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While I was working in Thailand as a young man, my closest friend there was a pious Christian who had recently converted, as an undergraduate. He took a short vacation in Malaysia and came back deeply admiring the (Muslim) Malay people he met, saying: “They’re so religious!”

I noted, “The Thais are very religious too.” He exclaimed – “But that’s just – superstition!

I was nonplussed by that reaction and didn’t answer it, because it left my secular self a bit confused: I hadn’t really thought there was a difference between religion and superstition. That seemed a potentially inflammatory point to make, so I left it silent. But I certainly didn’t agree with him. I was already admiring the Thai Buddhists I met, and would soon come to learn my most important life lesson from the Buddhism I found in Thailand. I would never want to dismiss it as mere superstition.

Until, perhaps, I recently started reading the works of Justin McDaniel. McDaniel is a scholar of Thai and other Southeast Asian culture who points out (in his The Lovelorn Ghost and the Magical Monk just how far the Buddhist ideas recorded in the Pali suttas are from the everyday life of Thais – even monks, and even in activities they themselves would consider Buddhist. They turn to amulets and statues for protection; the most popular Buddhist text in Thailand is the Jinapañjara Gathā (Phra Gatha Chinabanchon in Thai), a text that says nothing about suffering, nirvana, or even karma or rebirth. Instead it invokes the names of famous Buddhist characters (Sāriputta, Aṅgulimāla and so on, as well as the Buddha himself) as being “established” or “fixed” within the reciter’s body so that they protect the reciter. It mentions the Four Noble Truths (catusacca) at the beginning but does not even allude to what those truths actually are, only that the buddhas “drunk the nectar” of the truths. By its own account, it provides its reciter with supernatural protection against misfortune – and nothing more.

McDaniel’s study is clearly in the vein of what Vasudha Narayanan would call “lentils” as opposed to “liberation”. And while I have expressed strong disagreement with the populist view of religious studies that privileges the study of lentils over that of liberation, I’ve never said it shouldn’t be done. I argued that that populism implies that “the sociology of creationism is more worthy of study than is evolutionary biology” – a position I find disastrous and harmful. But what I’ve never said is that the sociology of creationism is not worth doing. It is important to understand this element of the beliefs of a politically powerful group of people. (That is a key reason why, contra C.S. Lewis, Christianity can indeed be moderately important.)

As for McDaniel’s picture of Thailand – I won’t lie, I do feel disappointed to read it. Not disappointed in McDaniel’s scholarship, which is finely executed, but disappointed in the Thais themselves. They come to look far more like my traditional Indian relatives, whose “auspicious” rituals had never held significant appeal to me, than like the Buddhists in the books I have grown to love. And really this shouldn’t have been a surprise to me, given how pervasive non-Buddhist Indian stories are in Thai culture. More than once while reading the book I thought “yeah, maybe Thai Buddhism is just superstition.” The book gave me the kind of moment that every intellectually serious modernist Buddhist convert must repeatedly have: realizing just how different the Buddhism you fell in love with, and converted to, is from anything regularly practised at its Asian origin.

Wat Phra That Doi Suthep

Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, near Chiang Mai. Picture by Tevaprapas, taken from Wikipedia.

But there is something for me to take from McDaniel’s book that is far more important than that disappointment. I have now come to like modern India for its bright aesthetic – and that is an aesthetic that I find even more pronounced, and love even more, in Thailand. What got me thinking so much about Buddhism in Thailand as a young man was repeat visits to those spectacular, gorgeous temples that Westerners might dismiss as “garish”, but which I found perhaps the most beautiful buildings I’d ever seen. The architectural complement of Thai food, with its explosions of simultaneous intense flavours and tastes.

From that beginning there was always been something niggling at the back of my mind about those temples, something that may have niggled at yours as well. Surely if Theravāda Buddhism is all about transcending a worldly life equated with suffering, they shouldn’t be doing this! Why go to all the trouble of putting this worldly beauty in place when even sukha is dukkha, when worldly beauty is just a thing that will trap you in more suffering?

McDaniel’s work doesn’t directly answer that question. But what it does do is remind us of the complexity of Thai and other Buddhist cultures, which include a great many elements that go beyond the classical texts. The point is vital for those of us who identify as Buddhists yet remain at odds with some classical teachings: we might not be fully living up to the Buddha’s teachings (as best we know them) or even striving to do so, but neither have most Buddhists in history. And that is a good starting point for thinking about the role the temples do play – on which more next time.