Not judging in a good or bad way, but the overtly Buddhist cultures we have seen are every bit as bold, brash, dogmatic and ritualistic as any of the other major deity-based religions. In fact, we were also surprised how much Buddha is actually worshiped as a deity as that is the opposite of our rudimentary understanding of his role in the religion; he as "the first awaken one who has gone before you" and is just an inspiration for your own inward spiritual journey, and not an external God-like figure at all (?).
All of the golden statues, broadcast prayer-services, monks, robes, holy water and financial offering looked every bit as externally-focused (vs. the internally-focused spiritual learning we have sought) as any Catholic ritual from my youth. No judgement, just unexpected. The lighting of candles, the water blessing, the walking in processional circles around the temple with hands folded sure looked like Palm Sunday to me.
However, the basic tenants and thoughts of the Buddha on things like the Right Paths, Awaken Mind, The Middle Way, of course, are still the under-pinning of their beliefs, we just didn't expect all of the layering atop to be so thick.
Maybe most people just universally need an external focus to help support their beliefs? And relateable living and breathing humans who are perceived as more spiritually advanced to guide them? And shiny objects and ornate statues to inspire them to a higher-level of spirituality?
Or maybe there are not such great differences in the seven major world religions? Or even, just maybe, there are really seven-billion world religions as we all pick-and-choose and customize our belief systems just for us?
For me, I'll keep looking and maybe we'll find that quiet, still and austere Zen temple in Japan.
Our visit to the Wat Phra That Doi Suthep Temple within the grounds of the Doi Suthep National Park in Chaing Mai is ranked the #5 tourist destination on TripAdvisor.com. This alone should have told us that it wouldn't be a serene, peaceful experience. My heart went out to the people that may have been there to actually worship as the crowds were thick and the walk up the 309 stairs to the temple was full of shopping stalls and food carts. I was not expecting this inside the park. There was even a shop inside the temple. After I took my shoes off I could purchase things.
My guess is that most people in Chiang Mai don't visit this temple that often and it is more for tourists and street artists to perform. The groups that I saw actually using the temple looked to be tourists themselves visiting from other parts of Thailand. Like visiting Catholics at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco.