The bastardisation of Thai Buddhism

The bastardisation of Thai Buddhism

Many people believe they can make merit by releasing birds, without thinking about how the birds were caged - usually with great cruelty. (File photo by Patipat Janthong)
Many people believe they can make merit by releasing birds, without thinking about how the birds were caged - usually with great cruelty. (File photo by Patipat Janthong)

If you've been in Thailand long enough, you would have noticed that Thais are always looking for an opportunity to make merit in the hope of gaining favour from the gods.

If a tree sprouts flowers on its trunk, people will gather around it, pay their respects with incense sticks, and rub the trunk -- not to show tender loving care, but to see if some numbers may appear so they can put money on them in the lottery.

If a mammal grows an extra tail, it's a supernatural sign. So people gather around it, pay their respects and look for anything that resembles numbers that will bring them luck.

Wasant Techawongtham is former News Editor, Bangkok Post.

If water mysteriously spouts from a hole in the ground, the water must have magical properties that could either cure diseases or bring good luck.

If a tree is believed to bring bad luck because its name implies it, well, why not change its name? Suddenly, it becomes an auspicious breed.

If you feel the gods have not looked kindly upon you, maybe it's because your name does not fit. Go ask a monk for a more auspicious name that will turn your life around.

Or you can go to any of numerous temples, buy some caged fish, birds, or eels and free them so they carry your bad luck away.

If you want a long life, well, of course, make a wish upon a pond where turtles are kept. Turtles have long lives, you see. So by throwing a coin in the pond, you can wish for a long life. Simple logic!

It doesn't matter that all of the above makes little sense and is illogical. They are products of our mindset stemming from our animistic belief system.

This is not to say animism is bad. The belief system has its own logic, and at one time served as a guide post for society. Even now, it has social values but has been overlooked by most people.

Instead, the system has been bastardised just as our belief in Buddhism has been bastardised. The culprit, in this case as in many others, is materialism.

All the above-mentioned practices are not parts of Buddhism, and yet they have found support and encouragement among large numbers of Buddhist monks.

Buddhist temples used to be community centres where adults went to pray and perform religious rites and children went to play and learn.

Not anymore. Now many temples are more like commercial centres or tourist attractions with large paved parking lots and vendors vying for patronage.

The temples themselves have instituted various different ways to attract donations. Maintaining wishing ponds is one of the ways.

Although our currently world-famous turtle, Orm Sin, was not kept in a temple pond, the practice of throwing coins into a pond of turtles to wish for a long life has been perpetuated by many Buddhist temples.

The pitfalls of associating merit-making with animals have been recurring news in Thailand. Several years ago, a number of land turtles were found dead or seriously harmed after they were released in temple ponds.

Most people do not know and cannot differentiate between land and aquatic turtles. They think all turtles can swim.

As a matter of fact, most people have no idea what habitats are suitable for animals that they release. So, instead of making merit as intended, they commit sinful acts.

Those who buy animals for release also are not interested in learning how the animals were captured and the suffering they had to endure.

Little birds in cages, for example, are often illegally caught in the wild with large nets. Many of them are injured and die before they reached any temples. Those that are injured but alive are sold and released. But they are either too weak to survive or to find their way back to their natural habitats.

According to a nature photographer and bird watcher, some bird species suffer drastic population declines as a result. They include the Baya Weaver, Asian Golden Weaver, Streaked Weaver, Red Avadavat, Scalybreasted Munia and Yellow-breasted Bunting which is a migratory bird.

As the world turns, Thais have allowed superstition, mindless beliefs and self-centredness to define our character. While the junta government is preaching for the country to reach toward Thailand 4.0, most people are unwittingly rolling in Thailand 1.0.

It's worth stressing again that it's a futile effort to try to keep up with the Joneses in the First World if we overlook the human factor and its mindset.

Wasant Techawongtham

Freelance Reporter

Freelance Reporter and Managing Editor of Milky Way Press.

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