The world of worship, wealth and wonders

A new guide to the cut-and-paste postmodern reality of popular religious practice in Thailand

This book is about everyday belief and practice in contemporary Thailand. It begins with a telling image. At the top of the spirit altar is always a small figure of the Buddha. On the next level down may be statues of famous monks from the past, such as Somdet To, along with Siamese kings, particularly King Chulalongkorn.

Mediums, Monks, & Amulets: Thai Popular Buddhism Today by Pattana Kitiarsa Silkworm Books, Chiang Mai, ISBN 978-616-215-049-4 595 baht

Below these will probably be some Chinese and Indian deities, long established figures like Guan Yin and Brahma, but also more recently popular ones like Lakshmi and Ganesha.

On the lowest level are local spirits, perhaps an ancestor, or figures from local history such as Ya Mo in Korat or Chammathewi in Lamphun.

Pattana Kitiarsa is here describing the altars in spirit medium shrines. But much the same collection of figures can be seen in homes, shops and the halls of temples. Every scholar of Thai Buddhism in the past has noticed the readiness to incorporate gods, goddesses and spirits from all over.

Textual Buddhism, with its promise of self-annihilation, is an extraordinary philosophical product, but most people seek simpler rewards for their devotion _ and need powerful figures to deliver them. Religious practice in Thailand and other Buddhist societies has always been open to innovation. But the variety seems to be ever growing.

The inclusion of historical figures, monks and monarchs on these altars is relatively new.

Older scholars liked to describe this jumble as syncretism, literally a blending of different beliefs. But Pattana and other scholars today argue that devotees do not identify this bit of their practice as Buddhist, that bit as related to a Chinese or Indian deity, and others as connected to animism. For them, anything goes.

This book is the best guide to the "fast-track, cut-and-paste, postmodernising reality" of popular religious practice in Thailand today. Pattana Kitiarsa hails from Nong Khai in the Thai-Lao northeast, was educated in the US and Australia, and now teaches the anthropology of Southeast Asia and popular Buddhism at the National University of Singapore.

Most of the chapters have appeared earlier as articles, but the sum is much greater than the parts.

Though the subject is Buddhism, the book's index does not cite a single religious text, but has entries for markets, magic, talk shows, spirit mediums, amulets, fraud cases, newspapers and even the "tom yum kung disease".

Pattana argues that Thailand's popular religion is so vibrant and creative because ordinary people have the space to shape the religious services that they need without much constraint from the authorities or the weight of history.

His three main chapters are case studies of three massively popular religious movements from recent years. The first is that of Luang Pho Khun, a forest-dwelling monk from the Northeast who easily became the most well-known and popular monk at the national level. While retaining an earthiness which seems to repudiate Thailand's desperate quest for modernity, he sells amulets by the truckload, raises enormous amounts for charitable works and is sought by tycoons and politicians.

Phumphuang Duangjan was an illiterate child labourer who became a country singer with a following that defied class barriers. After she died tragically at the age of 31, she was transformed into a goddess, and the wat where she was cremated became the focus of a cult, principally orientated to winning fortunes in the lottery. The cult still thrives after two decades.

Finally, the Chatukham-Rammathep amulet was invented to finance a temple restoration in the South, but was then franchised nationwide and briefly became the focus of a "tulip craze" with monks competing to create product differentiation by pressing the amulets in aircraft and other such stunts. All three cases are about the desperate quest for luck, and also about how the three differ.

Pattana argues that the variety of deities on the spirit altars and the variety of new cults and crazes are the result of several recent changes. The shift of people from village to city has brought many traditional and once largely rural practices, such as spirit mediums, into contact with the technology, scale and pace of globalised urban society.

Thailand's open economy, and the role of long-settled communities of Chinese and Indian origin, has broadened the catchment area for gods, goddesses and other religious paraphernalia. Today's media and markets quickly inflate any new religious trend into a national phenomenon. Disadvantaged groups, especially the poor and women, turn to religion for personal help and end up moulding the way that religious practices develop _ hence the prominent role of earthy figures like Luang Pho Khun and Phumphuang.

Of course, some on the sidelines are shouting that "all this is not Buddhism" or "not religion but commerce". Pattana sees no sign that these voices are having any impact. Some academics wish to relate these new phenomena to some "crisis" of the Thai economy, or the national mentality. Pattana responds that "rather than evidence of crisis, fragmentation, or decline, in fact these new practices display the health and wealth of popular Buddhism in Thailand today".

Just prior to finishing this book, Pattana was ordained and became a monk for three weeks at a forest temple on the banks of the Mekong to make merit for his late mother. The preface relating this experience is best read, as it was written, right at the end. After the frenzy of spirit cults, magic monks, lottery goddesses and amulet crazes, it's good to be reminded that Thai Buddhism still has room for self-awareness and the search for peace.

Pattana is one of Thailand's leading anthropologists. Here he writes at one and the same time as an academic contributing to contemporary debates, a Buddhist reflecting on his own cultural environment, and a Thai wondering about the country's extraordinary kaleidoscope of changes. The result informs, entertains and amazes.

About the author

columnist
Writer: Chris Baker
Position: Freelance Writer