Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Religion in Thailand: The More, The Merrier


I arrived in Thailand with a head full of ideas about religion based on years of reading and academic study, an on-again/off-again meditation practice for over 20 years, an equal amount of time as a Catholic convert and disciple of Thomas Merton, and several visits to a Christian ashram in southern India where I experienced popular piety up close and personal in smoky, crowded Hindu temples.  But I was not yet prepared to understand the many everyday cultural symbols, practices and beliefs in this country that fall under the heading of sasana (teaching of) Buddha: Spirit houses in the shape of miniature temples full of Hindu gods and various animals (zebras are popular), amulets featuring images of popular monks traded like rare stamps, sacred string around wrists and buildings and tattoos that guarantee protection, royal rituals from India, sacred trees wrapped with colored cloth, political demonstrations led by a Brahmin priest, penis icons that promise fertility, a temple in the shape of a Chinese junk, altars with offerings of red soda and incense in every store, shop and taxi, superheroes (and David Beckham) portrayed in temple art, horrifying "hell gardens," and the liberation of birds and fish to earn merit towards a good rebirth.  And that's far from a comprehensive list.

In the nearly four years that I've been dwelling among Thai Buddhists, I've come to see that most Westerners have little idea of Buddhism as a lived tradition.  For them, Buddhism is mostly a philosophy or a form of psychology with meditation as an effective technique for stress reduction, a weak gruel sometimes with a patina of borrowed ritual.  They, on the other hand, would observe the above list as a motley collection of superstitions, not the true Dhamma taught by the Buddha.  This view was even shared by the Thai reformist monk, Buddhadasa Bhikku.  One person's fervent belief, however, can often be another person's superstition.  As someone who has long been fascinated by what people say and do concerning metaphysical matters, I think the typical Western idea of religion based primarily on text and doctrine is misguided.  Anthropology is a better discipline than theology and even history for understanding religious practice, but in seeing its field study as an object, it too fails to get inside the believer's heart.

I picked up Prapod Assavavirulhakarn's new book, The Ascendancy of Theravada Buddhism in Southeast Asia,  in the hope of better appreciating why Thai Buddhism is so different from what I had learned of the Buddha's teaching when I lived in America, and I was amply rewarded.  Theravada (a particular school of Buddhism which is sometimes called Hinayana ("lesser vehicle") means "doctrine of the elders," and the term is used to distinguish southern Buddhism from the northern Mahayana ("greater vehicle") school of China, Japan and Korea, and the Vajrayana ("diamond vehicle") school of Tibet.   In addition, the Theravada canon of sacred texts was written in Pali, a language similar to that probably spoken by the Buddha.  Theravadins believe their version of the teaching is pure and original and get angry at the what they see as the derogatory Hinayana label.  The title of Prapod's book is ironic in that he argues that the assumed "ascendancy" of Theravada Buddhism in Southeast Asia in the 11th century, as most histories claim, is not supported by the evidence; it was a continuation rather than an introduction of a Buddhism that was brought west in the 1st or 2nd century BCE by merchants, missionaries and pilgrims.  The form of Buddhism they spread was a mixture that included Brahmanism from India which blended smoothly with the indigenous animism they encountered. Theravada is a label he no longer finds useful for categorizing beliefs and practices.  Few Thai Buddhist, he says, are even aware of the distinctions among the different schools.

Religion in Southeast Asia is polylithic rather than monolithic, Prapod argues. The attempt to identify any one school as dominant "seems pointless, since both epigraphic and archaeological data reveal that in actual practice different beliefs were held at the same time."   In fact,
There was no need to subscribe to one particular religion.  Insofar as religions had something beneficial to offer, Southeast Asians might think, "the more, the better."  In the later period, if Christianity had not been so insistent on one God and one faith, it took might have been accepted more readily into Southeast Asian religious life.
While ostensibly a history of early Buddhism in the region, Prapod, a professor of Eastern languages at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok, has written a book that challenges received wisdom on the category of religion and how it can be examined.  He has little sympathy for Western methods of studying religion.  Scholars "focus on sacred texts and normative literature to the exclusion or neglect of the actual lived tradition."  From the texts, they develop a conceptual model of religion, creating labels like Hinduism which "is a purely academic construction."  What the people actually do is viewed as a "debased version of what is written in the canonical texts."  Rather than recognize the symbiotic union of religious practices, they seek out differences.  "The flaw in applying such Western approaches lies in resorting to categories like Hinduism or Buddhism as prepackaged preconceptions before making an effort to understand the unique practices and belief systems of the people."  Superimposing concepts from a monolithic religion like those in the Middle East "only generates a distorted image of religion in Southeast Asia, and, by extension, in the East as a whole."

Buddhism, for Prapod, must be understood as "a system of practices and beliefs infused with other Indian and Southeast Asian indigenous elements."  Trying to find a pure form of Buddhism is impossible because "there is no 'pure' or 'primitive' aspect of any of the religions, and certainly no 'isms' existed."  The term Theravada Buddhism he identifies as "a Western or, at least, modern construct."  He would use it as a "geographic term for religion found in a certain region, rather than as a religious category per se."  Even the Southeast Asian people to whom it is applied think of themselves only as Buddhists (who may or may not be aware of different beliefs and practices by Buddhists from Tibet to Korea).

I can barely do justice to the interesting information in this book about the religious beliefs and practices in my adopted land.  Prapod has some intriguing insights about the political uses of religion and the role of kingship in creating and uniting a territory or nation.  He discusses the language of religious texts (Pali vs. Sanskrit) and differences between schools based on rules and the Vinyana on ordination of monks.  He explains why Buddhism was a "portable religion" and how restrictions on the travel of Brahmins limited their missionary activity and confined Hindu influence to the royal elites.  His interpretation of past history is informed by how Buddhism is practiced in Thailand today when visitors like me are puzzled by the weird blend of animism, Brahmanism and Buddhism.  But it is his expansive view of religious values and practices that I particularly like.  Early in my study of religion I became disenchanted with "isms" and the great traditions which focused on texts and institutions, and the thoughts and deeds of Great Men.  The methodology of social history has opened up the field of religious studies to an understanding of what the common people (often non-literate) believed and did.  For example, The Cheese and the Worms by Carlo Ginzburg used Inquisition records to discover the thoughts of a semi-literate 16th century Italian miller whose heretical views may not have been all that unusual.  Prapod's view of Southeast Asia's polylithic religious understanding puts the list of "superstitions" at the beginning of this post in proper perspective.

For companion volumes, I can highly recommend both Richard Gombrich's Theravada Buddhism (recently reissued) and The Buddhist World of Southeast Asia by Donald K. Swearer.  Prapod's book is particularly important as it is written by an Asian.

3 comments:

janet brown said...

That is one hell of an opening paragraph, Will--nice, very nice.

Hobby said...

Theravada Buddhism (for want of a name) is the dominant religion in Thailand and Sri Lanka, and both countries are well practised in committing atrocities.

To quote Jello Biafra:

All religions suck
All religions make me wanna throw up
All religions suck
All religions make me wanna BLEAH

Sam said...

As my old mum used to say: "It takes all sorts to make a world. Live and let live."

As H.L. Mencken said: "Theology is the effort to explain the unknowable in terms of the not worth knowing."