Thailand Theological Seminary as I first knew it in 1965 was a campus built around an imposing central building called either the Main Building or the Yellow Building ตึกหลวง or ตึกเหลือง . The building was constructed on a field in the Nong Seng village part of Chiang Mai Municipality across Kaewnawarat Road from the American Mission Hospital grounds. Both the seminary and the hospital, as well as Dara Academy for girls, were being moved from crowded locations along the Ping River. The cornerstone for the seminary was laid on 25 February 1914 by Mrs. Sophia Bradley McGilvary, wife of the late Rev. Dr. Daniel McGilvary who is credited with founding the evangelist training program that developed into a seminary for pastors and evangelists. At the time of its dedication in October 1915 it was the largest building of its type in Chiang Mai. Funds for the building were provided by the American Presbyterian Mission, which donated $3500 and Mrs. Louise Severance of Cleveland, Ohio who contributed $15,000. [$18,500 in 1915 is equivalent to $436,600 in 2015 funds or about 15 million Thai baht].
As I was introduced to the seminary, the 2 floors were divided, north and south. In the middle, on the ground floor behind the front doors was a reception area with dining area behind. Food preparation was done in a small building behind the dining area. Toilet buildings were there, too, used for storage since restrooms had been installed inside the main building. The ground floor to the north (to the left from the front door) was a hallway with the Rev. Prasert Intaphan’s office and the Rev. Francis Seely’s textbook project office. Beyond, were classrooms on the right and left. The ground floor to the south gave access to an academic office across from the seminary president’s office. Farther down the hall on the left were an apartment on the left and the chapel on the right. The second floor contained the library and study hall in the center with the women’s dorm to the left and offices and small classrooms on the right.
By 1965 the campus contained several residences and a wooden dorm for men. The oldest house was a small bungalow east of the seminary building that had been built for Ajan Prasert and then housed the Koyama family until their new home was finished. That’s where I lived until 1969. The west end of the campus had a wooden house in which Drs Harold and Harriet Hanson and their 3 boys lived, a concrete house for Dr. John and Betsy Guyer (with Janet and Jimmy), and 2 houses built by Taylor Potter in which Dick and Estelle Carlson and 5 children lived next door to a similar house built for the Rev. Dr. E. John Hamlin and “Khun Fran”.
The history of the seminary can be divided into 3 eras: pre-war, post-war, and Payap University. During the years before 1941 the seminary was an unofficial training center for church workers. During World War II when many Christian institutions were closed, the seminary building was used by the Japanese army as a hospital and morgue. This led to the tightly held conviction of students in later years that the seminary was haunted, and there were anecdotes to bolster that belief, despite protests to the contrary from the missionaries and somewhat weaker support from church leaders. Following the war, the seminary was rehabilitated and converted into the configuration I first remember. The Rev. Herbert Grether was assigned to re-open the pastoral training program as a full-fledged seminary. The Rev. Prasert Intaphan was his colleague in this endeavor.
By the time I arrived, Dr. Hamlin had been recruited to preside at the seminary, and he undertook a bold up-grading and expansion of programs. By 1965 there were 5 identifiable units of the seminary. Pastoral training was a 7-year Bachelor of Divinity degree program, unauthorized by the Thai Ministry of Education, but accredited by the Association of Theological Education of South East Asia. The Christian Service Training Center was a development of the Marburger Mission, with a separate campus in Pa Kluay Village next to McKean Leprosy Institute; the CSTC was designed to provide bi-vocational pastors with employable skills as well as a basic theological education so they could be self-sufficient in small rural churches unable to pay a living salary. The CSTC academic program had been brought into the seminary by 1965. A Department of Christian Education was developed to train specialists in Christian religious education. A Department of Church Music was established to help improve the music and worship of churches. This department was transferred into Payap College as the college was founded in 1974 and is today the College of Music of Payap University. Finally, there was a Lay Training Institute that provided a sequence of summer courses for lay leaders, supposedly elders in churches, but usually the participants were young people. The staff and faculty were international: Hamlins from the USA, Riemers and 2 other couples from Germany, Koyamas from Japan and the USA, Suells from England (just leaving as I arrived), Ajan Prakai Nontawasee, Kamol Arayaprateep and Rev. Pisanu Arkkapin from Thailand, Manickams from India, Pouws from Indonesia, as well as Jane Arp, Kellys, Carlsons and Judds from the USA.
There was a wide range of activities going on, including “field education” on weekends. Seminary students were all assigned to churches where they helped teach Sunday School, lead worship, conduct youth activities and sometimes serve as pastors in all but name. The churches around Chiang Mai counted on these seminary students, and the students benefitted from hands-on experience.
In 1974, when Payap College was opened it was expected that McCormick School of Nursing and Midwifery and the McGilvary Theological Seminary (the new name by then) would be pillars of the college. Dr. Hamlin had been working for more than a decade to get the seminary degree fully recognized and that was now possible. However, seminary alumni and leadership of the Church of Christ in Thailand were concerned that the government would exercise control over course content and mandate secularization of theological perspectives. In 1979 the CCT consented to let the undergraduate programs of the seminary be part of Payap. The seminary was then called the McGilvary Faculty of Theology (today it is the McGilvary College of Divinity). Its B.A. program was 4 years, with the Master of Divinity program an additional 3 years, as is standard around the world. The Thai government still does not officially endorse the M.Div. degree, but it is accredited by ATESEA as it has been. The CSTC program was phased out. The Christian Education program became a department of the seminary. And the Church Music program split into a separate department of church music for seminary students offering tutorials and a couple of credit courses, while a much larger program in music developed in the Faculty of Humanities and then became the Faculty of Music, now the College of Music.
In 1989 the old seminary building was torn down. The small street behind the seminary had been expanded into a 4 lane modern street placing the back door of the seminary almost in the street. Plaster and stucco needed replacement and the building was subject to termites. So on November 1, 1989, the 100th anniversary of the beginning of the seminary programs, the old building was de-commissioned and the “foundation stone” for a new building was ceremoniously blessed.
May 14, 1965 was a memorable day for me, but not primarily because it was my 25th birthday. That was the day I graduated from McCormick Theological Seminary and ended 19 years of continuous formal education. The hymn that ran through my head that day included the words, “Time like an ever-flowing stream, bears all its sons away. They fly forgotten as the night flies at the break of day.” I was very conscious of soon flying away from Illinois for distant Thailand, although I thought it was to be a brief tour away.
Now, rather than reminisce on a comparison between past and present which a person my age is wont to do, I want to ruminate on what I have observed that cannot be learned through comparing experiences.
It’s hot today, very hot. People say it’s the hottest stretch of unbroken high temperatures Thailand has had in more than 6 decades. But it is not proof of global warming. Climate change is a matter of centuries. Warming is calculated by thousands of temperature measurements from all over the world averaged month by month. Local extremes count for little. But the totals count for a lot. Two degrees rise in worldwide averages will show up in major ice melts, higher sea levels and coastal erosion. That has nothing much to do with “more tornadoes”, “less rainfall” or any other weather trend we think we might have discerned.
I’m a member of two national cultures. Both of these cultures are experiencing political dissonance. How else do you explain people’s relative apathy toward what’s going on at the political top of the two countries you know I’m talking about? But it’s not proof of intellectual decline. Even if educational systems’ failures have had some impact on people’s disinclination to do critical thinking, the willingness to go along with avalanches of absurdity is too profound to be the fault of schools alone. Comparisons do not help us get to the bottom of this. We cannot explain Trump by comparing the amount of homework American students have, compared to students in Finland. It doesn’t help to compare political indoctrination and intimidation in Thailand with North Korea. The dissonance between people’s values and life goals and their placid reaction to what’s going on is too vast and systemic to be the fault of some isolated thing that can be easily remembered and compared.
“You are high church,” a seminary classmate noted in May 1965. My ordination picture that month (above) is pretty clear about that. I did not disagree, since I understood “high church” to mean I trusted the institutional church to promote what is best for humankind, and to take appropriate corrective action when ecclesiastical change is needed. It was this ideal sort of institution that I felt committed to help lead. I am older and disabused of that idealism now. But it is not my disappointments and experiences that have convinced me that institutional religion is at a threshold. In fact, I tend to believe that institutional Buddhism is about to have a metamorphosis and institutional Islam is splintering even as Islam grows. What is developing and spreading is spiritual diversity, focused on a narrow range of personal attractions to particular objectives, leaving people free to sample and move around. There are Jewish Buddhists in Brooklyn and Chiang Mai, Hindu Catholics in Toronto and Mumbai, atheist Unitarians in Boston and Bangkok. We would be mistaken to see this as a post-modern phenomenon. It has been coming for 500 years and it is just beginning to take a new form.
The conclusion of this set of ruminations on my natal anniversary is that there are truths based on evidence too extensive for us to validate or disregard from our own experience. But we can decide to include the best informed conclusions on these things in how we do things. What we cannot conclude is that our actions do not matter. Tonight we may be gone and tomorrow forgotten, but our carbon imprint will linger.
Every year at Pesach (widely called Passover in English) many Jewish congregations in the United States read a letter written by George Washington, sent on August 21, 1790 to Jews in Newport, Rhode Island. The impact of the letter was to state clearly Washington’s support for the concept of utter separation of religion from government. In the letter to Jews in Newport, Washington goes beyond the prevailing notion of Patrick Henry and others that the US is a Christian nation and that other religions may co-exist at the behest of Christians. The free exercise of religion is a “natural right” Washington argued. It is inherent in the nature of things, a human right not subject to being bestowed although it can be protected. Toleration of religious minorities anywhere in the United States is not a prerogative of the majority, but is an inherent right of all classes of people. The US was to be a pluralistic society.
It is now no more that toleration is spoken of as if it were the indulgence of one class of people that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights, for, happily, the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.
The principle was at the very heart of United States’ independence. The issue was from whence come human rights. The Revolutionary War was fought over this very principle, with the US Patriots insisting that certain rights are “inalienable”, “self-evident”, natural, inherent and universal. Moreover, those who govern, do so by the will of the people at the grass roots. Then those rights were enumerated, including “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
The British resisted, arguing that rights are bestowed from above by those who have divine authority to govern those below them, class by class; otherwise there is social chaos.
Shortly after the Revolutionary War was won (temporarily, to be continued in 1812) and the US Constitution was drafted, it became clear that the “rights” claimed in principle in the Declaration of Independence needed to be more carefully enumerated in the Constitution, so ten amendments were attached to spell out these rights.
A key (and the most contentious) article stated, “Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” This was article three in the draft of 1789, but since articles one and two were not ratified, it became Amendment I in the version ratified by 3/4ths of the States as of December 15, 1791. Subsequently even this was clarified to mean that states also have no authority to make laws establishing a religion or prohibiting the free exercise of religion.
Washington’s letter and several other letters he wrote and speeches he made in 1790 and 91 were on the anti-establishment side of the debate. He was honored and thanked by religious minority groups for his support. Those groups included Jews, Muslims, Quakers, Presbyterians and others being or feeling threatened by religious establishments in various states. Some of those states included ones founded in order to provide religious freedom, which generally meant, “freedom for us to practice our religion.” Groups practicing other religions were not always welcome.
Washington and his like-minded revolutionaries felt that the only solution was to separate the functions of church and state. In due time the principle was accepted that no churches or religions were to be established by state or federal governments and those already established were to be dis-established. Thenceforth, there would be no Puritan Church established by Massachusetts, no Episcopal Church established by Virginia, nor a Mormon Church governing Utah, a Roman Catholic Church as a state function in Florida, Texas or Maryland. On the other hand, no state or federal agency would have authority to limit or interfere with people undertaking religious practices that did not deprive other people of their human rights.
It is a measure of how much this two-century-long consensus has deteriorated, that presently the debate is back to whether the USA ought to declare itself a Christian nation and thereby relegate other religions to the status of “tolerated” rather than entitled by inalienable natural rights to practice their religion. As George Washington understood, we cannot have it both ways. Either religion is an inalienable right or it is not. The intervention of political government into the direct connection of human beings to God is never other than the re-establishment of a Church-state, no matter what it is called.
Professor Virgil Verbal’s classroom in Hogwarts castle was a semi-circular shape which was useful in many ways. In the first place, from time to time the students sat in two or three rows facing the center where something was going on. Professor Verbal rarely lectured, but often read aloud and sometimes acted or performed. More frequently groups of students did that. Some of the time the students were involved in composing ideas, which was the way the professor referred to writing. “It is much more than writing, don’t you see,” he would say. “The writing is the part that happens when the ideas are trying to escape. You capture them with your sharp pens while they’re still squirming around in your head. They can’t get away as easily when they’re all spread out in view.”
“Oh yes,” Professor Verbal said enthusiastically one day, “language is quite as magical as any hex or charm.”
The students laughed at this absurd idea.
“Come, come, don’t make it so hard for yourselves,” Professor Verbal came back at them. “You can all learn how to make words turn into images or ideas. Some of you are quite good at using language to draw attention toward something you want people to notice.”
The students chortled again.
“Oh, indeed! Just a few well chosen words can send minds racing far away, or re-create a time and place that once existed or conjure one up that never existed at all. With words you can make people think or forget. You can have the power of the dream spinner.”
“But dreams aren’t real,” a student objected.
“Whatever gave you that idea?” Professor Verbal responded.
“Well, when you wake up the thing you dreamed is gone,” another student picked up the challenge. “So it’s all in your head.”
“Oh, you mean that a thing is not real if it does not exist somewhere else as well as in your mind. I think a thing might be quite real even if it were only a dream-like thing. Let’s try an experiment,” Professor Verbal said, as if he were making a suggestion rather than uttering an imperative. “With words alone, I will describe something and we will see what we can see with just what’s in your head, without anything ever going first through your eyes.”
Professor Verbal got a far-away look in his eyes and began, “I-bows are about the size of watermelons but quite round like basketballs. They are pink on the top and green underneath, green as a mint leaf. Each of the I-bows has six legs, like the legs of a bird, with three toes on each foot. The legs are evenly spaced all around and the three toes on the feet face in the direction the I-bows want to go. There are no other things visible, no eyes or tails, for instance.” Professor Verbal then took a deep breath and finished, “Now, draw a picture of an I-bow.”
When the pictures of the thirty students were finished Professor Verbal posted them all around the outer wall. As the students walked around admiring the work and comparing each other’s pictures to their own, Professor Verbal spoke to them. “That is the magic of language. Nobody has ever seen an I-bow but you could all draw a picture of one. What’s more, almost all your I-bows are so much alike that if a person knows what one I-bow looks like they’ll know that something else that looks like that is an I-bow. Shall we give it a try?”
Matching his actions to his words he went to the door and called in two students who happened to be in the hall. The teacher held one of the pictures in his hand. “This is an I-bow,” he said and then repeated it, “an I-bow.” Then he gestured toward the pictures on the wall. “What are those?”
The two students looked back and forth between Professor Verbal and the pictures as if they were hoping for some clarifying reason for this quiz or perhaps an inspiration, but after a little while both students surrendered. “They are I-bows?” they said with their voices going up as if they were trying to straddle the line between an indicative and an interrogative statement.
“Yes,” Professor Verbal nodded sagely, “if one of them is an I-bow, it would be reasonable to conclude that all these splendid portraits are of I-bows. Would you be surprised to learn that no one has ever seen an I-bow before this very hour?” Professor Verbal asked the two visitors who were smiling faintly and edging toward the door without answering. “Well, thank you for confirming our discovery.”
When the two visitors had gone Professor Verbal turned again to the class. “So you see, it is not necessary for a thing to exist anywhere outside our mind for it to be real enough for all of us to have a fairly large consensus about it – as long as there is language to make the necessary connections. That’s the magic of language.
“Now, would you say that an I-bow is more real than a penguin?” he asked, smiling good naturedly.
“Less real,” several students assured him.
“Well, let’s put it to a test. How many of you have ever drawn a picture of a penguin?”
A few hands went up.
“Not as many as have drawn a picture of an I-bow,” he observed without bothering to count the hands. “But maybe your having drawn a picture of something is not the only test or even a valid test of something’s existence. How many of you have drawn a picture of my grandmother?” the professor asked.
No hands were raised, but a titter went around the room.
“So we can agree that some things, perhaps most things in the world, are or were very real even though you cannot draw a picture or even take a photograph of them. Is the problem because of your artistic or technical skill?”
“We don’t know what your grandmother looked like,” a student protested.
“Well, let’s say that’s because I haven’t described her to you. We haven’t had the words.”
“We could do better from a picture than your telling us,” one student challenged him.
“Well, I happen to have a picture of her,” Professor Verbal conceded. A few seconds later it was being projected onto the front wall which served as a screen. “Confucius is said to have said that a picture is worth ten-thousand words. Let’s try that out.” Verbal drew a card from his pocket and held it up beside the picture of his grandmother. They were the same size. “The card has about a fiftieth of ten-thousand words. Listen.
“Lottie was born in a shepherd’s cabin in the highlands of Scotland where the birds taught her to sing, she said, and the sheep and her father taught her everything else that was important. The most crucial day in her life was in the winter when she was ten. There was a highlands blizzard and her father was lost in it. There was no food in the hut and the fire burned out. It would have been death to go away from the hut, but it was deathly cold inside. Toward evening Lottie heard some bleating. A few sheep had wandered up to the sheltered side of the cabin. Among the sounds outside she recognized the high-pitched stutter of a little lamb. ‘It’ll freeze,’ she told herself and she decided to rescue it. The lamb was easy enough to find, but its mother was not about to let the girl take it away from her. ‘Well, inta th’ cabin wi’ye,’ Lottie said. Before she could get the door shut there were seven sheep in there. After a while, their bodies warmed the room a wee bit and so they survived the last full day of the storm until Lottie’s uncles could get to her.”
“Which tells more about my grandmother, the photograph or the two-hundred-word story?” Professor Verbal asked.
Some students were sure the right answer was the story.
“But why is the story a better look into my grandmother’s life than the photograph?”
“It tells more, the story does.”
“Does it tell us what she looked like?”
“Well what does the story tell us?”
“How she stayed alive and kept the lamb alive.”
“That she cared about animals. That they would come to her. That she didn’t panic and run.”
“So is that what you’ll remember from the story, that Lottie was courageous, compassionate and lucky?”
“Yes,” some agreed.
“I doubt it,” Professor Verbal shook his head.
“No,” Anthony admitted, “I’ll remember the little girl in the hut with the sheep keeping warm in the blizzard.”
“Ah, the thing you’ll remember is a scene you can picture, a key part of the story. The picture in your mind is what will help you recall the abstract parts of the story, but the story is more vivid and informative than the photograph we saw.
“One last thing about the power of language: why does it have power? Think about what you do when you listen to a story you are very interested in. Your ears take in the sounds and your mind makes connections with things you have stored in there. Lottie, sheep, cabin, blizzard. Notions of what these may be like are pulled into your conscious mind which is very busy as you quietly listen. You are in a very active frame of mind when you have to conjure up the pictures to fill in the blanks. It is easier to listen to a description when there are things to compare it to. I-bows are round like basket balls, the size of watermelons, with three-toed feet on legs like birds. You can picture an I-bow by assembling those parts in your mind. Your mind is very busy.
“But what happens when you see a movie? What does your mind have to do? If the movie is like most of them your mind doesn’t have time to do anything but receive the images. The picture is full and your mind has to absorb what is given to it. The less it flits around the better, because you can absorb more. You must be passive.
“Language is the most magical art form, students, very magical.”
Professor Verbal straightened up and waved his wand so that the pictures of the I-bows flew off the wall back to their artists.
VANISHING VILLAGE CULTURE
Village schools are the surest sign that Northern Thai culture is evolving and village culture is vanishing.
Our village school in Ban Den, Sanpatong District is basically derelict, although the grounds are used once or twice a year for community events for which the village hall (which has no grounds) is not large enough.
The community school was built 60 or 70 years ago during a period of national expansion of elementary education. The government decided it was in the national interest to require all children to complete at least the fourth grade and be counted as “literate”. Before that time, only boys would go to school, if a temple community had established one. The government plan was to have a school in every village, in principle. In fact, some villages never had one.
In our Ban Mae sub-district of 13 villages there were 9 schools. The Village of Ban Den acquired Jaruwan Brachaphan School, named for the abbot of the Buddhist temple in the village. Our school was on one floor, divided into five rooms with four teachers, one of whom was the head ครูใหญ่. It is obvious from talking to graduates and village natives that there was school spirit and the school was a community focus along with the temple.
When the school closed due to reduced enrollment and transportation became available to larger schools, children from Ban Den either traveled to Wat Ta Pong School in the next village or competed to get into schools of their choice elsewhere. By that time elementary education was compulsory through sixth grade but free education was available through grade 12 for qualified students who could pass exams to get in. Although tuition was free at all government schools, fees for activities, books, supplies, and uniforms prevented many students from staying in school beyond the mandatory level.
Of the 9 schools in our sub-district, 3 are still in operation, although one has enrollment below the minimum set by the government and is maintained because some students would otherwise have to travel several miles to school. 3 of the other 6 schools are used by communities to store community supplies, one is a meeting hall, one has been torn down, and our school is standing idle. In all cases where the schools are closed the buildings have lost their function as centers of community pride and regular activities.
Demographics is part of the reason for the demise of village elementary schools. When the schools were built, a village of 100 houses would average 4 or 5 children per household. Recent statistics in Thailand show that there are now 1.7 children per couple with children. This does not count childless couples. The number of school-age Thai children is going down everywhere there is not population influx. Families with children tend to migrate toward towns where they can be close to jobs with salaries and schools that go all the way to grade 12. Professionals with children would be reluctant to move to a community where schools were not adequate all the way through high school.
Economics is another part of the reason for the decline of village schools. Elementary education is not considered sufficient these days to enable people to function in a consumer-oriented, money-based economy. So, educational institutions with elementary and secondary programs in sequence are preferred, especially since starting out in such a program reduces the risk of being unable to continue to higher levels. Schools give preference to students who are already in them, rather than those who would like to transfer in from outside. Most of our Ban Den secondary students are in schools with not more than two or three others from our village. Their social clique in school will usually be made up totally of friends from several villages away. Young people become oriented in school to being away from the village. The bride and groom in every one of the last 10 weddings we have attended were from different districts, 3 from different provinces, and one from a different country. It was rare for folks of their grandparent’s time to marry someone farther away than the next village or two.
To what should we attribute this movement of life out of the village?
Although the government has no priority given to preserving village culture, there is not (in this case) evidence that abandoning village primary schools is an attempt to undermine village life in behalf of homogenized national culture. That effort has been undertaken by imposing a national curriculum for all subjects, citizenship training, and scout programs for all boys and girls.
It can be argued that the government is responding to people’s desire for better schools with more opportunities for students. Parents express an abiding desire for their children to be able to get into schools and universities as far as possible since education is a key to upward social and economic mobility, and therefore to family security. So, larger schools are a popular choice. At the same time, larger schools operating at close to capacity are more economical to run than scattered, small schools with vacant seats and low teacher/student ratios.
Given the choice, most salaried workers would travel to work and leave children at home close to extended family members. Relocation of a family tends to happen when the distance to work is too far to commute AND other factors combine to make the move a better option. Even so, leaving the family center is the last resort, and most people try to think of it as temporary.
For the most part moving a whole household away from one’s village is not equivalent to moving into a new community, but is more likely to feel like moving out of community into fragmented life where aspects of living are disconnected. Urban industrial living is decentralized with education in one place, religious activities in another, recreation at a distance, and services scattered in every direction. In a housing sub-division one hardly “belongs” but merely “resides”. If a family member were to die, neighbors would need to be recruited to respond, whereas in a village everyone would know their role and respond automatically. Even in the crowded conditions of laborers’ housing, dorms near industry for example, a family rarely feels permanent and does not want to.
In the end, the dissolution of integrated community life is an unavoidable result of developing life around the need for money in a consumer economy. “A certain amount of dislocation” has to be accepted, and the acceptable amount gradually expands. Anxiety may reach unacceptable levels when unmanageable circumstances develop, such as the need to care for senile elders or acutely dependent youngsters. These were traditionally handled by the extended family system in cohesive communities. Government social services tend to be developed reluctantly, and the gap is where vanishing village culture is most lamented.
Although there is no unified organization that includes all the Protestant Christian groups in Thailand the basic form of worship for all of them is remarkably similar. The pattern of most gatherings for worship is to begin with music, either instrumental or choral, and singing by the whole assembly. It is significant that the two main aspects of worship are group singing and a spoken message. Thai congregations are aware that the main difference between the role of the laity in Buddhist and Christian worship is that Buddhists chant while Christians sing. Very likely a small group or two has prepared a song to sing and the entire assembly will also sing from two to six songs and responses. Larger churches have choirs that perform a song and help the congregation with the rest of the singing done together. A leader will also offer prayers addressed to God directly, signifying that God is presumed to be attentive to the worship going on and to the condition and concerns of the people.
A second major portion of Protestant worship in Thailand will generally consist of readings from the Christian Bible followed by a spoken message that is designed to explain how that set of readings applies to those present. The service ends either at that point with a closing prayer and group song or with one of a number of possible events in which all people or selected individuals are involved, symbolically presenting themselves for special roles or life passages.
In Thailand it is not assumed that a church group has life in common outside the context of church gatherings. Life for Christians throughout the week is scattered and Christian activity hardly ever involves an entire village. A Christian’s identity is derived from formal membership and actual participation in the assemblies for worship. However, it is also assumed that the church group will be sufficiently coherent to respond to crises and urgent needs that may involve member families and the wider community.
In Thai Protestant culture there is an unarticulated sense that the Church and Christian believers are outnumbered and potentially disadvantaged, so the weekly worship gathering is also for social encouragement and community building.
Nevertheless, every Protestant worship service is understood to be an indigenous, local, contextualized form of all Christian worship by Christian groups all over the world. Roman Catholic worship in Thailand reflects this global unity more emphatically through the use of costumes, rituals and formalities that conform to a narrower range of variations than Protestant have. The main difference between weekly Roman Catholic and Protestant worship services in Thailand is that a Catholic service is structured around a stylized re-enactment of a meal Jesus had with his disciples (with the sermon/spoken message being less central), whereas Protestant assemblies reserve that sacramental re-enactment for special occasions and tend to do it less dramatically.
The paradigm for Christian worship is a gathering of committed believers under the direction of trained leaders, to receive inspiration and to give praise to God who is “in their midst”. The service of worship is a divine-human encounter reflecting many such events in history and in Biblical narratives in which God was present in a significant way.
[Thanks to Second Church, Sam Yan, Bangkok, for the pictures that illustrate this article.]
[THANKS to Bruce Grether for two pictures of spirit shrines he took in January 2016 when he was visiting here in Chiang Mai.]
What role does supernaturalism play in the faith and life of northern Thai natives? I propose an axiom to simplify and focus the discussion: in north Thailand the nature of faith in supernaturalism can be assessed by observing the way spirit shrines are treated. In brief, “Does the spirit being venerated reside in the shrine or not?”
To get at this question two things must be considered: (1) the activities being undertaken with regard to spirit shrines, (2) the presenting story as well as the foundational narrative that is being remembered.
Spirit shrines come in a wide variety of shapes and sizes these days, mostly reflecting the status and capacity of the people who display the shrines.
There are two types of household shrines, those inside the house and those outside.
Inside shrines tend to be shelves attached high upon a wall, or an entire upper room complete with an “altar” of 7 small tables with a Buddha image on the uppermost central one. Venerated articles, amulets and pious souvenirs are usually collected on these shelves along with regular offerings of flowers, candles and incense. Overall these inside shrines represent the central faith of the residents, their formal religion, Buddhism. In that regard they function as mnemonic devices to facilitate faith and practice of Buddhism, viz. worship of the Lord Buddha, practice of Dharma, and veneration of the Sangha including particular “saints”. Insofar as the shelves or shrines serve to sanctify the house as holy space their religious function overlaps supernaturalism.
Outside shrines are of two types, temporary and permanent. The temporary ones are for a special occasion such as a house blessing or a supchata life-extension ceremony, or perhaps to mark the beginning of the rice planting cycle. Permanent outdoor shrines are the main topic of this article.
Currently, here in the Chiang Mai area, following development from Central Thailand, there are two types of shrines, traditionally called “spirit houses” in English. I am prepared to argue that there used to be only one type of permanent spirit shrine for a domicile, and the spirit was understood as the cao thii เจ้า ที่ the “Lord of the place”. The shrine was called a sao phra phum meaning literally a post for the Lord of the Land or possibly for the Divine Land. The shrines were all miniature temples, typically made of concrete and mounted on a pedestal. Humbler versions might be as simple as a piece of metal bent round over a small board mounted on a post (looking a lot like a rural postal box in the USA). Offerings were always incense, sometimes candles, a glass of whiskey or other beverage, occasionally symbolic food such as fruit and rice, and about once a year cooked chicken. It is unclear from the offering ceremony with which they are presented whether these are to worship or honor the spirit, or to feed and placate it, and therein lies the discussion. Recently, two shrines have become common placed side-by-side on the same concrete foundation. One is taller, on a single column at eye level with a small temple structure (typically about 18 inches tall) mounted on top that may either resemble a Buddhist temple building or a tall pavilion with a spire or prang with an image inside. The second shrine is a bit lower, on 4 or 6 legs, and may either look like a house or a temple. It is often adorned with figurines, small vases and a water jar evoking a sense of domesticity. If the ceramic figurines include mythological creatures or dancers, the suggestion is ceremonial. Husband and wife figures represent ancestors, or the first inhabitants of the place. The meaning can be tipped by how it is adorned. The whole assembly of two shrines is called a sao phra phum but the taller one is dedicated to the Phra Phum and the shorter one to the cao thii, indicating that the divinities are considered to be separate entities.
A major clue as to what people understand about attention paid to the compound’s sao phra phum is what story is running through their minds. That is usually the “presenting story”. As with all sacramental narratives it has a sense of presence and immediacy. The story tells what is going on right now in the event taking place. A second, background narrative tells the context for that event.
Before a house is constructed on a plot of land the “Lord of the place” cao thii is ceremoniously informed of the plan. The presenting narrative would probably be, “We are about to make major changes to this place and we would like your concurrence since these disruptions will be offset by our diligent observance of rites giving you honor as the eternal proprietor of this place.” That promise would be vouchsafed by a special offering at the time, and possibly the erection of a spirit shrine if there isn’t one there already. The underlying “foundational narrative” is that the place has a proprietary spirit, the nature and character of which the foundational narrative would clarify.
According to Phya Anuman Rajadhon, “it is generally assumed that the cao thii can be appeased by a suitable abode and regular sustenance.” His 1952 treatise is the definitive account of the general narrative as held at that time by “Thai tradition”. We should note that the perspective for his observation is that of the believers. Using social scientific tools as an anthropologist might, he synthesizes rather than interprets the belief, and being an elite scholar he tends to imply, without denying “Thai tradition”, that there is room for other points of view.
Whether it is because the people around where I live are Northerners rather than Central Thai, or because it is sixty years after Phya Anuman Rajadhon re-narrated the belief, I feel compelled to respectfully disagree with several of his folk-lore-esque conclusions. First, I do not think that people here believe that the cao thii consume the food offered to them. The food is not consumed; it is offered and succumbs to nature but never appears to be eaten by the spirits. It was never meant to be food for the spirit; it was meant to demonstrate symbolic sacrifice and to give honor to the spirits. Nor is the structure erected for the cao thii either suitable or necessary for habitation. The cao thii has never had nor needed a “house” in the long centuries previously, but Barry M. Broman says that providing a “spirit house” complete with honorific and helpful offerings is a way of keeping the spirit from deciding to move into the people’s house being constructed. That raises the question of what would be wrong with a spirit cohabiting. Broman says that the cao thii “must be kept happy lest the spirit move into the main house/building and cause misfortune or mayhem” [Reichart and Pathawee, p. 2]. This concern notwithstanding, the hope is that the cao thii will remain happy and helpful nearby. These are hints about the foundational narrative, that the character of the cao thii is capricious and untrustworthy, but will be able to provide a wide range of blessings if so disposed.
“The requirement that the house should not throw its shadow over the shrine is perhaps due to a belief that man and spirit are distinctly of different worlds; they therefore cannot logically reside in the same place” [quote of P. Anuman R. by Reichart and Pathawee, p. 20]. In short, when people move onto a piece of land and cast the shadow of their presence and residence upon it there is danger that the benevolence of the cao thii will be lost. Care is taken to invite the cao thii, which P. Anuman identifies as the Phra Phum, “to come and stay at the shrine so that he may protect the place and the residents of the house” (ibid.). Thereafter, the cao thii becomes something like the family patron.
To be clear, these spirit shrines, be they house-shaped or temple-shaped, are not residences, homes or even resting pavilions for the Phra Phum or cao thii. They are shrines. It would be an absurd demotion to suggest that divine spirits lodge in human-made edifices, and miniature ones at that. In addition, the difference between a shrine and a temple is that a shrine is where people can interact with divinities, whereas a temple is a structure where a sacred event in a sacred time is re-enacted thus connecting all within the temple to that event by eliminating the boundary between mundane and sacred time and space, thereby renewing the significance and effect of the event being celebrated for the worshipers.
In our village, Ban Den, Sanpatong District, it would be an insult now in 2559 (2016) to imply, as Thai aristocrats and foreign observers did a century ago, that people are so naïve and simple-minded that they believe the Phra Phum or cao thii they honor either need or feed on the fruit and drink presented as offerings, any more than the ancestors of the Phra Phum needed or appreciated the pregnant women impaled on stakes in the holes into which city pillars were planted up to about 200 years ago.
It is tiresome to have modern men and women living in our village treated as children, presumably fed on simplistic narratives, when there is no credible evidence they are incapable of thinking metaphorically and perceiving their acts of worship as enigmatic and the objects of their worship as mysterious. One of the unfolding perils in contemporary Thai society is the scarcely-disguised contempt the urban elite have for “upcountry villagers”, particularly for villagers’ need to be spoken to and talked about in simple, literal, collective terms. There are university professors, business entrepreneurs, and people with spiritual power living in our cluster of villages who are just as capable of postulating the connection between life events and eternal principles as those living in Bangkok, while also being far more able to expound on the life-cycle of chickens and fruit trees and the evanescence of the sustainable environment.
Nevertheless, the presenting narrative regarding spirit shrines is that they are places where people can go to interact with the cao thii. Ordinarily this interaction is routine, presentation of offerings in an attitude of reverence. Occasionally special intentions are indicated such as the plan to depart for a while, the expected arrival of a new resident, or the desire for particular help. Behind this is the belief that the cao thii and the residents share a mutually beneficial relationship.
Theologically, I notice that this relationship does not travel with the people; should they move, they have to develop a new relationship with the cao thii in their new location. Furthermore, especially in times of crisis or need, the cao thii of a new place lingers in people’s minds even as they pay reverence and “take refuge in the Lord Buddha….” When students move into a college dorm they tend to count on the cao thii whose shrine is there to provide help similar to that which the cao thii provided back home. Supplications become all the more fervent as examinations draw near. Virtually all universities and hospitals provide shrines where interaction between people and benevolent spirits can take place. In other words, one should never be out of the range of a cao thii.
Are these all interactions with cao thii or Phra Phum? Some of the shrines have images of the Lord Buddha, Lord Ganesh, or Lord Indra. Doesn’t that clarify who is being venerated? Is this not another theism rather than supernaturalism? Consider this: there is nowhere in Theravada narratives and teachings of the Lord Buddha that people are encouraged to count on the Lord Buddha for help with their exams or health, nor are they encouraged to obtain winning lottery numbers or escape from being drafted into the Army. Yet these are the things beyond personal control that people bring to shrines of all kinds. The shrines are rarely selected by type. When a student “prays to the Lord Buddha” for a good grade on the national placement exams, the hope is for supernatural help of a type never mentioned in the Dharma, but frequently alluded to in temple ceremonies. A desperate student might well go from one shrine to another with the same aspirations.
This is our clue that we cannot rely on reports and observations alone to sort out supernatural faith from religious faith. As observed phenomena, they overlap. However, the muddle may not be as hopeless as it seems.
Donald Swearer observes:
…Buddha’s presence operates in terms of three different yet related levels: magical, cosmological and ontological. The first is the instrumental significance of a particular event or object; the second, the underlying meaning of the interrelationship among particular events and objects; the third, the overarching reference to which all events and objects point. [p. 29]
…pious acts not only guarantee the survival of Buddhism, they bestow specific blessings on patrons. In sum, contact with the Buddha, whether with his bodily person in the story’s narrative present or as contact with the relics of the Buddha’s absence, is the basis for the popular Buddhist understanding of blessing and merit. [pp. 29-30]
It is blessing, of course that residents seek in their veneration of cao thii.
The most famous shrine and most legendary blessings in modern Thailand are at the Erewan Hotel in Bangkok. This shrine has been elevated to cult status through the testimony of grateful intercessors. Any connection between the land, or creation, is eclipsed by an anticipated personal relationship of the suppliant to the semi-anonymous demi-divinity of the shrine. Everything else about that shrine is hardly relevant. It is scarcely remembered that the image of Brahma is in the San Phra Phum. Promises are made that must be fulfilled at this and no other place. Since Lord Brahma could be worshipped and thanked anywhere, the need to return to this particular shrine is evidence that it is the place that signifies rather than divinity portrayed there. No particular dogma attaches to this shrine, nor is there a prescribed form of worship (and some very unusual vows have been fulfilled there). The shrine is an aspect of supernaturalism rather than formal religion.
This is what Swearer calls “magical and instrumentalist”. It is the hope and expectation that acts of worship will bring prosperous results. These results are confined and specific. They are particular, not in the nature of “peace in our time” or “joy and love” in general, which are ontological conditions. Although the Erewan Hotel shrine was built to placate disturbed spirits who had interrupted the hotel’s construction, that is hardly remembered by those who come for blessings. The emphasis is on particular, individual acts of worship and anticipated results rather than placating and venerating the cao thii as the eternal spirit of the land upon which the hotel was built.
The Erewan shrine, unlike the Bangkok city pillar, lacks primary cosmological significance as well. This place is not visited daily by hundreds of worshipers because the Lord Buddha once came there or because a relic of the Lord Buddha is enshrined there. It has no cosmological or ontological significance. It is not a Buddhist shrine, nor is it antithetical or incompatible with Buddhism. It is supplemental to Buddhism.
The second level, which Swearer identifies as cosmological, attempts to pinpoint where we are with reference to sacred time and space. Chiang Mai, Swearer points out is a place where, in some sense, the Buddha visited and left behind footprints and relics. This has consecrated Chiang Mai and validated it as a political entity as well as part of the Buddhist cosmos.
The second level of meaning points beyond a magical, instrumentalist view of particular events associated with the Buddha and his relics to the geographical and cosmological map in which they are imbedded. The Buddha’s wanderings in northern Thailand constitute the region as the land of the Buddha. The presence of the Buddha literally gives the region an identity indicated by the giving of a name, a tradition associated with folklore. …The Buddha’s wanderings establish a map within which particular locations derive meaning as a result of being integrated into a larger scheme of things grounded ultimately in the Buddha. [p. 30]
The shrine in our back yard and in the yards and orchards of almost every house in our village are, however, not Buddhist shrines, nor is any particular event in the many lives of the Lord Buddha associated with any of these shrines.
The third level of meaning can be called universal. Swearer names it ontological. Buddhism has much to say about this, but supernaturalism in Thailand has little.
As we have seen in the description of spirit shrines and their function, supernaturalism is what Swearer calls instrumentalist and magical. Supernaturalism personalizes people’s relationship to that which is beyond our reach and makes it less threatening.
Do cao thii reside in the edifices erected on posts and pillars all over northern Thailand? Our answer is no. The places are shrines and the “residing” implied is metaphorical. The aspect of faith being symbolized refers to the mysterious powers in and above nature as we comprehend it. There is capriciousness about our worldly existence requiring attention. We are vulnerable as we struggle here, exposed to forces far beyond our control, squirming across the surface of the land for our brief time, neither fully in the earth nor out of it. Our veneration of the pernicious and beneficent cao thii, whether we articulate it or not, is the ambivalent respect one pays to elemental components of our mortal bodies compounded of divine Phra Phum channeled through ancestors beyond counting.
Every Thai Buddhist worship service is a re-enactment of the encounters of the Gautama, the Self-Enlightened One, with is disciples. The paradigm for those encounters is that the Buddha enunciated Truth-Dharma so clearly, logically, relevantly and convincingly that attentive listeners would typically experience a cognitive break-through, a great “ah-ha!”, that would dispel confusion and anxiety about the nature of life. Optimally, all who listened would benefit, either by achieving the initial insight or having it reinforced. Naturally, some people in the audience might be distracted or mired so deeply in their circumstances that the great ah-ha did not happen, but if they retained only a metaphor or aphorism they still benefited.
The model for a Buddhist service is the Lord Buddha seated facing a reverent and attentive audience. That is the form of the Buddhist “divine-human encounter”. There is an implied dialogue between the Buddha and the audience that begins with the audience expressing reverence and asking for a dissertation of Dharma-Truth. Then the Buddha speaks, using a key simile or metaphor to gather up the Truth and make it memorable. Finally, the audience expresses appreciation and acknowledges that they have received a blessing.
These days, of course, a current generation of disciples fills the role that the Buddha once did. Monks are more than mere surrogates for the Buddha or de facto substitutes, however. They are also less than that. There is not supposed to be confusion on this point. The Lord Buddha called (and therefore ordained) disciples to be Dharma-carriers, as was he, but also monastics who adhere to a higher level of discipline; but as dispensers of grace they are mediators. Their authority as innovators is limited to telling stories of the Buddha speaking and interpreting what the Buddha is said to have said. In this, of course, they have a great deal of latitude because few Buddhist discourses expound on fixed texts, although a great many are recitations of discourses prepared by others. In several ways (through costume, stylized chanting, physical posture, and use of “palm leaf” style sermon texts) monks symbolize the unbroken chain back to the Lord Buddha. So when a monk is chanting stanzas or preaching a sermon he represents the Buddha without ever losing consciousness that he is just a monk. Laity in the audience recognize that monks represent the Buddha, but they “take refuge” in the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha as three separate aspects of how they are blessed.
In some symbolic and effective way what happens in a Buddhist worship service is a re-enactment of countless similar events 2500 years ago. Each such re-enactment subsumes the meaning of all the other re-enactments and all the original encounters. Each one has the potential to be an enlightening experience. But all of them are able to help move people from states of anxiety into greater levels of serenity, through cognitive engagement. The sustained chanting produces affective benefits, which are at least suggestive of trance states. And all services generate merit to offset accumulated negative karma, which can also be comforting.
A VERY SHORT PHILOSOPHICAL DISCOURSE
Easter is not the worst day to give up the quest for the historical Jesus. It is a search, after all, bound to disappoint. Easter is the day on which the historical Jesus ended. Women and then men went early in the morning to the place where they thought he was interred but the tomb was empty. After that the stories all end in disappearances. There was no more historical Jesus. From then on those who want to hold onto Jesus have to cling to his legacy and deal with paradigm shifts.
Beginning with Easter all we have are stories and metaphors. The narratives of Jesus are what have been put together to create a semblance of Jesus for those untimely born, like us, who are curious about what Jesus was like. Those accounts leave a lot of room for imagination (and film-makers) to fill in blanks. A good metaphor is more astonishing. A satisfactory metaphor is the product of intense concentration.
One of the first profound imaginative shifts had to do with finding aspects and episodes in the Jesus stories that resonate with older sacred stories as well as with current events and conditions. According to this model, Jesus stories are rooted in stories of Isaiah and Moses and are also entwined with the very things we are concerned about. Our connection with Jesus is through narrative. Paul was particularly deft at doing that. He used a mode of reflection that has never been abandoned by Christian followers and is the basis for all Christian sermons. We might call this the paradigm of the never-ending story.
The second paradigm shift was to re-imagine divine-human encounters as sacramental events wherein people need not go to Jesus, but he comes to them. Sacred space is hollowed out of (or hallowed into) everyday space, at the corner of a busy city intersection, say, and Jesus meets them there. This could be called the paradigm of the holy encounter.
The third shift of context was even further away from the literal-historical into the metaphorical-philosophical realm where universals congregate. God-Father, Jesus-Savior, and Holy Spirit overlap and deal with such other universals as life-death, evil and eternity. This theological maneuver universalizes not only the way Jesus deals with human conditions such as sin and salvation in general, but also how he connects with specific personal conditions such as yours and mine. We could call this a paradigm of cognitive transformation.
So anxiety that periodically arises about the historical facts and localities of Jesus’ life is avoidable. Just don’t worry about whether Jesus was born in this place or that, actually said something or didn’t, or was buried here or there. Or what he looked like. Easter is liberation from such tedious concerns. We are not connected to Jesus by a long historical chain. Easter disconnects us from the need to establish a historical thread.
Easter is also a connecting link. If we are to any extent Christian there must be a thread or chain connecting us to Jesus. Since we live at the beginning of the third millennium after Jesus our connection extends across 2000 years. Because of Easter and the disappearance of Jesus we are connected to Jesus by one or more of the three paradigms. Each of those paradigms has its own illustrious advocates and shining episodes. All of them may be aspects of any person’s relationship to Jesus. Either we have internalized the narrative thread, been engaged through a sacramental connection, or undergone transformation of our belief system. His story is linked to our story, his mystery attracts our wonder, and/or his reality transforms our own.
Notes on Easter paintings: “The Resurrection” by Carl Bloch, ca 1873, represents the high Romantic Age linked closely to attempts to imaginatively re-capture the historical Jesus for a particular ethnic-cultural context; in Bloch’s case the context was Scandinavian. The picture is from “Jesus: the Son of Man” published by Scandinavia Publishing House, 1982, p. 72. “Resurrection” by Andre Kamba Luesa, the Congo/Zaire, 1992; the print is Post-Modern Impressionist; meaning and message dominate and are especially for a specific time and people. The print is taken from a collection in the book “Christ for All People” edited by Ron O’Grady, published by the Asian Christian Art Association, 2001, p. 143.
One of the more enduring missionary legacies here in Chiang Mai is buildings. On this Palm Sunday I’d like to share reflections on two impressive chapels, The Prince Royal’s Chapel and the McKean Chapel. They are important architectural landmarks and symbols of their institutions, but also expressions of the vision of the Church at the time they were constructed in the first quarter of the 20th century. In that respect they are worth considering in this era of increasing uncertainty about the role of the Church in the world.
The Prince Royal’s College Chapel was built of bricks covered with stucco with teak rafters, struts and beams creating a fascinating web overhead. The roof was baked tile. The architectural style is neo-Gothic with cruciform interior design. Seating is on substantial teak pews in the nave, with similar pews for the choir in the chancel on either side of a communion table in the style and position of an altar in a Gothic church. The pulpit is elevated prominently on the left side (from the congregation’s perspective) with a lectern opposite. Windows high in the walls let in light and lower down provided ventilation. The design was intended to rivet attention on the front, while keeping the audience as immobile as feasible. This was not only the best chapel plan for a school for little boys, it was how all neo-Gothic churches were constructed.
The chapel of McKean Leprosy Asylum, as it was called at the time its chapel was built, was also made of large bricks covered with stucco, heavy teak structure overhead, and tile roof. The architectural style, unlike most other chapels and churches the missionaries built, was Moorish. The chapel essentially had no walls but entrance was through a large portal at the south end of the rectangular building. The chapel was on a small island surrounded by lotus ponds. McKean (for short – the institution has had many names) is on a large island in the Ping River, so the chapel suggests that the church is the heart and purpose for the whole institute. The chapel has a bell in a belfry over the narthex that actually served to call the large community. The nave has teak pews for the congregation, with spacious side aisles that could accommodate extra seating. The chancel was in the basilica style, complete with side aisles, flying buttresses and a rounded apse in front. The apse was rather shallow and hung with drapes rather than having mosaics, carvings or stained glass windows above a formidable altar. Chancel furnishings are small, even (if I may say so) out of scale, but consistent with the intention to accommodate an unadorned Presbyterian form of worship. The chapel essentially has no windows, but the many-layered roof with wide overhangs thwarts the worst effects of sun and rain. McKean was a leprosy refuge, hospital, vocational development facility, large residence community and medical research institute. It provided holistic care, and some who crossed the bridge onto the island spent decades there without ever leaving. The church grew to be the largest Protestant church in Thailand, and is the “mother church” for a network of more than a dozen congregations planted as the McKean community disbanded to be re-integrated in larger society in the 1980s as leprosy was conquered and stigma diminished (that’s another amazing “resurrection” story).
Aside from their primary function as gathering places for traditional worship, the two chapels were meant to communicate the stability of the church’s mission. The buildings were built to last, with no thought of flexibility of function. In fact, both chapels have multi-purpose halls right beside them for whatever community events might not be worship. The chapels stand for one thing above all: “THE MAIN ENTERPRISE OF THIS INSTITUTION IS GIVING GLORY TO GOD AND DIRECTING ATTENTION TO JESUS CHRIST OUR LORD AND SAVIOR.”
Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.