Monday, July 6, 2009

religion in thailand

Unlike everywhere else I have lived, Thailand’s dominant culture and populace are not Christian. 95% of people in Thailand are Buddhist. The remaining 5% are mainly Muslim and Chinese Traditional Religion (Confucian/Taoist/Animist), with only a small fraction identifying as Christians.

In the 500s AD, Buddhism was brought evangelically to the area that eventually became Thailand. The region’s Buddhist leanings were further strengthened when it was conquered by the Buddhist Thai culture in the 1200s. We don’t know much of the region’s history between then and 1767*, but from its results we can see a great commingling of religious and cultural ideas from the various great land trading routes across Southeast Asia.

The type of Buddhism practiced in Thailand is Theravada, the same kind as is practiced in modern Cambodia, Laos, Burma, and Sri Lanka (where Theravada originated). However, there are noticeable touches of Mahayanism in their worship, such as the belief that the king is a bodhisattva, and the growing popularity of the Chinese Kuan Yin (a persona of Avelokitesvara, another bodhisattva). For those of you who aren’t up on your Buddhist theology, very roughly think of the Theravadens as Protestants, and the Mahayanists as Catholics, and the bodhisattvas as saints. Think of how surprising it would be to find a statue of a saint in a Congregationalist church.

In addition to this sect-mingling, there are also a surprising number of Hindu deities appearing in Thai Buddhism. It’s not uncommon to see Ganesha sitting at the foot of the Buddha, or to find a many-armed statue of Brahma as the presiding figure at a major Buddhist shrine. Thais see no discrepancy in the two religions, taking a rather Indian approach of “more gods = more bases covered”. When asked about their beliefs, though, Buddhist cosmology spews forth, very little Hindu thought included.

Rather than the visually evident Hinduism, what slants the mental framework of Thai Buddhists away from the philosophy of the texts is animism and ‘superstition’. Thai animism is the pre-Buddhist traditional religion of the region, and is closely related to Chinese animism. It largely consists of considering and respecting both the spirits of local physical and natural places, and respecting ancestor spirits. Local place-spirits are thought to reside in anything from trees to rocks to streams, and respect to them can be seen in the garlands, paint, and offerings given to these locations. When a site has been cleared of its natural features (i.e. a building site), a tiny, beautiful and ornate house is built in which the displaced spirits will hopefully reside, so that they do not become angered by the destruction of their homes and cause trouble for the new residents. Identical spirit houses are also built and tended for the spirits of the humans who were attached to the place, traditionally the ancestors of the current occupants. Offerings of flowers, food, beverages, and trinkets are given to both types of spirit houses daily by the residents and other people connected with the shrines, with the hope that the spirits will stay appeased and will possibly assist the offerers. If the spirits are left unfed or otherwise become unhappy, the fear is that they will haunt and cause great trouble. Thais fear these ghosts more than almost anything else.

The other practices that Thais add to traditional Buddhism are what we would usually class as ‘superstitions’, though the term is considered offensive because of its assumption of inefficacy. The main practices are what Heine and Prebish call “the cult of relics, images, icons, and amulets”.** The protective amulets are most evident, worn on thick necklaces or placed on dashboards and handlebars. Upon closer inspection, protective and power-channeling talismans present themselves painted on the ceilings of taxis or even tattooed on the skin of believers. In addition to the physical lucky artifacts, horoscopes and day-associations take on great meaning and are consulted for any significant event, and the popular lotteries become a numerological wonderland of consideration and speculation.

These derivations from traditional Buddhism are completely ubiquitous among young and old, rich and poor Thais, but are not officially sanctioned by the Buddhist authorities of the country. Those authorities are, notably, the Sangha (community of monks) and the King. The King was, for a time, a monk himself, and is looked to in all matters concerning the country, from theology to taxes to technology. A thoroughly modern and well-educated man, he is able to advise on all these matters, and his word holds great sway, as does that of rest of the community of monks. Given this, it is surprising that these ‘superstitions’ continue so pervasively: the inertia of millennia of cultural practices is hard to resist.

Old practices still also dominate mainstream Buddhist rituals and worship. To walk into a temple here is not to enter a stark place of silent contemplation, but is to join a mingling crowd of stray animals, peddlers, orange-robed monks, gaudy mosaiced and gold-leafed statuary, tourists, motivational plaques, advertisements, strange odours, and discordant noises. It’s a real ‘bells and smells’ type of worship, with flower garlands, incense, candles, and food offerings stealing the show. Like Latin in pre-Vatican-2 Catholicism, Pali is the language of religion (scriptures, liturgy, etc.), so most practitioners don’t know what the words mean, making the endless mumble of the chanting equally surrealistic for all involved.

Humorously, this worship style is not limited to within temples and shrines. Buddhism is very much alive and well in Thailand, fully integrated into modern life. Statues, shrines, and other places of worship are incorporated into every street corner, mall, and skyscraper, allowing businessmen and shoppers to stop, bow, light some incense, and pay their respects throughout the day. You’re more likely to see worship being done by makeup-ed women in Prada than by monks.

This giving of respect and offerings is almost the entirety of most lay Thai’s Buddhism. As Tuchrello notes, most Thais “place little emphasis on the achievement of nirvana.” Instead of striving in meditation for the ultimate goal in this lifetime, Thais are generally content to leave that work to the next lifetime, and just look to have an easier life next time around, in which they’ll hopefully do a better job at the whole nirvana thing. They therefore generally limit themselves to accruing merit (good karma), mainly by supporting and revering the Sangha and giving material offerings to auspicious shrines or spirits. To me, this seems remarkably close to the unsavoury and lazy practice of buying indulgences, but it is considered to be quite honourable here.

While Buddhism sits strong in this country, it is not without its problems. The main challenge to the strength and continuation of Thai Buddhism has been brought by the establishment of government schools from the 1960s through today. While previously the temples were the sole sources of community education, with monks teaching the times tables along with the concept of interdependent origination, now the role of the monk is much more limited. Without the knowledge immediately applicable in this life to draw them, and with the obligations of western-style schools or work to take their time, very few students seek out the teaching of the monks these days. Not surprisingly, there are many fewer monks now than there used to be. Western-style media reporting of the inevitable monk scandals is also eroding the trust and respect of the Thai people for the remaining Sangha, and inter-sect competitions are preventing the Buddhist groups in the country from presenting a positive and clear message about the benefits of Thai Buddhism to its people.

The last challenge faced by Thai Buddhism as it moves into the modern era is that it currently grants women very little status, though the rest of Thai society is generally quite respectful and supportive of women. Lay women “primarily participate in religious life either as lay participants in collective [i.e. not personally benefiting] merit-making rituals, or by doing domestic work around temples.” (Tuchrello) Additionally, women are encouraged to financially support the male Sangha. In order to get personal merit, women try to bear a male child so that their son might be willing to gain merit for them. This not only adds to more children than are needed, but degrades the status of women in society and diminishes Thai Buddhism, which could only be enriched by the intellectual and practical contributions of the many devoted and active Thai women. While men are being entreated to join the Sangha, women are demanding to be allowed to become nuns.

"If the first woman God ever made was strong enough to turn the world upside down all alone, these women together ought to be able to turn it back, and get it right side up again! And now they is asking to do it. The men better let them." -Sojourner Truth

(sorry, too many photos, I know. edited slideshow and captions soon.)

* 1767, the year in which the principal Thai city was completely sacked and burned by the Burmese, destroying all previous records and much religious iconography and architecture.
* *Buddhism in the modern world, by Steven Heine and Charles S. Prebish, pg 10
--William P. Tuchrello on the Library of Congress


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Amir Khan said...
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