Deborah said she has “very devout Christian friends who do not want to take part in a Buddhist wedding.” I am tempted to rant, “If they refuse to even try to understand what’s going on in key events in Thailand how can they stand to be here in this country?”
Many conservative Christians “stand to be here” because they feel they can isolate themselves from sinister spiritual and religious elements. Faith in Christ offers divine protection, as well. Some are here to help convert people to Christianity and “get them saved.” But they refuse to bother to try to find out what Buddhist activities really are.
To be a Buddhist ceremony, as opposed to a Thai traditional one, the event must (a) have a Buddhist clergy person presiding, (b) include chanting of Buddhist scripture, (c) OR involve physical connection with an image of the Lord Buddha. That “physical connection” can be assumed if the event is inside a temple, if the connection is symbolized through a cord tied to a Buddha image, or by pouring water if the image is being paraded or bathed.
None of this happens in a Thai traditional wedding.
Aside from the fact that Thai traditional weddings are not Buddhist religious ceremonies because they lack Buddhist religious content or context, there is widespread acceptance of the notion that all Thai traditional events are also Buddhist because “Buddhism is indivisible and indistinguishable from everything that is authentically Thai.”
Where does one draw the line? Obviously there is a line somewhere. Thai food is part of Thai cultural identity. Not even vegetarianism in behalf of spiritual well-being is forbidden by Christians. Unlike several other religions, Thai Christians do not have strict food laws. Thai textiles tailored into traditional Thai costumes are no problem for most Christians (Mennonites and Roman Catholic clergy being prominent exceptions). Can Thai Christians serve in the Thai military or civil service, knowing that there will be occasions when everybody will be venerating royalty and even showing piety at religious shrines? For a lot of Christians military service is unavoidable and some choose military and civil service.
That brings us to holidays. In Thailand they are of two types: strictly religious holidays (including the three major Buddhist ones, Makha Bucha, Visaka Bucha, and Asalaha Bucha; but it is sometimes overlooked that the two Christian holidays and Muslim holy days are not only permitted by law and common consent, but Christians and Muslims are expected to treat those days as special according to their customs). The other type of Thai holiday is not mainly religious, Songkran and Loy Kratong being the most popular along with certain royal anniversaries. These holidays have Buddhist religious activities attached to them. Is floating a “kratong” on a waterway religious? Most Thai Christians have worked this out in a way that satisfies them. The same thing applies to “anointing with scented water” during the Songkran festival. The line between what should and should not be done is ultimately a personal decision.
Not all religious events in Thailand that Christians must decide about are Buddhist, as a matter of fact. Installation of a shrine at a construction site is a Brahmin-Hindu ritual. Christians might not attend. Other ceremonies venerate “spirits of nature” or propitiate “ghosts.” They are not Buddhist, but they are incorporated into Thai traditions.
Back to the notion, “If it’s really Thai it’s also Buddhist.” To be a real Thai person one must be Buddhist.
This is unacceptable for several reasons, but mainly because it excludes non-Buddhists from being real Thai people. Thai Christians confront this every day. Some handle it by minimizing the amount of differences they must acknowledge. They blend in as much as they can. Another approach made by some Christians is to fight against the idea that “if it’s Thai it’s Buddhist” by conducting Christian rituals to mark Thai traditions such as the King’s birthday. Fortunately, the previous King and Queen were consistent and successful in insisting that every Thai citizen is equally and authentically Thai, no matter their ethnicity or religion.
That is why it is perplexing that there are still Christians who don’t get what’s at stake when they refuse to even try to understand and participate when anything importantly Thai is going on. It becomes painful and personal when the event is related to key life events such as funerals and weddings. But being uninformed is one thing and being unwilling to be informed is a higher level of obstinacy.
Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.