The Thai don’t shake hands, they wai each other; putting their hands together in a prayer-like fashion. They do this for greetings, thanking, apologizing and taking leave. They also wai statues of Buddha, temples and other things that don’t wai them back. Who wais who first and how high you put your hands are all part of an unwritten social hierarchy, so it can be confusing at first, but it also offers insight into how people relate to one another in a Buddhist culture.
I found out for example, that even though babies will wai me out of habit, I should not wai them back. This would be acknowledging the baby’s superiority. Also, I should not wai our housekeeper, pool guy or gardener, because in Thai society, they are subordinate. But I wai them anyway, because I am a farang (white guy) and my ignorance of Kreng Jai (Thai social hierarchy) can be overlooked.
In western societies, we don’t shake hands with babies or the pool guy either, so there’s some commonality there. I also see parallels between Catholics crossing themselves in front of images of Jesus, and the Thai wai in front of places that have spiritual significance.
The Thai, being a predominently Buddhist society, also believe in reincarnation and our own inherent Buddha nature. This means we are all manifestations of the same radiant perfection and immaculate wholeness of the universe. They believe that all living things are interrelated, primordially manifesting a boundless and spontaneous splendor in an endless cycle of birth and death.
When we see things as they are, rather than how we want them to be, we are perceiving with our innate Buddha nature. When we experience life as it is, rather than labeling, judging and comparing, we are experiencing our authentic Buddha nature. When we wai someone, we acknowledge their intrinsic Buddha nature and their connectedness to that of our own.
The wai comes from religious worship of Buddha and a social system that honors those who act in accordance with their benevolent and compassionate Buddha nature. Buddhists believe that the highest motivation comes from compassion; a desire to help free others from suffering. To wai someone goes way beond maintenance of a social pecking order; it’s a spiritual guesture that acknowledges our oneness.
I find that the more often I wai people every day, the more related I feel to them. This small gesture symbolizes our transpersonal spiritual nature and recognizes our inseparability. It is a salute to the interconnectedness of our higher selves.
“Genuine compassion is based not on our own projections and expectations, but rather on the needs of the other: irrespective of whether another person is a close friend or an enemy.” -The Dalai Lama