By Jan Servaes
BANGKOK | 26 January 2024 (IDN) — General and former Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha opened his royalist shirt during a press conference on May 16, 2016 to reveal the dozen amulets on his chest. He explained that these would give him moral support in negotiations with Russian President Putin. Thus, Thailand’s then leader claimed that spiritual “resources” blessed by monks with a reputation for magic helped him in international diplomacy.
While wearing ‘guardian angels’ has always been present in Thai culture, openly showing them off is a recent phenomenon, especially among businessmen and the military.
General Prayuth was not the first. Like many politicians and businessmen before him, the first thing General Prayuth did after overthrowing a democratically elected government on May 22, 2014 was to carry out a “purification ritual” based on animism and spiritualism to ward off all kinds of evil. “Despite its outwardly modern appearance, daily life in Thailand still prominently features pre-Buddhist animist beliefs,” noted Amy Sawitta Lefevre for Reuters.
Peter Jackson of the Australian National University, who gives this example in his “Capitalism Magic Thailand. Modernity with enchantment” argues that since around 2000, these practices have not only become more common, but also considered legitimate and mainstream, especially with the public support of the military, the conservative elite and the monarchy. Banks and large companies sponsor the production and distribution of amulets, offering them as promotional gifts.
We have regularly noticed that they are also sold in many Buddhist temples, especially in the north (Lamphun, Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai) and northeast (Isarn) of the country.
|The popular abbot Phra Kruba In-thon Panya Wutthano, of Wat San Pa Yang Luang in Lamphun, who is mainly consulted as a fortune teller and astrologer, only receives during ‘office hours’.
|Amulets are offered for prizes from 3 to 100$
The hybridization of Thai Buddhism
Thai social scientist Patchanee Malikhao concludes in “Culture and Communication in Thailand” that from a historical perspective, Thai Buddhism is a hybridization of animism, Theravada Buddhism and Brahmanism. Massive urbanization and an increasingly interconnected world are bringing animism into the 21st century. The second chapter’s title in Jackson’s book is very appropriate: “Buddhist in Public, Animist in Private life”.
As Thailand has gone through four phases of globalization, from the archaic period to proto-globalization, globalization and contemporary globalization, Thai Buddhist beliefs and practices have also adapted accordingly.
Malikhao attempts to answer the following questions:
1) How the Sangha, or Buddhist ‘Vatican’ of Thailand, has been affected since it became part of the state during the reign of King Chulalongkorn (Rama V) from 1868 to 1910;
(2) How economic and social development is impacting Thai Buddhism, especially its animist beliefs, cults, Hindu deities, and astrology; and
(3) How Thai mass media and new social media create hypes about Buddhism, animism and the further commercialization of Buddhism.
Cults of Wealth
Peter Jackson takes these questions into his investigation of wealth cults centring on a range of Buddhist, Hindu, Chinese and Thai spirits and deities that have become prominent features of Thailand’s religious landscape since the 1980s. Although different in origin, these cults are not isolated examples of ritual innovation, but rather form a richly intersecting symbolic complex that is now central to national religious life, including monastic Buddhism. In the past, people mainly looked to gods, spirits and amulets for protection. But now the main goal is ‘prosperity’ and ‘wealth’.
Drawing from multiple religious and cultural origins, Jackson describes the many similarities between the cults of wealth, their close relationship with cults of amulets and professional ‘phi‘ (spirit) media, and traces how these wealth cults symbolically intersect in a wide range of environments and ritual products.
Each cult has its own history, has developed around a certain divine or magical figure, has its own forms of ritual expression and often also has its own shrines and places of prayer and pilgrimage.
Four main categories of wealth cults can be distinguished based on the type of deity or spiritual figure targeted by ritual devotion: cults of Thai kings and other royal personalities; cults of Chinese gods; cults of Hindu gods; and cults of magical monks, both living and dead, from the Thai Theravada tradition. For example, the cult of the Hindu god Ganesh has expanded rapidly since the turn of the century. More and more white-robed lay ascetics called reusi (from the Sanskrit rishi) are now offering spiritual advice for wealth and well-being.
According to Chris Baker in The Bangkok Post, Jackson focuses on four areas:
The first is the worship of gods and historical figures who do not formally belong to Buddhism. For example, in 1956, the Erawan Hotel in Bangkok erected the Brahma Shrine which was converted by worshipers into a second city pillar for the commercial district, and was soon joined by a whole pantheon of Hindu deities in other shopping complexes.
In the 1990s, the equestrian statue of King Chulalongkorn became the center of daily worship.
Soon after, the Chinese Mahayana bodhisattva Kuan Im became popular and her image began appearing in Buddhist temples.
Phra Nang Chamathewi is venerated in Chiang Mai, the first queen of the Hariphunchai (Lanna) kingdom from the 7th century.
The second focus is on monks who have acquired a reputation for supernatural expertise as a result of their ascetic lifestyle. Among them were famous monks of the past, contemporary monks with auspicious names such as ‘money’, ‘silver’ or ‘Phra Multiply’ Luang Phor Khoon, a local monk from rural Korat who promised his followers: “I will make you rich.”
The third focus is on amulets, often produced by these magical monks. Over the course of the 20th century, they replaced many other items as they were more convenient for modern clothing and lifestyle. They were first popularized among police and military, but then expanded into a mass market.
The fourth focus is on spirit mediums, that contact powerful figures from the past or from the divine world to provide advice and assistance.
Jackson suggests that this explosion occurred in part because the authorities overseeing Buddhism became less vigilant in the late 20th century, and because too often sexual and financial scandals damaged the image of monks.
The affinity between Buddhism and capitalism
Moreover, the development of modern economics, consumerism and especially the media has completely changed the environment for all these practices.
As the 21st century begins, these have continued to proliferate and diversify, spreading into and finding new followers in Thailand and in neighboring East and Southeast Asian countries.
The emphasis on improving happiness and acquiring wealth is not an entirely new feature of local Thai religiosity. The various prosperity cults represent a contemporary, commodified expression of long-standing patterns in Theravada devotionalism. Jackson emphasizes that there is “an elective affinity between Buddhism and capitalist expansion” and that “Theravada Buddhism does not preclude a positive appreciation of the pursuit of wealth, nor does it preclude a positive connection between the pursuit of wealth and the pursuit of salvation”.
The results of a survey of Thai values among city dwellers and farmers shows that certain superstitious behaviors such as “fortune telling” and “lucky numbers” are practiced more among Bangkokians than among the rural population. No difference was found in terms of education or training level.
“This casts some doubt on the theory that there is a negative correlation between education and supernatural beliefs and behavior. However, it is a dominant value behavior that is characteristic of the Thai. Moreover, it is a well-known fact that some very powerful people in Thailand have their personal well-known fortune teller,” said NIDA researcher Suntaree Komin.
In Thailand, these new and increasingly popular variants of rituals now form a symbolic complex in which originally different sects around Indian gods, Chinese gods, and Thai religious and royal figures have coalesced in commercial spaces and media sites to sacralize the market and wealth production. This complex of cults of wealth, amulets and spiritual mediumship, emerging within popular culture, is supported by all levels of Thai society, including those at the top of economic and political power.
New digital media and social networks have quickly become central features of the expanding field of Thai popular rituals and beliefs. Jackson therefore concludes that ‘modern enchantment’ emerges from the confluence of three processes: the production of occult economies by neoliberal capitalism, the auratizing effects of technologies of mass mediatization, and the performative power of ritual in religious fields where practice/form takes precedence above the doctrine/content.
Peter A, Jackson (2022), Capitalism Magic Thailand. Modernity with Enchantment, ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, Singapore, 381 pp. ISBN: 978-981-4951-09-8. https://bookshop.iseas.edu.sg/publication/7784
Patchanee Malikhao (2017), Culture and Communication in Thailand, Springer, Singapore, 141pp. ISBN:978-981-10-4123-5. https://link.springer.com/book/10.1007/978-981-10-4125-9 [IDN-InDepthNews]
Photo: Decline of Buddhism in Thailand. Source: RELIGION & ETHICS NEWSWEEKLY, PBS.
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