It is early morning in Sukhothai, the first capital of present day Thailand, in the north of the country. From the Sanskrit, Sukhothai means ‘dawn of happiness’. The air is still cool this morning, and the old city is empty of all but two or three tourists. Doves coo gently from ancient stone rooftops. After the tacky mess of modern day Suhothai, a concrete and tarmac town 12 kms behind me, I feel like I have stepped into another world. Tall, thickly trunked trees stand in an open parkland and cast down cool shadows. All around me is space, stillness, quiet and tranquility. Behind the trees and the ruins rise hills clothed in dark green rainforest, the first topography we’ve seen on the edge of the long flat plain of central Thailand.
I walk under an old tree and along a moat full of water, dotted with lotus flowers. I come into the presence of an ancient seated Buddha, leaning immemorially against a stupa, and look up into its face. The sense of perfect serenity and acceptance of the Buddha, shines through a soft smile. He looks out on an amphitheatre of quiet and green and space and water. The land here is exceptionally fertile, almost luxurious, and early this morning I share what I imagine the Buddha feels. The profound serenity, the acceptance and contentment that I feel in this place, seems perfectly embodied on the face above me.
I realise that the experience of standing there gives me a better insight into the nature of Buddha than any book I’ve ever read from afar on the subject. Sinhalese Buddhism from a thousand years ago, a religion that evolved in the midst of nature and calm and verdant life, and travelled north from present day Sri Lanka, seems so at home here. This is such a different religion to Christianity or Judaism or Islam, religions that developed in much harsher and more arid lands to the West. The desert fathers found hermitage in rocky caves by the Dead Sea. Buddhist forest monks find hermitage in a more benevolent corner of the globe.
Hot, cramped bus journeys are forgotten, and I smile in the dawn.