized a few from studying Pali, but found the Thai pronunciation difficult to follow). Some of the lines are quite long, and difficult to remember if you don't know the meaning. There was a lot of mumbling and prompting during this portion of the ceremony. Of the pieces I recognized were the three refuges (taking refuge in the Buddha, Dhamma, and Sangha, the five precepts, and several traditional verses of praise for the Three Jewels of Buddhism.

Next came what we generally held to be the most fun part of the service: listening to the monks chant. My wife and I lit a special taper, the wax of which was then dripped into a large vessel of water. The monks passed a cord down the line, connecting their hands together, and their hands to the pair of vessels that were used in mixing the water, wax, and herbs. A similar cord is used to connect monks together and to the body of the deceased at a Thai funeral- it symbolizes the transfer of merit from the monks to the deceased, or, in this case, to an ointment that is applied to the new couple.

The monks chanted for what seemed like quite a long time. The chants consisted again of traditional verses of praise of the Buddha, Dhamma, and Sangha, as well as other traditional verses that are held to have protective or merit-making powers. While the chanting continued, the abbot mixed a thick white paste using the water, wax, and herbs. We were also occasionally gently showered by water that had been blessed by the abbot, delivered from the platform by means of a stiff whisk.

When the chanting had stopped, I was instructed to lean my head up onto the platform where the abbot sat. He took my head in his hand and used his thumb to mark a dot with a slight upward lift on my forehead. The same was done for my wife, save that the monk did not hold her head and used the base end of a candle to mark the same dot on her head (Theravada monks cannot touch women). The general motive for all of this was to convey merit to the new couple; the water and the dot on the forehead are meant to indicate the transfer of the blessing or merit from the monks to the couple. The ointment itself dried quickly, and tingled or burned noticeably once it was dry (similar to Tiger Balm)

Once these undertakings were complete, our parents were invited to kneel beside us. They took a woven cord from the monks with a loop at each end, and set the loop atop our head. My wife and I then bowed together before the monks, turned, and bowed to the image of the Buddha. The symbolism of looping your heads together with rope ought to be pretty clear; what is less obvious is the complex, three-legged-race quality of trying to move with it on. It's considered bad luck to let it fall off, which means that a great deal of coordination and cooperation is needed in order to move around.

And a great deal of moving around was to follow, as we made out rounds shuffling down in front of the raised platform offering gifts of flowers, traditional medicine and money to the monks who presided over our wedding. The offering process is relatively simple; the objects have already been placed on a raised dish or tray before the monk, and they need only be lifted jointly and placed on a cloth before the monk. The cloth comes in because there is a woman involved; in order to prevent unintentional (or surreptitious) contact between women and monks, women make offerings to monks by placing things at their feet or on cloths before them, rather than handing them to them directly. The money was handled a little oddly, being slipped underneath the flowers on the offering dish. This may be so that the monks do not have to handle it (money is not touched by some observant monks as a component of the 10 precepts), or may just be a nod to propriety. Other than the money, the items that we offered to the monks were arranged for by supporters of the temple, and were waiting for us when we arrived there. Medicine, along with food and cloth for sewing robes, is one of the traditional 'requisites' of a Theravada monk that lay people are expected to provide. Food was given later (see below), but robe-cloth is usually given only on certain occasions (the end of Vassa, typically).

After offering gifts to all the monks, we bowed before the Buddha again, and took a short break. We had been kneeling the entire time, and now found it quite difficult to stand up at first (particularly with our heads tied together). There was a certain amount of staggering and leaning on one-another, and I made the comment that it was probably what we would look like in 50 years, to the amusement of all present. We then moved into the dining area of the temple, where we knelt on the floor before the seated monks and offered them rice and the food that we had brought. Lay workers at the temple had arranged it on the table and heated the food. The plates of food were raised and set before the monks, as the other gifts had been. In general, it is considered improper to touch the plates once they have been placed before the monks; it's considered like trying to take back the gift. For the record, the monks at Wat Buddhapradeep are Niners fans, it seems. They were drinking out of San Francisco 49'ers commemorative glasses.

In a more traditional service, after offering food to the monks we would wait for them to eat, and then eat the food that was left. As a nod to the comfort of my parents (Kentuckians are not generally well-versed on the ins and outs of dining with Buddhist clergy), we opted instead to let the monks eat and continue the ceremony, and then regroup later at a Chinese restaurant down the street.

We then began the 'secular' portion of the ceremony. After coming by to help take some group pictures, the monks returned to their meal and we carried on with only our families present. We sat on sort of raised kneelers, with our hands out before us in the traditional wai (anjali) posture used throughout the service. First our parents, and then my wife’s aunts and uncles, cousins, and older sister took turns pouring the water blessed by the monks over our hands and offering a blessing. The blessing ranged from the heartfelt to the silly (my father, unable to resist these sorts of opportunities, began his blessing to my wife with "I'm sorry about my son"; my sister-in-law offered her hope that I should never know P.M.S.). Blessings are formally offered only by the couple's elders; the only non-elder present for our wedding was my younger sister-in-law, who knelt before us and offered her congratulations.

In Thailand, this portion of the ceremony could conceivably continue for hours or days (my mother in law noted that R.S.V.P.'s were traditionally not used in Thai society at the time she lived there, and so an undetermined number of elders might show up for a ceremony). The couple might also serve tea to each of their elders, further continuing the proceedings. For us, it was time to pack up the numerous cameras and go get dim sum. My wife's parents helped us remove the cord that connected our heads, which we later incorporated into a small household shrine. We spent the rest of the day in San Francisco, showing my parents around, and then headed for home later that evening.

Helpful Advice if Attending a Thai Wedding in America

Whenever I see one of those books that teaches you how to avoid being offensive to members of various religious, the section on Buddhism is always worthless. It's either generic in the extreme, or focuses on a single tradition and takes it as being indicative of the entire religion (I saw one book that said I would probably be drinking sake at my wedding). Well, forget all you read in How to Be a Perfect Stranger; below is the real deal for attending a wedding ceremony in a Thai, Theravada temple.

  • Take your shoes off at the door. Don't wear shoes that are hard to take off and on; it's a pain, and no-one will see them anyway.
  • Don't point at anything in the temple, especially a monk or image of the Buddha, with your feet
  • Women can not touch the monks. If you are female and need to hand a monk something, place it on a table or on the floor before them. Step out of their way in the halls and corridors if they need to pass.
  • Dress: My wife and her immediate family wore traditional Thai dress that they had bought in L.A. This is not required or expected of anyone, and certainly not Western guests. Wear nice pants and a white shirt, or a suit if male, and comparable garments if female. Wear something that you can sit on the floor or kneel in; there were chairs at our temple, but there may not be in yours! Avoid wearing black; it's considered a mourning color, and thus bad luck at a wedding.
  • Be conscious of your position relative to the monks. Custom dictates that one should not stand over them when they are sitting, or sit at the same level as they do; generally, this means that you will be kneeling or sitting at their feet. The raised platform in the main temple hall makes this a no-brainer, but it can come up at other times.
  • It's always polite to ask about taking pictures in a temple or church. The monks at our temple had no problem with it; one of them had brought his own camera and snapped pictures of us for the temple newsletter during the service. They also helped us out with taking group shots and had no problem with us including a videographer in the ceremony.
  • Generally avoid handling objects in the main temple without permission- images of the Buddha, ritual paraphernalia, statuary, monks, etc. For some objects (images of the Buddha, for instance) it's considered customary to wai or bow before touching them. Otherwise, it's just polite.
  • If you're the bride or groom, learn your lines. It saves a lot of blooper reel footage.
  • Make sure that you have enough matches when lighting candles, and that the wick of the candle is adequately exposed. See note on blooper reel footage above.

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