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.