Essay: Theravada Buddhism

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  • Subject area(s): Religious studies and Theology essays
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  • Published on: November 7, 2018
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Theravada Buddhism has been a state-sponsored religion since the reign of King Rama V, who adopted the Sangha (Buddhist body) without rejecting premodern indigenous supernatural beliefs (Malikhao, 2017). This was the beginning of hybridity in Thailand. Hybridity is defined as a cultural event where “many beliefs and practices converge and produce new forms of amalgamation and sets of meaning relevant to the present sociocultural and economic situation” (Kitiarsa, 2005a, p. 467). This is opposed to syncretism, which fails to consider modern social realities such as consumerism. Due to the long history and interaction of Theravada Buddhism with indigenous supernaturalism, Buddhist principles have evolved to become grounded in supernaturalism. Modern religiosity is a reflection of animism rather than of canonical Theravada Buddhism. Even when the government attempted to undermine indigenous beliefs, the beliefs “remained persistent undercurrents throughout all strata of Thai society” (Jackson, 2009, p. 369).
Beliefs in indigenous supernaturalism have not declined in modern Thailand because it remains “a central part of Thai social values” (Kitiarsa, 2005a, p. 463), particularly the value of karma. Karma refers to the law of cause and effect, with the accumulation of merit from one’s past life affecting their present life (Kitiarsa, 2012). Karma sets the basis for the afterlife, but Buddhist doctrines fail to adequately explain the afterlife, so this gap is filled up by animistic beliefs. It is fundamental to other social values which are observed in society, such as being superstitious and being materialistic. These values are chosen to be evaluated against the value of karma because they are reflected in modern literature regarding the royalist and consumerist culture in Thailand. In the political scene, superstitions linked to karma are exploited by royals and politicians to legitimize their rule. In the economic scene, the adoption of materialistic tendencies due to capitalism has led to the growth of the prosperity religion, where equal emphasis is placed upon wealth accumulation and salvation (Jackson, 1999). Religious consumerism draws heavily from the idea of merit-making, which has its roots in karma. Although some contend that indigenous supernaturalism is facing a decline amidst the rise of orthodox Buddhism which rejects the prosperity religion, this essay argues that the indigenous supernatural beliefs continue to exist in modern Thailand.

Indigenous supernaturalism is the focal point of religious attitudes as its beliefs are well-integrated with Buddhist values (Jackson, 2016). Formoso (2016) argues that Buddhist teachings are vague about the destiny of souls, causing the animistic concept of wandering spirits in the physical realm to meld with Buddhist teachings about karma. The essence of a deceased is believed to remain in the physical realm prior to their rebirth and maintain an influence on the living. This idea of wandering souls has integrated with the Buddhist concept of merit-making, with Thais regularly partaking in ancestral spirit worship to improve their own karma and their ancestors’. It is ubiquitous to see Thais worshiping personal spirit houses and city shrines (lak muang) housed with guardian spirits to accumulate more merit (Kitiarsa, 2005b). Karma is an important concept in the mind-sets of the Thais because it is believed to directly affect their success in life. To continuously build good karma, the Thais believe in getting rid of negative influences through indigenous supernatural practices. For instance, when Thai Airways Airbus A330 landed poorly at Suvarnabhumi airport due to a system malfunction in 2012, the airline attributed the accident to evil spirits haunting the airport and conducted a ceremony to appease the spirits (Sagolj, 2014). Their actions reveal their inherent belief that bad karma obtained from negative influences can be turned around through spirit appeasement. There is a common saying, “you may not believe but do not offend the spirits”. Animistic beliefs are deeply interwoven into the fabric of society, regardless of one’s religion, with the value of karma guiding their outlook on life. It is observed that indigenous supernaturalism is integral in karmic teachings, with its beliefs deeply felt in society.

Additionally, beliefs in supernaturalism persist with the encouragement of royals who employ superstitious methods to legitimize their rule (McCargo, 2004). Highly superstitious Thais, whose superstitions are grounded in supernaturalism, are taken advantage by royals that appropriate indigenous supernatural beliefs as a source of legitimacy (Jackson, 1999). In particular, the superstitious belief of power by association – that supernatural power can be transferred or enhanced when empowered images are in close proximity – is used by royals to strengthen their rule.

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