[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.
Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.