Essay: Theravada Buddhism

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  • Theravada Buddhism
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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.

Thais believe that the prosperity during a king’s reign is dependent on his possession of barami, which is charismatic power derived from virtue and merit. As such, kings continually engage in merit-making to improve their karma and in the process, enhance their barami to solidify their legitimacy (Stengs, 2009). Royals enhance their barami by associating themselves with divinities with large reserves of barami. King Chulalongkorn (r. 1868-1910) is seen as a divine being with vast amounts of barami due to his great contributions in modernizing Thailand. It is said that he has amassed so much merit that it can be transferred to anyone within his presence i.e. statues and images of him. The late King Bhumibol had symbolically associated his image with King Chulalongkorn in official merchandise, which strengthened the late king’s barami and legitimacy. For example, the 2008 commemorative three-baht stamp of the late king’s birthday was primarily pink, which is King Chulalongkorn’s auspicious colour, instead of his own auspicious birthday colour yellow (Jackson, 2016). Subliminal perception used in merchandise influences the public, unconsciously reinforcing their belief in association such that being superstitious remains a constant social value. Given that barami is enhanced through the superstitious belief of merit accumulation by association and the fact that karma is the concept underlying merit, disregarding the centrality of karma in modern political actions involving indigenous supernaturalism would be an oversight.

Furthermore, indigenous supernaturalism is the core of religious commodification. The rise of the market economy in the 1990s promulgated capitalism, resulting in the expansion of the prosperity religion as a means of wealth acquisition (Braunlein, 2013). Capitalist values spark materialistic aspirations, becoming a breeding ground for the commodification of indigenous supernatural beliefs. The rapid pace of modernization disorients the urban Thai, making them vulnerable to religious doctrines (e.g. karma) which are able to explain their fate and provide ways for them to improve their fate.

The concept of karma is key in the growth of materialism and the occult economy. Religious elements are commodified in various forms, ranging from amulets, child angel dolls (luk thep), magical tattoos to fetish supernatural phalluses. These commodities are promoted as protective and wealth-generating products, attracting the materialistic who wish to improve their social status. They perceive such commodities as beneficial in attracting good karma. With uncertainty surrounding the government and the economy, Thais have turned to the supernatural to obtain some degree of assurance and certainty. This led to the rise of the occult economy, with visits to traditional fortune tellers amounting to at least US$63 million yearly and the average number of visits to fortune tellers increasing from 2 to 3 in the past decade (Fuller, 2010). Depending on one’s fortune, these mediums would encourage patrons to purchase religious commodities to improve their karma.

In the past few years, luk thep have gained popularity amongst the urban Thai, trending in 2016 by social media influencers and commercialization (Bachor, 2016). Materialistic, superstitious Thais were attracted to the new fad which was seen as stylish and lucky. Although the trend has roots in the animistic practice of making dolls with the remains of a stillborn (kuman thong), it has evolved to become more modern and socially acceptable (Wilson, 2016). The luk thep craze blossomed when there was weak economic growth due to political uncertainty, resulting in Thais turning to supernatural means to increase their material wealth. The interaction of the Thais’ socioeconomic circumstances and their premodern supernatural beliefs have resulted in a new synergy in the form of a prosperity religion, with the manifestation of indigenous supernatural beliefs in the materialistic pursuits of the Thai. Considering how the prosperity religion hinges on merit-making to grow one’s material wealth, karmic teachings permeate through the value of materialism, showing how indispensable the value of karma is in the survival of indigenous supernatural beliefs.

Some contend that indigenous supernatural beliefs are declining in society because there is a rise in orthodox Theravada Buddhist groups which reject supernatural beliefs. Orthodox movements have gained popularity over the years due to the growing number of scandals within the prosperity religion. The Sangha did not adapt quickly to solve the influx of materialism and consumerism, causing a gap to appear between the pious and popular Buddhism (Malikhao, 2017). This gap is filled by orthodox groups who offer canonical Buddhism teachings, such as Santi Asoke (Clarke, 2006). Some Buddhist monks have criticized consumerism for undermining traditional Buddhist teachings. Revered monk Phra Dhammapitaka argues that hybrid beliefs develop weaknesses in the minds of those who believe in them and are unethical (Kitiarsa, 2005a). Supporters of an overhaul reject supernatural beliefs because of its unpredictable nature, making it unsustainable as a social value system. Reformists promote radical Buddhism as a predictable, logical structure for social control, especially as Thailand continues to modernize (Jackson, 1989). However, considering the hybridized nature of Buddhism in Thailand, indigenous supernatural beliefs have continued to survive because they have adapted to modern needs. In this light, the “prosperity religion” should be perceived as the new core of modern religiosity instead as a destabilizing force. Although the hybrid religion tends to focus more on the exterior and institutionalized, its interweaving with Thai social values has made the religion much more meaningful in the lives of the Thai.

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