Thai boy

5. Religion-psychical orientation


Taken from: Suntaree Komin, Psychology of the Thai People: Values and Behavioral Patterns, National Institute of Development Administration (NIDA), Bangkok 1991, ISBN 974-85744-8-2, pp. 1-2. References and tables are available in the original. Typing errors edited.


Theravada Buddhism, as the religion of the country and is professed by 95% of the total population, undoubtedly has directly or indirectly exerted a strong influence on the people’s everyday life. The simple descriptive sentence that, Buddhism teaches tolerance and kindness towards their fellow men regardless of race, creed or nationality, might not be incorrect. But how much such influence is actually perceived and functioned in the everyday life of Thai people and thereby differentiate the Thai from other cultural group, might not be as simple and needs a closer scrutiny.

The findings of value priority show that the value for Religious and spiritual life has secured a very high and important place in the cognition of Thai people in general, despite the fact that this value has sharply dropped for the Bangkokians, students, and the highly educated. There is no doubt Buddhism has a conscious significant role in the everyday Thai life. This value is supported by the attitudinal data. Table 7.12 shows that most Thai (93,6%) perceived religion as important and has some influence in their life, with more intense religious influence found in the rural Thai than Bangkokians, and more with the less educated than the highly educated, the poorer than the richer, and so on. It is very important to note here that, consistent with the value priority findings that the Thai-Muslims are clearly differentiated from the Thai-Buddhists for their extremely high value of religion, the attitudinal data indisputably substantiates it (Table 7.13). A closer examination of the group that perceived religion as having extremely significant influence in their lives, revealed that only 35.9% to 55.3% among Thai-Buddhists having such intensity, whereas 74.3% to 85.3% were found among the Thai-Muslims.

With regards to religious activities, likewise, the Thai are constantly engaged in merit-makings, and numerous other religious ceremonies. These activities are religious rituals. And as a Buddhist country, there are such activities to perform all year round, at work, and in the community. Such occasions like, merit-makings on one’s birthday, a new house, new company, new building, celebrations of anniversaries, etc., not to mention those of festivals, customs, and religious days. It is no wonder the Thai national samples showed high rate of these ritual religious behaviours and ceremony participation Table 7.14 and 7.15). But to which extent these religious attitudes and activities of Buddhist rites and customs reflect the depth and functions of Buddhism is another matter.


Psychological Function of some Religious Concepts

The essence of Buddhism characterizes the truth of the phenomenal world of everyday life experiences—that, everyday world is caught up in desires and thirsts of Kilet, which inevitably produce a karmic responses, leading to a cycle of rebirths. And the Buddhist doctrinal religious goal is to escape from the clutches of karma (ethical causation) and the cycle of rebirths (Samsara), by separating oneself from the world of illusions, and thereby gaining wisdom and insight into the karmically conditioned world, underlying the phenomenal world; and ultimately reach nirvana (final extinction). Ideally, all Buddhists more or less believe this. But the more important question is, to what extent these ideal teaching of Buddhism is actually taken and interpreted in everyday life experiences, and under what conditions that those religious concepts are mostly used. Because, without knowing the actual usage and functioning of these concepts, general assumptions about these concepts can easily lead to misleading interpretation of Thai social behaviour.

While the Thai are seemingly overwhelmed by their perceived influence of Buddhism in their life, most of them have little deep knowledge about it. In general, the Thai do not make conscious effort to reach nirvana, nor do they fully and succinctly believe in reincarnation. It is not in the cognition of the general Thai to think of reaching the ultimate state of enlightenment. In fact, Bunnag, in her careful analysis of the social matrices of Thai Buddhism, has drawn attention to the striking fact that none of the Thai monks whom she interviewed “appeared to consider Nirvana a relevant goal for which to strive” (Bunnag, 1973, p. 19). A Thai would not be surprised with that finding, because it is an everyday life reality. Similarly, with the Buddhist notion of reincarnation, Gosling (1981) in his study to determine the conflicting relationship between modern scientific thought and religious beliefs of Thai scientists, found that when asked about one’s expectation to be reborn at death, 55% to 86% of the 284 representative sample of academic communities replied “No rebirth”. Evidently, reincarnation cannot be scientifically proved, other than through the alleged instances of memories of previous lives. However, at the same time, 73% of the sample Thai scientists still perceived that Buddhism is important at all times. And despite the fact that they did not believe in rebirth, they would not reject religion.

The finding made it difficult for the researcher to theoretically classify the Thai in one of the three groups—namely, “rejecter”, “re-asserter”, and “adapter”—as he did with the Indian samples. According to cognitive dissonance theory (Festinger, 1959), there is psychological pressure to reduce dissonance between two incompatible cognitions, either by rejecting one of the conflicting cognition, by adding a new cognition which reduces the tension between them, or by decreasing the importance of both. Apparently, the Thai scientists, when confronted with incompatible cognitions, tended not to go deeper and cognitively isolated the two conflicting idea systems. By refusing to bring them together, no cognitive dissonance is experienced. They just accepted the conflicting states as they are and keep it at that, as long as their purpose is justified. Furthermore, a number of the Thai scientists respondents admitted in interviews that they believed in certain kinds of spirits to be real shown with serious doubts as to the truth and validity of those “other-worldly” doctrines or notions such as rebirth, nirvana, and to a lesser extent, karma. They are not taken very seriously. The Thai are more of a “this-world” orientation.


Perception of the Concept of Karma

Of all of these other-worldly notions, the notion of karma is the most functional one—in the sense that it is more commonly used in everyday life interactions. However, it is the matter of when and how it is used that is important here. In reality, the concept of karma has almost always bee used in “after-event” descriptions or attributions with the differentiation between “good karma” (Bun wassana) and “bad karma” usually referred to as Kam (karma). This actual usage in the negative context is psychologically interesting.

The Thai generally believe in the unequal Bun wassana of each person. That is, each person is born with unequal results of predestined goodness (or good karma). The Thai always use this concept in situations to attribute to someone else’s success, fortune, high status, promotion, or having a good family, good children, and so on. It is used to refer to self only as a conversaiontal ploy to humby refuse any suggestion for higher status or anything associated with success or promotion, etc. And it is always used in a negative form, like “I don’t have the Bun wassana for…”. In cases when it is used to truly reflect one’s feeling, it indicates psychological acceptance of one’s failure and other’s achievement, attributing the cause of one’s failure and the cause of other’s achievement to something beyond one’s ability. Thus, it hekps to reduce tremendous psychological pressures on one’s inability to measure up to one’s achievement goals. The research findings showed that an average of 86.4% of the rural Thai believed in this concept of unequal Bun wassana, with the highest believers found among farmers (91.7%), hawkers (91.5%), skilled workers (81.3%), government officials (72.3%), down to the lowest believers among university students (49.7%). The findings in the other national sample consistently showed the same pattern (see Table 7.16 and 7.17).

With regards to the concept of karma, it is found that the Thai usually use this concept in situations that associated with negative events, bad fortunes, tragedies, demotions, disfavour, injustice, etc., that happened to oneself or others. Whether or not one is responsible for the mishaps or negative experiences that occurred to oneself, the cause of the mishaps or failure is attributed to one’s karma. Illustration of this is the common phrase: “It is my Kam to… (have such and such consequence)”, which is often said in a tone of accepting the state of being without energy or ability to change one’s lot (the concept of Plong). The belief of the “bad karma catching up with you” as in the phrase Kam taam sanong is evident. It is usually used to refer to the situation when something bad or misfortune happened to somebody who has been known to have done something bad in the past. It is used for self only as a caution not to do anything bad, particularly to others, because the Kam or the karma will catch up. The research findings showed the average 75.1% Thai, ranging from the lowest of 62.0% (students) to the highest of 96.7% (older people), believed in the concept of karma (Table 7.17).

The range of situations to which karma is used to attribute is widespread, covering all kinds of behavioural consequences, including those of one’s own doing. In cases of those who consciously know the results of their own doings, the use of this scapegoat concept psychologically helps to rid them of their conscience. The more one uses this concept, particularly when consequences of wrongdoing is involved, the more one’s sense of right and wrong is blurred. Thus, it explains the meanings of such often-heard phrases, like “Kam jing jing thii thook jab” or “Duang mai dee thii thook jab”—meaning “It’s my karma (or my predestined bad luck) to be arrested”. It is not his wrongdoing that should be blamed, but rather the bad luck of the situation that he is caught, unable to get away, that is to be blamed. Therefore, with the wide range of situations to which karma is used to attribute, it is not surprising to find the responses to the following questions were put as high as the responses to the question of belief in karma. To the question: “People got promotion and raises in status and position because of their luck or Duang (predestiny)”, the samples mostly agreed. The same pattern was found in responses to the statement: “When something bad and undesirable happened, I often attributed it to Kam”, there were more agreed than disagreed (Table 7.16 and 7.17).

The research findings generally confirmed the wide usage of the concept of karma in everyday life. As to the conscious building of one’s good karma for the cycle of better rebirth according to the teaching of Buddhism, the data seems to indicate otherwise. More clearly, these religious notions have tremendous psychological functions. More often than not, they are “after-action” rationalization or justification. They are not held in their cognition as predispositions to purposive actions, as many assumptions of using a religious analysis have implied. It indicates that the concept of karma as a religions preaching to build a better life cycle it not in reality a guiding force in regulating Thai social behaviour, but rather it serves psychologically as a defense mechanism for a whole range of negative experiences.

This proposition of Buddhist religious notions as psychological defense mechanisms for negative experiences in life is further documented by research data where a significant portion of Thai, ranging from 75.0% to 84.5%, agreed to the statement that “Detachment from desires and thirsts (Kilet) is the best means to achieve inner peace over sorrow and misfortunes in life” (Table 7.18). This corresponds with the teaching of the Buddhist doctrine of Impermanance—anicca—which means that everything is uncertain. Nothing is permanent including life. Thus, there is no point to attach to anything, for it brings only Kilet and Thuk (sorrow). The common corresponding Thai term Aniccang (often used as an elaborated compound noun Anicca aniccang) has come to mean what in English implied by the phrase “here today gone tomorrow”. The actual usage of Anicca aniccang is the same as karma—often in “after-action” situations, to remind one of this fact of life, in an attempt to cognitively create inner peace and restore equilibrium. In practice, it is quite common to find Thai adults seek out the sanctuary of Buddhism after some major stressful events in life (i.e. being sacked from a job; after serving a jail sentence; divorce; major illness, etc.) in order to re-establish some psychological equilibrium before continuing with one’s life. The form of such psychological retreat ranges from entering monkhood for a period of time, to seriously seeking out Buddhist teaching and philosophy, through continuous readings and/or meditations.

It is this psychological function that Buddhism provides, aside from being a good person. It is interesting to find that although Buddhism, like many other religions, provides some guiding notions of good and bad persons, the Thai-Buddhists do not exclusively feel that one cannot be good without religion. Whereas the Thai-Muslims mostly (76.0% to 78.6%) believed that one has to have religion in order to be a good person (Table 7.18).


Superstitious Beliefs and Behaviours

For the layman Buddhists, the popular Buddhism has a significant psychologically functional role to play. It s very different from the text Buddhism, to the point that Tambiah, in his Buddhism and the spirit cults in Northeast Thailand, makes a distinction between higher and lower levels of religion as historical religion and contemporary popular religion (Tambiah, 1970). From the behavioural perspective, it is this contemporary popular religion as it is practiced, that is of interest and importance. The layman Buddhists in general do not have indepth knowledge about Buddhism, but hey know enough the general concepts and make use of them so serve one’s psychological equilibrium. In practice, they believe in spirits, in astrology, and practice a varieties of magical, superstitious behaviours. And irrespective of group differences, this belief in supernatural power is a dominant characteristic of the Thai. Manifestations of supernatural beliefs are prevalent in everyday life, through beliefs in spirits in predestined Duang (one’s personal astrological star) in fortune-telling, in particular auspicious time for everything, in omen, in the magical power of charms and amulets, in Bon barn sarn klaw (making wishes and vows to the spirits, and in black magic and Sadoa khroa (supernatural rituals to stop bad fortune), etc.

Behavioural manifestations of such beliefs can be seen everywhere. Examples are as follows:

(a) There are spirits houses in almost every house’s compound, government offices including the Ministry of Science and Technology, university compounds and business buildings. All hotels have spirits houses; some are very famous in the sense that they are sacred. People make vows and wishes, and have their vows and wishes fulfilled, able to bring prosperity, win lottery, ward off disasters and death, recuperate from illness, passing examinations, winning competitions, etc. The most famous one among the local Thai and foreign tourists as well, is the shrine at the former Erawan Hotel, where occasionally someone would come to do a dance in front of the shrine. The last case in point was the latest Miss Asia 1987 who, in her glittering classical dance costume, did the dance to fulfil the vow made before she entered the International Beauty Contest (Bangkok Post, November 5, 1987).

(b) Occasionally one would come across a tree with its trunk tied with colourful cloths and with incenses lying around.

(c) The mythological bird Garuda (or Khrut), which is the official symbol of honors and prestige, granted by the gracious permission of His Majesty the King and only to certain business enterprises that have made sizable contributions to the country, has turned into a threatening figure for some business entrepreneurs, especially those whose offices are located right opposite the spot where the Garuda is mounted. Reports of series of bankruptcies, scandals, fatal accidents and deaths were believed to be caused by the power of the Garuda. There is no exception even for foreign firm like the Mitsui Bank whose office was directly facing the giant Garuda of the Bangkok Bank building on Silom Road. After a series of scandals, fatal accidents, death of the Japanese managing director in a car accident, serious sickness without detectable medical causes of the owner of the building, etc., a spirit house was then raised in the building compound and an “anti-ghost” mirrors was installed just opposite to the Garuda figure, to negate the power of the Garuda by making the creature look at its won shadow (Bangkok Post, May 23, 1987).

(d) Auspicious times are calculated for various important events, such as the time to perform the engagement ceremony, wedding ceremony, the time to lay the foundation of a new building, a new house anointment, or even the often-talk-about time to stage a coup d’etat of the military stongmen.

(e) The general Thai, educated or uneducated alike, like to hang bunch of charms and amulets around their neck, to add charms and ward off dangers. It is not uncommon to find even intellectual elites like Ph.D. academic professors who would not forget to hang their bunch of amulets when travelling, especially during their research trips.

(f) Even in the respectable Parliament House, in October 22, 1987, for example, one major political party leader has to resort to use supernatural power during the censure debate by holding up a Buddha images and swore to the image that whatever he said was truth, and that he may be struck by lightning in the Parliament if he lied. He was accused by another MP of performing some black magic rituals on the third floor of the Parliament House (Bangkok Post, October 23, 1987).

(g) The latest superstitious behaviours demonstrated by the Thai power elites—the Cabinet ministers—are tremendously revealing. Under tensed political atmosphere, in order to counter “bad luck” or to Kae khred:

Prime Minister’s wife put up a huge mirror facing the Prime Minister in his office (Matichon, Nov. 16 & 19, 1990); having “Srithai jaiphra” or “Mo Yong” as the family’s personal “Mo doo” (Fortune teller or astrologer) (Matichon, Dec. 24, 1990);
Minister of Communication and Transportation, Mr. Montri Phongphanij, grew a moustache (Matichon, Nov. 19, 1990);
when a new Cabinet was formed in December, 1990, a number of fearful Ministers entered their new offices at specific auspicious times, like 8.39 a.m. for the Finance Minister Khun Banbarn (Post, Dec. 19, 1990), or 2.09 p.m. for Deputy Interior Minister Khun Pakit Post, Dec. 18, 1990) who also refused to move into the former Deputy Minister Khun Santi’s room, etc.;
Deputy Prime Minister Khun Koson Krairerk refused to move into his new office before it is sprinkled with holy water first (Post, Dec. 18, 1990), because it happened to be the room of the former Deputy Prime Minister General Chavalit Youngjaiyudh who stayed in office only for months;
Finance Minister Khun Banbarn removed a pair of life-size wooden elephants from the Ministry’s building (Post, Dec. 19, 1990), because his fortuneteller advised him they were “bad luck”; etc.

This is not to mention the former Deputy Minister of Science and Technology, himself a Western educated Ph.D. in Science, removed a big tree in front of the Democrat Party building, believing that the dis-unity within the Democrat Party would stop (Matichon, Dec. 9, 1990).

(h) After the death of Chiang Mai Governor Pairat Decharin and his wife in the Lauda Air crash in Suphan Buri Province on May 26, 1991, a religious “Thorn Sappakerd” ritual was performed to “exorcise” a jinx which is believed to have cast over the Province (Bangkok Post, June 5, 1991).

(i) Superstitious beliefs have even pervaded into the area of house plants, according to some studies presented in the Symposium on Culture and Environment in Thailand (1987). The Thai prefer to plant trees or house plants that have auspicious-sounding name, like Mayom (star gooseberry), Khanun (jackfruit), Ratchaphruek (golden shower), Fuangfah (bougainvillaes). Phutsa (Jujube tree), which sounds like the word Sa, meaning “to decay” or “deteriorate”, is never grown in the house compound. The same is true for Lanthom (plumerea) which sounds like Rathom, meaning “sorrow”. Likewise, Mafai which sounds like the word Fai meaning “fire”, is not popular as a garden plant because it is believed it will cause the house owner to be always in troubles. Sometimes the plant with an auspicious name must be planted in an auspicious place in order to be effective, as in the case of Khanun (jackfruit). The world sounds like the words Sanab sanun, Kuanun, or Utnun, all meaning some kind of “support” or “patronage”, hence the tree is planted in the backyard to serve as support to the house and its inhabitants.

Apparently, superstitious beliefs and behaviours in various forms are self-illustrative of the Thai belief-behavioural systems. As a check of some superstitious beliefs and practice, the results of the Thai Value studies revealed that for certain superstitious behaviours like Doo mo doo (fortune-telling) and Phook duang (having one’s personal star read by fortune-teller), and Bon baan saan klaw (making vows to spirits), the urban Bangkokians engaged in such behaviours more often than the rural people; the educated Thai more often than the uneducated; the Government officials of various levels as well as the hawkers did more than the farmers, laborers, etc. (Table 7.19 and 7.20). It is true that most Thai according to the sample did not engage in these behaviours, but the interesting point here is that among those who practiced, no difference was found in terms of educational level, that is, the highly educated seeked out fortune-telling as often as the uneducated. This gives some thought to the theory that postulates a negative correlation between education and supernatural belief and behaviour. Whereas Sadoa khroa activities (supernatural rituals to exercise black magic, bad spirits, back luck and misfortune) were found more often among the rural people, particularly among the North and Northeast peasants, more than other regions. Nevertheless, this superstitious belief and behavioural pattern is a dominant practice of the Thai.

What is the reason for such relatively wide practises of superstitious behaviours, particularly in the urban areas as one can see in the number of local Thai doing those behaviours in temples, fortune-tellers’ stalls, famous shrines like the Shrine of the City Pillar, etc.? In-depth interviews revealed that their requests range from; young people wanting to know who or when they will marry; students aspiring for good exam grades; and other issues such as the possibility of acquiring a good job or promotion and travelling opportunities. Middle-aged persons with families might ask whether a lottery win is at hand, whether spouses are faithful, whether their children will be accepted by a particular school, or whether a pregnancy will result in a son or daughter. Government officials whish for another terms in office, a promotions, and so forth.

As revealed fro the data, it seems that Buddhism serves a psychological function for the Thai more than anything. It basically provides a psychological cushion, whether in its function of explaining the “how and why” things happened like in the usage of karma as after-event justification, or in its function of providing a ‘road map’ to cope with one’s social environment for one’s social and psychological survival, or in its function of providing salvation as a “way out” of trouble (in times of crisis—be it the notion of heavenly reward or a means to escape an unpleasant or dangerous situation. Psychologically, in times of crisis, even the most sceptical would appeal for supernatural assistance. The influence is deep, to the extent that even the Western educated Ph.D. scientist would refuse to fathom the scientific and religious conflicts, and would never forget to wear their charms and amulets when they travel, for instance.


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