Memories Etched in Stone at Bangkok’s Wat Pho
I looked up the definition upon returning to the hotel. Memory: the process of encoding, storing and retrieving information from the outside world that reaches our senses in the forms of chemical and physical stimuli. Earlier that day, I had casually glanced into the entrance of the Western Viharn at Wat Pho, one of the more famous temples in Bangkok. When I caught a glimpse of vermillion rugs leading to a golden Buddha sitting atop his massive throne I jerked to a stop. I stood rooted to the spot as a memory came welling up from the depths of my psyche.
Eight years earlier, during my very first visit to Bangkok, I had visited Wat Pho in the late afternoon, just before closing, when most of the tourists had gone for the day. The temple complex was seedier in those days. The ceramic-faced chedis that dot the grounds were chipped and stained with black mold and the golden gables of the temple buildings had long since faded, yet the place oozed spirituality. After viewing the famous Reclining Buddha I was preparing to leave when I heard chanting in the distance. Curious, I retraced my steps across the deserted grounds to the source of the guttural, reverberating sounds: the Western Viharn.
Trying to be as unobtrusive as possible, I removed my shoes and sat cross-legged against the rear wall of the assembly hall. Several dozen young monks draped in day-glo orange robes sat atop a platform covered by a ratty red carpet that had frayed and curled at the edges. Burnished gold light reflected by the immense golden throne reflected off the bald heads and eyebrow-less faces of the restless novices. As curious about me as I was about them, they sneaked looks at me while flipping sheets of prayer parchment. Their perfectly synchronized chants set my spine tingling from tailbone to the top of my scalp; I closed my eyes and soaked up the intensely spiritual feeling that washed over me.
Scientists tell us that long-term memory, specifically episodic memory, which deals with personal memories such as the sensations, emotions, and personal associations of a particular place or time, produces some of the strongest recall. Memory and emotion are inextricably connected and the more emotional an event, the more likely we will vividly remember it. Whenever strong emotions are present during an event – pain, joy, excitement – the neurons active during the event make a stronger connection with each other and when the same event is remembered in the future the neurons make the connections faster and easier.
Eight years later, the moment my gaze fell upon the door of the Viharn, my neurons began firing wildly. I was instantly transported back to the memory of my first visit. Transfixed, I made my way inside once again. This time, there were no monks. The red carpet covering the platform was new and the hall was filled with tourists speaking in hushed tones or making offerings before Buddha. Yet the same tingle crawled up my spine and the same profound sense of sacredness permeated the hall. In that moment eight years earlier, as I sat in half-lotus with my eyes closed allowing the chants to spill over me, I knew unequivocally that I was Buddhist.