A man bows to ta Buddha statue. He is muttering something. He sticks some gold on a statue of a monk. If you could ask him what he is doing, and if he were both truthful and accurate, he might tell you he is praying for his business to succeed.
Or he might say he is asking for an illness to be healed.
Nearby a lady hovers around her new car, while monks chant and draw sacred Khmer characters in paste around the roof.
Outside the temple, people buy birds, eels or turtles from a vendor. They release them at the canal bank. They offer a bottle of red Fanta by a tree.
Is all this Buddhism? Or is it instead some kind of superstition?
Visitors to Thailand often comment the Buddhism they find here is tainted with animist practises. They will have read a pop Buddhism book by Thich Nhat Hahn or Buddhadasa Bhikkhu. Thus armed with an overview of the Four Noble Truths, they proceed to ‘educate’ anyone who will listen how the above practises are ‘not Buddhism’.
They are ‘animistic’, or ‘Brahmin’ superstitions, that have nothing to do with ‘real’ Buddhism.
This idea of Buddhism becoming ‘mixed’ with other ideas is perhaps a remnant from a Christian past.
Christianity always had the commandments – ‘I am your only God’ and ‘You shall worship no other God but Me’. Humanity was warned not to ‘Bow down to graven images’.
This makes the religion exclusive. If you believed or practised anything else, you were wrong. Not to mention doomed. This view was the driving force during the Dark Ages, when even literature or public plays were strictly limited to Christian stories by an all controlling church (see the book ‘Morality Play’ for a fabulous depiction of this).
Despite this, however, belief in local traditions, superstitions, ghosts etc. strongly continued.
Buddhism was never an exclusive religion. It was the only group of the area and time that was bringing people to full enlightenment (though the Jains might disagree). Even so, full freedom of choice was always a central tenet.
For instance, the Sandaka Sutta (M76) finishes with the Brahmin Sandaka responding to a teaching by Ananda:
It is wonderful Ananda, it is marvellous! There is no lauding of one’s own Dhamma and no disparaging the Dhamma of others; …. But these Ajivakas …they laud themselves and disparage others
The Ajivakas were one of many religious sects of the time. These groups were philosophical or ascetic in their outlooks and (nearly) all claimed exclusivity. They ‘lauded’ themselves, and disparaged others.
Another example – Magandiya, a brahmin in the Buddhist suttas (M75), after being inspired by a sermon, tried to join the Buddha and his monks. But he was told to wait for 4 months before gaining admission, out of respect for his former teachers.
In fact many times the Buddha advises his followers to keep on supporting other sects and groups with offerings. In the Mahaparinibbana Sutta, which outlines the last days of the Buddha’s life, he specifically tells the Vajjian laypeople to maintain customs of old, and not to neglect local shrines. He advises that maintaining these customs will protect the people from decline and defeat:
What have you heard, Ananda: do the Vajjis show respect, honour, esteem, and veneration towards their shrines, both those within the city and those outside it, and do not deprive them of the due offerings as given and made to them according to tradition?
Early Buddhists also adopted many traditions from local culture. The robes that Bhikkhus wear for instance, are not ‘Buddhist’. They stem from the Samana tradition which predates Buddhism by about 4000 years. Same for the shaved head.
The observance of auspicious Uposatha ‘Holy Days’ on full and half moons, was also a pre-Buddhist custom that the Buddha maintained. In Thailand these are called the ‘Wan Phra’. Thai people still follow the tradition of donning white clothes and going to the temple on these propitious days.
So, it should be clear that even ‘original’ Buddhism was full of aspects that might now be condemned as non-Buddhist.
As for animist rites – how about when the Buddha-to-be cast his bowl into a stream demanding that it float upstream if he was destined to attain enlightenment? Is this some kind of ‘non-Buddhist’ ‘superstitious’ rite? How about when the Buddha’s mother conceived on a night when a white elephant entered her womb in a dream?
On the night of his Enlightenment, the Buddha reportedly called on Dharani the earth goddess to be witness to all the good deeds he had done in the past. The story goes that over many lifetimes, when the Buddha-to-be did a good deed, he performed ‘water pouring’ to transfer merits’. It was this water that Dharani manifested, sweeping away the forces of Mara, delusion. Water pouring is also a pre-Buddhist ritual. It is still in common use.
At other times the Buddha confirmed tree and air spirits. You might be surprised that he taught many times about ghost realms as a possible destination after death. Whether you believe in these spirits or not is besides the point. These things are right there in the original teachings.
If a monk did some chanting to ward off some negative influence on you – would you dismiss that as animism? Is it superstition? Maybe, but again, we find it in the original Buddhist teachings.
Various suttas and ‘Parittas’ (verses) were given to the monks and laypeople to ward off unpleasant influence.
One such example is the Metta Sutta – the chant that all Theravada monks memorise by heart in the original Pali. The story goes that the monks had been meditating in the forest, but were having a hard time of it. The went to the Buddha for help. Did he preach to them about the Four Noble Truths? No. He told them there were unfriendly devas in the area. By chanting the stanzas of Metta (loving kindness) it would placate the angry devas. Then the meditation would go smoothly! (listen in English here)
Bring that into the modern day – imagine you talked about your meditation with a monk, and he advised that your building had an unpleasant astral influence, for which you should recite a particular chant?
Another recitation was given to ward off attacks by animals – the 2 footed, 4 footed, many footed and the footless kind of animals. (listen to it here) How many people would see a Thai monk doing this chant and think that it is ‘not Buddhism’ or ‘nothing to do with the Four Noble Truths’, being instead simple animism?
We have not addressed the question of whether these beliefs are empirically real. But is should be clear that – rightly or wrongly – they are an genuine part of Buddhist culture. It is often a case of symbolism – a ritual that represents an abstract quality, like metta, that is actually real. The turtles and eels, on the other hand, you will likely find for sale just outside of the temple grounds. It is recognized in the modern world that such practises might not be so good for the actual animals.
Should you pray for your business? It probably won’t hurt!
Should you chant for good health? Knowing what we do now about the placebo effect and the power of the mind to heal, definitely!
Sure – many customs are not going to get you Enlightened; like praying for something you want at the Erawan shrine or having a monk draw a Khmer symbol on your new car. But then, getting married, drinking coffee or buying an ipad is not going to get you enlightened either – but that is no indication that the person is deluded as to Buddhism.
This Monday we will be looking into one of the most charming and ubiquitous of the Thai customs – their spirit houses. We have one of the very few Westerners here who is an expert in this field – Marisa Cranfill-Young. Join us in the Neilson Hays Library – it is full of atmospheric creepy old books …..