Merit and Magic; Buddhism Faces Modernity in Thailand

By Barber, Ben | The World and I, April 1998 | Go to article overview
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Merit and Magic; Buddhism Faces Modernity in Thailand

Barber, Ben, The World and I

As I sip a cold drink at an outdoor table, an unusual arrangement on a chair in front of the neighboring bar catches my attention. Amid Bangkok's racket of amplified bar music and the clatter of passing motorcycles and three-wheeled tuk-tuk taxis, someone has set a makeshift altar filled with offerings on a folding chair on the sidewalk.

On a battered aluminum tray is a glass of wine next to an empty cup holding twin incense sticks, sending up spirals of pungent smoke. A candle burns as well, and a small garland of jasmine blossoms lies in its growing spillage of wax. Completing the offering is an open Styrofoam take-out container of noodles and squid, such as any ordinary Thai might eat for lunch or dinner.

I have returned to Thailand after a few years' absence to report on the changes in its culture, economy, politics, and religion after achieving the world's highest growth rates during the late 1980s and early '90s. I had heard that the unique brand of Thai Buddhism was in the midst of a huge change. Young men no longer were eager to spend three months as a monk. Thai people no longer had the time or the money to prepare rice and other foods for the monks who passed each day in search of offerings. Sex and money scandals had bedeviled the Sangha, or monastic brotherhood. And a new pressure was driving the Thai away from their rice fields and buffalo, from their lives of sanuk, or pleasure--the pressing need to earn money.

But John, a business writer and close friend who has lived over twenty years in Thailand, tells me I am dead wrong if I think that the rapid introduction of modern, Western lifestyles is weakening the Thai people's belief in Buddhism. "People want to do the Buddhist rituals, but they say they don't have the time anymore," says John. "It doesn't mean they don't believe."

As I travel to the south and north, I discover that he is right. Everywhere are signs that Thai Buddhism remains incredibly alive, even if it has increasingly reverted to its magical, pre-Buddhist roots. On the bus from Nakhon Pathom to Bangkok, the driver has hung thick coils of flowers, amulets, and other magical items from his mirror. A statue of Buddha sits on the dashboard. Ancient symbols are scrawled on the roof above the driver's head.

At a major traffic crossing is a small spirit house, resembling those that most Thai place at the corner of their property. In a naked, public place adjacent to six lanes of busy highway--where in America one would see a traffic sign or electric utility box--stands this object of no apparent utility. Yet it holds fresh flowers and two plastic bottles of drinking water. Someone tends that shrine. Someone has paid ten baht for fresh flowers and clean water.

Floating away

In Thailand, Buddhism has been virtually a state religion for centuries, with the king playing a ritual role. Public schools are still located in temple compounds. There is a Muslim minority in the south and animist hill tribes in the north, both accorded full freedom, but 95 percent of Thai are Buddhist. Their faith is built on veneration of the monks and a foundation of pre-Buddhist magic, especially the belief in phi (spirits of the dead or of sacred trees and animals).

An educated Thai woman I met in Khorat several years ago told me that after she married a U.S. Air Force officer and moved to America, she stopped believing in the phi. But when he retired and they returned to Thailand, the phi came back to her. So she resumed the tasks Thai perform to propitiate these spirits: maintaining a spirit house with flowers and food; sprinkling holy water obtained from the monks in and around the house; tying sacred thread around objects in the home; or bringing the maw phi, or witch doctor, to do a magic ceremony that traps the phi in ajar, which is covered and then floated away down the river.

"For the tuk-tuk driver, Buddhism is magic, and he relates to it just as his parents did," says Suwanna Satha-Anand, assistant professor of philosophy at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok.

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