Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Ghosts and susperstitions in Thailand

What do Bill Clinton and General Sondhi have in common? Denial of "sexual relations"? An endearing yet somehow occasionally irritating tone of voice? Maybe, but that's not the answer I'm looking for.

In fact both men have used astrologers for purposes of political prognostication.

In defence of Bill, reports state it was actually Hilary who consulted an astrologer for purposes of guidance (yes, that would be the same Hilary leading the polls right now) whereas general Sondhi has no such excuse. He has consulted a famous Thai fortune teller ever since the same seer "forecast" Thaksin's downfall.

Sondhi is not alone. Thaksin Shiniwat also consulted an astrologer and a shaman on a regular basis and actually refused to talk to press for an entire month because of negative planetary alignments. The same fortune teller did not forewarn of the coup, but this seemed to go unnoticed.

With men in such positions of power behaving in such antiquated manners, can we really criticise the rest of the nation for their staunchly superstitious beliefs?

Thais from any class have strong adherence to rituals and superstitions. Most Thais will have a "spirit house" outside their home to accommodate local spirits and blessed Buddhist amulets are a fixture in most taxis and buses as a safety charm. The same style amulets are often worn around the necks of males. The higher the rank of the monk who blessed the amulet, the higher the fee.

Many Thais believe strongly in spirits. Teachers (not students) in my old government school would ask me - in all seriousness - how I could stay alone in a classroom without being afraid of "the ghost". After the tsunami ravaged Phi Phi, Thais refused to visit for fear of stalking spooks. Hospital workers have often relayed to me tales of deceased patients walking the corridors at night. One girl told me a "ghost" walked so close to her she could actually read the name on the death tag.

Thai males often seek tattoos drawn by monks using a traditional bamboo needle , as they believe the tattoos bestow magical powers. A former colleague once told me to "be careful" because a local man had been knocking on doors in our village and using "black magic" to make people give him their valuables. The man only had to touch someone to cast the spell. These are not simpletons relaying these tales, they are educated and respected members of the community.

During the early operating days of Suvarnabhumi Airport, so much 'bad luck' and so many strange sightings occurred that a group of high ranking monks were called in to bless the airport. During their chants, a man came from nowhere and claimed to be possessed by a well known Chinese spirit. The spirit "demanded" the building of a spirit house. When the monks agreed, the "possessed" man passed out and had no recollection of what happened when he awoke.

The locals are not alone in this of course. It was a fellow teacher and friend that prompted this blog by his report of seeing a ghost in his English home. It's difficult to gauge just how many Brits believe in ghosts but I'd wager the number is less than Thailand.

So what, then, is the reason for the firm Thai beliefs? It would be easy to be snide and say lack of development is the root of the issue, but while such cynical and possibly offensive assumptions may unfortunately have a drip of truth , I'm sure that's not the whole picture.

A very bright private student of mine actually asked me the preceding question during class. I spent forty minutes trying to give an effective answer. What it boiled down to was religious doctrine and inherited culture. While less than ten percent of Brits are now practising Christians, the idea of heaven and hell - and thus spirits leaving the world - has taken root. As such, our psychological make up encourages us to be sceptical if we see something we don't understand. We don't automatically interpret the strange light we just saw in the hospital as a passing ghost, because many of "us" don't have that trail of logic.

In contrast, Buddhists have no belief in heaven or hell as such, they believe spirits move between "planes". Since most Thais are practising Buddhists, their logical trail allows for spirits to be seen and heard. Thus, the perception functions in the brain are far more likely to interpret and therefore visualise unidentified phenomena as spirits. Remember those "mind trick" pictures like the two faces that is also a vase? It's the same principle, when confronted with an unclear or confusing picture, the mind tries to "fill in" the details by matching the picture against previous experiences or beliefs.

Of course, because we "see" something doesn't really mean it's there.

Being a Buddhist in philosophy if not religion myself, I have no problem with other's belief in spirits , etc. but I do think I can pose a problem when it becomes open to abuse. I don't want a country's coup to be decided by the alignment of the planets, I don't like the idea of poor people spending a lot of cash on an amulet because they think it will bring them merit, and I certainly don't like corrupt politicians refusing to give answers because mars is in the wrong place.

That's no fault of the lovely Thais though, it's a fault of all mankind. We can't accept we are just "flesh and bones" , we always look for the reassuring idea that we don't just die and disappear.


Fonzi said...

The last three blog submissions were really good. Thanks for the effort.

As for you question about the monks that you requested of me, here a few suggestions.

I think for politics, I refer to Buddhathat, or Buddhadasa, who is probably the most famous of political monks and has influenced a generation.

I suggest you read Peter Jackson's book called Buddhadasa: Theravada Buddhism and Modernist Reform in Thailand.

As for Dhamma centered, apolitical monks, my personal favorite is Ajarn Chai, who is a fairly famous Forest Monk.

Most bookstores carry his stuff in English, because he had many farang followers.

Food for the Heart is one of the titles.

He is the one who talks about the absurdity of social conventions.

Also, for an overview of the state of Buddhism in Thailand is Sunitsida Echachai's book Keeping the Faith.

Anyway, stick to monks who come from the forest monk tradition, because they stick to the real Buddhism and stay far away from the mumbo jumbo.

Ironically, the forest monks are the least affected by official education, and gained most of their insight from deep meditation.

Anonymous said...

George Clinton?

Red and White said...

I have a terrible habit of mixing George Clinton the singer with Bill Clinton the ex - Pres. Now corrected. Thanks. :-)