Ghosts in Thailand, it’s complicated.
To sort it out let’s first note that talk of ghosts belongs to two realms of discourse. One is supernatural and the other is literary. That is true in many cultures.
Ghosts in literature are largely in the category of fantasy. Here in Thailand ghost stories are ubiquitous. They are equivalent to vampires in movies and popular culture in America these days, except that Thai ghosts predate Edgar Allen Poe or even the classic American Halloween story “The Headless Horseman” by Washington Irving, with plot borrowed from Medieval tales. Thai cartoons either exploit ambivalence about ghosts or veer toward outright ridicule. The noticeable thing, however, is how widespread they are. They are everywhere, in comic books, Saturday morning TV, soap operas, and theme parks. [The picture accompanying this essay is from a park in Pattaya, based on the famous “Tiger Balm Gardens” park in Singapore, now in sad decline.]
As an aspect of the supernatural, pii are of two types. One is a restless, wandering spirit, and the other is thought of as the spirit of a place. Popular attitudes toward the two are very different.
In Thai language the “jao thii” or lords of the land are the manifest proprietors of the world of nature. They are many and they are one. They were here from the beginning and will be here long after human beings relinquish their right to inhabit a place. They are given honor by being venerated in shrines for which Thailand is famous, the iconic “spirit houses” (a misnomer).
Wandering spirits are apt to be more troublesome. One reason they are wandering is because they have been prevented from their rightful destinations. Their stories are grist for legend-spinners: tales of vengeful lovers, the unburied and un-cremated dead, ghosts of those spitefully abused, and many others who ought to be reincarnated to work out their karma but cannot be until some condition is met. Meanwhile, they find no rest from their pitiful plight. They wreak havoc in their wrath, or plague us with their mournful outbursts, or interfere with people’s health in order to wrangle a second chance to die.
How seriously are these ghosts taken? Seriously enough to spawn an industry worth millions of baht that needs to use no advertising or promotion to sell their spirit houses, statuary, and paraphernalia. Seriously enough to inspire entire communities to concerted action whenever there is a death. Action can be as limited as an individual lighting an incense stick or as vast as a royal funeral. It has been a long time since the last nation-wide effort to appease virulent spirits, but even in these modern times such a thing is possible.
The related question is how literally these ghosts are taken. That there are pii few Thai people would disagree. What they require is less certain. What is universal is the sense that if anything is to be done, it is done “just in case”, to cover the options, to fulfill long-held tradition, and to clarify our standing in the world of nature and unseen forces. Ambivalence is the feature of supernatural belief that separates it from religion.
There is no better day to ponder the mystique of HM King Chulalongkorn, Rama V, than October 23, widely called in English “Chulalongkorn Day” but in Thai wan piya maha-raj (Day of the Beloved, the Great King). I would observe that a level of veneration has developed for King Chulalongkorn that has never been given to any past monarch in modern times in Thailand. It is that phenomenon that I will discuss in this essay.
What is the veneration?
In addition to the equestrian monument in the plaza in front of the Ananda Samakhom Throne Hall in Bangkok where military rededication ceremonies and massed royal audiences are held, portraits and images of HM King Rama V are widespread. They include pictures hanging in countless homes, statues proliferating in front of government buildings, and shrines in places of business which are attended to in very much the same way as are shrines to divinities overseeing prosperity and economic success. His anniversary (following oriental custom, the date of his death), alone among past monarchs, is a national holiday. His legacy and legend are vivid in the mind of every Thai person. There is also a mystery about him that has to do with the perception that he is a connection to the gods and powers that enable this nation and the people in it to prosper.
What did King Chulalongkorn do that is so memorable?
His most remembered accomplishments include, as a school child might recite them: freeing slaves, building railroads, defending Siam from being colonized, and modernizing the country. [I discuss this more extensively in an essay entitled “Protestant Influence in Siam”]. It is the aspect of modernization, I believe, that is predominant in the rise of what scholars have sometimes called the “cult of King Chulalongkorn”.
During the reign of King Chulalongkorn from 1868 to 1910, Siam joined the community of nations and empires. To do this the King had to modernize both the economic and the political structures of Siam. His revolutionary changes included sweeping away the thick layers of protocol and privilege that isolated the King from the people. Rama V was out among his people, expressing his ideas in person and in print, and visible in photographs as well as on trips, doing everything from sitting shirtless cooking to modeling his own designs of modern court and military apparel. He coordinated a massive program of constructing public buildings, palaces and temples, as well as boulevards to get to them. He instituted land reform by giving every residence a deed to the land on which they lived and farmed as well as the right to buy and sell land. He expanded the irrigation system, opening up areas for cultivation that doubled the food production capacity of the country transforming subsistence agriculture into the most important source of foreign exchange (replacing forestation). He set up a civil service that evolved into the nation’s largest employer and elevator for upward mobility.
It does not seem a mystery to me why the rise of the “cult of King Chulalongkorn” should be concomitant with the rise of the Thai business sector to world class standards during the time when Thailand was one of the Asian “Tiger” economies with double digit GNP growth and 13% interest rates before 1997. There was a phenomenon about prosperity that could be traced back to Rama V. If my guess is accurate, a fall in those statistics would be reflected in a quieting down of the level of veneration. Has this happened? I think so, but it’s difficult to measure
Religious hatred for political reasons is again on the rise and people are dying horribly as a result.
Although I am chagrined, embarrassed and tormented to be identified as a member, indeed a former leader, of a group engaged in proliferating religious-sounding, political-cultural hate, I realize we Christians are not alone in doing that. At the same time, I am a critic of Christian hate and an advocate of taking necessary steps to distance ourselves from cults and cliques that advocate hatred and violence in the name of Christ. I am also in several ways a potential target and victim as well as a part of humanity that is jeopardized and diminished by this hatred.
Let me be clear, if simplification can help. Let’s say that hate comes on two levels (although we know it comes in all grades of severity). The first level is “lethal” hate, and the other level we could call “pervasive” ... just for discussion’s sake.
Lethal hate has a lot in common with hysteria and it produces panic which is hysterical in reaction. This level of hate is ignited by fear of being overwhelmed. Here in Thailand I have been in touch with three religious systems, Christianity, Buddhism and Islam. Each of these has hate mongers in the news at present. Islam is plagued with militant terrorists called the “Islamic State”, an incarnation of Al Qaeda, the current form of Wahabism, launched by an itinerant preacher, Abd al-Wahab (1703-66). Buddhism is beset by an alliance of radical monks who have undertaken horrendous attacks on Rohingya Muslims in Burma and against Hindus and Christians in Sri Lanka (For a larger discussion of Buddhism and violence see the book BUDDHIST WARFARE). Christianity’s lethal hate-mongers have hijacked the missionary model to spread terror in the name of Christ. A recent report by the Human Rights Campain identifies a few names behind the movements around the world (especially in Africa and Central Asia) to suppress marriage equality and inflame loathing against gays and lesbians into violent attacks and repressive laws. See the report available online at THE EXPORT OF HATE. The fact is indisputable: certain Americans are fomenting dangerous hatred in the name of Jesus.
Of course, those proponents of lethal hate do not represent the huge majority of Buddhists, Muslims and Christians. ISIS beheaders do not fairly represent Islam in 2014 any more than a Ku Klux Klan lynch mob represented Christianity in 1930. But that brings us to “pervasive hate” which is far more prevalent.
There is a thin line separating those who have steadfast loyalty to a religious culture and those who deny the validity of other religious cultures. The issue is tolerance of diversity. When one says, “Outside the church there is no salvation,” or “When the rapture comes non-believers will be left behind,” one is teetering on the line. The thing is, the exclusivists do not feel hatred and would be annoyed to have their positions described as intolerant. They have hatred narrowed down to a feeling of angry loathing, which they do not think they have. They counter that they have “good friends who are ... (‘others’)”. But their system of thinking essentially denies the possibility that other faith systems potentially carry as much validity as their own. They harbor at least a secret anguish that others refuse to grasp the truth; or, more passively, the exclusivists may simply be loyal and dedicated to groups that would prefer for diversity to go away. Their guilt is collective, and so it is one step removed. The most progressive among these exclusivists confess, “I just don’t know” (how to evaluate the validity of other faith systems). Those who are conservators of “the one truth” are active
on Facebook posting daily news of how Islam is threatening Israel and trying to install Sharia law in Michigan.
Here we hit the wall. Insofar as cultures are divided between liberals and conservatives, the conservatives think the liberals are prone to accept guilt, real and imaginary, for all the evils in the universe. Liberals accuse conservatives of denying they can be a part of a culture that is at all flawed, and many other denials as well. It is hard to make common cause against lethal hatred and those who use it to incite violence and atrocities when each side thinks the other is a dangerous threat to culture.
To make an impact on this dangerous polarization, all I can think of is how to “act locally”. In October 2001, a month after 9/11, I organized a local response to the fact that a youth group from St. Louis had cancelled their trip to Thailand. It was clear in my mind that the United States was in great danger, but I thought the greater aspect of the danger was from feeling endangered and mistaking the cause. “This will traumatize America,” I feared. [In retrospect I think I was prophetic.] So I organized a project to send a trio of students to St. Louis in place of the young people who had cancelled. The trio included a Christian, a Buddhist and a Muslim. They represented an alternative vision, peace. The project was called “A Peace Mission”. A second mission group went 2 years later, but by that time the besieged mentality in America was too strong to continue the project.
Alas, our six girls did not stem the tide of religious fear.
Still, the only practical hope I know of is to act locally. A decade after the Peace Missions ended, a Buddhist abbot and I organized an inter-religious project here in the hills. [The picture accompanying this blog is from that project.] We used our influence and resources to encourage Christians and Buddhists to build a bridge in a village where walls could easily go up. Together we brought a Christian-Buddhist Christmas to that village that is remembered to this day. Both the half of the village that is Christian and the half that is Buddhist live in harmony. Their ground is impervious to seeds of lethal religious hate. The abbot and I do not take credit for it. Their harmony is of long standing, but we celebrated it and the kids in the village are now teenagers. They and their elders remember.
So, what shall we do next ... you where you are, and me here?
A large wasps’ nest as a talisman is more common in rural areas where wasps’ nests are more common. Around our part of Northern Thailand many houses will display wasp nests or hornets’ nests above or near the front door. In the picture accompanying this essay, a priest is anointing a particularly large (abandoned!) nest on the occasion of a house blessing. The priest is marking the nest with bun (lime) paste, made of the same powdered mountain lime that is chewed with betel nuts. This lime paste is traditional for symbolic anointing on auspicious occasions. Lintels, name plates, foundation stones and royal plaques are often anointed with a pattern of dots or with an auspicious number, usually the number 9. This act of decoration may be accompanied by a chanted benediction, or the blessing might simply be implied.
We will now consider two questions about what is happening and why.
First, to what category of faith practice should this wasp-nest blessing be assigned? I think the most probable category is that this is a type of magical summoning of prosperity. It is indirect in that the thing symbolized and called for is not prosperity directly. More about that in a moment. It is magical because it presumes that an inanimate, inert object can and possibly will produce an unrelated result. It is analogous to kissing a magical stone to produce good luck or knocking on wood to prevent bad luck. The produce hoped from the wasp’s nest is prosperity, a vague but very positive accumulation of benefits. In Thailand talismans to summon prosperity are numerous. The most famous is the maiden Nang Kwak who sits on countless shelves dressed in a traditional Thai costume and crown, beckoning with her right hand palm down as one might summon a taxi or a friend. Nang Kwak is either inviting customers and thence prosperity, or she is calling for love, or both. This image or its ancestors goes back at least 2000 years. Nang Kwak images used to take great care with very special materials and inscriptions, but now they are mass produced. Less occult, and more akin to the wasp’s nest we are talking about, is the bamboo fish trap. It is also a form of sympathetic magic that works, presumably, by analogy. “As the fish trap lures fish in but does not let them out again,” the symbol alludes, “so are customers drawn by the flow of traffic into our shop where they contribute to our prosperity.” Plaited fish traps are actually used to catch fish, but when they are hanging full-size inside a shop near the cash drawer or in miniature form from the rear-view mirror of a car, their objective is merely equivalent to fishes.
Second, why a wasp-nest? In the case of the wasps’ nest, it is not the action of the wasps either in protecting their colony through their famous attack strategy or their building of the complex habitat that is being remembered, but the fact that they are a dense community. They congregate and cooperate in their undertaking. Their life is harmonious and they multiply and add to their number. The prosperity they manifest is social. So their nest hung by a doorway is a suggestive signal, encouraging the powers that be to do likewise for the human household. The wasp-nest is intended to exert an unexplained energy to draw people into the enterprise of creating a prosperous social unit.
Wasp-nest and fish-trap magic may seem a bit bizarre and far-fetched. It is hard to come up with an example of sympathetic magic that does not seem absurd to a modern scientific mind. The entire category is excluded from the realm of possibility when it is carefully scrutinized. However, there are religious medals and plaques in every culture and every religion. Their purpose is not very different. They identify those who display or wear them, but they also symbolize the aspiration for benefits, not least of which are prosperity and protection. They might not be thought of as magical, but they certainly are held to be evocative. They evoke the blessing being referred to no matter how that blessing is supposed to be produced. All over Thailand cars of Christian owners exhibit an “icthus” (fish) symbol, supposedly a testimony of faith but also (like the wasp’s nest) a call for community. A few generations ago almost every household in America contained the sentiment, “Home Sweet Home”. That’s the wasp-nest idea in the form of a cross-stitch sampler.
The gay-straight binary is a lie. It is a powerful, influential and persistent lie in which a lot of people have invested a great deal of wealth and energy, but it is as wrong as the male-female binary, which is also defended vehemently. Defenders of these two binary fictions have a lot at stake and they will not give ground easily. I will leave it to others to continue the campaign to destruct the male-female binary. This small essay is about the gay-straight deceit, and why it is not merely a mistake.
I base my case on dissection of the stories of a group of gay friends I have known and loved, six of whom are pictured above. That is a picture of friends across the spectrum. From their stories, even more than their appearance, we know they are transgender, transitioning, transvestite (for the party that night at least), tentative, tender and tough. It is unjust to call them all gay, or to fix a label on any of them. They match the shades of the rainbow.
If the gay-straight analysis were fair and sufficient all we would have to agree is that these six friends are either gay or not. How would we know? We could ask them and accept their answers, in which case we would probably hear that they are gay. That is the way we would hear what they would say, and we would bend their far subtler answers to fit our two pigeon holes.
Here in Thailand there is room for a third sex and for ambiguity. So, if we were to ask the impolite question, “Are you a kathoey?” we would gain a reply appropriate to such a rude question. The way to determine whether a friend or acquaintance is a kathoey is by observing how they present themselves androgynously. But that, too, would be misleading because the word kathoey has two meanings, one sensitive and the other essentially derogatory. As a curse, the term accuses the person of being deceitful about their masculinity and sexual ambitions. To be more sensitive and put it as elegantly as possible, a kathoey is a female cursed by karma from previous lives to be born in a male body; there is a degree of fatedness in that. But it doesn’t translate into popular acceptance, rather into tolerance. People put up with the condition in others and themselves without being altogether happy about it. What they do about it, on the other hand, is where the spectrum applies.
There are also some guys identified as male at birth and throughout life who are not any more biased toward a psychological identity with their female side than the average human being might be. Psychoanalysts are very clear we all have both an animus and an anima operating in our sub-consciences. So, these guys are male but they have a strong tendency to be sexually and romantically attracted to people with male bodies and personalities. They are gay ... or more than a little bit gay ... or bisexual. Once you hear people’s stories the lines blur.
Why does it matter so much that we keep strict track of whether there are individuals or even populations who are gay? It matters because we are in the midst of a culture war. The real battle is for freedom of action and expression. But that will not prevail as a rationale. That would denigrate the issue to a range of behavioral choices. We will lose the battle (and possibly our freedom and our lives) when the issue is about our choice of sexual practices. It is crucial in this culture war for us to be identified as essentially distinct. That limits our potential alliances.
I know of embattled confederations who have risked everything to get into the mainstream. They do not want us. Radical feminists a few years ago refused to accept lesbians and their issues into feminist discussion because they did not want to weaken their campaign by multiplying their issues. Christian groups now are gaining traction in an effort to penetrate fundamentalist fortifications with the slogan “We will make marriage more enduring.” Racial-ethnic minorities tend to oppose gay rights because they think of us as a threat; they have enough to be on about without having any more difficult causes to diffuse their thrust.
For the most part, the gay-pride movement is trying for two things: (1) To have marriages like everyone else’s. This is a minimalist and reasonable request. We want to join the mainstream. We declare, “There is nothing unique about us.” (2) To be understood and appreciated. This is an appeal to basic humanitarian sensitivity. “We are your brothers and sisters, your sons and daughters.” There is nothing threatening about us.
But there is more to it than that.
We know that choices about sexual practices and relationships are subservient to something more basic. We are battling for the right to be authentic and not just for the freedom to do as we please. Gradually we have acquired allies. Psychiatric and medical associations have agreed that there is something called orientation that is enduring and cannot be changed. Sexual orientation cannot be changed. In fact, as we have long perceived in our own hearts, the doctors are now in widespread agreement that it is even damaging to deny that orientation. The best case scenario is to discover one’s orientation, adjust to it, find friends and lovers with a compatible orientation, and develop a community within society.
But there is more that we can do than fit in.
Very few people in the cultural majority are interested that we might actually have unique perspectives, different gifts, singular experiences or creative insights quite unlike their own. Worse, some who do perceive what it would mean to receive us as peers and equals fear our contributions would result in equivalents to revolution or anarchy.
On the whole I think it is altogether possible that the conservative right is right to fear us. We may not have the agenda they accuse us of pursuing, but we certainly are more potent social change agents than our own minimalists recognize, who just want to get married and file joint tax returns. We have more to offer and more to require.
Our six friends would like nothing better than to be unremarkable, but they are remarkable, not only for their courage, stamina, and loyalty, but also because of their identity as successful, independent and creative. They are unpretentious and basically unaware of the impact they are making just by refusing to hide within the mundane shadows. If you knew their stories you would understand how I can insist that we across the rainbow spectrum are coming not to sustain cultures and societies but to improve them.
Nat is an outstanding father. I’d like to nominate him for an award in the forthcoming Father’s Day recognition festivities surrounding the birthday of HM the King on December 5, but I don’t know how to do that. So, I’ll just let you know what I would say to a committee if I could.
For the past year Nat has set his own life aside for his daughter Pen. She was born 14 months ago, the cutest, happiest baby in the world. However, she had some presenting issues including a hair lip (you can probably tell from the picture that it was successfully corrected); that was just the beginning, however. Within a couple of months pediatricians at Maha Raj Medical Center and Chiang Mai University were concerned about little Pen’s development. They sent off a DNA sample to the laboratories at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok and the results were shocking. Pen has a genetic condition called “autosomal recessive spinal muscular atrophy (level 2)”. SMA for short. This means that her muscular development is inhibited as the result of a rare recessive genetic trait she inherited from both her parents. The prognosis is that there is no reliable probability of recovery. The common term for her most obvious symptoms, the Internet informed me, is “floppy baby” syndrome. At level 2
the report warned, “there are no cases where the patient has been able to walk” but she may be able to sit up and carry on. The most optimistic outlook for Pen’s future is life on wheels. But the specialists said that the family must guard against infections because the baby will not be able to cough and expel phlegm. One needs muscles for that.
It was not long before the first crisis developed. Pen had to be rushed to a hospital to have congestion pumped out and resultant infection brought under control. That’s when Nat quit his job as an x-ray technician in a district hospital and became fully-dedicated to his daughter, with the continuing help of grandmothers. Nat’s career was on a steep upward trajectory. Medical technology is a field in demand, and Nat was being trained for rapid advancement, but never mind. Aem, his wife, who would have preferred to be the primary care-giver, was being inducted into the civil service as a teacher and that was too valuable a career track to forfeit, with its job security and benefits for the whole family. So Nat took the role.
It is three crises later. Two of them had to be handled at hospitals far away because all the beds in the pediatric intensive care unit of the medical center were full. This time the hospital specialists moved things around and she has been admitted and given a tracheotomy to facilitate her breathing. For a one-year-old Pen has been through a lot, but this report is about the admiration I feel for Nat, Aem and the family, rather than sympathy for Pen that nearly overwhelms us.
Nat has had to acquire skills he never dreamed he’d need; things like how to inject liquid through a feeding tube, how to monitor the baby’s oxygen level, and how to suction. He’ll be a more well-rounded medical assistant than he had intended. To be succinct, the family has set aside all its plans and finances for this new challenge. Their universe has shrunk. Now the scope is day-to-day. Each day has challenges and hospital life has become the new normal. Visiting hours are noon to one-thirty, and a couple of hours in the evening. Nat’s life revolves around that, and the most distant target is no farther than how soon this crisis will be over and they can bring Pen back home to the room they have dedicated to her safety and comfort, where Nat and the grandmothers will become nurses again.
My hands are chapped from applauding this outstanding father and the family that supports him.
Note: Click on the two images above to expand them to full view.
Nung is known by our group of friends as “Big One” to distinguish him from numerous other sons nicknamed “nung” indicating their birth order. Nung is “ambiguous” above all else. He is a guy who uses feminine pronouns and a gambler who is a spiritualist in his spare time (or is it the other way around?). Nothing about big Nung is obvious at first glance except his exceptional size, about which he is sensitive. On this day, however, Nung is the center of attention. He is the organizer of a cultural event that puts him in a class apart.
The day begins with the dedication of a shrine. The shrine looks like a small booth with a tile roof and three walls made of laths. In this case the shrine is too small for a person to enter, even a child, but there is a temporary platform beside it for the day’s activities. The shrine was dedicated by offerings which signified the nature of the veneration being undertaken. Among other gifts of fruit and cigars, there was a pig’s head. This was not a strictly Buddhist ceremony. Indeed, the presence of Buddhist monks would be brief and unusual.
The main event, however, was a dance or series of dances that lasted for hours from morning until nearly sunset. It involved about 40 dancers, similarly clad in floor-length sarongs with brightly colored shirts and matching head scarves. The colors were bright, the dance music was lively, and the movements were sinuous. None of the dancers seemed to be paying much attention to others, but there was an informal synchronization of their movements.
By afternoon everyone was dancing. The seating area near the shrine was abandoned. Throughout the morning Nung or one of the other better-known practitioners had been occupied with individual conferences. The content of the conversations varied from humiliatingly personal to boringly general. The form was predictably about problems and resolutions. The practitioners funneled advice from the beyond to reply authoritatively while usually puffing on one of the cigars. Nung is locally well-known for his accuracy. Each conferee presented him with paper money which he wore strung around his neck for the rest of the day.
A few days later Nung organized another event in a village on the other side of the district at which more than a hundred dancers gathered. Events differ. Some of them are more like séances.
There are two things I would like to make clear at this point. First, at no time did I see anybody dancing in a trance-like condition. There were none who seemed to be out of touch with immediate reality, or in a frenzied state. Second, I did not see any of the practitioners indicating that they were channeling voices from the beyond. This was just one of the more ordinary and very common fawn yoke kru (dance to elevate a teacher) ceremonies here in North Thailand.
But as an observer, it was clear that the ethnic origins of this dance were Burmese, Mon to be precise, as indicated by the composition of the musicians and the style of costumes. Just below the surface all of low-land ethnic traditions, art and culture here in the North are Burmese-Tai-Lao that was simply called Lanna until less than a century ago.
The best thing written for popular consumption about this aspect of Thai faith is “Mediums & Shamans: Psychic consultants peddle ancient remedies to modern society” by Philip Cornwel-Smith in Very Thai: Everyday Popular Culture Bangkok: River Books, 2005. Cornwel-Smith’s sample is small but he has excellent corroboration from Thai scholars and good pictures by his colleague John Gross. From Very Thai, we learn that there are upwards of 100,000 khon song practitioners (“mediums”, called khon song jao around here indicating they are supernatural). If this were a separate religion it would be the second largest in the country with scores of believers for each practitioner, and with a wide variety of practices in addition to spirit dances. The jao referred to here in Chiang Mai is the same “lord” that is worshiped in the ubiquitous “spirit houses” Thailand is known for. Cornwel-Smith dances around his subject, implying skepticism without outright ridicule.
Others are not so cautious. To many, spirit dances and spirit mediums are clear signs of religious decadence and superstition. They are laughable. However, ambivalent as most ordinary Thai people I know may be, they are not laughing. As with all other types of supernatural faith practices, there is an element of the hypothetical about them. They are treated as if they might be valid and as if they might be important. They are not as central as Buddhism, but when Buddhism gets too staid there are dances to liven things up.
Money trees are not as rare as it might seem. I have heard all my life that “money doesn’t grow on trees” but I can testify that it very often gets transported to Buddhist temples that way here in Thailand. As the pictures accompanying this essay bear witness, a lot of work and creativity goes into preparing these trees. In the picture above there are two types of money frames, designed to look like bushes and like peacocks. The reason for this particular, elaborate presentation of picturesque funds to the temple was to support the construction of a chapel on the temple grounds of Wat Jam Jaeng in San Pa Tong District of Chiang Mai. In this case, a large donation was the impetus but people from several nearby villages more than doubled the total amount. People worked long hours to make the frames and mount the money. They reminded me, as they showed them off, how proud they were to have been able to do this because the skills to make these birds are disappearing.
Although a large event like the one above may be infrequent, many temples have some sort of fund-raising event every year. This is the season for ton salak ceremonies. A “ton” is a tree or bush or plant. “Salak” refers to a drawing or selection by lot. All families in the village are invited to present a decorated tree for the event. On the tree a variety of useful small items will be hung and money will be inserted as well. For our ton salak ceremony a week ago (pictured below) priests from 7 other temples were invited to come. Everyone had an equal chance to have their tree, large or small, drawn for one of the other temples. It was considered good luck and an honor to have one’s tree picked. The rest of the trees stayed at the home temple or were sold (without the cash attached) to be re-used. The money will pay such things as electricity bills for the temple.
The trees can be a specially prepared branch from a tree, but typically is a “trunk” made of tough grass wrapped tightly into which are stuck stiff branches whittled out of bamboo and covered with frilly crepe paper. The prominent feature of the tree, aside from the attached gifts, is hand-crafted paper flowers. Here in Thailand the faithful make donations on several occasions to support the temple and its programs. In general, the government does not provide funds for the ongoing operation of a temple, but might help if a temple needs renovation.
Finally, these money trees make eloquent statements about how the people feel about their contributions of money. The money is consecrated by being presented in this way. The
money is no longer ordinary, but dedicated to a lofty and sacred purpose. Every religion has offertories, some have been very primal. In Thai Buddhism the symbolism is deeply cultural and subtle. To make this sort of offering a whole community must unite. The artistry employed in the displays reflects community spirit that rises above individual intention. Money tree ceremonies are eloquent testimony against the charge that Buddhism has no social aspect since it is all about one’s path to enlightenment. Thai Buddhism is above all, social.
It can be truly said that temples get money plucked from trees.
A well-known abbot from Chiang Mai was sitting in my guest area this afternoon. Among the observations that he made was that lots of Buddhists here in North Thailand still participate in merit making, but many fewer than used to be the case “practice the vows”. This year at his temple there were none staying overnight during the Lenten retreat going on now during the rainy season. They come to hear the sermon and join in the chanting but go around to other temples for the nightly sessions.
In other words they are working to accumulate merit, but not to improve their spiritual lives. Meditation is a major feature of Lenten practice for those who stay in temples either throughout Lent as ordinands or for 48 hour periods on the holy days on the quarters of the moon. Lent begins with Asanha Pucha Day, which was July 11 this year, and ends with the full moon in October, which will be October 8. Traditionally monks stay in their temples following the instruction of the Compassionate Buddha to keep his followers from trampling through the rice fields during the rainy period when the new rice was being planted. This gives the monks a chance to improve their knowledge and skills, as well. Laity take 5 or 8 vows (5 if they are going to have 3 meals a day, but 8 if they plan to live more ascetically).
Our young friend in the picture entered a temple at the beginning of Lent. He was taken to the temple by family and friends and left there. The journey was a reiteration of that made by the Lord Buddha when he left his palace-home and royal family to seek the Truth. He left home a prince, was shorn of his luxurious locks, and donned the rags of an ascetic. In some ethnic sub-cultures this trip from home to temple is a major cultural event. Rather than white, the “princes” are dressed in rich royal brocades and lace. In any case it is a re-enactment of that original sacred journey (“sacramental”, Christians would say), a vicarious renunciation of mundane attachments, and a mystic union with the Lord Buddha.
We visited our friend that night in the temple. The next morning he was ordained and exchanged the white garments of purity for the saffron robes of a monk, or in his case the robes of a novice. In this process he earned “inestimable merit” and transferred it solemnly to his mother and ancestors, while retaining some for himself and gaining more through the ceremonies of the two days of initiation. That, in fact, was what this exercise was about. He did not remain a monk for the whole Lenten period as some of us had urged him to do. He did not stay in the temple long enough to master any of the many forms of mindfulness meditation, to learn Pali language to become a scholar of Buddhist texts, to memorize enough chants to serve as a lay liturgist (i.e. ajan wat), or to master self control (which he certainly could use, in fact). He was a short-term monk. It was the most his mother could hope for but it compensated her for some of the concerns he had visited upon her as a troubled son.
There is another group of young people who also enter the temple for reasons having little to do with learning the complex truths of Dharma. They are there because of the need for an education they could not otherwise obtain. Many temples try to receive a few deserving fellows and provide them the things they need to study. Most of the boys taken care of in this way around here are ordained as novices and stay in the temple during the several years they are in school. It amounts to the community providing funding for these students. Since they are ordained, the merit the community makes is an order greater than it would be if they were just “temple kids” (i.e. dek wat).
Naturally, this popular emphasis on merit over Dharma is seen as a problem, as it was for our esteemed guest this afternoon. It is always a concern for religious leaders when people give lesser matters the greater emphasis. It’s just that the people who do that are the ones who provide the finances and human resources to sustain the institution of Buddhism hereabouts. It is wrong to insist that religious events are all about doctrine and religion. Merit is a concept that is far older than Buddhism. How merit is earned and works is arguably not strictly a Buddhist concept; it is certainly not a precept. But it is part of the faith strands that are braided to form Thai Buddhism.
Let me try to be clear about what this means. Culture and doctrine are inextricably mixed to form a living religion. They cannot be extruded one from the other. There is no religionless culture, even if it is atheistic and ostensibly godless (but that is another topic for another essay). The point here is that there is no cultureless religion. Yet, when a religion is taken into another culture, a new culture is brewed. When Buddhism came to the Dvaravati city-state federation, the dominant Mon culture of the region was due to change. When the Roman Empire adopted Christianity, at about the same time as mainland South East Asia became Buddhist, there were adaptations. But those changes were not total. When it works best and most thoroughly, core doctrines and identifying practices become infused in the new milieu over the course of centuries. Whenever some other process than gradual infusion is forced, unspeakable violence is inevitable. You do not have to read history books to see this. Just turn on the TV.
During the last week of August 2014 things came to a head for Daniel Pierce of Kennesaw, Georgia, USA. A year ago he had “come out” to his family. Apparently they did not accept that as well as Daniel had thought they did. Last week they demanded that he go into a reparative therapy program to “pray the gay away”. The conversation did not go well.