“Thank you, sky and land; thank you, farmer; thank you, cook,” the married Thai couple Wan and O say before meals, holding up their plates with both hands. Apart from this pre-meal tradition, these disciples of Taoism offer a Buddha named Maitreya washed, unpeeled fruits like pineapples, mangos, baby bananas, guavas, and passionfruit. They do this twice monthly to calm their minds, pay Lord Maitreya their respect, and receive his blessings.
Living in tropical Phuket for two years, I’ve come across Wan, 34, and the 41-year-old O, both slim and darkly tanned. They’re based in Phuket’s Cherngtalay area near Surin Beach. Dining with this extremely affable and approachable couple in April this year, I became interested in their lifestyle. I wanted to know why they became vegetarians and Taoists and what Taoism is all about.
Wan and her eight- and three-year-old daughters Gin Liu and Numsai welcomed me warmly. Standing in the doorway even before Wan appeared, the girls radiated happiness, smiling in a way only children can: pure, innocent, and infectious.
Incense swirled and wafted on the fan- and AC-induced air flow as I entered their home. The two kids skipped and played with colourful, tennis ball-sized plastic balls, frolicking around on the ceramic tile flooring.
Framed in gold, moustached Taoist masters and teachers graced the walls of the white room next to a hanging plant. Above it, a Biedermeier clock added eccentricity. A map on another wall charted Thailand’s Taoist temples. They’re simple places of worship in huts and caves and palace-like, or private house temples.
“Would you like some tea?” Wan asked, passing me a glass of Chinese loose-leaf tea that had a slightly dull yellowish colour. “Healthy,” she added, a smile tugging at the corner of her mouth. I sipped it first, loved the fruity taste, and drank it up.
Wearing an apron, O was making a wholesome soup in the outdoor part of their tiny kitchen, sandwiched between banana tree leaves and a wooden board where Chinese wok pans hung. He’d already dropped in the chopped tofu, mushrooms, starchy corn, and other veggies, simmered the broth up, and stirred it often using a metal soup spoon with a wooden handgrip. Meanwhile, five more disciples of Tao, all Thai, arrived to join the pre-meal fruit offering ritual.
What Taoists Seek
Taoists like Wan and O follow through on their ultimate goal: to live a life that helps them transcend heaven – which they consider separate from Nirvana, the highest land. They believe that’ll break the endless cycle of birth, death, and reincarnation. They trust we’ll go to our original home once we’ve learnt our earthly lessons and freed our souls from greed, anger, and delusion, living there as saints and sages, free from suffering.
This school of thought is in line with Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, a former Swiss-American psychiatrist and pioneer in near-death studies, who wrote in her book, In Liebe leben (Living with Love), “Growing as a soul is the sole purpose of our existence here on earth.”
Achieving ultimate spiritual growth might be why the corpses of Tao receivers are soft and not stiff, taking longer than usual to decompose, according to writer Koer Han Kun. He’s the author of a booklet titled Tao’s Invitation and documented his claims with photos of human bodies, dead for up to three days.
Delving into Taoism
Taoism is an ancient Chinese religious philosophy that teaches followers to live in harmony with the universe – the way of the universe, or Tao. In Koer Han Kun’s booklet, which is published by the Nakhon Ratchasima-based foundation Lerdsangtham, it is stated that “Tao is the basis of everything in the universe. It’s also the origin of all religions and creatures.”
Since Taoism has been associated with the philosopher and first Taoist Lao Tzu, or Old Teacher, said to have written the main book of Taoism called Tao Te Ching around 500 BCE, this claim can’t be true.
While Buddhism started in the fifth century BCE, Christianity in the first century, and Islam in 610 CE, the origins of Judaism are rumoured to date back over 3,500 years. Sikhism was founded in the late 15th century CE, but Hinduism began sometime between 2,300 and 1,500 BCE. Many Hindus believe their faith has existed since the beginning of time.
Still, what intrigues me about Taoism is that while several western religions exhort followers to welcome the good and shun the evil, Taoism embraces the dichotomy between opposing forces. Lao Tzu wrote ‘evil changes through the influence of its opposite.’
The two extremes are part of a single spectrum and can’t exist without the other. The thought behind it is that virtue isn’t achieved by reaching one but by maintaining a balance between the two.
That’s not to say bad is good, or we should focus on negativity. Rather, it means we can only feel contentment by overcoming adversity. The negative space around a work of art makes the positive side interesting. The DNA has positive and negative strands. Health and diseases are two extremes of the same phenomenological gamut.
The Taoist recognises the far ends of the same scope are ephemeral because nature’s pendulum swings back and forth. People refusing to accept these swings throw themselves out of balance with nature.
Edward H. Schafer, a former sinologist and noted expert on China’s Tang Dynasty, which Taoism was part of, said, “Strict codes of discipline tend to deform human nature and waste life.”
So how not to waste life? Letting nature take its course and understanding the need for balance between Yin and Yang, two complementary principles of Chinese philosophy at the root of Taoism, leads to contentment. Accepting the world and oneself as they are, is the concept of wu wei that Taoism emphasises. Wu wei, or without action, includes giving up materialistic desires.
Kowah Printing & Publishing Co’s book The Great Tao and the Wisdom of the Five World Religions reads, “The emancipation of avaricious desires and fetters of selfishness is a precious principle, which leads to spiritual fulfilment.”
While we need money to sustain ourselves, the concept of living a spontaneous life resonates with me. Conforming to the way of nature – a precept of Taoism – instead of continuously keeping up with the Joneses may lead to gratitude.
The Fruit Ceremony
Wan, O, and two priests wore Taoist robes – long, dark blue, coat-like costumes. Perhaps a sign from my mum in heaven – a flame heart appeared when the male priest lit three candles with a one-metre-long rod. One of which sat above Maitreya’s head, the other two evenly positioned lower on the black altar ornated with golden dragons. Situated left and right were two side lamps and plants climbing almost to the ceiling.
Why glorify Lord Maitreya? Maitreya, or Laughing Buddha as we know him, was a disciple of Gautama Buddha, the founder of Buddhism.
According to a The Hindu article, “the doctrine of Tao comes from the teachings of Maitreya Buddha. It’s based on the premise that our needs are simple, but our wants are endless, which leads to negativity in our lives. Tao teaches us we’re here to love one another and be kind.”
Looking at the altar, I recognised similarities between Taoism and what some call a sect named Yiguandao, which combines the teachings of Buddhism, Confucianism, and Taoism, plus Christianity and Islam. In Yiguandao temples, three lamps are placed on an altar, two evenly spaced on either side at a lower level. A statue of Maitreya is typically positioned in the centre, flanked by two holy teachers left and right.
Whether Wan and O are pure Taoists or followers of Yiguandao – I couldn’t tell. What mattered was they didn’t ask me to change my religion. They were the epitome of being kind. Joining the ritual was free, and they always exuded genuine friendliness.
The air was laced with incense as they served Lord Maitreya washed, unpeeled baby bananas, guavas, passionfruit, watermelon, apples, and coconut jelly on ten trays. Wan explained, “washing unpeeled fruits is necessary to offer sacred things beautifully.”
Above Maitreya was a gold-framed painting with Chinese letters and Guan Yin in the centre, depicted in a flowing white robe. Both Taoists and Buddhists revere Guan Yin, the symbol of purity, known as the Goddess of Mercy in the West.
The priests, standing left and right of the altar, recited the names of 22 Chinese gods, counting, “i-co-sao,”while the men knelt and bowed down on benches in sequences of 10, five, one, and more series of five, three, and eventually, 100. The air-conditioning and fan were fighting a losing battle. Drops of sweat trickled down my back as I participated actively in the ritual.
The women bowed down on the benches after me, with the priests chanting and counting as if clocking. To complete the fruit ceremony, the male priest extinguished the candles and put out the incense in the white pot. Then, everyone sang to Maitreya’s bible prayer Le Zhenjing Bear, heart-warming Chinese music playing on a TV.
Dining with Wan and O
Wan and O set the dinner table, a long white table in the centre of the room and put blue plastic chairs around it. There weren’t any placemats, but they gave everyone a bowl, chopsticks, and spoons. I instantly smelled the veggies when O brought the vegetable-packed soup. As is customary in Thailand, the couple positioned the food in bowls in the middle of the table so that people could share and help themselves.
The vibe among the seven Thai adults, two girls, and me was friendly and casual. Recorded Thai music was playing, and people were taking pictures. “Why did you become a vegetarian?” I asked Wan, a lacto-ovo-vegetarian for 14 years.
Unlike pure vegetarians, lacto-ovo-vegetarians eat eggs, dairy products, garlic, and onions. Vegetarianism has been burgeoning for years, whether for ethical, ecological or economic reasons or to maintain health. In Thailand alone, a company called Let’s Plant Meat noticed a tenfold jump in daily Google searches for ‘vegan’ and ‘plant-based meat’ between 2020 and 2021.
“I became a vegetarian through the Tao and learnt not to interfere with animal life. Animals have instincts and suffer like humans.” I asked them what they’d do if a cockroach ran around their room or when mossies and ants became a plague.
Wan explained she’d catch the roach with a plastic bag and throw it outside. As for mosquitoes, she shakes her arm or leg. And Wan sweeps ants gently with a broom like dust.
While the language barrier made communication difficult, I found that Taoism spread in the eighth century CE as the religion of the Tang dynasty and co-existed in the coming centuries with Buddhism and Confucianism, another philosophical religion. Following the ban on Taoism and Confucianism during the Communist takeover in 1959, fewer Chinese practised Taoism. That’s why it emerged in countries like Taiwan and Thailand, but recent Chinese reforms have reawakened the Chinese’s interest in Taoism.
This ancient wisdom for a modern world taught me empathy and to cultivate an awareness of things as part of a larger whole. I learnt that accepting other opinions fosters balance. Wan and O showed me not just kindness and honesty but also the ability to recognise the sacredness of life and the way they approach it. While I have yet to become a vegetarian, I now think twice before killing sugar-infatuated ants.
Aside from implications on a personal level, I discovered that quality vegetarian food tastes yummy. I devoured the noodle soup made with corn, plant-based ‘red pork,’ tofu, wheat-based Hong Kong ‘BBQ meat,’ plant-based fish balls, bean sprouts, white radishes, and shitake mushrooms. Thank you, sky and land; thank you, farmer. Thank you, Wan and O!
Finding Wan and O
Coming from Porto de Phuket, an open-air mall with an upmarket vibe, drive to the traffic light where the Cherngtalay Police Station is. Turn right towards Surin Beach, and you’ll see the red Chinese stickers and a Chinese lantern hanging outside the family’s home after 100 metres on your left.
They sell raw and cooked vegetarian food and welcome strangers to dine with them. Wan said, “If foreigners come to buy vegetarian food, we welcome and take good care. Anyone who wants to learn can attend the ceremony. We teach everyone moral principles.”