Thai Buddhism can be spectacular. Take the festivities at Nong-Haa Village this past weekend for example. The celebrations were divided into three parts. The first major event was the installation of a Naga image in front of a new free-standing shrine of a large Buddha. (See picture 1 above.) The 7-headed Naga was nearly inundated with elaborate offerings of fruit, flowers and incense (picture 2). The service was conducted by a Brahman-Buddhist team of 4 led by a chanter with an exceptional voice. In a place of honor, but entirely passive throughout the ceremony, a Buddhist monk presided while the chanter called upon all the deities of the universe to be favorably disposed toward this event, to be present, and to invest this Naga with divine power (picture 3). The prayers were punctuated with fireworks, and emphasized by bells, a large gong, and sonorous squall of a conch shell trumpet (picture 4). When the Brahman service was over the Buddhist monk paid respect to the Buddha and then blessed the assembly with sacred water (picture 5).
The second event was before dawn the next morning. After a night of chanting by chapters of Buddhist monks taking shifts, the new Buddha image was enlivened. (See: www.kendobson.asia/blog/awakening-buddha). The climax of the night-long service was when the abbot climbed up onto a rickety platform to remove bees-wax patches from the eyes of the Buddha, symbolizing the awakening of this image to preside over the village (pictures 6 and 7).
The third event was later in the morning, when a larger crowd gathered for the inauguration of the village temple’s new bell tower. The tower is inside the temple walls, so it is part of the temple. The service began with the Brahman team again invoking the presence of countless gods and divinities (picture 8), and then inside the temple assembly hall a large chapter of visiting monks chanted stanzas beginning with the familiar 3-fold “Namo” meaning “I worship … the Buddha,” and then “I take refuge in the Lord Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha”. Then a 9-tier umbrella, called a “chat” short for “chat-monkol” which is the peak of a crown, was sent across the space between the temple assembly hall and the bell tower (pictures 9, 10, 11). The conch, bells and gong sounded throughout the assent, as well as a string of fire-crackers. People had tied gauze ribbons onto the chat in the color of the day of the week they were born, and these were then collected as good-luck souvenirs when the workmen on the tower removed them. A large brass temple bell was hoisted into place and rung for the first time (pictures 12 and 13).
Nong-Haa Village had been planning for this for many months. It is probably their most important cluster of ceremonies in a decade, and represents among other things, that the village and its temple (including especially the abbot) are keeping up with other villages which have erected large Buddha shrines to watch over their villages.
As this was going on, a quote by Thich Nhat Hahn reappeared on the Internet in which he said, “There is a misconception that Buddhism is a religion and that you worship Buddha. Buddhism is a practice, like yoga. You can be a Christian and practice Buddhism.” This quote, by the second most important Buddhist spokesman of our time confirms identical expressions by the Dalai Lama. Their understanding finds widespread acceptance among intellectuals who appreciate Buddhism as a philosophical inquiry into the nature of human life, and reject mythic and superstitious accretions that transform Buddhism into something other than an inquiry, a set of practices for conducting that inquiry, and conclusions about what that inquiry will discover. When the two most famous living Buddhists insist that Buddhism is not a religion, who would dare disagree?
In order to discuss whether Buddhism is a religion or not we need a definition of religion. I propose that a religion is a shared set of narratives and practices which connect people to the sacred. That narrative and those practices describe and re-enact a divine-human encounter wherein a fundamental truth was revealed. The purpose of a religion is to sustain and communicate that truth and the implications for a life modified to comport with that truth. The complex symbolisms in religions are to facilitate retention of the truth and to provide focal points for communities of believers to bridge the chasm between the mundane and the holy.
If Buddhism is essentially not a religion, then religious aspects of Buddhist festivities are not essential. They are extraneous. But those things, relegated beyond the margins, include nearly everything that makes Thai Buddhism compelling and attractive to adherents. There are several alternative interpretations of what went on last weekend in Nong-Haa Village. (3) It was a Buddhist festival. (2) It was a Buddhist festival in which non-Buddhist elements intruded. (1) It was not authentically Buddhist.
(1) The three celebrations at the temple in Nong-Haa Village WERE NOT AUTHENTICALLY BUDDHIST. “In fact, the way Northern Thai Buddhism is practiced is inconsistent with pure Buddhism.” This is a position advocated by the last century’s most profound Thai Buddhist scholar, the Ven. Buddhadasa Bikkhu, who tirelessly sought to rid Thai Buddhism of its superstitious and extraneous elements. Real Buddhism ought to concentrate on the core teachings of the Lord Buddha and practice forms of meditation that lead to enlightenment. The way to reform Thai Buddhism is through education.
However, as Buddhadasa understood, if one were to eliminate mythological references, whether artistic or literary, one would need an alternative set of symbols and architecture to express Buddhism and accommodate its practitioners. Buddhadasa proposed going back to the time of the Indian Emperor Asoka for those features. There is nothing about Asokan architecture that reflects Thai culture and heritage (or validates Thai royalty and religion). In fact, it was the royalist elite as well as the Buddhist hierarchy they had installed who tacitly opposed Buddhadasa’s reform, and continued their use of Brahman-Buddhist, Khmer-Thai ceremonies and architectural art. Reform never gained popular support, either.
(2) What happened in Nong-Haa WAS A BUDDHIST AND NON-BUDDHIST MIX. “Obviously, there were Hindu rituals permitted as custom prescribed, but there was a division between those rites conducted by Brahman actors and those undertaken by Buddhist monks. Buddhism is tolerant. Hindu precursors to Buddhism are recognized, but Buddhism has the last word.”
A closer look at how Northern Thai Buddhism functions, as well as at the festivals in Nong-Haa Village, tends to discourage the notion that a sharp division has been maintained between that which is Buddhist and that which is otherwise. In the first ceremony, to install the Naga in front of the stairs in the shrine, the chants included both Buddhist and Hindu stanzas and references to other influences. The Naga itself is a mythic being included in Thai Buddhism (see: www.kendobson.asia/blog/dragons-yearning-for-nirvana). Furthermore, the Brahman actors were Buddhists; they had not chosen and did not need to choose Hinduism over Buddhism. Brahman references were so thoroughly integrated into their ceremony that there was no need to choose between the two. In the case of the Buddhist abbot who sat enthroned during the ceremony, although he was not obviously involved until the end, his presence was more than that of an observer. He was the one who presided throughout the ceremony and gave validation to what was going on.
(3) The dedication of those temple structures WAS A BUDDHIST FESTIVAL. “Northern Thai Buddhism contains a unique configuration of symbolic components to convey Buddhist wisdom contextually.”
The fundamental question is whether Northern Thai Buddhism as practiced with a remarkable amount of consistency and consensus throughout the region, is valid or not. Is it in need of radical reform? As it is practiced and conceptualized it is a religion. It serves all the basic religious functions: to connect people to transcendence and also to transform the mundane prospects of life into a new potentiality, to connect people into a community of believers, and to communicate a narrative about a person in the liminal past who was superior and whom it is advantageous to hold in highest esteem and gratitude. As we have it, Northern Thai Buddhism is a full-fledged religion in every sense of the term. Were it to be shorn of all its religious elements it would be something entirely different.
Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.