Super Superstition

Foreigners to Thailand often describe the ‘Buddhism’ here as a curious mix of superstition, animism and Buddhism, with the feeling that it is not ‘real’ Buddhism, but something tainted or corrupted.

The view is not exactly wrong. But there is a ‘but’.

Even the Buddha was seen to engage in what some people would call superstition. At one point he put his bowl into the river with the ‘Saccakiriya’ (a kind of resolution/wish) that the bowl float upstream if he was going to attain Enlightenment in that very lifetime. In fact, the bowl did float upstream, which mitigates his resolution under the Bodhi tree, where he determined that he would not raise from that seat until he had attained, even if his blood and bones were to turn to dust.

On the night of Enlightenment, the Buddha reportedly called on Darani¬†the earth goddess to be witness to all the good deeds he had done in the past. After each deed he had poured water on the earth to symbolically share merits – a custom Thai’s still do in temples. This water pouring is a Brahmanic tradition, pre-dating Buddhism.

Other times he confirmed tree and air spirits, and many times taught about ghost realms. He also gave chants to the monks to ward off unpleasant influence.

One example of this is the Metta Sutta Рthe chant that all Theravada monks memorise by heart in the original Pali. The monks had been having a hard time meditating. The Buddha told them there were some unfriendly devas in the area, and that by chanting the stanza it would resolve the situation. It worked too.

Another chant was given to ward off attacks by animals – the 2 footed, 4 footed, many footed and the footless kind of animals.

In the Parinibbana Sutta, which documents the final days of the Buddha’s life, he tells the laypeople that they should respect, worship and maintain the local shrines, in order for their kingdom to last a long time.

It should be clear then that even ‘original’ Buddhism was full of aspects that are today condemned as being non-Buddhist. The religion grew up and was practised in a society that accepted many of these things as the norm. The monks even adopted many of the practises – such as the gatherings on the full and half moon days. The lines between superstition, animism and the tradition of Enlightenment were blurred right from the outset, and there is nothing wrong with this image.

Just for fun, here is a YouTube (thanks to Lee for sending) of some superstition on the wrong side of the blurry line:

5 replies on “Super Superstition”

  1. This raises(if not begs ; ]) the question whether the teachings of the Buddha were at the very onset, divided into esoteric for his disciples and exoteric for the general public, who would have found it too difficult(and still do) to let go of traditional beliefs & superstitions, including supernatural entities, reincarnation, deities, magical powers, etc. Isn’t it possible that stripped of all religious trappings The Sangha would have never found the public support it needed to survive?

    1. I read somewhere recently that the Buddha assumed there would be basically three kinds of followers; 1) those that were uneducated and superstitious about many things such as amulets and rites and rituals, 2) those that were more educated and would chose only some things to be superstitious about, and 3) those that were highly educated and would leave all superstitions behind. The wonderful thing about Buddhism is that belief in ghosts, divinities, lucky charms or lepricons and reincarnation is not relevant to the extinguishing of suffering. Maybe they all exist but it doesn’t matter. What matters is letting go of attachment to them and all forms.

  2. Wonderful post! Thank you!

    And yes, practices like those in the video definitely make me feel queasy, but this is a very valuable post for showing how some people’s condemnation and dream of a stripped-down Buddhism is a condemnation of the very things taught by the Buddha Himself.

    Thank you Phra Pandit,

    Marcus _/_

  3. The clip discusses kuman tong, I found this as more information:-

    Am not sure why the monk is involved, and from my own point of view why he should be involved.

    This opens up institutional questions such as “how much does one align oneself to such practices by putting on the orange robe?”

    When I say I am a Buddhist to Thai people they ask about merit, going to the temple etc. Then maybe I am not a Buddhist. And then I mention 4 Noble Truths, detachment etc, and often get blank looks. Agreement about compassion though!!

    But this needs being put into context as I am not Thai-bashing. As a youth I went to a catholic church where many people arrived early so they could sit at the back and be seen, where many Christians diligently went to church, put money in the plate, and then did everything they could to take it out of others’ plates during the working week!!

    As westerners learning about Buddhism here in Thailand we have the advantage of not being weighed down by the burden of some ritualistic practices.

    Whilst there is much I don’t know about what the Buddha said and did, I doubt whether he would support cutting open a woman to remove the dead baby to use as a fetish. And to Marcus I ask about some of the traditions the Buddha did practice. As a prince 2500 years ago he might have practiced certain everyday contemporaneous customs, would it then be expected of people of this day and age to practice the same customs? Surely the issue is what is being stripped-down?

    Hope you are keeping well,

    All the Best,

    Bill Z

  4. Persoanlly I see the Buddha as a product of his times as much as anyone. The colour of the robes .. that is a former tradtion. The rules of vinaya for the monks, were all tradtition.
    Also many superstitions were based on something real in the first place. Maybe chanting really does keep the hostile deva’s happy? Can we assume that it was a) just a placebo the Buddha gave foolish monks? b) something that he actually believed? c) something that actually works/happens.
    I’d agree with Gzen that superstitions are not really ‘wrong’ or to be denounced, but are just something that happens in the world, while the wise get on with the job of liberation.

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