The Ever-changing Face of Religion
Some interesting questions about the practice of Buddhism today in Thailand are often raised in these pages. One reads about how this or that feature of Thailand is not correct according to Buddhism. But that interpretation takes a very narrow definition of what Buddhism, or any religion, is.
I think the key thing to understand is the difference between the underlying tenets of any religion as practiced officially, with the way religions are practiced in reality.
ALL religions get adapted by the culture onto which they are grafted. Take Catholicism, for example. It clearly took parts of the pagan religions it was trying to supplant. Easter was a German pagan goddess, the Christmas tree and Yule log come from Scandinavia…there are countless examples. Even today, the Catholicism practiced in the Philippines is miles distant from that of northern Europe.
Hinduism has new gods invented all the time. A few years ago a Bollywood movie invented a god and now it is one of the more popular gods in India, with new temples being built for it.
Judaism adapted to American values. Hanukah is a minor, almost irrelevant holiday in traditional Judaism, but when modern Jewish children in America complained that their friends were getting presents for Christmas, Jewish parents said “Oh look! We have a holiday in December also where you can get presents.” (BTW, Jesus wasn’t born in December; the celebration was moved there in the 3rd century to coincide with a leading Roman pagan holiday).
Buddhism is an especially adaptive religion, having its roots in Hinduism. There’s a wonderful exhibition going on right now at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York which features religious statuary from 5th-9th century Southeast Asia. It’s amazing how the temples at the time had both Hindu as well as Buddhist iconography simultaneously.
When Buddhism came to Thailand there was both Hinduism being practiced as well as local animist religions (same also for Indonesia when Islam came. Purists are shocked at the types of Islam being practiced today in the countryside’s of Indonesia). So Buddhism adapted to the local Thai culture by incorporating many pre-existing elements.
For example, we see Ganesh (elephant) statues virtually everywhere in Thailand but Ganesh is Hindu, not Buddhist. Ganesh is the Hindu god of commerce, arts and intellect among other things. His elephant head made him very popular throughout the region where the elephant is revered. Indian traders brought him throughout Southeast Asia, where the god was incorporated into the local religions. This god can be found in Buddhist countries from Tibet to Japan, and especially in Thailand where he is worshiped as the god of success and removal of obstacles.
(Interestingly, while Ganesh was incorporated from Hinduism into Buddhism, the reverse also happened. When Buddhism started to gain traction, the Hindu religion started incorporating Buddha. In some Hindu texts, Buddha is mentioned as an incarnation or avatar of Ganesh. In most of the texts, Buddha is mentioned as the 9th avatar of Vishnu, and I have personally seen Buddha’s image on the walls of Hindu temples in India.)
The four faced statue at Erawan shrine at the Hyatt in Bangkok is Phra Phrom, the Thai version of Brahma (there is also a statue to him on soi 16).
And how about the naga, which can be found in almost every Thai Buddhist temple, which clearly has its origins in the great Indian Hindu epic Mahabharata?
Then we have the ubiquitous spirit houses, found everywhere in Thailand. Stand by any and you will see countless Thais wai’ing them. Buddhist? Of course not. But my girl gets up every morning in her village, goes to her spirit house and chants in Pali some words that the monks at her local temple gave her to say.
And let’s not forget the Chinese influence when there was massive immigration to Thailand at the end of the 1800’s and beginning of the 1900’s. The Chinese brought their versions of Buddhism which are still practiced today in some parts of the country, notable Bangkok and Phuket where Chinese immigration was strongest. Thai Chinese Buddhists in Phuket celebrate a nine day vegetarian festival in September which is not part of the official Buddhist canon. And we can all see even today in Bangkok Chinese temples existing side by side with Buddhist ones, and Thai people smoothly and seamlessly moving their prayers from one to the other.
Lastly Buddhism, from Tibet all the way to Japan, has incorporated all kinds of wrathful deities, spirits, ghosts, protectors and guardians into its ecosystem.
So don’t be surprised or shocked when you see a Thai wai a Brahma, pray to a spirit house or Chinese temple, be scared of a ghost or give money to a Ganesh. They are not being bad Buddhists; they are celebrating their faith in the way they were taught, and who among us should say whether that is right or wrong?