I Came to Appreciate True Wisdom
WHEN I was a little boy, a Buddhist monk noticed me and suggested that my name should be Panya, meaning “intellect,” or “wisdom,” in the Thai language. Being devout Buddhists, my parents were delighted to have my name changed accordingly.
Thailand, where I was born 60 years ago, is a country where over 90 percent of the people profess Buddhism. Buddhism was founded some 2,500 years ago in India and then spread to many parts of Asia. Buddhism holds out a hope for something better—freedom from suffering—that is supposedly attainable through individual effort.
According to Buddhism, one’s present station in life is believed to be the result of acts (Karma) committed in the present life and in previous lives. Desire is thought to be the cause of all suffering, so the goal is to eliminate all desire. To achieve this may require numerous existences, or reincarnations, until one has gone beyond the cycle of rebirths to a state called nirvana, which to many means nonexistence.
Gautama Buddha claimed to have found the truth through his “enlightenment,” and Buddhists believe that following his teachings is the path of wisdom.
Growing Up in Thailand
I was born in Bangkok, the capital of Thailand. During the decade before World War II, life in the city was much quieter than in the bustling metropolis Bangkok is today. Rickshas, horse-drawn carriages, and pedaled tricycles were then common means of transportation, although there were also streetcars and buses. On the canals, or klongs, boats served as transportation.
For some years my family lived in a canalside house raised on stilts. In those areas of the city, much of the people’s lives centered around water. The klong was used for bathing and for washing dishes and clothes. Boats came right to the doorsteps selling all kinds of food and merchandise. Even the mail was delivered by boat. In the hot and humid climate, we children enjoyed swimming, diving, and playing games.
At the age of six, I began schooling. Primary education was compulsory, so the majority of city children like me went to school. Boys and girls were then taught in separate classrooms, so there was little contact between the sexes. Dating was practically unheard of.
I enjoyed sports, including soccer and Thai-style boxing, which is a unique martial art that was developed hundreds of years ago. The opponents are allowed to use not only their gloved fists but also bare feet, legs, knees, and elbows to punch and kick each other. When my mother learned about my enthusiasm for this dangerous sport, she forbade me to pursue it any further. So I turned to bodybuilding.
When I was a youth, fairs at the temple provided entertainment that Thai people, both young and old, delighted in. The fairs were linked with religious festivals, and they raised funds for the upkeep of the temple. Boisterous crowds attended, along with vendors who would set up stalls to sell all kinds of food and snacks on the temple grounds.
The most popular stage performance at the fairs was the likay, a folk theater with live music and spontaneous dialogue. The characters were dressed in brightly colored costumes and were heavily made up with powder and rouge. They kept the audience laughing until the wee hours of the morning. Nowadays, live performances are often replaced by open-air movies.
Early Religious Influence
At the beginning of each school day, there was a flag-raising ceremony and singing of the national anthem. Afterward the class would say a prayer in Pali, the religious language of Buddhism. Our school curriculum included basic Buddhist ethics and morals; otherwise we did not receive much religious instruction.
In most Buddhist homes, there is a small altar with an image of Buddha that is used for daily prayer and meditation. Here candles are lighted and incense is burned. Families of Chinese descent usually have additional altars for the worship of ancestors or to appease different spirits and deities.
Believing that there is good in all religions, Buddhists readily adopt and incorporate ideas and practices that they feel are good and can help them in one way or another. As a result, many people in Thailand worship not only at the Buddhist temple but also at one or more of the numerous Chinese and Brahman shrines.
Although our family was not particularly religious, the influence of religion was constantly present in our lives. For example, monks with clean-shaven heads and dressed in saffron-yellow robes would make their daily alms visits soon after daybreak. They would walk barefoot along the road or paddle a boat along the klong, stopping to let the householders ladle out rice and put other food into their alms bowls.
From a very early age, I was taught respect for Buddhist monks as those who have adopted a life in imitation of the Buddha. They were to be regarded as having great wisdom, and we were encouraged to value highly their opinion and counsel.
During World War II, Bangkok experienced air raids. So my mother took me to her relatives in one of the provinces. Since the local wat, or temple, was nearby, I became well-acquainted with the monks. Some of them made and distributed Buddhist amulets. In the walls of the old chapel, there were thousands of tiny images of Buddha made of cast lead. A number of us boys helped to clean them. Then the monks would inscribe on them a few letters in the ancient Khmer script and say incantations to make the images potent as good-luck charms.
I was fascinated by the idea that wearing such an image of Buddha around the neck could provide protection from harm and ensure good fortune. So I started to collect amulets. I stayed with the monks at the wat for a few months, and during that time, I was introduced to meditation, fortune-telling, and other spiritistic practices.
Although less than 1 percent of Thailand’s population belongs to Catholic and Protestant churches, I had heard that Christians believe that a person named Jesus is God and that Catholics worship the ‘Mother of God.’ Yet, such beliefs seemed to me to be unrealistic. How could somebody who died on a cross create the world? I did not consider this to be true wisdom.
An Accident Changes My Life
After the war, I concentrated on getting a good education and finding a well-paying job. I finally graduated from commercial school and got a job with a foreign company in Bangkok. One morning in 1959, while I was on my way to work, I lost my grip on the handrail of the bus and fell off backward, hitting my head on the pavement. Passengers and pedestrians shouted for the driver to stop, but when he pulled over to the side of the road, the big rear wheels went right over the lower part of my body. My spine and several ribs were broken.
When I left the hospital after seven months, I was paralyzed from the waist down. The thought of not being able to walk made me feel desperate. Since the doctors gave me no hope of recovery, I wanted to try other means. My mother took me up-country, where I visited many monasteries, “clinics,” and other places where people claimed healings were performed. As I came in contact with different practitioners, healers, and spirit mediums, I began to study their practices. I acquired textbooks on magical arts and fortune-telling and started to practice these things myself.
Contact With True Wisdom
After a stay of four years up-country, I returned to Bangkok. My condition had not improved, but I had acquired a new profession. People of all age-groups would come and ask to have their fortune told. I also made certain kinds of good-luck charms, some of which I sold with the assistance of a monk.
Then one day in 1968, a Canadian missionary of Jehovah’s Witnesses visited me. When he talked about Jesus Christ, I concluded that the Witnesses were just another one of the many “Christian” religions toward which I felt an aversion. It was not until six years later that I started to study the Bible seriously with another Witness couple.
What particularly interested me was Bible prophecy. When I was shown the prophecies in the Bible book of Daniel, especially Da chapters 7 and 8, as well as Jesus’ detailed description of events and conditions we see today, I knew that no fortune-teller could have predicted such things. (Matthew, chapter 24) Then when I learned the reason why present conditions are different from what the Creator originally purposed and how he has made arrangements to undo the damage caused by those who reject him and his sovereignty, it was as if a veil had been removed from my eyes.
Everything about the Bible’s message was so harmonious; the pieces of the “jigsaw puzzle” fit perfectly. Human wisdom that I had valued so much taught me to regard God as of little importance in our lives. But in view of the overwhelming evidence, God obviously could not be left out of the picture. Through the Bible, I came to appreciate that “the fear of Jehovah [the almighty God] is the start of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Most Holy One is what understanding is.”—Proverbs 9:10.
Blessings From True Wisdom
Once I was convinced that Jehovah was the true God and the Bible was his Word, my outlook on things changed drastically. I followed the example of early Christians and got rid of all my textbooks on magical arts as well as hundreds of religious images and amulets that I had collected throughout the years.—Acts 19:18, 19.
The fear of God and accurate knowledge of him had another beneficial effect on me—I came to love Jehovah as a Person. Appreciation of his goodness and the love he has shown to mankind caused me to dedicate my life to him and get baptized in 1975. A personal relationship with Jehovah also gave me the motivation to practice what I knew was right. And I was eager to tell others about the good news I had come to know.
When helping others to see the difference between human wisdom and godly wisdom, my past experience stands me in good stead. I have been privileged to assist several to follow true wisdom and take a stand for Jehovah. One of them is my mother, who, at the age of 94, got baptized as a witness of Jehovah.
True wisdom has really changed my life. No longer do I grope in the dark as to the cause of suffering and the true meaning of life. Now I have answers to the questions that used to puzzle me. My life, even though I am handicapped, has purpose. I have the hope and desire to live forever. Is it not true wisdom to follow a course that brings happiness and a meaningful life now and holds out such a grand future? How glad I am that I came to appreciate this kind of wisdom!—As told by Panya Chayakul.*
Just before this issue of Awake! went to press, this word was received from Thailand: “Brother Panya Chayakul passed away recently due to an infection after an operation to amputate one of his legs. Faithful to the end, he refused a blood transfusion.”
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Buddhists believe that support of monks brings merit
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I share my faith with others