Ghosts, amulets, ringtones, and the rest of Thai Buddhism
THE CACOPHONY OF RELIGION TODAY
Writer: Chris Baker
Somdet To is, according to Justin McDaniel "arguably the most famous monk in Thai history." His image, picture, chants, biographies, amulets, and pamphlets are everywhere. Yet you could read everything written on Thai Buddhism in English for scholars or tourists without noticing his existence, let alone his importance. In this superb book, McDaniel not only does justice to Somdet To but suggests a new way of thinking about "Thai Buddhism" and how it is studied.
Somdet To was born around 1788. There are many biographies, films, and webpages on his life, but they conflict wildly and there is little documentary proof. He is known through many stories. According to one version, he was the son of King Rama I, sired on a Lao peasant girl during a military campaign in the North. This story gives him origins that range from the top to the bottom of society, from centre to periphery. He became a great Pali scholar, abbot of prestigious Wat Rakhang, and a preceptor of kings.
But why is he so famous down to the present? Not for his teachings. Only a few sermons survive and they are unremarkable. Not for his writings _ a few pages with recipes for making amulets. Not for any philosophical innovation or reform movement. His legacy consists mainly of stories about his life which show him as compassionate, very down-to-earth, even ready to mock his great patron, the king.
As with the Buddha, stories of the life (and previous lives) are a form of teaching by example. But perhaps the best-known facts about Somdet To are that he meditated on corpses, exorcised ghosts, and specialised in making protective devices, especially amulets. He is remembered for his exceptional powers. Amulets have since become big business and Somdet To's are among the most valued and costly.
One story about Somdet To gives him a role in Siam's most famous ghost tale. After dying in childbirth, Mae Nak refused to abandon her beloved husband and brutally killed neighbours who told him he was living with a ghost. Somdet To was called in to quell Nak's spirit and end the carnage. Nak's local wat (temple), now in the Bangkok suburbs, is thronged everyday with people begging help from the spirit of this loving but vicious ghost, from Somdet To, and from a host of other shrines and fortune tellers.
Somdet To quelled the ghost with a chant, the Jinpanjara gatha. This rather martial verse is now hugely popular, available through pamphlet, radio broadcast downloadable ringtone, or impregnated in sacred water by a statue of Somdet To enclosing a recorder playing the chant on an endless loop.
McDaniel's point is that the practice of Buddhism in Thailand today is all about shrines to legendary ghosts, amulets related to famous old monks, magical chants used as ringtones, family outings to theme parks full of statues of figures gruesomely tortured in hell, and so on.
Scholars have presented an idealised Buddhism, cleansed and standardised by teachings from Sri Lanka, reform movements led by kings, and modern legislation. In reality, McDaniel argues, these efforts have all failed. There is not even a standard liturgy, a manual for religious performances. Thousands of monks and wats have produced their own versions. There has been no policing of the boundaries of what is worshipable. Local spirits, Hindu and Chinese gods, ghosts like Nak, past kings, and increasingly famous monks like Somdet To have slipped into the pantheon. An abbot asked McDaniel for a crucifix because he thought it would be a good addition to his collection of protective amulets.
McDaniel resists describing the result as syncretism on grounds that the practitioners themselves do not see it that way. The fashionable term, hybridity, does not appear once in this book. McDaniel also argues strongly against classifying practices into "pure Buddhism" and other, magical elements labelled as "tantric" or "esoteric." He suggests that "pure Buddhism" is something imagined by foreign scholars, particularly those with a Protestant background (McDaniel is Irish Catholic). In history, the "pure" and the rest cannot be disentangled. The Thammayut reform movement, which supposedly began as an effort to purify Buddhist practice, ended up lionizing forest monks famed for their supernatural powers. McDaniel delights in pointing out that several modern-day proponents of "pure" Buddhism also own protective amulets.
McDaniel suggests that individuals have "repertoires," meaning menus of religious things they will own or do. These repertoires can be very varied and very flexible over time. Fads come and go. Recently Ganesha has had a good run, but may now be fading. Neither state nor Sangha makes any significant effort to police what these repertoires may contain. The result is that "Thai Buddhism" is extraordinarily alive and inventive, with no sign of dying away like some well-regulated faiths. McDaniel scoffs at scholars who see the proliferation of cults and especially of commercialism as a reaction to capitalism, globalisation, and modern angst. He suggests instead that the variety and inventiveness is a product of unregulated popular ownership, and that things have probably always been much the same. He twits the reformers who wring their hands over crass commercialism, and would like Thai Buddhism to be all meditation and good works; their chances of quelling the cacophony of everyday practice are nil.
McDaniel also tries to define the messages and meanings of the real-world "Thai Buddhism" that includes Somdet To's martial chant, Mae Nak's shrine, hell theme parks, and all the rest. He suggest that besides the well-known Buddhist qualities of non-attachment, compassion, and enlightenment, everyday practice involves "a celebration of abundance, a promotion of heritage, a desire for security, and a rhetoric of graciousness." In short, people value protection from dangers, worldly success, fellow feeling, national identity, and more beauty in life.
Finally, McDaniel suggests that Thai Buddhism is changing. It no longer looks to India or Sri Lanka as its source, but sees itself as leader of the Theravada world. Meanwhile the position of the historical Buddha is shifting. In a typical wat today, crowds throng shrines to old monks, legendary ghosts, past kings, and local spirits while the hall housing the main image is often closed and locked. There is a trend of building massive statues of famous monks, including Somdet To. There are even wats where Somdet To's image has the central site and the Buddha is to one side.
This book informs, entertains, and provokes. I think this is the first volume on Buddhism which made me laugh, often. The author intends it to be controversial and hopefully it will provoke some fierce responses. Currently the publication is an expensive, academic-targeted hardback. Its appeal should be wider. Anyone interested in Thailand today, in Buddhism, in ghosts, or in why CentralWorld was burned down (it was the only building in the area with no protective shrine), should read this brilliant book.http://www.bangkokpost.com/arts-and-cul ... i-buddhism
Google book preview:http://cup.columbia.edu/bookpreview/978-0-231-15376-8/THE LOVELORN GHOST AND THE MAGICAL MONK
Practicing Buddhism in Modern Thailand
Written by Justin T. McDaniel
Columbia University Press, New York ISBN 978-0-231-15376-8
Stories centering on the lovelorn ghost (Mae Nak) and the magical monk (Somdet To) are central to Thai Buddhism. Historically important and emotionally resonant, these characters appeal to every class of follower. Metaphorically and rhetorically powerful, they invite constant reimagining across time.
Focusing on representations of the ghost and monk from the late eighteenth century to the present, Justin Thomas McDaniel builds a case for interpreting modern Thai Buddhist practice through the movements of these transformative figures. He follows embodiments of the ghost and monk in a variety of genres and media, including biography, film, television, drama, ritual, art, liturgy, and the Internet. Sourcing nuns, monks, laypeople, and royalty, he shows how relations with these figures have been instrumental in crafting histories and modernities. McDaniel is especially interested in local conceptions of being “Buddhist” and the formation and transmission of such identities across different venues and technologies.
Establishing an individual’s “religious repertoire” as a valid category of study, McDaniel explores the performance of Buddhist thought and ritual through practices of magic, prognostication, image production, sacred protection, and deity and ghost worship, and clarifies the meaning of multiple cultural configurations. Listening to popular Thai Buddhist ghost stories, visiting crowded shrines and temples, he finds concepts of attachment, love, wealth, beauty, entertainment, graciousness, security, and nationalism all spring from engagement with the ghost and the monk and are as vital to the making of Thai Buddhism as venerating the Buddha himself.
In this sweeping study full of fresh observations and original thinking, McDaniel continues his radical reinterpretation of Thai religious practice. Challenged to understand rituals, sacred objects, saints, deities, and spirits of bewildering diversity, he sees in a lovelorn ghost and magical monk a way to make sense of what seems senseless. He thereby dispels the familiar categories of Buddhism, Brahmanism, and animism. Does anyone understand Thai religion in all its complexity better than McDaniel? -- Craig J. Reynolds, Australian National University Justin Thomas McDaniel celebrates the complexity and situation-specific vitality of Buddhists and their 'repertoires' in his engaging work on contemporary, especially urban, Thailand. His book is a valuable resource for undergraduate and graduate teaching, and it is exemplary in its use of Thai, French, and English writings on Thailand and Buddhism. -- Anne Blackburn, Cornell University A brilliant and innovative book that not only carves out some important new directions in the study of Theravada Buddhism but also sets a new bar. If my students had time to read only one book on Southeast Asian Buddhism, this is the book I would choose. -- Anne Hansen, University of Wisconsin This magnificent, beguiling, and thought-provoking study describes and celebrates the heterogeneity and, as McDaniel puts it, the cacophony of Thai Buddhist experience as expressing the values of security, heritage, graciousness, and abundance. It should be read by every scholar of Buddhist studies and of religious studies more widely. An epoch-making achievement. -- Steve Collins, University of Chicagohttp://cup.columbia.edu/book/978-0-231- ... gical-monk Thai Buddhism: Magic, Money and Murder
Justin T. McDaniel
A few years ago, a Buddhist novice monk, Han Raksachit, was arrested after he released a video tape of himself piercing, bleeding, roasting, chanting and collecting the drippings from a nearly full-term baby's corpse at Nong Rakam Monastery in Saraburi Province (central Thailand). These drippings, which he called ya sane (lust medicine), he sold to visitors. Although he was forced from the monastery and arrested, he did not serve jail time and was arrested again in 2005 for tricking several women into sexual acts and defrauding them of money in exchange for dubious claims that he could help them attract their true loves. He is serving time now on 23 counts of rape.
More recently, in late 2010, authorities discovered 348 corpses of aborted fetuses being held in plastic bags in a Buddhist monastery. They were bought from five different abortion clinics, supposedly to sell to magicians and amulet dealers. This was not a rural monastery on the border of Cambodia or Laos, but a monastery in Bangkok -- Wat Phai Ngoen. Later reports in several Thai news outlets spoke of the hundreds of people who were visiting the monastery after the discovery of the bodies to chant for the deceased foetuses. Some also came to inquire about the availability of the corpses for ritual use.
Thailand is well-known as a tourist paradise, a land rich in exotic flora and silk. It is also known as the most Buddhist country on earth with almost 94% of the country's 65 million people self-identifying as Buddhist. There are 34,000 Buddhist monasteries and over 300,000 monks residing in the country. However, Thai Buddhist practices, especially those involving the magical uses of corpses and protective amulets, as well as the pervasive Thai propitiation of ghosts, hell-beings and protective spectral children has rarely been investigated in any serious way. With the rise in popularity of Thai/Khom protective tattoos, most notably inspired by Angelina Jolie, Apichatpong Weerasethakul's top prize at the Cannes Film Festival for his Thai religion-themed movie and monks filmed near recent bloody clashes on the streets of Bangkok in last spring's democracy protests, the less savory side of Thai religion has been exposed to the outside world.
While ritual practices, sometimes involving aborted fetuses might seem strange or even reprehensible to a person not familiar with Thai Buddhism, they are actually not that shocking in Thailand. While the cases above are extreme and offended even Thai practitioners of Buddhism, less-severe, but related practices can be traced back centuries and are commonly known by many devout Buddhists. In fact, ritual practices to either enlist the power of spiritual denizens or protect against the curses of human rivals are employed by the country's leading politicians and power-brokers. The former Prime Minister Taksin Shinawatra was rumored to have performed secret magical rituals to ensure his shaky political fortunes in 2006 right before he was forcibly removed from office by a political movement led in part by Sondhi Limthongkul. In turn, Sondhi has performed protective rituals to guarantee his political fortunes after a series of bloody street battles between the his supporters and the government in Bangkok in the Fall of 2008. Other public figures like Thai film stars like Sorapong Chartree commissioned a huge 65 foot tall statue of a nineteenth century monk who as famous for making protective amulets and holy water and the famous monk Luang Phu Kasem inspired the construction of one of the largest Buddha statues in the world, as well as a hell theme-park (suan narok) to educate children about the the various levels of hell.
The Thai protective amulet industry is worth about 300 million USD per year. There are thousands of articles in popular amulet collector's magazines about the value and beauty of these small objects. There is a regular section in the popular Thai language newspaper, Thai Rath, called "Sanam Phra" which features new amulets on the market, stories of their production and occasionally a miracle story about how an amulet saved a person from drowning or helped her business. Some amulets have sold for as much as 1.75 million USD. However, there are many amulets that cost as little as 10 cents. These amulets, albeit rarely, can be made more powerful with the addition of "corpse fluid" (nam man phrai) from aborted fetuses or freshly deceased adults.
In my new book, "The Lovelorn Ghost and the Magical Monk: Practicing Buddhism in Modern Thailand" (Columbia University Press, 2011), I go beyond studies of Buddhist meditation, ethics, and philosophy in order to provide a historical background to many of today's Thai Buddhist practices. I provide a detailed, but hopefully accessible, analysis of the amulet trade, the use of protective tattoos, the rise of Thai horror films, the chanting of protective incantations, the popularity of ghost stories and the work of well-known Buddhist monks, saints and magicians. Even though Thai Buddhism presents itself (and has been so designated by foreign scholars and Western Buddhist enthusiasts) as normative, traditional and exceedingly well-behaved, I argue throughout that rather than hidden aspects of an otherwise orthodox and peaceful Thai Buddhism, these magical and protective rituals and stories are part of the Thai religious mainstream. If we are going to talk in useful ways about Thai culture, if we are going to learn from the various Thai ways of being Buddhist, then it is more accurate to look at what complex technologies people actually employ to solve problems -- the practical (and sometimes seemingly impractical) technologies of astrology, healing, protection, prognostication, precepts, and the like. In this way, I hope to offer a solid background to what a visitor to Thailand, whether she is a scholar of Buddhism or an engaged tourist, will actually see, smell, and hear in a monastery -- even if what we witness makes us want to run it the opposite direction.http://www.huffingtonpost.com/justin-mc ... 16115.html