The Middle Path
Wouldn’t it be nice if all Buddhists lived by the philosophy of walking The Middle Path? Thais follow the Theravada stream of the belief, supposedly brought to the area from Sri Lanka (formerly Ceylon) – and it was adopted by many of those who would be called Siamese and, later, Thais – 95% of the population presently following that stream. Theravada Buddhism is believed to be the oldest and most conservative form of Buddhism, with Thailand and Cambodia both clocking that high figure of 95%. That’s enough of the academic background – what I would like to do is highlight a few of the deviances as often practised by Thais.
Now, we have all been witness to the strange practice of having the new washing machine blessed by the monks from the local wat. The same ritual is carried out when a new motor vehicle is purchased – the monks come and they wrap metres of white cotton thread around the object to be blessed, followed by a lengthy period of chanting. A donation is paid for the service and everyone is happy. Now, hang on – Buddhism tells us that possessions are not important and that we should detach from all material things – so why is it necessary to go through this ritual with the washing machine or the car – or whatever else gets chosen to be blessed. Perhaps, at the risk of being labelled as a cynic, I could suggest that this practice has more to do with letting the neighbors know that we have bought a new vehicle – and a new washing machine.
Don’t get me wrong – I like to visit the monks at The Temple to pay respects and give a donation – however I’m not that big on the idea of blessing the washing machine – or the car (or pickup, or motorcycle yada yada yada). Strange, but I have never seen the 5-baht bracelet or the 10-baht necklace getting blessed. Of course, there’s no need to – everybody can see those whenever we go out. Now look, I don’t wish to sound like a total philistine – but suspicions are beginning to creep into my thinking. Isn’t this all about shoving it up the nose of the neighbors and not-so-affluent relatives? You all know, of course, that the news of the new purchases will be carried back to the wat and spread like wildfire through the “Thai gossip network”. When I look at the word “conservative” in the first paragraph, I would hardly think that any sane person would say that Thais are conservative – quite the contrary.
Thailand has several other religions that co-exist with Buddhism – Hinduism, Sikhism, Islam and Christianity. I was at the carousel in Chiang Mai Airport, retrieving my suitcase when I heard a couple of American accents quite close to me. I looked right and there I saw a couple of gentlemen dressed in suits and ties (white shirts, of course). Well, you could have knocked me down with a feather – after speaking with them, it was revealed (as I suspected) that they were Elders from The Church Of Jesus Christ Of Latter Day Saints (Mormons – remember Joseph Smith and the magic glasses?). Yes, they have a Temple in Chiang Mai. Christianity has quite a minor representation in Thailand – but the idea of converting Thai Buddhists to Christianity (particularly Mormonism) sounds to me like a pipe-dream. There’s no mileage in it for Thais – certainly not when Mormons are required to pay 10% of their income to the church as “tithing”. Thais are not silly.
Now, on the subject of comparative religions (well, not really) can somebody please explain this to me. There are a number deity images located around Bangkok – normally at strategic locations such as Central World etc – where my lady friends from the past and my current lady always wai to the deities that are not Buddhist. I cannot understand why this is so. Could it be that they do not understand the full reality of their own belief system or is it just an automatic reflex action that they do without thinking. Now look, I was brought up as a Roman Catholic, then I migrated to several other Christian religions (including Mormonism) before I accepted Buddhism – but I don’t do the sign of the cross or genuflect every time I see a cross or pass by a church. Neither do I flagellate myself on Good Friday or bless myself with Holy water. My belief is Buddhism and all else is of no concern to me – so why are Thais preoccupied with acknowledging faiths that are not theirs?
Thai Buddhists believe it is wrong to kill – but it is OK if somebody else kills for you. Now, how does this work? I am assuming that the person who does the killing is also a Buddhist – we’re talking about birds, fish and animals here – not humans. I will get to the killing of humans later. Pon works in a butchery in Bangkok and he slaughters pigs for a living – it is the only job he can find, the pay is not that good and the conditions are terrible (don’t worry, the Union is working on it). He accumulates a very large amount of negative karma each day, so how will it be possible for him to generate merit so that he may be considered for entry to Nirvana? Perhaps Pon is into self-flagellation. Then there is the owner of the butchery. It would appear that he is exempt from any negative karma because he doesn’t do the killing. Now, I don’t think that’s fair.
It’s the same thing if Jit has taken an extreme dislike for Somchai and hires a local hit-man for 20,000 Baht to get rid of poor old Somchai. Who is guilty – Jit or the hit-man? I suppose one could use Thai logic and say that Somchai is the guilty party for making Jit angry enough to need to engage the hit-man in the first place. I doubt that logic would stand up in Court – but, if the matter came to the attention of The Boys in Brown, it could be that another 20,000 Baht for the Police Benevolent Fund could make it as if the crime had never occurred. Officially, Somchai is still alive but who is in that coffin with Somchai’s name on it? The way I see it is that there are three (not counting The Police) who will not be going to Nirvana for a while, unless a lot of self-flagellation is done.
I don’t know why Thais have not introduced confession to be part of the Buddhist system. It works pretty good for Roman Catholics – so long as you can remember all of the bad things that you did since the last confession, all you have to do is go into the little box, close the door, then Father slides open the little window and the cigarette smoke nearly suffocates you and he says “Yes my child – what do you wish to confess?” Then you say “Forgive me Father for I have sinned … “. I won’t reveal the sins (mortal and venial) as a respect for privacy – other than to say they must have been serious to get ten Confiteors as penance. Then Father will absolve you by saying “penance is Three Our Fathers, three Hail Mary’s and ten Confiteors – God bless you my Son.”
Phew – that was easy – better than flagellation.
Now this is something that has me flummoxed. Buddhism does recognise the existence of ghosts but Thais seem to allow their “presence” (?) to rule their lives. They are afraid of ghosts, yet derive great pleasure in watching movies with ghost themes. We’ve probably all seen the report of the young girl in Northern Thailand, riding her Honda Dream home at night when she had an accident. She wasn’t badly hurt and just a small amount of damage to the cycle. Her reason for having the accident was that “a ghost ran in front of me on the road and I swerved to avoid it”. I know ghosts are real because my mother and Natalise became quite close when Mum came to live with us toward the last knockings, before she passed away. After Mum died, Natalise cried a lot – and she would wake me up, in the middle of the night, saying she could hear Mum knocking at the door to our townhouse. I couldn’t hear anything but it did upset Nat to the point where we had to relocate to another area, before the knocking stopped.
It was the same thing in Thailand when we visited her parents in the country. No way would Nat go outside at night, alone – I had to be with her for that to happen.
So, looking back to the fact that Theravada Buddhism is considered to be the most conservative Buddhist stream, I would have to say that I don’t even want to know about the radical streams (if there are any). No, something has to be wrong there – Thais most certainly do not follow The Middle Path. Their interpretation of everything (not only Buddhism) seems to get “mysteriouser and mysteriouser”.