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 that the 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 Upāli Sutta (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 Pāli Tripitaka), 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.
The three principles are:
– etam Buddhana-sasanam
- Dhammapada, XIV. 5(183).
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.
Kālāma Sutta: 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 Sutta and 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 “ye dhammā hetuprabhavā hetuṃ teṣāṃ tathāgato hyavadat, teṣāṃ ca yo nirodha evaṃvādī mahāśramaṇaḥ” 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 the Pāli 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.
British Library (2019). British Library receives gift of Pāḷi Tipitaka. Retrieved from: https://blogs.bl.uk/asian-and-african/2019/11/british-library-receives-gift-of-the-pali-tipitaka.html
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.
Komchadleuk (2014). Phra Phim Kradun Sriwichai over One Thousand Years Old. Extracted from Komshadleuk News on 2021, August 13: https://www.komchadluek.net/news/lifestyle/190112
Loannidis, J.P.A. (2005). Why Most Published Research Findings Are False. PLOS Med, 2(8) : e124. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pmed.0020124
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.
Ratana Sutta, Khuddakapāṭha 6.
Sāleyyakasutta , Majjhima Nikāya 41.
Saṃyutta Nikāya, Sutta Pitaka.
Shashkevich, A. (2018). Stanford Scholar Discusses Buddhism and its Origins. Extracted from Standford News on 2021, August 7: https://news.stanford.edu/2018/08/20/stanford-scholar-discusses-buddhism-origins/
Stanford University (2021). Mysticism in Arabic and Islamic Philosophy. Extracted from Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy on 2021, August 7: https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/arabic-islamic-mysticism/
Stefon, M. (n.d.). Christianity. Extracted from Britannica on 2021, August 7: https://www.britannica.com/topic/Christianity/Christian-mysticism
Suttavibhanga, Ninaya Pitaka.
Svasti, P. (2013). Links Forged in Faith. Extracted from Bangkok Post on 2021, August 7: https://www.bangkokpost.com/travel/343819/links-forged-in-faith
Upāli Sutta, Majjhima Nikāya 56.
Worathanee (2013). I will make merit at all…consider it first (or not…?). Extracted from Post Today on 2021, August 7: https://www.posttoday.com/dhamma/231584
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