Buddha and Ghosts

Updated 2009-10-13 14:14

Every Farang who has spent a fair amount of time with Thai people, has already wondered about the coexistence of Buddha worshipping and the belief in ghosts, and has asked himself whether the Thais are Buddhists, or animists. Going to the bottom of this question, one will get a better understanding of what the Thais feel and think, shortly what rules their lives.

Let us first talk about the belief in ghosts. The Thais grow up with the belief in ghosts, ghosts in the house, in the trees, in the fields, ghosts everywhere.

We Farang tend to understand the notion ghosts as something equal to phantom or spook. But this is the first serious mistake you can make causing you to misunderstand the behavior of Thais. For the Thais all things we can perceive with our 5 senses are only a part of the universe (what incidentally is equivalent to the scientific understanding of the cosmos to day). In addition to all living beings having a shape and can be perceived with our eyes, they believe, that the world is peopled with beings having no shape visible for us, but who can significantly influence our daily lives and our destiny

There are first the place bound ghosts; the best known of them is the House ghost Phra Phum, to whom a residence will be made available at the front of each house. He is the real - though not registered - landowner of the place on which the house has been built. He can secure happiness and welfare to the residents of the house, but also can bring misfortune and disease. It is therefore important to hold the spirit house in a good mood and show him that he is appreciated. This is done by keeping his house in order, offer him regularly small bowls with food and beverages, and adorn his residence with flower wreaths. But as the house spirit also has the power to influence the daily lives of the people, one will make offers to him, if one has any desire. One makes a silent prayer in front of his residence, and promise to deliver a small gift whether spirit will fulfill the desire, like a beautiful wooden elephants, or even a bottle of rice liquor. The whole is more or less a deal one closes with the house-ghost. One orders something, and then obviously, at delivery has to comply with the contract. If not, the ghost will get angry and that can have nasty consequences.

Another category of place bound ghosts are the ghost living at a particularly venerable place, and sometimes having great power, such as a ghost who resides in the statue in a Hindu God, or even a Buddha statue. While the influence of the spirit house is more or less restricted to people living in the house, a ghost resident at a venerable place has not only regionally limited power. Those who travel may hedge against the dangers of their trip, but when asking such a ghost for protection, one has obviously also to promise to offer a present after coming home again without suffering any harm.

Such as a nice wooden Elephant, or often even a dancing performance which some of these ghosts like particularly. Some Farang will already have enjoyed the show by the temple dancers at the Erawan Shrine in Bangkok, or the Likeh Show at the Town=Temple opposite to the royal palace in Bangkok, without knowing that these demonstrations have nothing to do with Buddhism, but are purely commercial arrangements between an individual and an influential spirit he wants to please. The spirit may also be of female sex, than she will be primarily invoked by women, who for example, want to have a child, or have problems with their unfaithful husbands. Such female deities like especially lingams as a gift, and their shrines are cluttered with these wooden peckers in all sizes.

Finally, there is the evil spirits making people angry, or want to harm them. They have no fixed residence, but spooking around in the area, looking for victims. These ghosts can hardly be influenced by gifts, because they have no location where one could deposit the gifts. One can try to mobilize a good spirit against them, ask for his protection against evil spirits. Protection against evil spirits is also given by amulets or tattoos. The tattoos one sees often on Thai men do not serve as an ornament, as for Farang, but have a protective function.

But all the offerings and prayers at places where a good or influential spirit lives are only important for the daily life, not for the Hereafter. They are purely commercial transactions according to the motto 'I promise, you deliver, I pay'. As the Thais are accustomed that every person with some influence, whether an officer or policeman, wants first to see money before undertaking something, it is also generally use to offer the ghost a small gift, so to speak as a first installment paid for the business.

Let us now turn to Buddhism. Here two things must initially be recorded. For one, that Lord Buddha was no Thai, but an Indian prince's son, grown up in the Brahman tradition, his values were therefore substantially different from that of the Thais. In addition, the Thai have adapted the teachings of Lord Buddha over more than 2 millennia to their own values, so that in many monasteries today the traditional rites are only blank forms, and the monks, and especially the abbots, strive after possession as all Thais. But also the laity keeps the commandments of Lord Buddha's only so much as they are useful in daily life, what has little in common with the teachings the Buddha has once proclaimed. Although Buddhism is today the state religion in Thailand, the daily life has little to do with the teachings the Buddha has once proclaimed, just as the dogma of the Catholic Church has little to do with the teachings of Lord Jesus

The teachings of Lord Buddha's are not a religion, they are no dogma, but they describe the path that man must go in order to influence his Kharma so that after many existences he finally will reach the nirvana. If the Thais are offering in the temple, or the young men go for a few months into monastery, it serves not to improve their living conditions, or their fate, but "Boon tam" is used exclusively to improve the Kharma, and may only be useful in the next life.

One has to bear in mind, that the ghosts are only responsible for the life on this earth, and only potent at short term, so that their kindness and their protection must always be bought anew if needed, while following the teachings of Lord Buddha influences the Kharma, and thus the next life. Regarding all this, then the dualism in Thai-life may no longer seem to be as strange as before. The fact that Buddhism knows no sin, but only stations, which are achieved on the way to nirvana, also offers some explanation for the behavior of the girls in the bars of Pattaya. They are young and can therefore afford to disrupt on the way prescribed by Buddha and after a few years interval, usually after aging will continue again. At the same time, the support of their family by their in our eyes immoral activity, will favorably influence their Kharma.

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