Saturday, April 14, 2007

Bangkok Post and The Nation: Editorials on the Jatukarm Ramathep Craze


Bangkok Post

A dangerous obsession

Buddhism teaches the law of causation: that there is a cause to every effect even though the chain may be long and not immediately visible. In this regard, the out-of-control craze over the Jatukarm Ramathep talisman has its roots _ in the inefficacy of the Sangha Council

What is most worrying is that many people are buying the talisman _ featuring the image of an ancient king of Srivijaya who was victorious against his attackers _ in the hope of getting rich quickly or having their wishes fulfilled without having to lift a finger. One pitiful sight is that of children wearing the exceptionally large talisman to their exams in the hope of passing with flying colours through the help of this unseen power _ a belief that is diametrically opposed to the Buddha's teaching that one receives what one works for. So how have we come to this?

Some may argue that animism has been part and parcel of the development of Theravada Buddhism in Thailand since we adopted it from Sri Lanka in the 13th century. That may be true. Still, we have to ask ourselves: has it been this bad? Has the animist part of our culture been allowed to grow so large and invasive that it is threatening to engulf our core faith?


The Nation

Kick amulet trade out of temples

Places of Buddhist worship should not be used for the crass sale of Jatukam Ramathep and other talismans

The Religious Affairs Department and the Office of the Sangha Supreme Council did what they could to control the damage done to the Jatukam Ramathep amulet trade following the death of a 51-year-old woman who was killed in a stampede set off by an unruly crowd waiting to purchase a "special edition" of the amulets in Nakhon Si Thammarat on Monday. The Religious Affairs Department announced that it planned to regulate the manufacturing, consecration and distribution of the much-sought-after charms as the cult of Jatukam continues to spread among a growing number of wayward Buddhists. Profiteering on the popular amulets has kicked in as monastic and lay administrators of Buddhist temples countrywide, motivated by naked greed, are selling the amulets as fast as they can churn them out.

A large section of Thai society is lapping them up and actively engaging in the frenzied speculation in the charms which has sent the prices of Jatukam skyrocketing. In the meantime, no one is getting any wiser or having any better an understanding of the essence of the Buddha's teachings, which emphasize the search for a sense of detachment from worldly temptations.

Sometimes I wonder what planet these journalists are from. Thais have always believed in amulets, magic, voodoo, animism and other spiritual traditions totally unrelated to Buddhism.

Buddhism has always been a bourgeoisie religion. And like the Roman Catholic church, the Crown and the Orthodox Buddhist Church of Thailand (The Sangha) had to adapt local belief systems in order to get accepted by the masses. Thai Buddhism has always been a syncretic mix of Theravada Buddhism, Hinduism, Brahmanism, Animism and local beliefs and traditions.

Loy Kraytong and Songkran are not Buddhist holidays, but they are celebrated by most Thais.

Many Thais are not Buddhists. How many actually know anything about Buddhism? How many have actually meditated? I reckon more know about amulets, traditional magic and fortune telling than the basics of Buddhism. And I don't think it is a bad thing. I am a believer in freedom. If some fool wants to pay a million baht for an amulet, up to them.

And who is responsible for the spiritual development of the Thais? The bloody government? The government that supports a cult of personality around the king that has nothing to do with Buddhism. Indeed, most Thai state ceremonies and rituals are Brahman in nature. But you will never hear The Nation and Bangkok Post complaining about the non-Buddhist aspects of the monarchy and the absurdity in buying yellow shirts and Khun Tongdaeng books in support of the business surrounding the royal cult.

On a political note, I think it is strange that these elite journalists at The Nation and Bangkok Post criticize the Sangha leadership and the temples for not practicing real Buddhism, but these same journalists shamelessly make a mockery of their own profession by not practicing real journalism and they don't hold the country's political leadership accountable to real democracy.


Anonymous said...

Quite right. I suppose I am probably as close to being an expert in western occultism as you are going to find in Thailand and I can say this superstition doesnt even have any local magicak cointent. It is just superstition, proof if any were needed of the juvenille state of the Thai psyche.

It is very sad to see this frenzy going on when as the article rightly points out, what is sought here is something for nothing, passing exams or increasing wealth without having to work for them. Another aspect of the Thai psyche I am afraid, laziness.

With this background, it is no wonder at all that the Thais look to the King for magic rice seeds, for magic rain and magic fertility for the land. They might just as well crawl on their bellies to the cookie monster. I sometimes wonder if these people will ever grow up.

Unknown said...

About the "juvenile" Thai psyche, I don't see much difference between the Thai amulets, ghosts, idol and ancestor worship, and the US's superstitions, pseudo-Christian scam cults (basically all religions invented in the US, with Mormonism at the top of the list I suppose), fair-weather Christianity, and alternative medicine. I suggest Sagan's Demon-Haunted World for a sober look at the danger of American anti-intellectualism and pseudoscience. In a way, the American situation is more volatile because at least Thailand is unimportant in the big picture.

It's the law of conservation of social stupidity: all cultures have their share of fools.

Also, there is a law of conservation of laziness. Americans can easily be characterized as lazy or stupid: we (I'm American) are the fattest, illiterate, unrefined, McDonald's society, lawsuit-happy, lottery-playing, middle-east-wrecking, red state-having bumpkins of the civilized world. Bush believes that he was chosen by God to be the president.

Don't get me wrong: I find Americans to be among the smartest and hardest-working people in the world. I'm just saying it's easy to call people juvenile and lazy. Many foreigners blow up in a rage the moment some dumb ass Thai does some dumb ass thing; but that rage is considered juvenile from the Thai perspective.