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A look at why the practice of Thai Buddhism seems to range from saintly to strange!

A look at why the practice of Thai Buddhism seems to range from saintly to strange!The Thai nation is a proud one. It’s one of only three countries in the world that have never been colonised. It has however, been ‘infused’ a few times along the way, and the origins of the Thai people remain cloudy, even to this day. There are three or four Thai ethnic sub-races that can be determined by facial features and skin tones. Thais are a part of the ethnic group known as the ‘Tai’, which includes Lao, Burmese ‘Shan’, Vietnamese and the ‘Zhunag’ people of southern China. And, somewhere around 800 years before the birth of Christ, this bubbling mix had already begun to settle down, gradually emerging with a new ethnic identity.


The earliest national religion to emerge, around two hundred years later, was a form of Hinduism, traces of which can still be seen in Thai religious practices today. But it was absorbed into a young and primitive nation, in which the people were struggling for everyday survival. The daily reality of ghosts and spirits, both unworldly (ghosts) and animistic (places, trees, rivers), dominated everyone’s lives and needed to be placated and subdued. Superstitious aspects and bad omens were thought to be real. It was into this context that Sri Lankan holy men introduced Buddhism, around 600 BC. And this was the base that Thai Buddhism was built on, with many fragments of its original beliefs and practices remaining even today.


It’s important to keep this in mind. Because to Western eyes, the ‘Theravada’ form of Buddhism found in Thailand is sometimes confusing in the way it’s observed. John Entman is an American scholar, anthropologist and philosopher, who has spent many years in Thailand, coming and going over the years, working mainly with schools and voluntary community projects. “Thai people find it perfectly normal to follow the path of The Buddha,” he told me, “but to also keep the spirits happy at the same time. For example, Domkai is a 10 year-old boy living in Khon Kaen. Every morning before school, he bows before the altar in his house, lights the candles and three incense sticks. He sits up still and very straight, then bows in the recognised formal ‘ben-jang-khapradit’ manner, forehead, palms and knees flush with the floor,A look at why the practice of Thai Buddhism seems to range from saintly to strange! while he chants respect for the ‘Triple Holy Gems’, and bows low again. All very right and proper.”

“Then he observes ‘Ziam Zee’, involving a small pot with coloured sticks. While still kneeling, he shakes the pot until a stick falls out, checks the number of the stick against a chart, and reads his fortune for the day. If the prediction is unhappy, he will repeat his prayers again, this time praying for good luck and protection against bad spirits. Even the most rigorous and devout of Thai Buddhists, keen to make merit in every way, will go about this in the belief that ghosts, spirits and fortune are a part of it all and need to be addressed and appraised.”


The form of Buddhism here in Thailand, is known as the Thai Forest Tradition, and is a recognised branch of Theravada Buddhism, which is alternatively known as the Southern School of Buddhism. ‘Theravada’ means ‘The Way of the Elders’, and is so named because of its strict adherence to the original teachings and rules of monastic discipline expounded by The Buddha. Buddhism is a non-apostolic religion, seeking not to preach or convert, and regarding the Guatama Buddha not as a god, but as the ultimate example of a human prophet whose life was dedicated to attaining spiritual purity and perfection.


All Buddhists believe in the concept of karma, whereby any good action leads to merit (positive karma) and any bad action leads to demerit (negative karma). This is very important in the minds of Thai people, because one’s store of karma, positive or otherwise, determines not only your success and happiness in this and future lives, but also determines your standing in the afterlife. And this gives monks a prominent place in society and in peoples’ lives. By giving food or money to monks, or by donating to a monastery, you can acquire beneficial karma. Helping monks in some way is thought to generate a great deal of merit. This not only helps you have a better life on this earth and the afterlife, but also gives you instantaneous protection and good luck, here and now.


You may have noticed the little ‘spirit houses’ that are everywhere – out and around houses, bars, banks hotels, hospitals and so on. Even though Buddhism itself does not recognise superstition, Thai Buddhists are keenly aware of the supernatural. An indication of this is that spirit houses have become household items in addition to images of The Buddha. And monks from the local temple will readily come and bless these little houses on request. Many people, before improving their own homes, will improve and enlarge their spirit houses first. People routinely pray to the spirits for better jobs, greater wealth, good relationships, and protection from ghosts. They believe that as long as they treat them with respect, the spirits will be good to them. In the same vein, they feel that if a person ignores these spirits they are asking for bad luck.


Spirits and ghosts are woven into the fabric of Thai life and its religious beliefs. But there’s a difference. Spirits are more powerful and pure; they can be ancestral or tied to trees and rivers. Keep your eyes out for huge old trees festooned with ribbons and offerings of food and drink, to show respect to the spirit of the place. Ghosts on the other hand are generally mean and nasty and can even cause you physical harm – just check out Thai TV shows and movies to see how real these things are to very many people.


Thai Buddhism is unique, and it’s hardly surprising that when a Buddhist Westerner comes here seeking further enlightenment, they are sometimes surprised. The old pagan belief in animism still exists, along with some of the deeply rooted superstitions of years long gone by. It’s like so many other facets of life over here, intense, intriguing, and very much one of a kind, and with a life all of its own!


Rob De Wet



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