When we talk about northern Thailand or the Lanna regions, we refer to regions including Kamphaeng Phet, Nakhon Sawan, Nan, Phayao, Phichit, Phitsanulok, Lampang, Lamphun, Sukhothai, Uttaradit, Uthai Thani, Chiang Rai, Chiang Mai, Phetchabun, and Mae Hong Son. Most of these regions are characterized by mountains, valleys and basins between mountains. There is a steep slope from the northwest that gradually slopes down to the low plains in the south-eastern and central regions before it slowly rises back in the east and northeast in the Nan Province, namely the Luang Prabang Mountain Range. These highlands are the source of many rivers and streams that flows into the Mekong River in the north and into the Chao Phraya River in the south as well as the Salween River in the west. It is an ideal fertile area for farming and settlement making it a source of important communities in the region.
Northern Thailand is a region of diverse traditions and cultures that are no less interesting than other regions of Thailand. It is known as a region full of magical charm with Chiangmai being the heart of Lanna and the centre of tourist attraction. Tourists are impressed with the many attractions and the generous spirit of the northerners. Apart from being a centre for arts, antiques, and traditional Lanna culture, Chiangmai is also a province that produces many Thai beauties and celebrities including Susira Anjeleena Nannan, Oranate D. Caballes, Natthanicha Dangwattanawanich, Pijakkana Wongsaratanasilp, and et cetera. Nonetheless, the actual spirit of northern Thais remains rooted in Lanna Buddhism.
Buddhism in Lanna Land
Prior to Theravada Buddhism, the people of Chiang Mai and those living in Lanna regions embraced Sasana Phi which was subsequently integrated with Buddhism giving rise to the various unique rituals and ceremonies hitherto. Theravada Buddhism is also the primary source that integrated the people of northern Thailand. The most unique feature is perhaps “Tung” that is likened to “flags” in the central region but has a meaning in Buddhism reflecting beliefs and faith as well as a cause to create unity among human beings. Theravada Buddhism continued to florished throughout the Lanna region with two eminent temples built under the grace of Phaya Kue Na to house the relics of Lord Buddha, namely, Wat Suan Dok and Wat Phra That Doi Suthep Ratchaworawihan.
Unfortunately, the Lanna regions fell into the hands of the Burmese in 1558 (B.E 2101), beginning what is called the 200 years of “Dark Age” in northern Thailand. Buddhism took a deep plunge during that era. There was a lack of monks who have qualifications, there were no Buddhist philosophers, and there were no religious texts or literature as there used to be in the past. Not until late 1760s and early 1770s that light began to shine through the kingdom once again with the rise of King Taksin the Great who successfully ended Burmese incursions in toto. The 15-year reign of King Taksin the Great was marked by a series of wars. After the establishment of Thonburi as the new Thai capital, the Burmese repeatedly tried to invade the kingdom. A total of nine major battles were fought during that period. The Burmese were defeated at Bang Kung, Samut Sakhon Province; Sawangkhalok; Phichai; and at Bang Kaew, Ratchaburi. Further battles were fought in the northern provinces to free Lanna Thai. The greatest battle of all took place in Chiangmai where the Burmese hold over the city was especially strong. The last Burmese attack on Chiangmai took place in 1776 (B.E. 2319) but they were thoroughly defeated by the Thai army. For more information, please refer to our earlier article “Understanding Thai Buddhism.”
Saint of Lanna
When Chiang Mai came under the rule of Bangkok, Buddhism in Chiangmai which used to be the centre of Lanna Buddhism has, therefore, been modified according to the practices originating from Bangkok. Regulations are all set centrally and which were deemed detrimental to the belief, custom, and cultural values of the Lanna people, especially the hill tribes.
During this time, Kruba Sriwichai, a hero within the clergy was born. He was a monk who respected both the faiths of the townspeople and hill tribes and he was the monk who revitalized Lanna Buddhism especially in Chiangmai. His Venerable was also responsible for the reformation and restoration of various temples in Chiangmai and nearby provinces until he received the title Saint of Lanna. His Venerable’s struggle to restore Lanna Buddhism gained strong support from the Lanna community as well as the northern clergy with more than 90 temples breaking rank with the Thai Sangha to join Kruba Srivichai. His Venerable’s influence was both eminent and prominent among the Lanna communities so-much-so that he was perceived as a threat by both the Thai Sangha and the Thai state leading to His Venerable’s second detention at Wat Benchamabophit in 1935 (B.E. 2478).
His Venerable’s detention caused loud public disquiet that Luang Sri Praklak, the member of the House of Representatives for Chiangmai at that time, ultimately demanded the release of Kruba Srivichai at the Cabinet meeting. The political intervention caught the eyes of the general public and His Venerable was finally released in 1936 (B.E. 2479).
The Immortal Speech
After being released, His Venerable said “if the Ping River doesn’t flow back north will not ask to step on the land of Chiang Mai.”
Kruba Srivichai thus returned to Wat Ban Pang, Li District, Lamphun Province where His Venerable entered parinibbāna on February 21, 1938 (B,E. 2481). His relics were divided into 7 parts and enshrined in 7 different locations throughout Lanna as follows:
1. Wat Chamadewi, Lamphun Province
2. Wat Suan Dok, Chiang Mai Province
3. Wat Phra Kaeo Don Tao, Lampang Province
4. Wat Sri Khom Kham, Phayao Province
5. Wat Phra That Cho Hae, Phrae Province
6. Wat Nam Hoo, Mae Hong Son Province
7. Wat Ban Pang, Li District, Lamphun Province
A statue of Kruba Sriwichai moulded and casted in Bangkok was delivered upon the completion of the Kruba Srivichai Monument at the foot of the mountain on the way up to Wat Phra That Doi Suthep. However, it was said that the statue just somehow cannot be taken out from the car and has to be sent back to Bangkok. The people believe it was due to the mystical immortality of His Venerable’s speech aforementioned. Consequently, the construction of the Bhumibol Dam in Tak Province caused water to flood up to the north in 1964 (B.E. 2507) and Kruba Srivichai’s image was then successfully invited and enshrined at the foot of Wat Phra That Doi Suthep.
The Last of Kruba Srivichai’s Disciples
Besides Kruba Srivichai, there are also several other northern Thai monks such as Luang Pu Waen and Luang Phor Kasaem who achieved nationwide reverence. However, the most celebrated figure in in recent Lanna history was Phra Mongkolwisut or Kruba Chao Duangdee Suphatto, the former abbot of Wat Tha Champi, one of the top guru monks in Chiangmai who is known as the last generation of Kruba Srivichai’s disciples.
Kruba Duangdee Suphatto was born on April 26, 2449 in Ban Tha Champi, Thung Satok Subdistrict, San Pa Tong District, Chiang Mai Province during the reign of His Majesty King Chulalongkorn, King Rama V, corresponding to the reign of Por Chao Inthawichayanon (Chao Maha Chiva) Ruler of Chiang Mai. He was a native of Tha Champi village from birth. His parents were farmers. His father’s name was Por Oob and his mother’s was Mae Chan. Kruba Duangdee had 8 siblings from the same parents, 4 males, 4 females and His Venerable was the 7th child in the family.
At the age of 13, Kruba Duangdee was brought before Kruba Sriwichai who, at that time, had come to restore the city of Chiangmai in 2462. Kruba Srivichai was pleased and he told Kruba Duangdee that “If you are ordained a monk, then you come up and stay at Wat Phra Singh and will be friend with Sing Dam” (the biological grandson of Kruba Sriwichai). Kruba Duangdee was subsequently ordained. He studied and practiced under the instruction of Kruba Srivichai until he was 32 years old. Then His Venerable followed the footsteps of Kruba Srivichai and travelled extensively to build temples in the northern regions before returning to construct Wat Tha Champi.
At the age of 42, Kruba Duangdee received the title of Chao Awat of Thung Satok Subdistrict. However, even he was burdened by duties of the Sangha His Venerable did not neglect the observance of Vipassana meditation and practices of ancient Lanna wetmon. Besides the building and expansion of Wat Tha Champi, His Venerable also became the main force in the construction and restoration of almost every temple in the region as well as other philanthropic projects be it roads, ubosot, viharn, chedi, bridges, or even schools and hospitals. Therefore, His Venerable had utilise the ancient Lanna wetmon he learned from Kruba Srivichai to make and consecrate various sacred objects to raise funds for these activities.
Sacred objects made and consecrated by His Venerable are highly priced but, nonetheless, are well received by followers, believers, and collectors. Among the many sacred objects highly sought after is Kumarnthong Thep Phanom (Loon Lek) made and consecrated in Buddhist year 2517. Kumanthong Thep Phanom was made from108 types of powder mixed with gold leaves and consecrated through the invocation of ancient Lanna Thai rituals of Samanayakaya where the gloomy Rasri become bright with merit. Kumanthong Thep Phanom, as an angel, will perform the prestige by helping believers in various positive aspects. Unfortunately, owing to high effectiveness and demand, Kumarnthong Thep Phanom becomes one of the most imitated Kumanthong images after those made and consecrated by Luang Phor Teh.
Watthuk Mongkhun loon Sudthai Phra Mongkhon Wisut
His Venerable continued his virtuous endeavours right up to his final days. In Buddhist year 2551, His Venerable made and consecrated the last batch of sacred objects (Watthuk Mongkhun loon Sudthai Phra Mongkhon Wisut) to raise funds for Wat Choeng Wai, Pak Than Subdistrict, Bang Rachan District, Singburi Province for the construction of the Buddha Trai Rattanakosin (Luang Por To) image measuring lap width 20 meters and height 43 meters costing 20 million baht whilst the overall project inclusive of pillars, archways and et cetera amounted to another 5 million baht. The direct temple rental prices for Watthuk Mongkhun loon Sudthai Phra Mongkhon Wisut begins from 5,000 baht to 1 million baht. Some of these sacred objects are still available at Wat Tha Champi at old prices.
After serving the Sangha for 83 years, Kruba Duangdee entered parinibbāna at the age 104 years old on February 6, 2553. The former abbot of Wat Tha Champi, San Pa Tong District, Chiang Mai Province, was the longest-lived famous monk in Lanna Thai. The passing of His Venerable has caused rental prices for sacred objects made and consecrated by His Venerable skyrocketing. At the same time, it has also led to counterfeit products flooding the market.
People familiar with Thai Buddhism and culture will have already noticed that there are many Goddesses within the belief system. The most commonly seen Goddess in Thailand is perhaps the Goddess of Fortune Mae Nangkwak whose statues are seen in most shops and stalls across the country. However, in this article, we are going to talk about the Earth Goddess who has existed prior to Buddhism and who has been widely worshipped since the period known as Sasana Phi and hitherto.
The belief in Earth Goddess as a primordial anthropomorphic celestial deity was almost common throughout ancient civilizations from East to West. To the Greeks, she was known as Gaia; to the Aztecs, she was Goddess Toci; to Indo-Europeans, she was known either as Demeter or Semele; to the native Americans, she was known as Atira; to the Chinapeople, she was known as Dimu; to the Indonesians, she was known as Ibu Pertiwi; in India, she was known either as Prithvi or Dharti Mata, and et cetera. To the modern people today, she is simply called Mother Earth. Therefore, it can be said that the Earth Goddess has been with human beings since time immemorial and prior to the creation of religions.
Calling Earth to Witness
The Earth Goddess is Phra Sri Suwanthara or popularly known as Mae Tollani to the Thais. The most popular reference to Mae Tollani in Buddhism is the chapter known as “Calling Earth to Witness.” The chapter depicts Lord Buddha’s final stage towards enlightenment under the bodhi tree when Mara, accompanied by his warriors and daughters, attempted to drive Lord Buddha from His throne. The dark forces were so aggressive that they managed to terrify all Gods and sent them scurrying away, leaving Lord Buddha to face the devils all by Himself.
Lord Buddha stretched down his right hand and touched the earth (known as the Māravijaya or mara vichai posture), summoning the Goddess of Earth to be His witness. Mae Tollani appeared in the form of a beautiful young woman and avowed Lord Buddha’s right. When the devil forces remained adamant, Mae Tollani twisted her long cascading hair and torrents of water collected from the innumerable donatives libations over the ages created a flood which washed Mara and his army away.
The Māravijaya or mara vichai posture where the seated Buddha puts His right hand casually on His knee cap with fingers pointing towards to the ground, and His other hand on His lap with His eyes either closed or looking down to the ground became known as “subduing Mara.” Buddha images in that posture are associated with the power of invincibility, warding away evil, success, victory, and great wealth. The most popular sacred object of this category originating from a temple is the Somdej Channa Manbandal Sapo made and consecrated by Luang Phor Thongdaam, Wat Tham Thapian Thong in Buddhist year 2552. The amulet depicts Lord Buddha in the mara vichai posture under the bodhi tree with Mae Tollani under the throne and Mae Bosok on the rear of the amulet.
At the same time, the name Mae Tollani appears in many Thai literature, such as the book of the First Mahachat sermon (the Vessantara, Jataka), Lilit Taleng Phai and etc. with different names, such as the Mae Tollani and Phra Mae Vasuntharapsutha which all possess the same meaning – owner of wealth. The chapter “Calling Earth to Witness” has also influenced the outlook of Mae Tollani whereby her image is created with her twisting her long cascading hair. According to various Thai reviews, the most expensive and effective image of Mae Tollani ever made and consecrated in modern days is that of Luang Phor Pae of Wat Pikulthong whereas, in terms of beauty and exquisiteness, the unanimous vote went to the image from Luang Phor Kuay’s temple, Wat Kositaram.
Rituals and Traditions in Construction
Paying homage to Mae Tollani plays an important role in Thai Buddhism and Thai culture. Before the commencement of anything, homage has to be paid to Mae Tollani first because she is the guardian who sustains the land from which everything in this world is born. This is particularly so pertaining to works requiring pounding, digging, drilling, and hitting the ground. It is believed that these activities not only disturb Mae Tollani but also other spirits, especially the Nagas. Therefore, in some temples there are also four Nagas statues enshrined together with Mae Tollani.
There is no universal ritual in this regards. It varies according to the various schools of thoughts. People from different provinces may also have their own traditions as well. Therefore, whatever procedures elaborated in this article is by no means authoritative and/or exhaustive but a mere window into the belief system.
Relocation of Mae Tollani
Generally, prior to any building construction, homage has to be made to Mae Tollani whereby a “petition” for the intended activities is “submitted” to Mae Tollani seeking her approval, forgiveness and blessing. This is followed by the ritual of “Relocation of Mae Tollani” known commonly as the relocation ceremony. This ceremony can either be very grand or merely symbolic depending on individuals. In the least, the property owner will bring a pair of joss sticks, a yellow candle, a pair of jasmine garland on a pedestal or a silver bowl into the middle of the courtyard where the house would be built and recite a spell (usually under the guidance of a guru). After the recitation is completed, the joss sticks and candle will be placed on the west side of the area where the house is to be built.
Offerings to Mae Tollani
Immediately following the relocation ceremony is the ritual of offerings. The property owner will presentofferings to Mae Tollani in 5 containers (trays), namely, (a) 5 pairs of white flowers except Champa flowers; (b) 1 bowl of rain water; (c) 1 comb; (d) 1 ripe banana; (e) 1 hard-boiled egg; and (f) five bowls consisting of white flowers and 5 pairs of white candles each with matches. The person who performs the ceremony will hold the 5 bowls while those who attend the ceremony will walk behind the person who performs the ritual to the ceremonial area. The property owner will then light two candles and place them on the five bowls and raise the five bowls up to about his chest level. He will make another recitation after which all offerings will be moved to a place where no one will step on them. This completes the relocation ceremony.
Most people will proceed to initiate the ritual of “Perd Tollani” or ground opening immediately after offerings to Mae Tollani. “Perd Tollani” means a ritual pertaining to working the ground that serves as a prelude to the commencement of construction work. However, according to Luang Phor Somjit’s linage, we will conduct a “Wai Kru” ritual to pay homage to our ancestral teachers, Rheesis, and Gods in-between these two ceremonies.
There will also be other rituals pertaining to the selection of direction, the raising of the main pillar or setting of the foundation stone, and et cetera but which are all-in-all beyond the purview of this article.
Similarly, in the process of buying and selling properties, renovation, and moving into a new home, homage and offerings are also made to Mae Tollani to ensure all transactions and works go on smoothly and people moving into a new house will enjoy peace, good health and prosperity.
Phitti Boon Nang Din
In Northern Thailand, there are also various rituals relating to Mae Tollani that are regarded as traditions and the most important being “Phitti Boon Nang Din.” This is a very complicated ceremony involving various homage and rituals to different Gods including Mae Tollani, Mae Khongkha, Mae Bosok and other Gods involved in the process of planting rice.
As we now know, Mae Tollani is the guardian Goddess of Earth and rice planting involves working on the earth so it is inevitable that homage to Mae Tollani has to be conducted. But what about Mae Khongkha? Well, the history of Mae Khongkha is beyond the scope of this article but suffice to state herein that she is the sister of Phra Mae Uma (Lord Shiva’s wife and Lord Ganesha’s mother). Mae Khongkha is responsible for the water element that can either be a creative or destructive source for which rice planting is intrinsically dependent upon. Hence, it is necessary to pay homage to Mae Khongkha as well. Whereas Mae Bosok is the guardian of rice and, hence, the primary Goddess involved in “Phitti Boon Nang Din”. Homage will be made to Mae Bosok before and during planting as well as during harvesting.
Mae Tollani as a Witness of Merits
Pursuant to the chapter “Calling Earth to Witness” the Goddess of Earth Mae Tollani has been revered as an impartial witness of merits in all rituals and ceremonies. Practitioners of the inner path, especially “Wethmon Khao,” often pay homage to and invite Mae Tollani as a witness, a protector, or a facilitator in their chants and rituals. Many rituals cannot succeed without her approval and help. Even in the creation of “nammoon Mae Tollani” or holy water to drive away negative energies and evil, practitioners will have to dedicate 21 days of prayers to Mae Tollani.
Mae Tollani is also the principal Goddess overseeing the “Kruad Nam” or water libation ritual that forms an essential part of almost all ceremonies in Thailand, for examples, merit making, “sedok krok” or extracting bad luck, wedding, funeral, and et cetera where water is deposited into the earth through Mae Tollani as an impartial witness. For those who have participated in the water libation ritual, you will remember hearing the monks begin the chant with “Yatha Wariwaha Pura Paripurenti Sakarang …” and you will start pouring water without interruption, dedicating merits to the intended benefactor(s) both seen and/or unseen. It is believed that water and earth are the mediators between the human world and the other worlds, especially afterlife. The water libation ritual is said to have a long tradition going back to the time when Lord Buddha taught King Bimbisarn to pour water (Thaksinotok) onto the ground to dedicate merits to deceased relatives. In this regard, it has become something that has been adhered to for generations.
Worshipping Mae Tollani
It is believed that worshipping a genuinely consecrated image of Mae Tollani at home or in an office will bring about harmony, happiness, good fortune and wealth. At the same time, she will protect the territory from negative energies and dispel all evil. For the general believers the process is simply as follows:
Prepare the followings:
1. Five kinds of fruit (preferably including young coconut and banana)
Thailand is one of the few countries that produce the best horror movies, however, the belief in ghosts is not uniquely Thai but, on the contrary, it is a cornerstone of most cultures. If you think believing in ghosts and spirits in this scientifically and technologically advanced age is weird or not align with mainstream belief then you may have to rethink critically.
A poll conducted by YouGov in October 2019 found that at least 45% of Americans believe in ghosts and demons whereas a similar poll conducted in October 2014 found 34% of British people share similar belief and these figures are rising steadily among those aged 35 and below. Other surveys conducted in the last 10 years have shown 68% of Singaporeans aged 45 and below and just about everyone in Thailand and Taiwan believe in ghosts.
Belief in Paranormal Existences in the 21st Century
Where does the belief in ghosts and spirits stands in a technologically and scientifically advanced 21st century? There are many Buddhist scholars who reject spirit related issues based on a claim that the death-birth cycle is instantaneous, that is to say, the moment an individual dies, his/her “mind” immediately finds a body conditioned by thoughts of that individual when breathing his/her last breath. There are equally other Buddhist scholars who claim that rebirth in the various planes of existence is all up in the mind, that is, from birth right up to enlightenment are all played out in a single life time and there is no real rebirth or reincarnation of beings.
We are not sure about the premises of their propositions. We have not found them in any sutta leave alone in the words of Lord Buddha. However, what we do observed is that both propositions share a common denomination which, in psychology, is called “thought flow.” The first proposition may be defined as fantasizing and, the second as daydreaming. If such propositions are to hold any legitimacy in Buddhism then, sadly, understanding the Four Noble Truth, the theory of dependent origination, the law of kamma, and practising the Noble Eightfold Path amongst other things taught by Lord Buddha will inevitably all-in-all become a mockery and a waste of time, are they not?
The essence of Buddhism in facing death is to conquer fear for the unknown. Rebirth after death, how long does it take to be reincarnated and what afterlife is like; and in which plane of existence will one be reborn are all unknown to an individual. Therefore, unavoidably, there will always be fear and anxiety. In order to overcome these negative psychological and emotional effects is through the understanding of the law of kamma, to cultivate and accumlate good kamma so as to be reborn in a pleasant state within the 31 planes of existence. Unfortunately, the afore-mentioned scholarly propositions approach fear and anxiety over the unknown outside one’s comfort zone through the formation of an escape route made easy and pleasant by way of fantasy and daydream which, in our opinion, is simply not Buddhism!
Does Science Explain Everything?
Scientists have attempted to debunk and explain paranormal experiences based on faulty activity in the brain. They usually attribute such experiences to some form of neurotrauma, for examples, objects moving by itself may be associated with certain malfunctioning to specific regions of the visual processing centre of the brain called the occipital lobe; certain forms of epilepsy, a central nervous system disorder, may cause spooky feelings such as the presence of the unseen; and any combination of fatigue, drugs, alcohol, and lighting effects may also contribute to a single and isolated experience of paranormal encounter. There may be some truth in these scientific dogmas but they may not always be true in every context.
What happens if there is no brain damage detected? Then it must be some form of cognitive or emotional dysfunction, otherwise, the answer must be that of insanity. These are somewhat the scientific protocols that are guarded zealously by the institutions at the expense and well-being of people who experience paranormal activities. Many but not all paranormal experiences may be linked to neuropsychiatric problems and to force-fit each and every content into a set of predetermined context do more harm than good. The fear of being stigmatised and committed to some mental institutions apparently discouraged people to be frank about their experiences or to seek help and solutions if their experiences are bad ones.
The Protective Shield
Psychologists studying religion have utilised and expanded the concept of “protective shield” formulated by Freud to explain the belief in Gods and spirits. The protective shield functions as a dynamic barrier between outside and inside worlds of an individual as well as an aversive state of mind in attributing those things that is beyond one’s control to some illusory forces which may collectively be termed superstition. For examples, asking for God’s help to secure a job; prayers for a love one to recover speedily from a sickness; or wearing a sacred object to enhance charisma and et cetera.
We must not forget that science is a process of learning and discovery, and it has been proven times and again that what was initially thought to be scientifically right and conclusive turned out wrong decades later. Take eugenics, for example. In the past and, to a certain extent, even now, it is believed that intelligence is hereditary which by the very own scientific standards have proven it to be scientifically flawed and meaningless. Inasmuch as criminality, intelligence is greatly influenced by environment and not genes. Are sophisticated crimes not usually committed by intelligent, influential, and well-connected people? Why then do some people still hold ardently on to and propagate such a flawed belief? The answer is quite obvious, is it not? It all voices down to politics and discrimination serving the interests of a dominant group, like Nazis. Therefore, who is actually holding the protective shield?
Believing science knows everything is as superstitious as what it sets out to disprove. The very belief that science is the ultimate revelation and omniscience that ends all revelations as both Hawking and Weinberg envisioned has hitherto turned out to be nothing more than an apparition of scientific delusion. Thinking science as true and permanent is itself self-defeating right from the outset. We are making this statement not because we are Thai Buddhist subscribing to the theorem of impermanence but the very fact that aspects of life are none permanent. Our environment, laws, marriage instituion, and even apparatus are not even the same compared just to 20-30 years back. Try comparing each sexagenary cycle as far back as you could and you will see how vastly different things are. And they are continuously changing.
We have to bear in mind that science is not a conclusion but merely an approximation derived from the limited knowledge of mankind. Even the current knowledge of the cosmos together with the law and logic formulated there-in-under are merely inconclusive scientific guesses just as Newton’s theory on gravity does not explain the precession of Mercury’s orbit. In response, a hypothetical planet name Vulcan is said to have caused the scientific hiccups. Hitherto, to these scientists, planet Vulcan remains the omnipotent “Spirit” orbiting in our known solar system. Vulcan’s existence is just like spirits and ghosts that are scientifically incapable of being proved or disproved, at least with the current technology and knowledge of mankind.
In our opinion, whether the existence and validity of ghosts and spirits are real or mere superstition is for you to form your own judgment because it is after-all your own personal belief and experiences which none other besides yourself has the privy to make any pronouncement.
Nature-Spirits in Modern Thailand
Nonetheless, in this article we are not going to talk about ghosts, rather, we are going to explore the theme of nature-spirits or “winyan thamachat” in the Thai context. In our earlier article “Understanding Thai Buddhism” we briefly touched on this topic by way of reference to “yakkhas,” There are a myriad of those who have and would continue to argue that yakkhas are Hindu and not Buddhist epithet and, thus, non-Buddhist. However, despite the overlap in the belief of yakkhas between Buddhism and Hinduism, the said proposition is actually flawed and untrue per se because nature-spirits predated any religious tradition we know of today. They were found in almost all primitive civilization and society from East to West. We may attribute the apparent incongruity to differences in cosmological, ontological, and epistemological approaches to the subject matter in contrast to Buddhism.
There is no official name to that belief but which the Thais describe as “Satsana Phi” or “ghost religion.” Nevertheless, we are also not going to delve into the origin of the belief but suffice to state herein that the very concept of nature-spirits or yakkhas forms part of Buddhism per the Maha Niddesa in Pitaka Sutta, Ratana Sutta and Āṭānāṭiya Sutta. When we talk about yakkhas in Thai Buddhism, almost naturally, most people misperceive it to refer to the 12 guardian Yahks commonly seen in Thai temples. The most famous of these 12 Yahks is Phaya Yahk Tosakan. However, the fact is that in Buddhism, yakkhas refer not to a specific class of spirits but a very broad category of nature-spirits that are found in water, earth, trees, stones, mountains, caves, and et cetera. They can be good and benevolent like some tutelary deities or naughty, whimsical, or even outright demonic and devilish. Owing to their diverse characteristics and personalities, they are sometimes generally referred to as “amanussa” who could either be a deity, a spirit, a ghost, a demon or a devil.
In this article, we are not going to explore the wide spectrum of nature-spirits but only to concentrate on tree spirits. We will borrow the epithet “nymph” from Greek mythology as a collective reference to tree spirits known as “nang mai” in Thailand. Nymphs can either be a deity, a spirit, a ghost, a demon or a devil that reside in large trees, especially old trees. In other words, the trees in which nymphs reside are considered their homes, thus, they will protect their homes from being destroyed by human beings. When human beings tampered with or have the intention of cutting down trees occupied by nymphs, the nymphs had to show their powers and make their presence known to warn and deter people from destroying their homes. There are numerous stories in various countries where people fell sick, became insane, or even died after cutting down certain trees believed to be “possessed” by spirits.
A nymph can either be male or female but in Thailand it is usually depicted as a beautiful young woman, with shoulder length hair, dressed in traditional costumes with a sabai. The reason for not illustrating a male nymph is perhaps related to inhibited stances in sexual desire between genders. Stories and movies of nymphs are usually centred on some sexual relationship and, hence, in a patriarchal society like Thailand, it is a taboo to stimulate female sexual fantasy. We will also leave the topic of sexuality and gender discrimination as it is and continue this article under the general assumption that nymphs are all females.
Mae Takhien: A Powerful Tree Spirit
A takhien can grow up to 45m in height with the base of its trunk reaching a diameter of 4.5m. Some of these takhien trees have been around for hundreds of years. The sprawling tall trunk gives a spooky and terrifying feeling that either something sacred or evil is in it. It is believed that the takhien trees are usually possessed by nymphs. If the more sap oozes out from it, the more it is possible that a nymph has taken abode in it. The Thais call nymphs residing in the takhien trees Mae Takhien or Nang Takhien.
Mae Takhien is a very powerful nature-spirit who can either bring blessing or cause severe disaster. It is said that Mae Takhien is usually a beautiful woman with long hair, wearing traditional Thai costumes with a sabai like an ancient Thai woman but sometimes she may also appear as typical forest girl, innocent, sweet and attractive. It is believed that in a very old takhian tree there will most likely be a Mae Takhian residing in it. Therefore, Mae Takhien is not a single entity but multiple individual spirits which, by virtue thereof, makes their characteristics diverse and unpredictable.
Is there a nymph residing in every takhian tree? No one can tell for sure. But to cut down a takhien tree, especially that which is many decades old, the cutter often has to perform a ritual requesting Mae Takhien to relocate to a new place. People who cut a takhian tree without performing that ritual are often punished. They are either struck with illness, insanity, or death whereas for people who show respect and honour Mae Takhien, they are, on the contrary, usually rewarded with good fortune and luck. Owing to the capricious nature of Mae Takhien it is difficult to describe her as a deva or a ghost, thus, the term “amanussa” is used in lieu.
Despite the belief, the fear, and the costs, both psychological and spiritual, associated with takhien trees, they are insufficient to prevent human beings from their desire to cut and use the hardwood that is resistant to sunlight and rain for various purposes, especially in canoe building. For the canoe builders, they usually perform grand offering ceremony when cutting and turning a takhien tree into a canoe. Each time a canoe is completed, another special ritual will be performed so that Mae Takhien will change her status to Mae Yanang, the guardian and protector of that canoe.
Some people also use takhien trees to make house pillars. However, there have been many reported cases in the Thai newspapers that oil kept oozing out from those pillars made from takhien trees. Those pillars are coined as “Oil Tak Pillar” and it is believed that it is a sign that Mae Takhien cries in dissatisfaction. The oil stopped oozing once homeowners hurry to pay homage to each pillar with grandiosity. Whereas for those house owners who ignored the omen, members living in the house will become sick and eventually die. The question is, why would one wants to have Mae Takhien as the pillars to his house?
In Wat Kaeo Krachang, Si Bua Thong Subdistrict, Sawan District, Ang Thong Province, there is a 5 meters tall and radius 1.5 meters wide wooden sculpture of a woman dressed in traditional Lanna Thai costumes with Pikul flowered patterns and beautiful jewellery enshrined in the pavillion. According to the abbot of the temple, Phrakru Wiboon Worawat, the statue enshrined in the temple is called “Mae Kaew Prakaithong” or “Chao Mae Takhien.” It is carved from a takhien wood dating back to Dvaravati period recovered from the Si Bua Thong pond by the Subdistrict Administrative Organization. This is one of the few Mae Takhien statues in Thailand. Note that once consecrated by monks and enshrined in a temple, the status of Mae Takhien is elevated from “amanussa” to “Chao” meaning deva.
Sacred Objects made from Takhien Wood
Takhien wood is believed to possess natural divine energy and many sacred objects carved from takhien wood are believed to be very powerful and highly sought after. In Buddhist year 2550, Wat Suthiwat Wararam (Wat Chong Lom), Tha Chalom, Mueang Samut Sakhon District, Samut Sakhon made and consecrated a batch of amulets carved from ancient takhien wood excavated in its temple compound.
There are also other temples that made and consecrated amulets out of takhien wood. For example, in Buddhist year 2551, Wat Nongpho also made and consecrated a batch of Luang Phor Derm amulets from Takhien wood.
In our earlier article “Luang Phor Poot: Master of Snake Spirit” we have also introduced the the Phaya Tor amulets made from takhien wood and consecrated by Luang Phor Poot of Wat Klang Bangplad.
Besides the huge statue of Chao Mae Takien statue in Wat Kaew Krachang that is carved from takhien wood, if you travel approximately 548 kilometres (about 7-8 hours journey from Bangkok) in the northeast direction to Phu Sing District, Si Saket Province to Wat Ban Thai Tavorn, you will find 3 huge statues carved personally by the abbot Luang Phor Boonsong Paphakro from takhien trees excavated within the temple’s compound.
The first takhien tree excavated in year 2554 was carved into a statue of Chao Mae Takhien also known as Niang Kaew Pathum. A second takhien tree trunk was found immersed in a pond in year 2562 by villagers. However, for 7 days the villagers tried to hoist up the tree trunk but failed. A ritual was then initiated where prayers and offerings were made to Mae Takhien. After asking Mae Takhien for permission, the trunk was successfully hoisted.
The trunk was found to be burned, possibly being struck by lightning before it fell into water, therefore, the surface of the trunk was very rough. Luang Phor Boonsong then came up with the idea of carving the trunk into a 14 metres long and 1 metre wide Phaya Jolakhe, turning the rough surface into hard scales of Phaya Jolakhe. The Phaya Jolakhe is named “Arak Khadang” and is believed that walking into its mouth and coming out from its tail will help ward away all bad elements and bring about good fortune.
The statue of Thao Wessuwan is about 9 meters high and the base is about 5 meters wide. His right hand holds a wand with a dog’s head and his left hand holds a glowing orb. Thao Wessuwan is also called “Thao Phaisop” and is the General of all demons. He is one of the four Jatulokban protectors of the human world and resides in the north heavens, with Thao Thot or “Phra In” in the east heavens, Thao Wirunhak or”Phra Yom”in the south heavens, and Thao Wirupak or “Phra Varun” in the west heavens. The Mahayanists call them the “Four Great Heavenly Kings.”
Nang Tani: The Banan Tree Ghost
When we talk about banana tree ghost, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, and Indonesia share a similar belief. In Thailand, a banana tree ghost is known as “Phi Tani” or “Nang Tani” whilst in Malaysia and Singapore, and Indonesia it is called “pontianak” and “kuntilanak” respectively which refers to the ghost of a pregnant woman who died a tragic death and somehow resides in a banana tree. Whether primordial or impending, banana tree ghost is nothing but a ghost.
According to the Thai Encyclopedia for Youth, Volume 13, Nang Tani is defined as follows:
“The banana tree is the hangout of Prai Nang Tani, well known among the older generation. She is said to have a beautiful face, a fragrant body, long hair, and pale red palms and soles like pigeon feet. Lips are the color of ripe gourds. If bananas have plump stems Prai Nang Tani has a chubby figure; if there is a transparent trunk Prai Nang Tani has a slender figure.”
Because Nang Tani is a ghost, therefore, Thais do not plant Tani banana trees near their houses. There are also certain rules to adhere to when cutting the tani banana leaves for use. It is forbidden to cut off the whole leaf which includes the pseudo stem. Either only trim off the banana leaves or cut off the mid rib leaving the pseudo stem and apparent trunk intact. Cutting off the pseudo stem and/or apparent trunk is like cutting into the house of Nang Tani. It is a bad omen and someone at home will soon die. This appears to be due to the old aphorism of using three banana leaves to support the bottom of a coffin. Now, usually only banana leaf crafts or “thaeng yuak” are used on-top of coffin cover.
Banana Ghost Witchcraft: A Low-Art Shunned by Mainstream
In certain places, ceremonies are initiated to placate Nang Tani for various reasons. Items used include baisi, pork head, sweet and savoury dishes, rice, flowers, incense sticks and candles, perfumes and fragrances such as sandalwood and etc. A ring and a gold necklace are attached to the trunk of a banana flower as an ornament and a piece of red cloth is wrapped around the banana tree trunk. Usually, the ritual is to ask Nang Tani not to harm but to protect the people in the house and to have good fortune. Sometimes monks are invited to pray and make merit for Nang Tani as well.
However, there are also witchcraft masters who performed rituals by taking the banana flowers from a tree in which it is believed a Nang Tani resides, dry them under the sun and, subsequently, grind them into powder and mixed it with chanted powder for use to charm people. Sometimes they put the banana flower-powder in honey and/or lipsticks to be use to attract the opposite sex.
There are also many low-crafts used in summoning Nang Tani. The most deplorable one is a distortion of a traditional Songkhla ritual of wedding a spirit tree. It has been said that a bachelor who knows about the existence of Nang Tani in a specific tree will go to that banana tree every night and rubbed his genital against the base of that banana tree as he says flirtatious words to Nang Tani until she becomes aroused. At that point, he then takes a knife and cut the root of the banana tree that looks like a rhizome to be carved into a figurine of a woman and put it in a wooden container. Offerings and chanting will be made every morning and evening for several days until the ghost of Nang Tani appears in his dream. The man will take Nang Tani as his wife and she will in turn help him to prosper. However, according to the Treasury of Thai Wisdom, it is stated that “The ghost Nang Tani likes to seduce men and is terribly jealous. If a man who has sex with her went with another woman, Nang Tani would immediately follow and break that man’s neck in a rage of jealousy.”
We have seen various amulets of Nang Tani circulating on the Internet for quite sometimes now but which are not found within the Thai community. To the numerous Thais we inquired, they are as equally perplexed and amused as we are. No Thai in his right mind would wear a ghost amulet, on the contrary, if a close one is suspected to be “playing with ghosts” monks or “mor phi” will usually be invited to terminate that relationship and dedicate the merit to Nang Tani to rest in peace. Moreover, ghosts are restrained within specific territories in which they are found and cannot travel freely from one place to another. For example, even if your neighbour’s house is haunted, the ghost cannot come to your house.
According to the various guru monks we have spoken to about the subject matter, they all said such “khorng dam” or low objects are specially made by profiteers for foreigners who do not understand Thai Buddhism because there is no Thai market for this type of things. To the Thais, Buddhism is not only a religion but also a way of life. Most Thais understand the law of kamma and they understand that actions driven by “cetanā” (intention) will lead to future consequences. In other words, there is a cost to every action which is a determining factor in both this life and the kind of rebirth in “saṃsāra.” The playing with low objects will only lead to bad, if not tragic, experiences in this lifetime and a rebirth in the lower planes.
So how real is the “banana ghost” some people are wearing? Honestly, we are sure but they will definitely have their own stories to tell.
Marrying a Nymph
As afore-mentioned, marrying a nymph or tree spirit is an ancient Songkhla custom with its root stretching 300-400 years back. The custom is centred in an ancient temple, Wat Mamuang. The temple was built around 2299 B.E. It is located at Ban Muang Mu, Sathing Mo Sub-district, Singhanakhon District, Songkhla Province, under the Maha Nikaya Sangha. It is also the place of origin pertaining to the legend of Chao Mae Muang Thong. There are two versions to the legend and they are as follows.
According to the first story, the nymph Chao Mae Muang Thong was the daughter of Ya Chan and Ta Jerm, who donated the land on which her house was built to be built into a temple. After she died, she repeatedly appeared to the villagers and let them know that she resided in the huge mango tree in the temple’s compound. She was dressed in traditional costumes and was full of gold including bracelets, anklets, necklaces, and hairpins, hence, the villagers addressed her as Mae Muang Thong, literally meaning “mother gold mango.” When the villagers began to make offerings to the mango tree, she in turn cured them of their diseases and sufferings from various causes.
The second version is recorded in the Book of Songkhla and Culture. It states that “the daughter of the Governor of Nakhon Si Thammarat was captured by thieves and she was robbed and killed. The corpse was hidden in the hollow of a large mango which later performed miracles to appear repeatedly until the villagers respected and made sacrifices to her.”
Chao Mae Muang Thong or such a nymph repeatedly appeared to the villagers to see and dream of, letting them know that she resided in the large mango tree inside Wat Mamuang. Indeed, the villagers began making offerings and sacrifices to Chao Mae Muang Thong at the large mango tree. The most unique thanksgiving culture practiced by the villagers is that of marrying the nymph after wishes are fulfilled.
The origin of marriage with a nymph is, however, unclear. It has been said that it could possibly be attributed to practices of the Chinese migrants from China. Chinapeople believe that if a child in the family falls seriously ill it is better to “sacrifice” the child and make it a descendant of the spirit, i.e. making the child a “godson” or “goddaughter” of a spirit. Thus, for the family to be bonded with the spirit, a marriage has to take place.
Somehow, that practice transformed into a custom that a man who has reached maturity but before the ordination as a monk must be wedded to Mae Muang Thong. However, unlike the low art practiced with regards to Nang Tani, there is no sexual fantasy in this instance and even after being married to Mae Muang Thong, the man can still marry a real woman as usual. Therefore, marriage with Mae Muang Thong is a matter that must be passed on through the family line. The wedding ceremony with Mae Muang Thong is carried out in the same way as a normal marriage between people but it can be performed only on Tuesdays and Saturdays. Another unique phenomenon is that the groom must dress in traditional costumes and carry a dagger. A traditional “khan mak” procession is held. At the end of the ceremony, everyone in the village will be fed with a bowl of vermicelli soup. Incidentally, if a woman received help from Mae Muang Thong, she will also initiate a wedding ceremony by dressing as a man.
Outsiders tend to view this custom as pure superstition. However, according to sociologists, the seemingly “weird” custom is actually an embodiment of social cohesion and integration of the various races and religions that settled in Singhanakhon District. In an article published by Thai Journalist Association, sociologists exhort critics to see beyond the surface and look deeper into the history and demographics of Songkhla, especially Ban Muang before passing any value judgment. Observation and analysis will show that the wedding ceremony is an amalgamation of various traditions of different races, for examples, the costume of the groom represents Buddhism and Thai, the dagger carried by the groom, a Kris, is a symbol of Islam, and the vermicelli soup is the food of the Chinese people. Therefore, the custom per se has rich socio-cultural undertones in lieu of superstition.
Somdej Phra Buddhakosachan Sunthonwutthikhun, popularly known as Luang Phor Poot Suntharo, former abbot of Wat Klang Bangplad, , and Phra Udom Prachanat Thitkunno, popularly known as Luang Phor Pern, the former abbot of Wat Khok Kham and Wat Bangplad, were two prominent guru monks of Nakhon Chai Si, Nakhon Pathom Province. They were both disciples of Great Grandmaster of Animism Luang Pu Im Inthachoto.
Most Thai Buddhists are familiar with Luang Phor Pern’s tiger spell that earned His Venerable the title “Tiger Spirit Master” but in this article we will introduce you to Luang Phor Poot and His Venerable’s snake spell.
Luang Phor Poot’s birth name was Poot, surname, Hansamai. He was born on November 9, 2453 in Bangplad Subdistrict, Nakhon Chai Si District, Nakhon Pathom Province. His father’s name was Kham and his mother’s name was Pan. He was the second child in a family of five siblings. From young, he was educated in Wat Bangplad.
Poot, as His Venerable was then known, was conscripted into the army at the age of twenty. He served as a Royal Guard for two years before returning to help in the family’s farm. He brought his years of Buddhist learning into socialization with villagers and helping them cultivate the ethics of a Buddhist community which gained their respect and trust. He was subsequently appointed “phuyai baan” or village head of Wat Lamu Subdistrict. He diligently served the villagers for five years before asking for his parents’ permission to enter monkhood.
On April 1, 2489, Poot cut himself off mundane life and entered the monastic life in Wat Bangplad. He was accepted by Luang Pu Im Inthachoto as disciple and was given the name Suntaro. Under the guidance and teaching of Luang Pu Im , Phra Suntharo excelled in Dhamma and in year 2491, His Venerable earned a double Masters in Dhamma. At the same time, His Venerable also mastered the art of magic, especially in animism, imparted by Luang Pu Im. Phra Suntharo felt an insufficiency in mere learning and mastering both Dhamma and magic. He saw the importance of exposure and practicing. Therefore, he took leave from Wat Bangplad and went on “tudong”. During that period of time, he also inherited the secrets to making and consecrating Kumanthong from Luang Pu Cham of Wat Takong and Luang Pu Noi of Wat Srisathong.
In the year 2495, the 5th abbot of Wat Klang Bangplad, a historical Ratanakosin temple built around 1783 during the reign of Rama I, passed over and the resident monks and villagers jointly invited Phra Poot Suntharo to assume the abbotship. Hence, on June 7, 2495 Phra Poot Suntharo was officially appointed the abbot of Wat Klang Bangplad and became known as Phra Ajahn Poot Suntharo, subsequently Somdej Phra Buddhakosachan Sunthonwutthikhun.
According to records from the Department of Religious Affairs, Ministry of Education, Wat Klang Bangplad was built around 1819 in lieu of 1783 on the site of the “drowning Buddha”. It was said that during the Burmese invasion around year 2300, a boat carrying a Buddha image, a bodhi tree, both courtiers and villagers from Chao Phraya River to Bangplad Canal capsized. The Buddha image “drowned” and the bodhi tree floated along the water from Bangplad Canal to Si Maha Pho Sub-district and grew there. The location was between Wat Bangplad and Wat Si Maha Pho which served as the origin of the name Wat Klang Bangplad. Therefore, the ancient sites and relics that appeared in the temple are valuable historical artefacts which Luang Phor Poot paid special attention to their preservation and/or restoration.
Inside Wat Klang Bangplad is a large Buddha statue decorated with mosaic tiles created and consecrated by Luang Phor Poot in year 2524. The Buddha is known to “startle the devil” which is analogous to subduing Mara. This large Buddha is called Luang Phor Yai. Inside Luang Phor Yai’s image sits 99 Buddha statues, size 9 inches lap-width.
Since 2524, Luang Phor Yai has attracted hundreds and thousands of devotees annually. As their prayers are fulfilled they began calling Luang Phor Yai the fulfilling Buddha, that is, Luang Phor Somwang. Each time when a prayer is fulfilled, devotees will make offerings with eggs and pig’s head. Just look at the number of pig’s heads in the photograph will give you an indication of Luang Phor Somwang’s effectiveness.
Preservation, restoration, building and construction works as well as philanthropic endeavors are costly, hence, Luang Phor Poot had made and consecrated various sacred objects to raise fund.
There were ten batches of coins and medallions of Luang Phor Poot himself made and consecrated between years 2505 to 2533 for various purposes.
There are various conventional sacred objects including images Phra Putta Gaona, Hanuman, Mae Nam Kua, Mae Bosok and et cetera made and consecrated by His Venerable beginning year 2505.
However, the more expensive sacred objects created and consecrated by His Venerable are those of the exotic range. As mentioned earlier, both Luang Phor Poot and Luang Phor Pern shared the same lineage directly from Luang Pu Im, the Great Grandmaster of Animism; however, they each excelled quite differently in specialty. Luang Phor Pern of Wat Bangplad specialized in the Tiger Spirit spell whilst the expertise of Luang Phor Poot was in the Snake Spirit charm.
The belief in snake and Naga spell goes back to time immemorial and Thais believe worshippers will be bestowed with a better life destiny. In this article we will not be delving into Phaya Nagas specifically but for those who have visited Thailand, you may have already been aware of the many large serpent and Naga statues built across the country especially in temples and shrines. For examples, the large cobra statue in Khao Ngu Stone Park in Ratchaburi Province; the Chao Mae Cong Ang Shrine along Rama II Road in Bangkok; the Great Serpent Shrine in Saraburi Province and the numerous Nagas on temple roofs and stairways. In fact, this belief in Naga has been part of original Buddhism and now constitutes an important part of the Theravada ordination process. You may wish to refer to our earlier article on “Thai Theravada Ordination Ceremony” published on August 23, 2018.
There are not many guru masters who know the secrets of the Snake Spirit spell least using snake spurs to make and consecrate into amulets called Ngu Leum. Luang Phor Poot is among one of the few who specialized in this art. Snake spurs are rare because only certain species of snakes of age have them. Moreover, to turn them into sacred items those snakes must not be killed intentionally or otherwise. Furthermore, their spurs must be intact with the vestigial femur and come in a pair. Over decades, the number of snake spurs collected by Luang Phor Poot was limited which explained why the number of Ngu Leum made were scarce and, hence, expensive.
According to Luang Phor Poot, the Ngu Leum made and consecrated by him are serpent spirits under the leadership of Rheesi Phuchong (Snakehead Rheesi) who also happens to be Lord Shiva’s serpent companion. This association is evidenced by the Palakit or lingam tied to the top of the femurs. It is believed that spirits, ghouls, and ghosts generally come under the command of Lord Shiva and Rheesi Phuchong. According to ancient text, snakes with spurs usually draw a territorial circle with them and anything that comes within that circle will be struck by a magical spell and becomes totally at the disposal of the snakes. Therefore, Ngu Leum has all the characteristics of snakes including great charm and attraction, mysticism and hypnotism. It brings about good luck, wealth, business and interpersonal relationship somewhat automatically. It is said that anyone possessing and worshipping Ngu Leum does not have to worry about food and basic necessities for survival and will prosperous progressively.
The chant for enhancing the effects of Ngu Leum is as follows:
Namo Tassa Pakawatoh Arahatoh Samma Samput Tassa X3
Om Mahanaka Najangu Majakang Pularuay Talalay Mani Mama X9
There are many snake-skin talismans available in the market, however, these talismans cannot be equated to the Takrut Phayangu created and consecrated by Luang Phor Poot in various ways. According to His Venerable, snake skin derived from snakes deliberately killed is useless. Therefore, talismans made from snake skin derived through the commercial chain serve no purpose other than decoration. In order to make effective talisman out of snake skin and summon snake spirits of all classes, the snake must die in a kundalini mediative posture (coiled) in a cave or in a temple. It is a sign of return to the Naga world and, hence, divine power. Yes, such occurrence is rare and difficult to come across. In its 200 over year’s history, it only occurred once in Wat Klang Bangplad. The other we witnessed was in Wat Tham Tapian Thong, Lopburi Province.
The snake skin needs to go through 9 years of chanting representing a complete purifying cycle before the power of the four Naga families may be invoked. Luang Phor Poot then wrote the “Yant Phayana” on a copper plate that is subsequently rolled up together with a piece of the snake skin into what is called Takrut Phayangu.
It is a consolidation of immortal powers across three realms and, thus, possessing Takrut Phayangu means abundance, wealth, fortune, attraction, and most importantly, it guards and protects your horoscope. The scales on the snake skin changes from dull brown to yellow or sparkling gold which is an indicator of your ongoing luck.
The chants to enhance the effects of Takrut Phayangu are as follow:
Namo Tassa Pakawatoh Arahatoh Samma Samput Tassa X3
Namo Tassa Pakawatoh Arahatoh Samma Samput Tassa X3
Kaya Wacha Cittang Ahangwantha Nakathibodi SrisutthoWisuttheva Puchemi X3
The belief of Phaya Tor or Wasp spirit is common and it forms part of the belief in nature spirits. There are many Thai temples making and consecrating Phaya Tor. They usually come in a pair. The popularity of Phaya Tor may be attributed to the legend of the Undefeated Warrior Khunpaen who turned tamarind leaves into wasps in Wat Khae, Supanburi Province.
The common purposes of Phaya Tor made and consecrated are for wealth and prosperity as suggested by the terms “ngen thong” which literally refers to money and wealth in Thai language.
However, the Phaya Tor amulet made and consecrated by Luang Phor Poot carries no such purposes. The Phaya Tor made and consecrated by Luang Phor Poot serves only one single objective, that is eliminating villains especially backstabbers. These amulets are made from “mai takien”, a kind of wood believed to possess magical power per se, therefore, the number of Phaya Tor amulets made and consecrated by Luang Phor Poot were also limited. However, due to high demand for the Phaya Tor amulet, the current abbot Phrakhru Sritulakorn, more commonly known as Luang Phor Sri, has remade and consecrated a new batch made from red wood which are far more economical compared to those made and consecrated by Luang Phor Poot.
Both Luang Phor Pern and Luang Phor Poot are equally known for their “khong krapan” or “invincible” spell. Besides the wooden Phra Pidta made and consecrated in 2528, there is a batch of amulets, takruts, and talismans made and consecrated by Luang Phor Poot known as “loon pun kham” or the “cross guns print” that has underwent a very special “khong krapan” ritual almost unheard of in modern history.
Real guns, ammunitions, and grenades were piled up in the Ubosoth where amulets, takruts, and talismans were then placed over those weapons during consecration ceremony. This batch of sacred objects was well received by the Thai people and many paranormal experiences were reported in major Thai newspapers.
After serving the Sangha for 52 years, Luang Phor Poot entered nibbana in the morning of January 17, 2542 at the age of 88. The holy body of His Venerable remains in the temple and is opened for public worship. Many followers and believers also invited the image of His Venerable home for worship. It is believed that the image of His Venerable acts as a communication channel between Luang Phor Poot and his believers that is also, at the same time, capable of enhancing the effectiveness of sacred objects consecrated by His Venerable.
The following fulfilling chant is used for praying to Luang Phor Somwang and Luang Phor Poot:
Namo Tassa Pakawatoh Arahatoh Samma Samput Tassa X3
Asceticism has been practiced since time immemorial. It is not a practice unique to Hinduism. In fact, it was also and, perchance, is also practiced by many religions including Christianity and Islam. In Hinduism, laypeople who practiced asceticism and who have achieved high level of inner tapas (supernatural powers) were collectively called “Rishi” (rheesi).
In our previous article “Understanding Thai Buddhism” we have highlighted the entwinement between Buddhism and Hinduism as well as religious complexity in Thai Buddhism and the topic of this article again reinforced that unique relationship. We will not be going into the controversies pertaining to the various schools of asceticism but suffice to establish the nexus between original Buddhism and asceticism.
Lord Buddha too led an extreme ascetic life but realised extreme asceticism does not lead to enlightenment. Only moderation does. The five ascetics who practiced asceticism with Lord Buddha became His first five disciples and they are, Kondañña,Assaji, Bhaddiya, Vappa, and Mahānāma. It has to be noted that Lord Buddha did not condemn the practice of asceticism or the supernatural abilities deriving therefrom but only extreme indulgence therein. In fact, many of Lord Buddha’s disciples who subsequently attained arahantship were ascetics and the most prominent being Mahākāśyapa (Kassapa). Mahākāśyapa is one of the nine main Rheesi honored by the inner path.
Rheesi and Thai Buddhism
Rheesi is an important part of Thai Buddhism and Thais are generally familiar with Rheesi because ancient chronicles and old archives often make references to Rheesi. Furthermore, Rheesi also appears in various literatures as the sole governor of ceremonies whom rulers need to learn from in order to lead the people. Other than that, Rheesi also dominate many academic disciplines such as music, theatrics, medicine and et cetera. For examples, in music, dance, and theatrics, you see people worshipping Phra Rheesi Narathanmuni whilst people in the medical profession worship Rheesi Chiwokkomaraphat. In other words, Rheesi are regarded as ancestors and teachers of various disciplines with regards to humanity which is why “wan wai khru” is such a solemn and important occasion to the Thais. The general attire of the Rheesi is either white robe or tiger skin with tall headgear.
Classification of Rheesi: Disparities within Inner Paths
Things are more complicated when it comes to the inner path where Phra Weyth or supernatural elements form the core of practices. There are too many Rheesi, some of them pious, some iniquitous, and some in-between. Nonetheless, the various schools of thoughts generally agree on the 108 categories of Rheesi but they differ in classification and numbers of the main Rheesi which thus underscore their disparities in cultivation and practices. However, in Regalia, as disciples of Luang Phor Somjit, we inherit and adhere to a classification of nine main Rheesi as follows:
(1) Rheesi Narod (Monday) – Protection and charisma (Bhrama)
(2) Rheesi Narai (Tuesday) – Strengthening positive energy (Vishnu)
(4) Rheesi Tafire (Sunday) – Destroy bad energy (Shiva)
(5) Rheesi Kalaikot (Thursday) – Defeat enemies
(6) Rheesi Kassapa (Friday) – Add charm
(7) Rheesi Glaipok (Saturday) – also known as Rheesi Prabman or Rheesi Akasatya the Demon Slayer
(8) Rheesi Nalaek (Wednesday night) – Increase wealth and fortune
(9) Rheesi Petcherukan (Everyday) – Attract positive energy and return all bad things to their places of origin.
Theoretically, these main Rheesi may be traced back to Vedic religions and, again, different schools of thoughts have their own versions. These disparities hitherto remain contentious issues within the inner paths. However, we will not be delving into the specificities and origins of each Rheesi in this article but suffice to state herein that, in general, anyone who worships Rheesi must first worship and honour Rheesi Narod because Rheesi Narod is believed to evolve from the fifth head of Phra Promthada and is considered to be the first Rheesi of Triphumi, alternatively known as the three worlds. He is thus also the leader of all Rheesi and, therefore, regardless of lineage, Rheesi Narod must first be invited and honoured in whatever ceremony and ritual or else that ceremony or ritual will be incomplete. Only after honouring Rheesi Narod then will you worship other Rheesi. This pronouncement is seconded by the various different schools.
For a practitioner of the inner path, there is a specific guardian Rheesi from and through which all magical powers are derived, cultivated, and practiced. This guardian Rheesi is known as the ancestral Rheesi of a particular lineage (Kru Yai). The ancestral Rheesi of our lineage is Rheesi Petcherukan. Those who have followed our wan wai kru rituals in person would have noticed we begin our ritual by honoring the Triple Gem (the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha) before inviting and asking the 9 main Rheesi to descend. We then proceed to invite Phra Prom, Phra Narai, Mae Kongkha, Mae Phra Pai, Phra Phayana, and Phra Angkarn to take specific positions. We will then make offerings to Mae Tollani and invite all gods around the compound to come and rejoice together with our ancestral Rheesi. Once all these Pali chants and recitals are completed, we then do the Kham Athithan or prayers before engaging in a short 5 to 10 minutes of meditation. These rituals usually take about an hour or more to complete.
Phra Rheesi Petcherukan: The Two Forms
Phor Gae Phra Rheesi Petcherukan Pang Phrapaktheap
Many people may have heard about Rheesi Petcherukan who is the headmaster of supernatural powers and magic in the rank of Rheesi but little do they know that Rheesi Petcherukan actually has two forms. The form which people are more familiar with, including most Thais, is known as Phor Gae Phra Rheesi Petcherukan Pang Phrapaktheap who they usually only refer to as Phor Gae Phra Rheesi Petcherukan. In this form, Rhessi Petcherukan looks not much different from any other Rheesi who are clothed in white robes and tall headgears. As Rheesi Petcherukan Pang Phrapaktheap, he is also known as the weapon maker for all class of gods. It is through his incantation and spell that the weapons derive magical powers.
Por Gae Phra Rheesi Petchrukan Pang Phrapak Asura
Traditional Thai shadow puppeting, dance, and music artists worship Phor Gae Rheesi Petcherukan Pang Phrapaktheap and they will always conduct a small ritual to worship Phor Gae Phra Rheesi Petcherukan Pang Phrapaktheap before their shows begin. Astrologists and soothsayers too have to worship Phor Gae Phra Rheesi Petcherukan Pang Phrapaktheap in order to see through hidden things in the three realms of past, present, and future although Rheesi Mordo is their ancestral Rheesi.
The other form lesser known to people in general is Por Gae Phra Rheesi Petchrukan Pang Phrapak Asura. “Asura” refers to the same class of power-seeking deities as used in Hinduism and not any evil forces assumed by movie scriptwriters. According to Hindu mythology, Asuras are not essentially evil just as Gods are not necessarily good. The term “Asura” does not denote good or evil but just as opposition to “Sura”. In other words, the term is merely a categorization of clans within the cosmos. However, in the form of Pang Phrapak Asura, Phra Rheesi Petchrukan is so powerful that he leads a large army of warring gods, spirits, demons, and ghosts across the three realms. Consequential of his power and influence in art of supernatural abilities, Por Gae Phra Rheesi Petchrukan is officiated as the headmaster of supernatural powers and magic in the rank of Rheesi.
As high ranking deities, all nine main Rheesi inevitably show compassion and benevolence to a certain degree. Even for the two more aggressive ones, namely, Rheesi Tafire and Rheesi Glypok, they merely either repel or destroy harmful elements to protect believers whereas Rheesi Petcherukan in the form of Pang Phrapak Asura goes as far as returning harmful elements to their original sources to destroy their root causes. It is more of an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.
Owing to the fact that our ancestral Rheesi belongs to the Asura clan, we are instructed to conduct one of our three annual “wan wai kru” on the 15th day of the seventh lunar month, that is Ghost Day. Good, bad, and in-between spirits are summoned whereby both white and black magic are being amalgamated and consolidated through recitals.
Other than Luang Phor Somjit hitherto there have been no other guru monks or masters able to perform the special rituals in making and consecrating Por Gae Phra Rheesi Petcherukan Pang Phrapak Asura. This has resulted in the prices of His Venerable’s creation skyrocketing from ten-twenty thousand baht to several hundred thousand baht.
His Venerable has also made and consecrated a batch of Por Gae Phra Rheesi Petcherukan Pang Phrapak Asura for believers. This include the miniature skeleton-like figurines shown above which has become most popular and sought after by believers; that in a shape of a sea shell known as Bia Kair Petcherukan; and the more subtle form in a talisman container called takut Petcherukan. Nonetheless, because all sacred items were personally handmade by His Venerable hence the numbers were inevitably small and limited.
Rheesi Petcherukan is Not Hoon Phayom
Since the past decade or so, a new and trendy object has found its way into the Thai Buddhism amulet market and it is called Hoon Phayom. Many people mistook it as Por Gae Phra Rheesi Petcherukan Pang Phrapak Asura or that the Por Gae Phra Rheesi Petcherukan Pang Phrapak Asura made and consecrated by Luang Phor Somjit were actually Hoon Phayom. The irony is that Por Gae Phra Rheesi Petcherukan Pang Phrapak Asura has a long history rooted in Vedic religions whilst Hoon Phayom per se is neither a deity nor ghost according to their makers but a “bodyguard” character developed from an untraceable story. Again, we will not be exploring the details of Hoon Phayom but suffice to pronounce herein that it is not Por Gae Phra Rheesi Petcherukan Pang Phrapak Asura or vice versa.
Simplicity in Worshipping Rheesi for Laypeople
For practitioners, you will have to follow the methods imparted by your teacher (ajahn) and the chants associated with your lineage. Whereas for general believers and followers, worshipping and honouring Rheesi on wan wai kru is actually quite simple. All you need are fruits, flowers, tea, coffee, some sweet or savoury desserts, beetle nuts, cigarettes, and liquor. If you do not find it cumbersome and are affordable, you may offer a variety of food of your choices as well. Kham Athithan or prayers, which are totally different from charms or incantations used by practitioners, need not be recited in Pali or Thai languages. You may use your own choice of language, Rheesi can understand you.
Make 3 bows and you may begin as follow:
On this auspicious day, in the grace of the Triple Gems, the Lord Buddha, the Holy Dharma, and the Sangha, I humbly ask for your blessings as I recite my prayers under the prestige of the Triple Gems in honour of Phra Rheesi Narod (followed by the names of other Rheesi you worship). I humbly invite and ask you to descend upon this house and bestow upon me (and whoever else) all positive energy. I humbly beseech….. (request what you want)…..May my wishes be granted as my faith weighs.
It has been five years since Regalia Buddhist Cultural Centre expanded into Taiwan under the entity Regalia Buddhist Cultural Centre Pte Ltd. in 2017. Our modus operandi remains the same as Regalia Singapore. We distinguish ourselves from others in similar trade by virtue of the concept of Buddhist economy by adopting a “middle-path” similar to that advocated by His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej. A balance between business and religious interests are adhered to in our operation since date of establishment.
Our experience over here in Taiwan draws many resemblances to that when Regalia were first established in Singapore more than two decades ago. We are faced with a complex customer base with diverse motives, a phenomenon that is common in our entire customer base including Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, and even Thailand. The mass majority of the people misconceived Thai Buddhism as an occult entrenched in some form of mysticism and magic. However, unlike Singapore, which is a multi-religious country, whereby Singaporeans are being exposed to different religions since young, Taiwanese, on the other hand, are somewhat rooted in Chinese folk religion, a mixture of Mahayana Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism premised on superstition in lieu of religious doctrines thereby resulting in serious ontological and epistemological misconceptions. Their beliefs in spells, curses, and “kongtao” (sorcery or black occultism) in everyday life are overwhelmingly widespread. Therefore, our presence in Taiwan has drawn much curiosity and enthusiasm as we did in Singapore during the 90s. Nonetheless, the marked difference between our experiences is Taiwanese exposure and understanding of basic Hinduism and Theravada Buddhism is almost naught. This makes the preaching of Thai Buddhism a lot more tedious.
Most customers love mystical stories but our approach to mysticism, as usual, is based more on rationality instead of exaggeration. Under the Fourth Precept of Theravada Buddhism (pañcasīla), there is no such thing as a fine line between exaggeration and falsification. Consequently, this inevitably makes mystical stories less colourful and interesting that leads to the dismay of many people. We understand most customers are less ready to accommodate and accept dhammic teachings and explanations than they would superstitious beliefs and, as a result thereof, our approach to the subject matter may hurt our business interest. However, this is what makes Regalia unique. We find it un-Buddhist to postulate on the misconception of Thai Buddhism least to abet such misconception about Thai Buddhism thereby driving customers into one of the two extreme ends of fanaticism in Buddhism. The most difficult part is dealing with the category of people who are Internet savvy particularly when they possess strong confirmation bias. A lack of understanding about Thai Buddhism usually lead them to process and store mainly misinformation and disinformation more than facts. Therefore, to them, Regalia are labelled as old-fashioned, outdated, dry, boring, and not in-line with mainstream Taiwanese belief system.
Nevertheless, to the enthusiastic, we are ready to preach and teach; to the curious, we are more than willing to share information and knowledge; and to the “knowledgeable”, we will provide our best services without compromising our religious beliefs and values. It is this review of our Taiwan experience that prompted the writing of this article, however, the content herein is meant for general consumption especially to those who are keen about Thai Buddhism. We will begin this article with a brief history of Buddhism from Siam to Thailand that will allow you to appreciate why Thailand is considered the Centre of Theravada Buddhism and now inching towards becoming the World’s Buddhist Centre. We will then explore the complexity of Buddhism in Thai society with references to original Buddhism, the conflicts of fanaticism, and finally the Middle-Path in Thai society. Of course, we will also briefly touch on Thai amulets before penning off. We hope this will help you have a better understanding of Thai Buddhism.
Early Buddhism in Thailand
Buddhism in Suvarnabhumi
Indian culture was the dominant culture in Asia up-to 15th century. Buddhism entered the territory of Thailand around the year 236 BCE (before current era). At that time, Thailand was included in the territory known as Suvarnabhumi which comprised at least 7 countries, namely Thailand, Myanmar, Cambodia, Laos, Sri Lanka, Vietnam, Malaysia, and possibly a large part of southern China with Nakhon Pathom Province of Thailand as its capital per historical artefacts such as the Phra Pathom Chedi and the crouching deer or Dhammachakra evidenced. The type of Buddhism that first entered Suvarnabhumi and, hence, Thailand was original Buddhism, that is, traditional Theravada Buddhism because the first Buddhist breakaway known as the Mahayana sect only occurred one-and-a-half century later and whose philosophy did not gain hold in Thailand. Therefore, it is not surprising that these countries share many common beliefs, cultural practices, arts, legends, folklores and et cetera. For examples, there are common beliefs in jumping vampire known as “Phi Dip Chin” in Thailand, “hantu pocong” in Malaysia and Indonesia, “cương thi” in Vietnam, and “jiangshi” in China; and the flying head ghost known as “krasue” in Thailand, “ahp” in Cambodia, “kasu” in Laos, “penanggalan” in Malaysia, “leyak” in Indonesia, and by various names such as “luotou” or “feitou” in China.
The belief in ghosts is not un-Buddhist; on the contrary, it aligns with the concept of samsāra of original Buddhism and the Ratana Sutta. Inasmuch as people of different geographical regions seek refuge in the Triple Gem so do ghosts and spirits of those respective localities. This perchance constituted the complexity of religious traditions. Furthermore, in every country, language, and religion, terms like ghosts, spirits, demons and the like are equally rich and abundant. The situation is no different for Thai Buddhism beginning from the first Thai Kingdom, the Sukhothai Kingdom (1238-1428 CE), as Thai people’s belief in ghosts began from time immemorial.
The exact date as to when complexity of religious traditions occurred in Thai Buddhism is uncertain. The earliest archaeological evidence listed by UNESCO World Heritage Site in Thailand is a stone inscription of Sukhothai, No. 1 that reads:
“…Above Sukhothai City, there are the monk’s dwelling, monastery, Pu Kru, Saridapong, Pa Phrao, Pa Lang, Pa Kham, Nam Khok, and Phra Khaphung Phi. The fairies in that mountain are more powerful than any spirit in this city. Any noblemen who conquer Sukhothai City with good respect, the city will be good. Without the respect, the spirits in the mountains will not protect the city…”
The Ram Khamhaeng inscription described the devotion of the Thai people to Theravada Buddhism and, at the same time, highlighted their reverence for “phi-thewada” or Phra Khaphung Phi Nang Sueang known as Phra Mae Ya to the Sukhothai people. Some writers claimed the classification of “phi-thewada” which literally means “ghost-deity” suggested the beginning of merging religious traditions or an amalgamation of Theravada Buddhism with local Thai religions but which we opined are both un-substantiable and flawed. If it was a merging of religious traditions or an amalgamation of Theravada Buddhism with local Thai religions the process would have occurred long ago during Suvarnabhumi period and not after the founding of Sukhothai Kingdom. Furthermore, from Thai perspective, good spirits are usually seen and revered as equivalent to deities. The process aforementioned was more a perpetuation of original Buddhism.
The main Theravada Buddhist temple built in the reign of King Sri Inthrathit was Wat Mahathat located in today’s Sukhothai Historical Park at Mueang Kao, Mueang Sukhothai District, Sukhothai, Thailand. It was the largest and most important temple of Sukhothai era. The temple has a spacious area consisting the main viharn, mondop, boath and chedi. The main Buddha statue enshrined in the temple is Phra Putta Si Sakyamuni.
Another historical temple built during Sukhothai period is Wat Si Chum, Mueang Kao, Mueang Sukhothai District, Thailand. It contained wall murals that pointed to the first Thai Buddhist Jataka tales underlying Thai national epic Ramakien. It is important to note that Ramakien is based on Hindu epic Ramayana thereby reiterating the entwined relationship between Buddhism and Hinduism in the Thai context. This further supports our proposition that Thai Buddhism is a perpetuation of original Buddhism.
The main Buddha enshrined in the temple is Phra Ajana, the immoveable Buddha, measuring 15.6 meters high and 11.3 meters lap width.
At almost the same time as the Sukhothai Kingdom was founded in the north-central by King Sri Inthrathit, the Lanna Kingdom emerged in the north founded by King Mengrai of Chiang Saen. Lanna territories include Lamphun, Lampang, Chiang Rai, Chiang Saen, Nan, Phrae, Phayao, Mae Hong Son, Chiang Tung and Sipsong Phan Na with Chiang Mai as the capital. These territories were initially under Hariphunchai, a Theravada Buddhist kingdom with its capital in Lamphun. Therefore, the Lanna Kingdom also inherited Theravada Buddhism when it conquered the Mon kingdom. Similarly, the Lanna people aligned beliefs in ghosts and spirits with original Buddhist cosmology. The most popular is the nature spirit Mae Takien that is analogous to “yakkha” described in the Āṭānāṭiya Sutta.
The first Lanna Buddhist temple Wat Chiang Mun built in 1681 enshrined the Phra Kaew Khaw Buddha statue brought back from Lamphun by King Mengrai. The wall murals of Buddhist Jataka tales were painted with gold on red background. Besides differences in artistic traditions, Sukhothai and Lanna Buddhism were very much the same.
However, Lanna civilization and Lanna Buddhism underwent a period known as the “Dark Age” in Northern Thailand from 1560-1770 when the territory repeatedly fell under Burmese rule. Although, in between, King Naresuan and King Narai of the Ayutthaya Kingdom managed to reclaim Chiang Mai but the Burmese invaders were able to wrestle it back each time. It was in 1776 that King Taksin successfully drove the Burmese out of Chiang Mai but Lanna territories only formerly became part of the Thailand in 1892. Thence, Lanna-Thai Buddhism also became integrated and systematically regulated.
The revitalization of Theravada Buddhism in the north is much attributed to the prominent monk Kruba Sriwichai (1878-1939) who remained revered as the Saint of Lanna hitherto.
In 1350, King U-Thong or Ramathibodi I founded the Ayutthaya Kingdom and annexed the entire Sukhothai Kingdom in 1376 thereby forming the Siam Empire based in Ayutthaya which borders were approximate those of modern Thailand, saved for the northern territories comprising the Lanna Kingdom. Theravada Buddhism was declared the state religion. It was also during that period that the Tenth Buddhist Council was held in Thailand for the first time. Therefore, the Ayutthaya period was considered the golden era of Theravada Buddhism that formed the roots of contemporary Thai Buddhism.
Theravada Buddhism was so well preserved in Siam so much so that in 1753 a mission of 17 monks led by Phra Upali Maha Thera of Wat Dhammaram in Ayutthaya was sent to Ceylon at the request of King Kirti Sri Rajasinhe (1747-1782) to re-establish higher ordination in the kingdom. The Siamese ordination tradition survived until now and became known as Siyam Nikāya (Svasti, 2013).
Many Thai Buddhist temples were built during that era and the most prominent are Wat Mahathat built during the reign of King Borom Rachathirat I, Wat Rachaburana built during the reign of King Borom Rachathirat II, Wat Phra Si Sanphet built during the reign of King Borom Trailokanat, and Wat Phra Ram which was built on the cremation site of Ramathibodi I. Another thing worth noting is that the official titles of the Ayutthaya kings highlighted the entwined relationship between original Buddhism and Hinduism, e.g. “Narai”, “Ramathibodi”, “Ramesuan”, “Ekathotsarot” and “Phra Phutthachao” as appeared in the palatine law.
Unfortunately, most of those historical temples were destroyed by the Burmese when Burma launched a 7 year war against Ayutthaya from 1760-1767 that brought to end 416 years of Siam Empire. Phraya Taksin, as he was then known, however, managed to secure the east coast of the Gulf of Siam including provinces such as Rayong, Chonburi, Chanthaburi and Trat from the Burmese invaders. After securing Thonburi on the west bank of the Chao Phraya River near present day Bangkok in 1768, Phraya Taksin declared himself king and made Thon Buri his capital.
The succession of King Taksin the Great (1768-1782) merely extended the life of the Siam Empire by another 15 years but within 10 years of his ascension, he not only reclaimed all Ayutthaya territories seized by the Burmese he also successfully liberated Chiang Mai and totally ended Burmese incursion. Although his reign was short, King Taksin the Great is revered by the Thais hitherto and is also known as King of Siam, Warrior King, and the first king to have restored and united the Kingdom of Thailand. December 28 became King Taksin Day commemorating his ascension to the throne in December 28, 1768.
King Taksin was a devout Theravada Buddhist who began education in Wat Kosawat, Khlong Mueang, Tambon Tha Wasukri and was ordained as a monk for three years before he joined the service of King Ekkathat. Therefore, after his ascension to the throne, King Taksin extensively promoted the study of Theravada Buddhism and laid the foundation for development of contemporary Thai Buddhism.
The history of Rattanakosin began year 1782 when King Rama I of the Chakri Dynasty shifted the capital to Krungthep, that is, present day Bangkok. Inasmuch as not many people fully understand Thai Buddhism, there are equally few people who remember the official name least the meaning of the Thai capital. Even if they do, how many would see the significance therein? The official name of Bangkok is “Krungthep Mahanakhon Amon Rattanakosin Mahinthara Ayuthaya Mahadilok Phop Noppharat Ratchathani Burirom Udomratchaniwet Mahasathan Amon Piman Awatan Sathit Sakkathattiya Witsanukam Prasit” which literally means “The city of angels, the great city, the eternal jewel city, the impregnable city of God Indra, the grand capital of the world endowed with nine precious gems, the happy city, abounding in an enormous Royal Palace that resembles the heavenly abode where reigns the reincarnated god, a city given by Indra and built by Vishnukarma”. Indra is the Vedic Hindu god and Vishnukarma is the divine architect in Hinduism. Consequently, we again see a continued entwinement between Buddhism and Hinduism in Thailand.
We will not be going into archaic political illusion of truth about “divine right to rule” or being a “reincarnation of God” because, in this contemporary world, anyone who claims thus is unlikely to gain a throne but a bed space in a mental institution. However, the institution of the Thai monarchy, which is deeply rooted in Hinduism and Buddhism, have adopted Hindu Gods’ names as their official titles with the current Chakri Dynasty adopting the name “Rama”, the seventh avatar of Lord Vishnu. Nonetheless, the Theravada Buddhist concept of “Dhammaraja”, that is, kingship under dhamma has been the proclaimed goal of the Thai monarchy. Amongst all kings of the Chakri Dynasty, Thai people have shown a “cultish” reverence towards King Chulalongkorn (Rama V) and King Bhumibol (Rama IX) not for their “godliness” but for their Buddhist virtues, values, and their contribution to Thai society and people.
Many temples and Buddha statues including scriptures were destroyed by the Burmese invaders that prompted the Second Buddhist Council of Siam to be held in Krungthep from November 13, 1788 to April 10, 1789 whereby the Pāḷi Canon Tipitaka and commentaries were collected, revised and re-established. The reign of King Chulalongkorn (Rama V) underscored major innovations in both secular and religious affairs leading to a systematized institutional structure for Buddhism in the Kingdom of Thailand. He enacted the Sangha Administration Act 1902 which systemized the entire Siamese Buddhist ecclesiastical system and education under the regulation of a single Siamese Sasana headed by the Supreme Patriarch. King Chulalongkorn was dedicated to Buddhism and education, thus, the 1902 Act prescribed education to commence at various temples and it was the responsibility of abbots and higher-ranking monks to educate both monks and laypeople.
Under commission by His Majesty, the world’s first printed PāḷiTipitaka known as the Chulachomklao of Siam Pāḷi Tipiṭaka Edition comprising 39 volumes came into existence in 1893. They were distributed to prominent temples in Thailand and leading institutions around the world. The Chulachomklao of Siam Pāḷi Tipiṭaka is presently being preserved in at least 30 countries (British Library, 2019). Meanwhile, King Chulalongkorn also had the Pāḷi Tipitaka translated and published in the Thai language in 1898 which is called “The Printed Tipitaka Edition” (Maha Chulalongkorn Rajavidyalaya University, 2002).
Despite the Siam Revolution 1932 that put an end to absolute monarchy, Thai people generally welcomed the restoration of the monarchy after World War II. We will leave what is called the “coup season” running from 1932 until present day to the scholars and just concentrate on His Majesty, King Bhumibol Adulyadej’s impact on Thai Buddhism between 1950-2017. What made His Majesty popular with the people were his Buddhist virtues and values. He was as dedicated as his grandfather, Rama V, to Buddhism and the people. He cared and worked hard for the people and was a frequent visitor to poor rural areas. He integrated the Buddhist Middle-Path concept into what became known as Thailand’s “Sufficiency Economy” comprising three fundamental principles, namely, moderation, rationality, and self-immunity to changes (Chaisumritchoke, 2007).
During the reign of King Bhumibol Adulyadej, Thai Buddhism flourished internationally and the Pāḷi Tipiṭaka was made comprehensible and available to the laypeople. In 1988, Mahidol University recorded all 45 volumes of the Pāḷi Tipiṭaka in Thai-script digitally and in 1991, at the request of King Bhumibol, another 70 volumes of Atthakatha or commentary were also added to its data base. Finally, in 1994, all 115 volumes of the Pāḷi Tipiṭaka in Thai-script were made available on CD-Rom.
In 1999, the 19th Supreme Patriarch of Thailand Somdet Sangkarat Phra Yannasangwon of Wat Bovoranives initiated the Commemorative Pāḷi Tipiṭaka Project resulting in the complete 40-volume Roman-script Tipitaka known as “Mahāsaṅgīti Tipiṭaka Buddhavasse 2500” or simply as “The World Tipiṭaka Edition” published by M.L. Maniratana Bunnag Dhamma Society Fund in 2004. Pāḷi Suttas in Thai language have also been made widely available. Among others, Maha Chulalongkorn Rajavidyalaya University has been publishing Buddhist scriptures in Thai language since 1993.
We shall also leave the politicization of Thai Buddhism, a fundamental condition on which most academic dissertation on Thai Buddhism is premised, out from this article as categorizations such as those proposed by Jackson (1989) are not only spurious but also based on false premises and, thus, not reflective of Thai reality. Whereas atheistic propositions attributing Buddhist cosmology to metaphors for mental states (Phuthathat, 1982) are equally farfetched and self-defeating when studied alongside the Pāḷi Tipiṭaka. Notwithstanding, it can be self-consoling when everything from heaven and hell to karma are perceived as nothing more than make-believes or illusions of the mind. In that case, everyone can have his own perfect fantasy world all in his mind which would consequently render Buddha’s teachings redundant in toto. Scientifically, an imaginary state of mind would amount to deficiency ranging from mild daydreaming to severe mental illness. Obviously, this is not what Buddhism is about.
Scholarly and Academic Buddhism
In order to understand Thai Buddhism we must not allow the subject matter to be clouded by cognitive biases. When we talk about fact we refer to a statement of truth whereas in academic discourse a fact does not necessarily have to be true but suffice that it relies on some form of observation and research which are oftentimes subject to study power and bias (Ioannidis, 2005). For example, Prombunpong (1995) cited in Blyth (1995) alleged there was a decline in monkhood in Thailand owing to “outdated Buddhist texts” and the use of Pāḷi language. Any Thai Buddhist can tell you that the Pāḷi Tipiṭaka is regarded as the corpus of Buddhist scriptures, thus, despite the availability of Thai or English translated editions, the depth of language and, therefore, meanings may not be fully appreciated beyond the original language. Nonetheless, monks ordained on a temporary basis are not required to study the Pāḷi language. Furthermore, the study of Pāḷi language has, on the contrary, been growing exponentially so much so that it is being offered by universities including Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies, Oxford University. UK. In Thailand, there are three universities operated by the Supreme Sangha Council of Thailand that offer Bachelors, Masters, and Doctoral level studies in Pāḷi language, and they are, Mahachulalongkorn Rajavidyalaya University (founded in 1887), Mahamakut Buddhist University (founded in 1893), and International Buddhist College (founded in 2005). Furthermore, Theravada Buddhism is a religion, an orthodox tradition with roots stretching 2564 years back and is based on the Pāḷi Tipiṭaka, thereby distinguishing it from other Buddhist offshoots, thus, the allegation of “outdated Buddhist texts” is simply misplaced if not superficial.
There may be a decline in ecclesiastical ordination but the reasons thereof are likely to be changes in social values and behavior. Modernization, advancement, and affluence are causes shifting sacred to sacrilegious in every society and religion. We will leave the exploration between religiosity and affluence to you. What we wish to highlight here is thatthe art of discernment, especially in academic praxis, is always tricky so are misconceptions that are lodged in our consciousness which result in what is known as fragmented knowledge and a distorted worldview. For example, you may have read about “Buddhist conversion” or “converting to Buddhism” (Gokhale, 1986; Yu, 2014; Baker, 2020), however, do you know the phenomenon of “conversion” does not exist in Buddhism? Academically it may be said that the premise is false but in psychology we aptly call this paradoxical knowing. Refer to UpāliSutta (Majjhima Nikāya 56) and you will understand Lord Buddha’s position on this subject matter. It will also help you understand the tolerant and accommodating nature of present day Thai Buddhism.
Confusion in Thai Society
The majority of Thais share the same set of complexity and perplexity encountered by non-Thai believers when it comes to Thai Buddhism. The situation is being aggravated especially when temples and clergies willingly deviate from Buddha’s teachings in pursuit of economic gains. The Dhammakaya Temple scandal, the sports car scandal involving the abbot Luang Pi Namfon (Phraku Palad Sitthiwat) of Wat Pailom, the Private Jet scandal involving the abbot Phra Wirapol Sukphol of Wat Pa Khantitham (now defrocked) and et cetera are all severe examples of un-Buddhist behaviors. Although disapproved and shunned by the general public, however, these institutions and people still managed to retain and/or recruit sizeable followers who in turn contributed to those monastic misbehavior (Worathanee, 2013). This unequivocally shows that even the Thais share the same intellectual deficiencies as non-Thai believers when it comes to truth, wisdom, and faith.
Apart from the afore-mentioned challenges, Thais are also faced with competing propositions pertaining Thai Buddhism. There are basically three main propositions, namely, Thai Buddhism is a philosophy, Thai Buddhism is a religion, and Thai Buddhism is merely superstition. Now, when a “nobody” makes such claims the impact is not readily felt by the larger population but if their proponents are famous monks or academics the consequence will definitely be immense if not dire. Whichever proposition there is bound to be followers and opponents, thus, disagreement and dispute that tend to obfuscate the subject matter especially when an incorrect definition is being ascribed to the respective subject matter is present.
The three competing topics are, namely, (1) philosophy; (2) religion; and (3) superstition. We are going to import definitions of these topics from dictionaries as well as an influential source within the Thai society, the “Encyclopedia for Thai Youth” for the purpose of comparison.
According to dictionaries:
Philosophy: a theory or attitude that acts as a guiding principle for behaviour.
Religion: a particular system of faith and worship.
Superstition: a widely held but irrational belief in supernatural influences, especially as leading to good or bad luck, or a practice based on such a belief.
According to the Encyclopedia for Thai Youth:
Religion: “Religion is a way of life for the ultimate goal, which is liberation from suffering, complete happiness when leaving this world. It is an explanation of the cause of suffering and the course of action for the release of suffering which must be practiced every day for the rest of their lives.”
Superstition: “Superstition is the subject of controlling mystical powers believed to exist in the world, in nature, and in the universe. Inspiring to produce desirable effects such as curing diseases, enchanting people, various tattoos for invincibility and hanging sacred objects to get out of danger. Miracle work in order to achieve the desired effect, recitation, spells, etc. ……”
Whichever proposition you may favour we will like to reiterate Lord Buddha’s teaching about the “Middle-Path” which should be a guide to “moderation” in life, achieving a balance and not falling into either side of the extreme ends.
Now, before we proceed further with “Understanding Thai Buddhism” it is crucial that we walk you through the backdrop of original Buddhism so that you are able to better comprehend the composition and essence of Thai Buddhism.
Backdrop of Original Buddhism
The birthplace of Buddhism is dominated by Vedic Hinduism which, albeit being polytheistic, Hinduism propagates Lord Brahma as the creator of the universe, Lord Vishnu as the preserver, and Lord Shiva as the destroyer that underlined Hindu life-death cycle and cosmological order. Lord Buddha, however, rejected the proposition of a divine creator but not polytheism and propounded the theory of dependent origination (paṭiccasamuppāda) whereby life-death cycle is consequential of interactions amongst elements within six realms and thirty-one planes which formed the Buddhist cosmological order as explicitly set out in the Sāleyyakasutta of the Majjhima Nikāya and Anguttara-Nikāya.
You may find many similarities and differences between the two religions, for examples, they utilise similar concepts such as saṃsāra, dhamma, kamma, Dhammachakra Mudra, and et cetera but differ in their substances and constituents. The concept of saṃsāra in Hinduism pertains to the everlasting “atman” whilst Lord Buddha advocates“anattā” which literally means not-self not-soul in His teaching of saṃsāra that is aligned with His doctrine of “annica”, that is, impermanence. Although both sought liberation (moksha) from saṃsāra, in Hinduism the ultimate goal is the unification of the atman with Brahman whilst for Buddhism is the entering of nibbāna. The concept of dhamma in Hinduism pertains to one’s role in the universe and is caste specific whilst in Buddhism dhamma refers to the modus operandi of the universe and teachings of Lord Buddha. Both Hinduism and Buddhism are in agreement when kamma is concerned. It relates to the cause-and-effect of one’s actions for which condition life events. It is a neutral and non-judgmental cycle of life.
Philosophy of cosmology is a scientific conceptualization as well as deliberation and explanation of the universe as a sum total. However, despite celebrations of human intelligence and achievements, many things within this universe remain unknown and inexplicable by science. We will leave the limits and flaws of scientific cosmological theorizing to the academics and scientists. Religious cosmology, on the other hand, is a description of how the universe works from a religious point of view. This may include creation myths (now disproven) or evolution theory in describing the spatial arrangement of the universe including dimensions unseen by mortal eyes. Many religions are based on narratives, legends, and doctrines formulated over long periods of time. Nonetheless, in Thai Buddhism, we are only interested in what Lord Buddha has said and taught and not what someone else perceives and interprets what Lord Buddha has said and taught. Therefore, in pursuit of truth, wisdom, and faith, we adhere to the ten intellectual tenets imparted by Lord Buddha. We will explain what these ten tenets are in the later part of this article.
From the backdrop of original Buddhism, it can be seen that Buddhism, especially Thai Buddhism, is somewhat intertwined with and yet different from Hinduism. So, now we are ready to move on to Thai Buddhism whereby there is sumptuous of mysticism both in rituals and practices invoked by monastic figures including “iddhi” (psychic powers), “paritta” (chant and incantation), “raksha” (charm and spell), and “asphanaka yoga” which have been misunderstood as Hindu or un-Buddhist even by some Thais when these are actually derivations from original Buddhism that are reflected in the Pāli Canon. Hence, even Thais are confused about Thai Buddhism so it is neither surprising nor embarrassing for non-Thai believers to be equally bewildered.
Diversity and Mysticism
Regardless of whichever religion, a common attraction that draws people to it is mysticism. There are Christian mysticism pertaining to contact with the divine (Stefon, n.d.); Islamic Sufism pertaining to esoteric insight (Stanford, 2021); Hindu Tantrism relating to the obscured (Hoen & Goudriaan, 1981) so is there mysticism in Buddhism. However, people are drawn by this mystical factor for varying reasons and motives ranging from a desire to establish a deeper spiritual relationship and a channel of communication with the Divine to the belief in the ability of manipulating the supernatural forces for specific ends. It is neither the purpose of this article to explore the consonance and dissonance of religious beliefs nor the conflict arising from a philosophical versus a religious approach to Buddhism but rather to expound the complexity of Thai Buddhism underscored by a sumptuousness of mysticism.
Thai Buddhism in particular and Buddhism in general is not a theistic religion and do not believe in an omnipotent creator. According to the Saṃyutta Nikāya (one of the “three baskets” comprising PāliTripitaka), Lord Buddha said this saṃsāra or world is without beginning and, in both the Abhidhamma and Aggañña Sutta, He propounded the theory of dependent origination through interactions amongst elements which may, prima facie, be equated with contemporary theory of evolution.
It is, therefore, correct and true to claim that Buddhism is not a theistic religion but it is false and wrong to garble original Buddhism as atheistic. Not theistic refers to the rejection of a single omnipotent creator of the world and all beings therein but does not reject the existence of Gods, Deities, spirits, ghosts and et cetera as atheism does. The existence of Gods, Deities, spirits, ghosts and et cetera are posited throughout Buddhist scriptures and texts by which basic Buddhist tenets such as six spiritual realms, thirty-one planes of existence, kammic cycle, reincarnation and et cetera are thereupon premised.
Fanaticism on Two Extreme Ends
Many people are drawn to Thai Buddhism by virtue of the mysticism associated with the Order. Magic has been part of religion since time immemorial and it has remained a crucial part of Thai belief system hitherto. Supernatural beings and supernatural abilities are intertwined and entrenched just as they were in original Buddhism.
There are people, monastic and laity alike, who condemn mysticism or claim that belief and practices associated therewith are un-Buddhist. Well, under the theory of freedom of choice, a doctrine consistently advocated by Lord Buddha in His teachings, the prerogative to believe or disbelieve undoubtedly lies with the beholders. However, some people have gone to the extent as to falsely claim that Buddha denied the existence of supernatural beings and also condemned mysticism or magic and, thus, anyone believing and/or practicing such arts is un-Buddhist. The attempt to portray Buddhism as atheistic is one of the two extreme ends of fanaticism stemming purely from ignorance or “avijjā”.
In some Buddhist literature it was claimed that Lord Buddha himself condemned psychic powers as “triachchhana vijja” or “michchha-ajiva” or simply “low arts” by taking the Kevatta Sutta out of context. The said Sutta actually contains Lord Buddha’s cautions against possible abuse and falsification of supernatural abilities which are, at the same time, not indicators of truth and wisdom. Condemnation, if any, is confined to obsessive indulgence in psychic power which constitutes the other extreme end of fanaticism not beneficial towards liberation and/or enlightenment.
The fact is, inasmuch as Lord Buddha did not deny the existence of Gods, Deities, spirits, ghosts and et cetera, He neither condemned nor forbade the cultivation and practice of supernatural abilities. It should not be forgotten that Lord Buddha is “satthadevamanussanam”, that is, teacher to Gods and human. A rich account of Lord Buddha’s interactions with celestial beings is recorded in Saṃyutta Nikāya. Furthermore, in various ancient Pāli Canon and Buddhist literature, “iddhi” or the supernatural abilities including what is known as “abhiññā” or the six higher knowledge of Lord Buddha have been explicitly recorded. Charms against evil spirits and a description of the celestial kingdoms are also provided for in a section of the Dīgha Nikāya Pāli Canon known as the Āṭānāṭiya Sutta.
Now, take a pause and analyze the conflicting propositions with references to what Lord Buddha said and did not say. Start with the most common example such as did Lord Buddha prescribe a vegetarian diet? Do not bother about what people said or told you, just ask yourself what is Lord Buddha’s position on this subject matter. Fact (1): Lord Buddha survived on alms food and did not choose what to receive and what not to. Fact (2): According to the Pāli Canon, Lord Buddha explicitly rejected Devadatta’s request to mandate vegetarian diet. Fact (3): The alms rules laid down by Lord Buddha, including the receiving and consumption of meat, are unambiguously set forth in Aṅguttara Nikāya, a tradition adhered to by Thai monks hitherto. These will provide you with a truthful answer to the question. Use the same process and ask yourself, were there any magical ability invoked when Lord Buddha brought Phra Maha Moggallāna to hell to see the latter’s mother or when He outpaced Aṅgulimāla? Were many of Lord Buddha’s disciples also masters of magical faculties and amongst them the most prominent was Phra Maha Moggallāna or was it not? Similarly, these should also provide you with a truthful answer with regards to Buddhist magic.
Finding the Path in a Foggy World
How should falsifications be construed and dealt with in a Buddhist context? What should we do when confronted with so many different and contradicting propositions? Luang Phor Pern of Wat Bangplaad once taught us “Examine, examine, re-examine. What is in accordance with the Dhamma is true and what is not does not really matter anymore.” So do not believe and accept everything that is fed to you, you will need to verify and authenticate those information against the teachings of Lord Buddha to ascertain the truth and anything untruthful thereof is rendered useless. When it comes to exposure and learning, this was what Luang Phor Somjit of Wat Noi Nanghong instructed us “Exposure and learning is good but knowing alone is insufficient. Understanding is the goal and practicing to perfection makes you whole.” Therefore, both Luang Phor Pern and Luang Phor Somjit provided us with the paraphernalia to learning, understanding, and practicing the Dhamma so as to find the Path in a foggy world.
Admittedly, Buddhism today is generally beyond recognition. There are simply too many sects purporting to spread the teachings of Lord Buddha but which canons vastly differ from the oldest and most authentic Buddhist scripture known as the “Tripitaka Suttas”. Perhaps, the only orthodox follower of original Buddhism remains the Theravada, also known as the “Doctrine of the Elders”, which teachings still pivots on the Pāli Canon “Tripitaka Suttas” that is “buddhavacana” (Buddha’s words). This is the Dhamma to Theravada Buddhists. Whereas for other sects of Buddhism, their canons may or may not contain the “Tripitaka Suttas” but undeniably contain self-composed supplementary writings based on perceptions and interpretations of others within and outside of India by breakaways from original Buddhism who spearheaded new ideas (Shashkevich, 2018). They labelled their new ideas “Mahāyāna” which means “greater way” whilst, at the same time, belittling original Buddhist way as “Hīnayāna” meaning “deficient way”. Despite scorning original and, hence, Theravada Buddhism as “deficient” , however, the founders of the Mahāyāna sect did not have an original philosophy but only to built upon the “deficient” through supplementing and varying “buddhavacana”.
Therefore, the Theravada school rejects Mahayana “scriptures” as inauthentic. If you believe and accept Lord Buddha as the “Samma Sambuddha”, it would be an irony to second guess His teachings and suggest that He had not contemplated or had hidden alternative truths (ācariya-muṭṭhi) and ways as postulated by the many non-awakened writers. The first set of rules set by Lord Buddha is known as “Ovāda–pātimokkha” which was delivered to 1250 enlightened disciples assembled without being summoned.
1. Sabba-papassa akaranam: Abstain from all unwholesome deeds pertaining to action, speech, and thought that are trouble to self and others.
2. Kusalassa upasampada: Perform wholesome deeds pertaining to action, speech, and thought that are right for self and others.
3. Sa-citta pariyodapanam: Purify the mind to be free of sorrow, greed, anger, and delusion.
Etam Buddhana-sasanam : This is the teaching of Buddha.
KālāmaSutta: Ten Tenets to Detect and Filter Illusion of Truth
The impact of un-Buddhist mischief becomes aggravated in a technological age whereby both misinformation and disinformation are immediately delivered at the tip of the fingers to mostly uncritical minds. The toxicity arising therefrom is vile. Joseph Goebbels (1897-1945), chief propagandist for the Nazi Party, said “repeat a lie often enough and it becomes the truth” and that forms the law of propaganda. Psychologists termed the effect consequential therefrom “illusion of truth”. If you are to look around you and, examine your environment carefully, you may realize almost everybody from news reporters, politicians, advertisers and even academics are all postulating the flaw of human psychology for varying motives. This is why we see and read about people, even the educated and knowledgeable too often fall victims to scams when those ruse are detectable from the outset with a little bit of wisdom.
From a religious perspective, “illusion of truth” takes effect by virtue of fantasies and desires to dispose uncomfortable realities. For example, it is much easier to attribute undesirable realities as the “will of God” than to take responsibility and face consequences therefrom. However, in Buddhism, these fantasies and desires are collectively classified as “taṇhā” which is the cause of “dukkhā”. Dukkhā is usually interpreted as suffering and other negative effects of life but, in reality, it pertains also to positive aspects of life whence attachments arise. We will not be delving into the concept of “upadanā” in this article but suffices to state herein that “dukkhā” may include the exact opposite “sukha” if “taṇhā” is found in the latter.
In Ambalatthika-Rahulovada Sutta of Majjhima Nikāya, second of the five Nikāyas in Sutta Pitaka, is a section of Lord Buddha’s instructions to Rahula at Mango Stone on the subjects of shame of telling lies, the purification of kamma, speech, and the mind. These underscored Theravada practice of “sacca-kiriyā” (act of truth) and underlined the Buddhist fourth precept of “not lying”. The precept of “not lying” goes well beyond the simple practice of not lying and it includes not reiterating and aiding in the spread of lies.
There are many Buddhist sects that grew from fantasies and desires of ignorant people and prospered on the latter’s sufferings through manufacturing an illusion of truth. Lord Buddha taught the doctrine of anattā as a key concept to nibanna through cessation of dukkha of which essence is contained in the Four Noble Truth and the Noble Eightfold Path. In cultivation thereof arose 227 precepts for monks and 311 precepts for nuns contained in the Suttavibhaṅga, a division of the Vinaya Piṭaka. In other words, the path and journey towards nibanna is long and difficult, something not achievable by laypeople who, at most, would settle in the Deva realms and have to be reborn as monks, nuns, or ascetics to achieve nibanna. As part of religious inclusiveness arises waves of Buddhist populism propagating a “here and now” ideology that even laypeople can attain nibanna without having to forgo anything monks and nuns forgo. This is an illusion of truth appealing to the desire and lackadaisical nature of human beings. They will meet your requirement if you are merely looking to buying some psychological comfort or a fictitious place in heaven after death in the name of “Buddhism”. However, if you are not a subscriber to self-deception and truly seek liberation through Lord Buddha’s teachings we will like to share with you the ten primary tenets Lord Buddha imparted in pertinence to learning as per the Kālāma Suttaand they are as follow:
1. Mā anussavena: do not believe or accept just because something has been passed along and retold through the years.
2. Mā paramparāya: do not believe or accept just because some practice has become customary or traditional.
3. Mā itikiraāya: do not believe or accept merely because reports and news spreading far and wide throughout the world.
4. Mā pitakasampadānena: do not believe or accept just because something is cited in an “authoritative” literature.
5. Mā takkahetu: do not believe or accept just because something fits into logical reasoning (takka).
6. Mā nayahetu: do not believe or accept just because something is correct by virtue of deductive or inductive reasoning (naya).
7. Mā ākāraparivitakkena: do not believe or accept just because something appeals to one’s common sense.
8. Mā ditthinijjhānakkhantiyā: do not believe or accept just because something stands up to or agrees with one’s preconceived opinions and theories.
9. Mā bhabbarupatāya: do not believe or accept just because the speaker appears believable.
10. Mā samano no garu ti: do not believe or accept just because the samana or preacher, or the speaker is “our teacher.”
Pursuant therefrom it may be argued that nothing is believable or acceptable. That will again be a misconception. Remember the advise from His Venerable Luang Phor Pern quoted above: “Examine, examine, re-examine. What is in accordance with the Dhamma is true and what is not does not really matter anymore.”
Before we end this article, we will like to provide you with a brief summary on Thai amulets as they have become central to Thai Buddhism. Inasmuch as we need to know what is and is not Buddhism, we also need to know what is and is not Thai amulets.
At the present moment, the oldest Buddha amulets discovered were Mathura art of the 2nd century (Chandra, 1985). However, Thai amulets are said to have existed only from 10th century CE (current era). At that time, Thai amulets were not meant to be worn or taken home rather they were buried in Chedi or in temple ground as a form of merit. The ancient prints then were usually “Phattha Kappa” commonly known as “Phra Puttha Har Phra Oong”. Thai historians have also pointed to a stone inscription of Wat Bang Sanuk, Phrae province dating back to Sukhothai period which described the people of the Sukhothai made Buddha amulets with tin and clay to make merit. This is the reason behind the belief that “renting” amulets (Thais do not use the term “buy” when it comes to amulets) is a form of merit making in Thai Buddhism.
Amulets made during the Sukhothai period include Phra Pathumas, Phra Suphan Lang Phan, Phra Ruang and Phra Leela. Two thousand clay amulets dating back to 1101-1300 inscribed with “ye dhamma” known as Phra Phim Kradun Sriwichai were discovered in Wat Khao Si Wichai, Phunphin District, Surat Thani Province (Konchadleuk, 2014). “Ye dhamma” is an abbreviation for “yedhammā hetuprabhavāhetuṃ teṣāṃ tathāgato hyavadat, teṣāṃ ca yonirodha evaṃvādīmahāśramaṇaḥ” which means “regarding dhammas that arise from a cause, the Tathagata taught their cause and also their cessation. Those were the words of the Great Mendicant”
When did the culture of wearing Thai amulets begin may be traced back to early Ratanakosin period. Thailand thence began to open up to foreigners and the culture of wearing auspicious and religious objects was brought into the country from the East to the West. From archaeological works to pure treasure hunting at ancient temple sites also took place during that era. Buddha amulets and images unearthed became treasure troves. The elites began collecting those religious antiques that gradually turned into a culture of wearing amulets and worshipping Buddha images at home.
Amulets started as treasure and remained as treasure up until today. High-end Thai amulet collectors only concentrate on traditional amulets such as Phra Benjakphakhi consisting of five types of amulets representing the five periods of Buddhism in Thai history and other rare prints originating from temples and consecrated by prominent guru monks. Phra Somdej from Wat Rakhang made and consecrated by Somdej Phra Puttachanto Promarangsri represent Ratanakosin; Phra Nang Phaya represents Ayutthaya; Phra Soonko represents Sukhothai; Phra Phong Suphan represents U-Thong; and Phra Rod represents Lopburi (Lanna); Phra Ruang, Phra Khring, Pidta and et cetera are also within the collection list. Subsequently, other guru monks versed in supernatural abilities began making various types of images and amulets available to the general public. Temple origination, thus, became a prerequisite for amulet collectors.
However, in contemporary commercial environment, the Thai amulet market has underwent major changes giving rise to distinctions between genuine (temple made) amulets and fake (non-temple made) amulets as well as Thai amulets (Buddhist) and non-Thai amulets (non-Buddhist). Therefore, amulets made-in-Thailand does not necessary mean Thai amulets (wathumongkhun) especially when they lack temple origin and Buddhist standing. Thai Buddhists generally shun and look down upon Black Occultism but these categories of amulets such as “corpse oil”. phi phrai kasip, mae hong phrai, mae tani, and et cetera, collectively classified as “khorng tam” meaning “low things” in Thailand, have their own market comprising mostly overseas customers of lower education background and who do not understand what Thai Buddhism is all about. For example, the 9-tail fox statues and amulets stemming from Chinese fairytales are totally unrelated to Thai Buddhism but has gain popularity with foreigners from China, Taiwan, Malaysia, and Singapore. 9-tail fox and anything related thereto is perceived as promiscuousness pertaining to sex trades (Kapook, 2018).
When we talk about magic within Buddhism, we are referring to “white magic” that focuses on good and, at the same time, precludes evil in accordance with Buddhist values and not on immoral actions and thoughts which are suffering owing to ignorance. White magic is a matter that the monks can relate to, practice, and impart for advancing purposes as allowed in accordance with the Heart of Buddhism (Ovāda-pātimokkha ). It must not deviate from the Four Noble Truth and the Noble Eightfold Path. Remember, our actions, thoughts, and speeches are determinants of our karma impacting life events.
We have highlighted the entwinement between Thai Buddhism and Hinduism since time immemorial.Their co-existence and intricate mix is neither syncretism nor religious pluralism commonly understood in contemporary context but rather they characterizes the complex religious traditions of original and, hence, Thai Buddhism. Western literature for one reason or another usually picks the Sukhothai period, or more precisely, Rama Kamhaeng era, as the commencement of religious complexity in Thailand (Kirsch, 1977) which we opine was a perpetuation of original Buddhism. Nonetheless, whether complexity existed since time immemorial or from Rama Kamhaeng era is merely a topic for academic debate and does not impact Thai Buddhism as a religion.
However, debating over what “should” and “should not” be original Buddhism is purely argumentative. Perception is not reality but merely a cursor of illusion. When a perception becomes adamant it brings an individual further away from reality and into a delusionary state known as psychosis. This is a form of sickness and it is definitely not Buddhism. Therefore, in understanding Buddhism we concentrate on what “is” and “is not” Buddhism regardless whether or not we like the truth.Therefore, obstinately clinging onto either end of fanaticism is devoid from reality when it can unambiguously be discerned from thePāli Canon that original Buddhism, hence, Thai Buddhism, is neither purely dhammic nor mystical. It is a moderation of the two elements.
We may not reach enlightenment in this lifetime but, in the least, we do not have to move further and further away from it. As laypeople it is impossible for us to lead the lives of monks or nuns and observe the 227 and 311 precepts respectively, but in the minimum, the Heart of Buddhism “Sabbapāpassa akaraṇaṃ – Kusalassa upasampadā – Sa-citta pariyodapanaṃ – Etaṃ buddhāna sāsanaṃ” which simply means “avoid evil, do good, purify the mind – this is the teaching of Buddha” can be our guiding principles. Therefore, after reading this article, we hope you are able to evaluate your own position within Thai Buddhism and make necessary adjustments, if needed, towards being a proper Thai Buddhist and have a happier Buddhistic life.
Aggañña Sutta, Dīgha Nikāya 27.
Ambalatthika-Rahulovada Sutta, Majjhima Nikāya.
Anguttara-Nikāya, Sutta Pitaka.
Āṭānāṭiya Sutta, Dīgha Nikāya 32.
Baker, D. (2020). Converting American Buddhism: Second-Generation Buddhist Americans, the Politics Orientalism, and of Family Religion. CA: Claremont Press.
Chaisumritchoke, S.T. (2007). Sufficiency Economy, the King’s Philosophy: An Application of Buddhist Economics to Develop Thai Local Pharmaceutical Industries for Sustainable Well-Being. Society & Economy, 29(2), 235-252.
Chandra, P. (1985). The Sculpture of India: 3000 B.C. to 1300 A.D. Washington: D.C., National Gallery of Art.
Gokhale, J.B. (1986). The Sociopolitical Effects of Ideological Change: The Buddhist Conversion of Maharashtrian Untouchables. Journal of Asian Studies, 45(2), 269-292.
Hoen, D.J., & Goudriaan, T. (1981). Review: A Survey of Tantric Hinduism for the Historian of Religions. History of Religions, 20(4), 345-360.
Jackson, P.A. (1989). Buddhism, Legitimation and Conflict: The Political Functions of Urban Thai Buddhism. Institute of Southeast Asian Studies.
Kevatta Sutta, Dīgha Nikāya 11.
Kirsch, A.T. (1977). Complexity in Thai Religious System: An Interpretation. Journal of Asian Studies, 241-266.
Maha Chulalongkorn Rajavidyalaya University (2002). Thai Tripitaka Mahachulalongkornrajavidyalaya University edition: From Wiriya to Wisdom in order to carry on Buddhism as a Thai partner. Extracted from Mahachulalongkornrajavidyalaya University on 2021, August 7: http://oldweb.mcu.ac.th/mcutrai/menu2/Article/article_21.htm
Prombunpong, S. (1995). Monkhood Faces Further Decline. In Blyth, G. (ed.). The Cult Worship of King Chulalongkorn. Department of Thai Studies, Clayton: AUS, Monash University.
Yu, D.S. (2014). Buddhist Conversion in Contemporary World. New York: NY, The Oxford Handbook on Religious Conversion.
Kapook (2018). Revealing a Picture of a Resolute Chinese Woman Flocking to the Charm of a Nine-Tailed Fox, Believed to Help Attract Men and Fortune. Extracted from Kapook on 2021, August 7: https://hilight.kapook.com/view/171264
Phra Pikaniat or Lord Ganesh, the elder son of Lord Shiva and Goddess Parvati, is a popular Hindu God. Lord Shiva is part of Supreme Being Trimurti and Goddess Parvati is also part of Supreme Goddess Shakti. The origin of Lord Ganesh is contained in Shiva Purana, part of the Shivaism corpus of literature. He has an elephant head and a human body. He is the most popular Hindu God and is also regarded as the Chieftain of Gods. All religious ceremony must first go through Him because he clears all obstacles and ensures success. Consequently, it becomes believed those who seek success in business must first pay respect to Lord Ganesh.
The birth of Ganesha
It is recorded in Shiva Purana that one day, Goddess Parvati told Nandi, one of Lord Shiva’s able followers who was assigned as her bodyguard that she did not want to be disturbed as she takes her bath and he was not to let anyone pass, including her husband, Lord Shiva. Nandi faithfully took his post but when Lord Shiva came home, Nandi tried to stop him but when His Lordship was insistent, Nandi let him passed through. Parvati was infuriated by what happened.
In another day, when Goddess Parvati wished to take a bath and did not want to be disturbed but in lieu of asking Nandi to stand guard, she took the turmeric paste (for bathing) from her body and breathed life into it, she created Lord Ganesh out of it and declared him to be her own loyal son. She asked Lord Ganesh to stand guard for her.
When Lord Shiva returned home, he was deprived entry by the young boy. Lord Shiva was greatly offended and ordered His men to destroy Lord Ganesh. However, they failed. They were easily defeated by the young boy, thus, compelling Lord Shiva to take on the young boy himself.
Being one of the Supreme Gods, Lord Shiva was able to defeat Lord Ganesh easily and, out of blind anger, he severed Lord Ganesh’s head. When Goddess Parvati saw that, she was so enraged and she transformed into her multi-arms devilish form of Goddess of Death, Kali. Goddess Kali threatened to destroy all creation. That alarmed the Creator, Lord Brahma who tried to salvage the precarious situation. The Goddess of Death laid down two conditions, firstly, Lord Ganesh be resurrected and, secondly, thereafter be accorded the status of Ganapati and be honoured before all Gods in all religious ceremonies.
Knowing his wife well and realising the consequence of His rashness, Lord Shiva asked Lord Brahma to fetch Him the head of the first living creature He found facing in the North direction. Lord Brahma, upon reaching the North spotted an elephant and hence returned with an elephant’s severed head which Lord Shiva joined it to Lord Ganesh’s lifeless body. With His own breath, Lord Shiva brought Lord Ganesh back to life and declared Him His own son.
With the agreement of the three Supreme Gods, Lord Ganesh was accorded the status of leader of all ganas (all classes of beings) and will be worshipped before all other Gods in all religious ceremonies. It was from then that Lord Ganesh received His alternative name Ganapati – leader of all classes of beings.
Lord Ganesh is known as Phra Pikaniat in Thailand and is widely worshipped by Thais. There are many temples and shrines dedicated to Phra Pikaniat. The most accessible would be the shrine at Central World, Rajmari Road which is frequented by both Thais and foreigners.
Another Phra Pikaniat temple that has attracted tourists from around the world is Wat Saman Rattanaram in Chachoengsao with a large reclining statue of Lord Ganesha measuring 16 meters high and 22 meters long.
Besides the removing of obstacles, it is almost customary for Thais to pray to Phra Pikaniat when starting a business, embark on long travelling, starting a new construction or during engagement or wedding. Praying to Phra Pikaniat is also popular with university students not because Phra Pikaniat will do the exams for them but He will instead remove all obstacles to learning. Phra Pikaniat is also well-known for His passion for fine arts and is, thus, believed to encourage creativeness. This is evident in the logos of Thailand’s Department of Fine Arts and Silapakorn University.
The Phra Pikaniat in our logo, sitting at the centre of our company’s name in Thai “Regalia Soon Wathanathamputh” or Regalia Buddhist Cultural Centre contains our mission to “encourage people to come and pray (Conch Shell) by pulling them to the highest goal (Rope) in the right path (Tusk) through love, wisdom, and action (Trident)”.
The Kingdom of Thailand, a country known for its leadership in Theravada Buddhism, adds yet another gigantic Buddha statue to the array that spreads throughout the kingdom, the tallest being the 92-metres high Phra Buddha Maha Nawamin statue in Wat Muang, Ang Thong province.
Nonetheless, the newly constructed statue of Phra Buddha Dhammakaya Thepmongkhon will replaced the iconic 32-metres tall Buddha statue of Phra Si Ariyamettrai of Wat Intharawihan, Phra Nakhon, Bangkok as the tallest Buddha in the capital.
The Phra Buddha Dhammakaya Thepmongkhon statue is a meditation Buddha image seated on a lotus with a lap width of 40-meters and a height of 69-meters that is approximately equivalent to a 20-storey building overseeing the Chao Phaya River.
The construction took place in one of Thailand’s prominent temple Wat Paknam Phasi Charoen which was built during the Ayutthaya period or around year 1610. The temple received royal patronage up-until late nineteenth century before falling into abandonment and destitute.
However, at the turn of the twentieth century, the Wat Paknam rose from the ashes with the appointment of Luang Pu Sodh Candasaro’s (Phra Mongkolthepmuni) as its abbot in 1916. The temple underwent major restructuring and innovation under the leadership of His Venerable. Luang Pu Sodh began preaching the Dharma on a regular basis and His Venerable also conducted meditation classes for both monks and laypeople. Subsequently, in the 1950s, Luang Pu Sodh also established an institute for Pali studies and schools for primary education.
Apart from his dharmic nature, Luang Pu Sodh was also a top and highly respected guru monk within the inner path. He has made various amulets and among the more highly sought after are His Venerable’s personal medallions and Somdej Wat Paknam Loon Laek to Loon Sam. Consequently, the temple was expeditiously restored to its past glory housing hundreds of monks and became well-supported by the affluent community around Bangkok.
After serving the Sangha for 53 years, Luang Pu Sodh entered parinibbana on February 3, 1959 at the age of 75. His body is still being preserved in the temple because of the large number of believers paying respect to His Venerable hitherto. Pursuant thereto, it also became a major tourist attraction for the temple. However, the years 1916 to 1959 marked the peak of Wat Paknam Phasi Charoen.
Work on the statue of Phra Buddha Dhammakaya Thepmongkhon commenced in 2017 and is projected to be completed this year. However, owing to the Wuhan coronavirus pandemic, the Phra Puttapisek ceremony will likely be deferred to a later date.
It was speculated that the statue of Phra Buddha Dhammakaya Thepmongkhon was built as an offering to the Triple Gems, that is, the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha, as well as a homage to Luang Pu Sodh, In other words, the statue of Phra Buddha Dhammakaya Thepmongkhon is representational of Buddhanusati, Dhammanusati, and Sanghanusati,
The 69-metre-tall Buddha statue made from copper and painted gold has a heart, according to the “Lotus Sattha Bongkut”, made of 12 kilograms of pure gold. The total cost for the construction was reported to be 500 million baht (approximately USD 15.4 million). The Buddha statue will be visible across the capital, especially on all raised train lines, and is expected to become a new tourist attraction once the Wuhan coronavirus pandemic is over.