letting go by holding on
“Since the 1990s, the hybridization of Thai popular religion has been both visible and subtle. It’s is visible because religiosity has expanded beyond its confined conventional spaces (temples) into the mass media and marketplace, with the symbolic and direct aim of blessing worldly that are guided by capitalist logic. As Jackson noted in His study of the cult of magic monk, Luang Pho Khun,
“We must even look outside the monastery, to department stores, shopping malls, and marketplaces, for it is in these locations that contemporary forms of Thai religiosity are now most viably expressed, where popular Thai religion is commodified packaged, marketed, and consumed.” 1
As I walked along the streets of Bangkok, excited to see the large weekend market at Chatuchak, my excitement wasn’t for the stalls filled with elephant pants or sick “new vintage” cloths but for what was just out side the market. I had been reading and researching the popularity of “The cult of amulets” in “Thai popular Buddhism”. Amulets are what brought me here, like the Reliquaries, Milagros and Pilgrimage pins I researched in the past these were all connected. The contradiction and coexistence of Buddhist precepts of mindfulness and humility and modernist focus of prosperity and capitalist gain, as seen be the display of amulets in Thai popular culture.
If not as symbols of devotion to faith or sacred beauty, then by amulets, consecrated craftsmanship, sacrosanct and at the same time magical. And on the way to to the market there they were, and to my surprise even knowing their popularity, there seemed to be endless stands of little slabs of clay depicting the Buddha, photos of popular monks, the recently passed king, pop singers from the 60’s along side brass cast trinkets of Ganesha and Shiva, sanctified relics most encased in sliver and gold in order to be worn as medallions. There were also holy prayers on sheets of brass and copper rolled placed into cylinders. The stands were not the only eye caching thing but the collectors and sellers, mostly men, were adorned in all sorts of talismans and amulets, often gold and multiple layered atop one another. Is was vibrant look at the history of migration and assimilation in this region, and faith in the market place. It was in the margins of society that the rebirth of the cult of amulets and minders spiritualist movement found its way into what Pattana Kitiarsa calls “Popular Buddhism” although “using the term popular does not mean that this type of Buddhism is less serious, less rigorous, or further from the ideals of Buddhist moral perfection and self-transformation the traditional Theravada Buddhism (state sponsored religion).” How ever popular Buddhism is different from its states sponsored traditional counter part Sangha, as its loosely organized and made to meet peoples specific need, much like the rise of Santa Muerte and Jesús Malerde in Mexico and Southwest United States as I saw while traveling there. Popular Buddhism of today incorporates numerology, astrology, mediums often being middle aged woman, magical monks, a country singer from a poor family associated with winning lottery number by the taken name Phumphuang Duangchan (roughly translated Voluptuous Moon) past kings and local guardian spirits as well as interpreted royal and folk ceremonial practices. Based in the long standing religious following of Buddhism in the region, it also blends together folk traditions of the agrarian past of festivals and ceremonies meant to honor and worship of local guardian spirit for “fertile harvest, individual well being, community solidarity, and ability to cope with crisis”2. As well today the Amulets are a direct product of a rich cultural history of devotions of faith influenced by migration and assimilation, their also a symbol of this amalgamation and the complex juxtaposition of keeping people’s faith alive and relevant in an ever intensifying changing society spurred by modernization, capitalism and globalization. The best way to see this hybridization as Pattana Kitiarsa calls it, as it is distinctly not syncretism but an “unconscious organic hybridity” brought on by the “miracle of tolerance of the great age of commerce. It was natural, different people should have different beliefs.”3
It can be seen to day in viewing the Thai popular home shrine. The display not only shows the hierarchy of deities, magical monks and local guardian spirits is mirrors Thai society. Where popular Buddhism is also engaged in the societal structures of gender roles, such as the Sangha is reserved for men only and women often tend to be the channels for sprites as mediums. “The spirits tend to prefer woman. As woman are more gentle and generous then men. And are also more prone to commit wrong doing (such as drinking and womanizing) against the will of the sacred spirit.”4
“The hierarchy is based of state power legitimation, class, gender. The statute of Buddha is always positioned at the top, since he is regarded as the supreme deity in Thai religious cosmology and since Buddhism is the country’s state-sponsored religion. At the next level are Buddhist saints, male Indian and Chinese deities, and royal spirits. These male deities are positioned higher then female deities like Guanyin, Uma, or Kali. The bottom of the alter is occupied by tutelary local spirits and other minor spirits. Flowers, incense, candles, and offerings are placed in vases or other containers on the floor. Spirit alters bring together deities from diverse backgrounds and origins, and the alter is a sacred site where the hybridization of popular beliefs takes a concrete form.”5p.30
If Jesus, Santa, Krampus can share the same holiday… any thing goes right?
The history of amulet making for merit dates back to the 6th centuries and even earlier into Indian. It’s evolution how every has ties to ancient roots, as humans have had a tendency to sanctify or fetishized objects. Seen in Southeast Asia since prehistoric times with such things “natural objects like Mai Ruak (a species of bamboo) or wan (medicinal plants)” worn as amulets then made more “sophisticated with the advent of Hindu-Brahmanism and Buddhism”6 Buddhist amulets first come into play around the 6th century as a practice of merit making. It was brought along with Buddhism by traders and merchants from India across Myanmar/Burma down into Thailand, Laos, Cambodia Vietnam and onwards to the far east. But the tradition of Amulet making stayed in Southeast Asia and primarily Thailand. The early forms being large votive tablets often inscribed with a linga and depicting an act or teaching of the Buddha. They were mostly made in the India and brought to Thailand as they conceited with pilgrimages to the four sacred site.
The Buddhas birthplace Lumbini Park (Nepal).
The place of enlightenment Bodh Gaya (India)
The place of the first sermon Sarnath (Vattar Predesh India)
Mahaparinirvana (Kushinagara India)
“These were also of Mon and early Khmer design 7th century but with the ovoid shape strongly influenced by India and Burma as well”7 Though these Votive tablets are much larger the contemporary the commercialized amulets and ones of the later 10th to 15th century (Pre-Thai Period 6th-12th C. Covering from Dvaravati or Mon Style, Srivijaya or Peninsular Style to the Lopburi or Khmer Style and Thai Period 13th-Present. Covering Sukhothai, Chiang Saen and Ayutthaya.8) they show the act of making votive tablet or “sealing”, as these were often sealed inside of stupa’s and pagodas for consecration, was an early part of meditation practice, religious exercise, or merit making, was itself the main reason for their production. Through looting, and excavation of sites and do a “mass religious” production the market today has a very healthy supply. The supply is part of the popular resurgence of these amulets as well as belief in state sanctioned Sangha has dwindled people have taken up more traditional beliefs connected with Magic and super naturalism. Taken from the 10th to 15th C. of both Pre-Thai Thai period and their over all influences, when “the religious situation in mainland Southeast Asia was more fluid and informal, characterized more by miraculous relics and charismatic, magical monks then by sectarian tradition”9. This fluidity as found in cult of amulets adds to Thai popular Buddhism, add to that Buddhism requires no concept of God, allows for the amalgamation of animism, belief in the supernatural with some aspects of Hinduism. This bolsters the belief that specific amulets posses specific magical qualities. In a cultural ornamental fashion Thais and other believers typically wear many amulets to ensure complete protection, choosing ones made by revered teachers or monk, this belief builds the market value and “power” of the amulet. Since the 1990’s there have been popularized magazines pushing stories of specific miracles and magical act preformed by certain monks in order to generate donations and founds for their Wats. One of the current most popular monk is Luang Pho Khun. He was taught in the ways of magic by his master Phra Achan Khong who was a renowned forest monk know for his knowledge and power. Luang came to be known as his only pupal to learn the secret arts, and it’s said he collected more when he was a wondering monk in northern Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia many. He has a very strong following with meany devotees. His message however he tends to simply remind his followers of the concepts of an ideal being Buddhist. His messages are overshadowed by the supernatural power of his popular amulets. “What ever he says is perceived by his followers to be a sign of luck and wealth”10. This makes him a “postmodern medium between the sacred and the profane, as well as among various domains of power (such as economy or politics) in contemporary Thai society”11. Its because for the blurring of the lines the popularity has grown, but it pushes further away from Siddhartha’s the Buddhas teachings. “In the final six hours, what is called the last “watch of the night”, Siddhartha finally got it. A veil lifted and he saw into the world from beginningless to endless time. He understood the origin of the universe, and how we are reborn. He uncovered what is called “dependent origination”, or how the suffering that binds us to the cycle of birth and death is created. He entered into this freedom and, as they say, “went beyond”, and touched nirvana- the unconditional, unborn, deathless. Price Siddhartha became enlightened and from that moment on was known as the Buddha, or the Awakened One”12. p16 Diana Winston, “Wide Awake”.
What he then brought to teach was the four noble truths: the noble eightfold path is the end to suffering.
-the four noble truths
There is suffering in life.
Suffering always has causes.
An end to suffering is possible by ending the cause.
The Noble Eight fold Path is the way to end suffering.13
-the noble eightfold path, or the middle way.
Right View- knowing the truth of suffering, that freedom from suffering is possible, and how to live a life without suffering.
Right Intention- intending to wake up and help others.
Right Speech- speaking in harmonious ways and avoiding hurting through speech.
Right Action- acting in harmonious ways and avoiding hurting through actions.
Right livelihood- finding work that is useful, meaningful, non harming, and expresses who we are in the world
Right Effort- putting our beliefs and understanding wholeheartedly into practice.
Right Mindfulness- paying careful attention to what is happening in our lives.
Right Concentration- inner stability and calm that allows us to focus on what is helpful for ourselves and others.14
The Buddha’s teachings in themselves are a metaphor for living and are refined to the five precepts, and it’s with individual interpretation to abating this enlightenment that allows the blurring of lines. How a life of wealth and prosperity is a sign of a dutiful life, and with any system as altruistic as it can be, they can be bent or influenced, becoming corrupted. Though Thai popular Buddhism has its questionable aspects, the subsequent cultural influence as seen in the streets as I walked to the market is astonishing and frankly mesmerizing. In summery, one cannot simplify a phenomenon, steeped in such deep evolution of culture.
-the five precepts
Knowing how deeply our lives intertwine, I undertake the training to protect life.
Knowing how deeply our lives intertwine, I undertake the training to take only what is freely given to me.
Knowing how deeply our lives intertwine, I undertake the training to protect relationships and avoid sexual misconduct.
Knowing how deeply our lives intertwine, I undertake the training to speak truthfully and kindly.
Knowing how deeply our lives intertwine, I undertake the training to protect clarity of mind through avoiding intoxicants.15
1Kitiarsa, Pattana. Mediums, Monks and Amulets: Thai Popular Buddhism Today. Silk Worm Books: Univ. of Washington Press, 2012. 31. Print.
2Kitiarsa, Pattana. Mediums, Monks and Amulets: Thai Popular Buddhism Today. Silk Worm Books: Univ. of Washington Press, 2012. 4. Print.
3Kitiarsa, Pattana. Mediums, Monks and Amulets: Thai Popular Buddhism Today. Silk Worm Books: Univ. of Washington Press, 2012. 15. Print.
4Kitiarsa, Pattana. Mediums, Monks and Amulets: Thai Popular Buddhism Today. Silk Worm Books: Univ. of Washington Press, 2012. 54. Print.
5Kitiarsa, Pattana. Mediums, Monks and Amulets: Thai Popular Buddhism Today. Silk Worm Books: Univ. of Washington Press, 2012. 30. Print.
6Kitiarsa, Pattana. Mediums, Monks and Amulets: Thai Popular Buddhism Today. Silk Worm Books: Univ. of Washington Press, 2012. 112. Print.
7Chirpravati, ML Pattanatorn. Votive Tablets in Thailand: Origins, Styles and Uses. Oxford Univ. Press, 2012. 25. Print.
8Chirpravati, ML Pattanatorn. Votive Tablets in Thailand: Origins, Styles and Uses. Oxford Univ. Press, 2012. Print.
9Kitiarsa, Pattana. Mediums, Monks and Amulets: Thai Popular Buddhism Today. Silk Worm Books: Univ. of Washington Press, 2012. 112. Print.
10Kitiarsa, Pattana. Mediums, Monks and Amulets: Thai Popular Buddhism Today. Silk Worm Books: Univ. of Washington Press, 2012. 109. Print.
11Kitiarsa, Pattana. Mediums, Monks and Amulets: Thai Popular Buddhism Today. Silk Worm Books: Univ. of Washington Press, 2012. 84. Print.
12Winston, Diana. Wide Awake: A Buddhist Guide for Teens. Perigee, 2003. 16. Print.
13Winston, Diana. Wide Awake: A Buddhist Guide for Teens. Perigee, 2003. 46. Print.
14Winston, Diana. Wide Awake: A Buddhist Guide for Teens. Perigee, 2003. 55. Print.
15Winston, Diana. Wide Awake: A Buddhist Guide for Teens. Perigee, 2003. 174. Print.