Thai Religion

Aug 21, 2013 in

Part I: My spirits fancy straws
Part II: Big Business
Part III: Thai Religion

Here is what I learned (and remember) what Buddhism in India is about:

Buddhism is based on the belief of the wheel of life, the belief in being damned to be born over and over again. Buddha showed a path to escape this vicious cycle by the realization that this world is false, by “waking up”, being enlightened. To be enlightened, to dissolve yourself into the universal being that encompasses and is everything, one has to detach himself from the world and from himself. It takes a lot of self-discipline and commitment but it is far from impossible.
So, Buddha achieved a state of mind for himself with a certainty of his whereabouts in the afterlife and his teachings aim to show a path for others to achieve this as well. So, he specifically did not want to be prayed to as a deity, he even said that no images of himself should be made out of this reason. A practice that Buddhist elsewhere nowadays justify by needing something to focus their concentration on while meditating (that’s what I heard).

In Thai Buddhism, this is just blatantly ignored.
The common people who go into a temple, do exactly that: Kneel before and worship Buddha. As from what I understand, the common people leave it to the monks to strive for enlightenment and instead collect karma points in order to have good luck in this life and be born into a better position in the next one as it is impossible to be enlightened from their position anyway (see below).
It is common that every male had been served at least a few weeks in a monastery as a monk during childhood. This, so I have been told, will help to get the parents into heaven in their next life.

And the temples? As there are not so much else to give respects to other than perhaps a few statues of famous monks, they are absolutely stuffed with Buddha statues in all different sizes, literally from the floor to the ceiling. And all of them golden and some of them simply megalomanic. I suspect that the reason for Thais making temples look like a treasure cove from the inside comes from the Chinese influence. As you see from the photo from the Chinese temple below, they also like gold.

Once though, I saw a big advertisement on the highway stating “Stop disrespecting Buddha. Stop creating images of Buddha” (or something similar to that).

Whenever I enter those places, I get the impression that the primary objective of this swank is to demonstrate wealth and power, not offer a place to focus your attention on meditation. But well, on this point this might very well be true out of the simple reason that meditation is not thought of being something a commoner, a visitor to the temple, would do but only the monks living there. So the meditation will be done somewhere else in the monastery.

This is because in Thai Buddhism the understanding is that it is next to impossible to reach enlightenment, that it takes many many lifes being committed to the path. Someone told me that it happens so rarely that there are official lists with monks who reached Nirvana. Those enlightened monks are worshiped like the saints in Christian belief.

Buddhism reached the area that we know as Thailand today only less than thousand years ago when the first Thai kingdoms emerged. And according to the official Thai history, Thailand has only been settled by many in recent times, mostly from immigrants from Chinese regions, but also from India, todays Myanmar and Cambodia. And all of those brought in their own religions.

All of these seem to have been merged into that hotpot that can aptly be called “Thai religion” rather than Buddhism. Near the entrance of temples, often a (golden) statue of Ganesha the elephant god, can be found. Sometimes, as in the photo below, shrines for Chinese gods are embedded into the temple. Animism, Hinduism, Chinese religious practices, the tendency to be extremely submissive1 and the Buddhist religion can all be found in todays practices of Thai people who call themselves Buddhists.

In my eyes though, Buddhism as such is not a religion anyway. As so many other beliefs, it only has been made into one. But what is religion? Religion is only the man-made organization built around a belief. And this organization imposes a hierarchy and seeks power and control over people. A powerful instrument to establish social control but in my opinion not a legitimate one as any power that maintains control over people must be legitimated by the people, and only by the people.

It is one thing to build a golden treasure cove, another thing to make them all kneel before that because it happens to be in the shape of what they worship. Just imagine the power you can exert over the people if you put yourself on top of that hierarchy constructed by (the organization:) religion. If you are above the most well respected and worshiped monks, what does it make you?

Now. Guess. Who is the religious leader of the Thai Buddhism?

1 Already the first European explorers who visited Thailand wrote that the Thai people are the most grovelling people they have ever seen. In front of their king, they grovel in the dirt. Where does this come from? I have no idea.