Foreigners to Thailand often comment on the ‘mix of animism and Brahmanism’ with the more traditional Theravada Buddhism. Newcomers here tend to read a couple of suttas on Mindfulness or the Four Noble Truths and then point fingers at activities of Buddhist cultures as ‘non-Buddhist’, animist or Brahmanic.
But this idea of Buddhism becoming ‘mixed’ with other ideas is perhaps a remnant from being brought up in ‘Christian cultures’ – (the use of quotation marks here recognises that these terms are vast over-simplifications.)
Traditional Christianity for the most part, had claims of exclusivity. If you believed or practised anything else, you were wrong, and very likely 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 dramatisation of the life of a travelling troupe of performers).
Buddhism was never like that.
The Sandaka Sutta (m76) finishes with a response of a Brahmin Sandaka to a teaching by Ananda:
It is wonderful Ananda, it is marvellous! There is no lauding of one’s own Dhamma and no disparaging of the Dhamma ot others; …. But these Ajivakas … laud themselves and disparage others
Ok – so Sandaka himself is here lauding Ananda and disparaging his previous sect, but the point remains that Ananda had no interest in promoting Buddhism as exclusively true and other sects as mistaken.
Magandiya, another brahmin in a sutta that bears his name too M75), tried to join the Buddha and the newly forming sangha after a sermon – but was told to wait for 4 months first out of respect for his former school.
In fact many times the Buddha advises people inspired by his teachings to keep on supporting other sects and groups. 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 :
“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?”
The robes that Bhikkhus wear, are also not ‘Buddhist’, but from the Samana tradition which predates Buddhism probably by about 4000 years. The local people had many expectations of those who wear robes – such as they should not be in town joining in singing, dancing and shows etc.. All pre-Buddhist ideas that were upheld by the new Sangha.
And for animist rites – how about when the Buddha cast his bowl into the stream demanding that it float upstream if he was destined to attain enlightenment? Is this not some kind of ‘non-Buddhist’ ‘superstitious’ rite?
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 through many lifetimes 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 also.
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 such example is the Metta Sutta – the chant that all Theravada monks memorise by heart in the original Pali. The monks once had been having a hard time meditating in the forest. The Buddha told them there were some unfriendly devas in the area, and that by chanting these stanzas of Metta (loving kindness) it would placate the angry devas and their meditation would be able to progress. And it worked too.
If you talked about your meditation with a monk now, and he advised that your building had an unpleasant astral influence, for which you should recite a particular chant – you would probably again, point the finger of animism at him.
Another chant was given to ward off attacks by animals – the 2 footed, 4 footed, many footed and the footless kind of animals. 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?
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 or above your door in a new house. But then, getting married, drinking coffee or buying an ipad is not gonig to get you enlightened either – but that is no indication that the person is deluded as to Buddhism.
Thus the Thai love of some Hindu shrines, and folklore customs is quite ok with Buddhism. There is no clause of exclusivity that you follow only the Four Noble Truths, otherwise you don’t understand Buddhism or are an ‘animist’. Our teachings are there, available for anyone who wishes to use them to enquire within. There is no threat, no discord with other teachings, religions, shrines, or folk customs.
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 approach.