Popular Buddhism

Monks, magic and amulets

Authored by: James Taylor

Routledge Handbook of Religions in Asia

Print publication date:  September  2014
Online publication date:  September  2014

Print ISBN: 9780415635035
eBook ISBN: 9781315758534
Adobe ISBN: 9781317636465


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In Thailand, as much of Buddhist Southeast Asia, there are multiple conterminous Buddhism/s (plural intended) within the Greater Theravada tradition. Thailand is known as one of the most intense Buddhist countries in the world, where almost 94 per cent of the country’s 69 million people self-identify as Buddhist, some 300,000 monks and novices in 40,000 monasteries. However, in the religious context it is also known for a variety of heterodoxies and superstitious practices, including a thriving and lucrative amulet (phra-khreung) market, protective tattoos, rituals and incantations (sak-yan/saiyasat), ghost stories and the idiosyncrasies of well-known Buddhist monks, saints and magicians (Baker and Phongpaichit 2013; McDaniel 2011; Nilsen 2011). Given Thai Buddhisms multiplicities, it is not hard to see the various tendencies and practices that constitute popular beliefs including magic. 1 This is what Ishii (1986: 23–24) refers to ‘magical Buddhism’, satisfying the mass demand for immediate resolution of certain problems while remaining within the logical possibilities latent in Theravada Buddhism. Terwiel (1994) noted how magic and Buddhist monasticism were deeply intermingled in the practices of Thai popular Buddhism, even though they may be contradictory in principle. Magical practices and the plethora of rites associated with dealing with the various spirits constitute one ritual complex among others in the ‘total field’ of Thai Buddhism (Tambiah 1970: 337). Perhaps not surprisingly because of this intermingling, many monastery libraries for instance may contain a mix of canonical and non-canonical materials and various secular materials (from medicine to astrology), including normative use of protective magic in Pali and vernacular languages (McDaniel 2012). 2 There is a close interrelationship between normative Buddhist practice and the acquisition of mystical or supernatural power (ithi/paathi’haan/aphinyaa); the latter gained through meditation. Tambiah (1984: 272) described the famous forest monk Luang Puu Wen’s levitation skills when he was seen by an air force pilot sitting in meditation upon a cloud. Such stories are rife in Thailand, substantiating existing understandings and model of the sacred world and as having a didactic function (Eliade 1998: 2).

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