Monks & Magic: Buddhism and the Supernatural in Thailand

BY GWENDOLYN TOYNTON

In August 2008 Bun Rany, the wife of the Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, led Buddhist monks and soldiers to the site of the historic Hindu temple Preah Vihear to call upon their ancestors to protect the temple. The site of this temple is located on disputed land, perched atop a cliff on Cambodian soil but with the most accessible entrance to the site located on the Thai side of the border.

This 11th century temple is located on the border between the two countries, but the borderline itself has never been clearly demarcated because the area is littered with landmines left over from decades of war. Ownership of the temple was originally awarded to Cambodia, but dispute between the two countries flared up when Preah Vihear was granted United Nations World Heritage status.

Desperate to resolve the issue, both sides deployed military forces – but when they were unable to reach a solution to the conflict, Cambodia and Thailand resorted to supernatural means. Fearing that the magical abilities of Cambodia‘s Buddhist monks would weaken Thailand, residents throughout the province of Si Sa Ket wore yellow to help protect Thailand from Cambodian magic.

Though Buddhism is not often thought of as a religion that practices magic, in such communities as those found in Thailand and Cambodia, there can be no doubt that Buddhism shares common ground with belief systems that are primarily associated with the use of magic.

Both countries have a long history of engagement in spiritualist and animistic magical practices. When Buddhism first arrived in these areas it came into contact with pre-existent traditions that believed in spirits, both benevolent and malevolent, and a developed system of magic which was to be feared or revered, depending on whether or not it was used for good or ill.

For Buddhism to flourish under such conditions in Thailand, it was necessary to develop a complex system of interaction between Buddhism and what has been called the Spirit religions. Debate still exists as to whether or not the two systems have become completely integrated or not, although the interaction of the two systems is sometimes referred to as an example of syncretism. On the subject of interaction between Buddhism and the Spirit religions in Thailand, the academician B.J. Terwiel says the following:

When I interviewed villagers in Central Thailand on the relationship between Buddhist and non-Buddhist aspects of their religion, a variety of reactions were observed. The more sophisticated informants generally stated that the Lord Buddha had never forbidden rituals of ancient origin. Other persons hesitatingly made up their minds with regard to the orthodoxy of the ritual, but on subsequent occasions contradicted their own judgment. Many were at a loss to classify rituals or beliefs under rubrics such as ‘Buddhist’ and ‘non-Buddhist’.1

It would appear from this statement that the boundary between the use of magic by the indigenous tradition of Thailand and the practice of Buddhism is not apparent to many of the inhabitants of Thailand themselves. This is most likely due to the fact that the people of rural Thailand are raised in a society where the two systems are found closely entwined together.

The religious traditions of Thailand have always included the belief in spirits and the ability to manipulate them by means of magic. For example in Thailand preservation of the spirit of life (khwan) is considered to be of the utmost importance, as is ensuring that malevolent spirits (phii) do not enter the body. Control of these spirits is greatly emphasised in rural Thai culture, as the service of these spirits can be employed to improve the qualities of day to day existence.

Magic and the Sangha

In the lives of ordinary Thai people, more value is placed upon the improvement of their current existence than on transcending the cycle of rebirth, as is advocated by Buddhism. The relationship between the members of the Sangha (community of Buddhist monks) and the practitioners of magic in Thailand combine in a variety of ways, as one system (the Spirit religions) deals with the aspects of gain in this world (laukika), whilst the other (Buddhism) advocates the importance of salvation and ideas of transcendence (lokottara).

This relationship is complicated even further by the fact that in Thailand almost every adult male will become a member of the Sangha at some stage in his life, for in rural areas the taking of vows is considered to be an essential element in preparation for adult life. Given the wide range of magic and animistic beliefs which operate within rural Thailand, these men will carry a variety of beliefs and practices with them into the Sangha, not all compatible with the ethics of Buddhism.

In accordance with this, religious opinions are not questioned during ordination. As a direct result, villagers can be found entering the Sangha for a variety of reasons, as is reflected in the following Thai rhyme:

Ordination to fulfil a promise to the Gods,

Ordination to escape poverty,

Ordination to flee from a wife,

Ordination to save money,

Ordination to eat better food than at home,

Ordination to join one’s friends in the monastery.2

Thai belief does not only consist of beneficial Gods and spirits. It also abounds with belief in ferocious spirits of pure malevolence, from who the villagers seek magical protection. Amongst these classes of malevolent spirits are such beings as the preed (a giant, looming shape with a small head that emits a sharp, piercing sound, as a reflection of its past sins), the phii krasy (a type of parasite which inhabits human bodies, feeds on excrement, and is shaped like a human head with entrails protruding from beneath), and the phii baan (the ghosts of ancestors that hover around their previous home and watch their descendants with malignant jealousy).

Whilst it is possible for these spirits to be exorcised, Buddhism chooses to deal with their interfering presence in another way; the correct approach for a Buddhist to cause these spirits to cease meddling in the affairs of their human victims is to preach to them, thus converting the spirits involved to a more benign nature. There are certain canonical texts which serve this purpose of protection, which can also be recited at specific times in order to avert misfortune. These texts are known as the phraa parit. The source of the magical power of these texts has not yet been clearly identified, but Y. Ishii, author of Sangha, State & Society: Thai Buddhism in History, claims that whilst some possessed a magical content from the beginning, as modifications of Hindu rites, others such as the Mangalasutta originally had no magical connotations.3

Indeed, for most people, including some who chant them, the parit are incomprehensible, being in Pāli. Rather, I believe, the magic of the parit stems from three factors: the social recognition that parit should be chanted for certain purposes (e.g. blessing); the existence of an established formula for their chanting; and the sanctity attributed to the chanter.4

The use of parit is a means by which to ensure protection; it provides good luck and disperses misfortune whether caused by the presence of spirits or not. As is seen in the above passage the presence of magic being used by the Sangha is not overtly explicit in the parit texts, rather it is interpreted to be so by the lay audience. They do not understand the words the monks recite, but because of the respected state of the Sangha in Thailand, the lay community assumes that it must be not only beneficial, but also powerful.

Amulets

Another type of magic practiced by the Thai Sangha is the manufacture of amulets. These amulets are employed for a variety of reasons, including protection from diseases, black magic and accidents. Of these amulets the ones portraying the Buddha are the most popular, although some also are made in the likeness of famous monks and King Chulalongkorn (also known as Rama V, one of Thailand‘s most revered kings).

The sanctity of the subjects portrayed upon the amulets is a reflection of the beneficial powers they are thought to contain. The Buddha images vary in size, from anywhere between two and eight centimetres, and can be manufactured from wood, metal, ivory or resin, although frequently they are made from a selected combination of these elements, pressed into a mould and baked.5 To create a pressed or printed image (phraaphim), a monk needs not only a mould, recipe and the proper ingredients; he also requires an advanced knowledge of spells and sacred script.6

The inherent sanctity of the amulet is not always thought to be sufficient; hence its power needs to be enhanced by means of the correct recitation of spells and sacred scripts. The most simple of these sacralisation rites is known as plugseeg.7At the culmination of plugseeg the monk will either blow upon the Buddha image or draw over the amulet with the index finger of his right hand.8

During the manufacture of amulets the Sangha is also invited to perform a consecration rite known as phutthaphisek.9The use of magic within the phuttaphisek is illustrated by the fact that it is desirable for at least one of the monks participating in the phutthaphiseek to be either advanced in meditative technique or in the Brahmanic rites known as saiyasat.10

These rites are intimately entwined with another type of Thai ritual, namely the ceremony held to consecrate Buddha images which infuse the representation with the auspicious wisdom and power associated with Prince Siddhārtha’s victory over the demon Māra and the obtainment of enlightenment by Siddhārtha. During this ritual monks chant in Pāli or preach in Northern Thai several texts including the Buddha Abhiseka (Consecrating the Buddha [Image]).11 This text focuses on the powers of the mind attained by the Buddha that are associated with his enlightenment. Both the consecration of images and amulets draws their impetus from this core idea.

One specific example of a text dealing with the extraordinary supernatural powers of the Buddha that occupies a position of prominence in Thailand is Bimbās Lament. (Bimbā is the Buddha’s wife, who he left to pursue the life of an ascetic.) 

By his magical power he created a crystal path in the sky from the eastern boundary of the city of Kapilavastu to its western perimeter. Then, ascending into the air, the Tathāgata, surrounded by many previous Buddha’s, walked on the sky-bridge he had miraculously created… he also preformed other miracles, such as appearing to walk above the heads of the Śākyans.12

Tattooing is another magical practice that is widespread throughout Thailand. At some stage in their adult life many Thai males will receive a tattoo of some description or another. This is of significance because in the culture of rural Thailand tattoos are representative of magical power. The magical power of these tattoos stems in part from the tattooist, for whilst both layman and monk may be a tattooist, there is vast difference in the scope of their work and the designs used.

The types which may be employed by the monk are restricted. As a monk, he is limited to tattooing the upper parts of the body, for not only would it be seen as sexual misconduct on the part of the monk to tattoo the lower areas, the upper parts of the body represent the higher, more spiritual aspects of humanity, whereas the lower regions represent mankind’s more base, animalistic attributes. The tattoos done by the monk are also limited in application. The monk may bestow tattoos that are of a beneficial or protective nature. Other tattoos, such as those which bestow things such as sexual virility, can only be performed by members of the lay community.

Another Thai rite involving magical skills of the members of the Sangha is the Wong Dai Sai (Encircling with Holy Thread).13 This is a type of consecration rite designed to protect a place from evil. It is believed that the consecrated place will be protected by the power of the Three Gems and the phraa parit.14 During this rite cotton is affixed to an image of the Buddha, stretched clockwise (as is the way of beneficial magic; anticlockwise is considered to be used for evil purposes) around the place to be consecrated, and finally wound back to its point of origin, at the Buddha image.15 If the thread should snap at any stage, it is considered to be an ill omen.

The main doctrinal link between Buddhism and the Spirit religions is found in the incidences where magic is employed by the Sangha as a transfer of merit. The theory of the transference of merit is based upon the concept that when a member of the lay community performs a virtuous deed, such as making a donation or feeding a monk, the Gods witness the act and empathise with the process. The Sangha themselves are referred to as being a ‘field for merit’ (na bun), as is found in the Sanghnussati-bhavana.

Well practiced is the Exalted One’s Order of Disciples, practiced in integrity, practiced in intellectual methods, in right lines of action – to wit the four pairs, the eight groups of persons – this is the Exalted One’s Order of Disciples, worthy of offerings, oblations, gifts, salutations, the world’s peerless field for merit.16

Monk’s Superior Magical Status

The greater the purity of the monk, the more magical power/merit he is said to generate. The sanctity of the monk himself is the source of belief in the efficacy of his magical power. The magical power that is generated by the monk is also classed as being superior to that of the layman, but by its very nature it is also more limited in its application. A monk is also deemed to be superior to a spirit, and thus a monk should never be seen to supplicate himself before a spirit. When a member of the Sangha addresses a spirit, he never raises his hands in supplication, in contrast to the layman who will raise his hands when requesting a favour from a spirit.

The superior magical status of the monk stems from his purity; the monk must not do anything to compromise his superior position. Part of the magical power which results from the monks’ purity is derived from celibacy. A monk should never touch a female (human or animal), and is forbidden to even receive an object that is directly given to him by a woman.17 In order to receive an object given by a woman, the monk must first take a piece of cloth and place it upon the floor, upon which the woman will then place the gift in whilst the monk holds the edges of the cloth.18 The cloth is used as a medium by which to transfer merit since there can be no direct contact between a monk and a woman. The merit flows from the fingers of the monk holding the cloth, to the woman who has donated the cloth. The medium of cloth must be used so as not to deprive the female donor of the merit she would otherwise not receive. One of the reasons for which a monk may not have contact with women is not only due to the temptation of sexual misconduct, but also because women are believed to be associated with a type of magical power said to be diametrically opposed to that of the monk.19 This is due to the fact that menstruation is associated with dangerous magical power, and is classed as being capable of destroying some of the beneficial power of the Sangha.20

Another aspect of magic in Thailand which needs to be considered is the import of magical systems via India. The branch of Buddhism found in Thailand is an older form known as Theravāda, and its links to Hinduism are much stronger than those of the later Buddhist schools. For example, in the book A Summary of the Seven Books of the Abhidhamma (Abhidhamma Chet Khamphi Ruam) there are elements of cosmology, cosmogony, buddhology, ethics, epistemology and language that are integrated into a yantric/mantric system.21 This system is very much similar to that found in Indian magic, and it is reasonable to assume that many of the formulas found within are directly based on the use of Hindu mantras. These are broken down into component syllables for recitation by the Buddhist practitioner. The mantra Namo Buddhāya (Homage to the Buddha), is correlated with the five vowels, symbolising the five elements (dhatū) – water, earth, fire, air and atmosphere.

Furthermore, in the following passage from the Seven Books of Abhidahamma, we also find a formula which contains correlations with the Hindu Tantric Yoga techniques, dividing the body into a solar right and lunar left, and creating what appears to be Buddhist chakra centres. This integration of the occult, Tantra and Buddhism is by no means unique for it is prolific in Tibetan Buddhist texts and practices.

Na = the Buddha Kakusandha at the right eye

Mo = the Buddha Konagāmana at the left eye

Bhud = the Buddha Kassapa at the back

Dhā = the Buddha Gotama at the naval

Ya = the Buddha Ariya Metteyya at the forehead22

Transmission of Occult Techniques

One possible explanation of how this similarity between Thai Buddhist and Hindu occult techniques occurred can be found by examining the magical history of a third South East Asian country – namely Myanmar (Burma).

In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, Burmese kings imported large numbers of Sanskrit texts from India on topics such as medicine, alchemy, incantation and astrology.23 In Burma, these Buddhist wizards are practitioners of what is called the weikza-lam (path of occult knowledge). This tradition still exists today in Burma, and the largest of the groups practicing this occult path is based in the city of Pegy, and is called the Manosetopad Gaing. Like their Thai counterparts, this organisation bases an interest in the occult on the powers attained by the Buddha on the path to enlightenment. They also believe that the relics of the Buddha (Burmese dat-daw) (Pāli dhātu) are possessed of a kind of majestic power that he infused in them through the force of his samādhi.24 The similarity between this branch of Burmese magic with that of the Thai people is amply illustrated in the following extract from a magical treatise by the Manosetopad Gaing:

A person wishing to practice the path must first suffuse his mind with thoughts of the Three Jewels, and cultivate loving kindness toward the various grades of nats… the nats referred to here include powerful nature spirits dwelling in trees, the earth, and mountains, minor deities who preside over the use of magical incantations and diagrams, and medicine spirits whose domain includes the well-known herbs and minerals of alchemical lore.25

From this passage it is clear that the Manosetopad Gaing not only use Buddhist motifs, they are also drawing upon a much older tradition of Spirit religions and animistic world views. These Buddhist wizards, however, are also drawing upon Hindu texts on supernatural lore; and if such texts entered the Burmese magico-religious system then it is entirely possible that influences from India may help to explain what appears to be a yantric/mantric tradition within the Thai Seven Books of Abhidahamma.

With their magical prowess and the protection of the Sangha, why do the Thai people fear the magic of the Cambodians? Cambodia is also a country with a long history of occult practices. For instance, in the Khmer book The Tale of Ancient History there is a legend of Prince Chey Ahca who led a ghost army against the Siamese – Siam being an earlier name for Thailand. More recently, we also find record of Po Kambo, who in 1866 protested against French colonial rule and was alleged to know a magical formula that deflected bullets. Even as recently as the 1970s and 1990s, Khmer soldiers utilised magical tattoos, in a similar manner to that of their Thai enemies, and used mantras written in Pāli and Sanskrit, the holy languages of Buddhism and Hinduism, to protect them in battle.

All of the magic employed by the Sangha in Thailand is based on one important concept: the sanctity and purity of the Sangha themselves. The forms of magic the Sangha use is limited in scope by this fact, for they can use only what is generally referred to as ‘white’ magic: that which benefits another and causes no harm. Use of magic to harm another or for personal gain would result in expulsion from the Sangha. Similarly, a monk may not use magic that serves to improve the virility of a layman or create love charms, as this could severely impair the powers of the monk which stem from his sexual abstention. A monk may not request the spirit world for aid, for this would compromise the superior status of the monk who is deemed to be beyond the mundane affairs of this world.

Whilst the power of the Sangha is more limited in application than that of laymen, it is also deemed as stronger for it stems from other worldly sources, as opposed to the spirits who remain bound to this world. As such, villagers come to the monk knowing that when they treat the monk with a proper attitude of respect, the cosmic forces shall share their merit and transfer it to demonstrate approval. The transfer of merit thus benefits not only the Sangha, but the laity as well – even providing protection in times of conflict.

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Footnotes:

1. B.J. Terwiel, Monks and Magic: An Analysis of Religious Ceremonies in Central Thailand (Curzon Press, 1975), 3.
2. Ibid., 20.
3. Y. Ishii, Sangha, State & Society: Thai Buddhism in History (University of Hawaii Press, 1986), 21.
4. Ibid., 21.
5. B.J. Terwiel, Monks and Magic: An Analysis of Religious Ceremonies in Central Thailand, 74.
6. Ibid., 75.
7. Ibid., 77.
8. Ibid., 78
9. Y. Ishii, Sangha, State & Society: Thai Buddhism in History, 23.
10. Ibid., 25.
11. D. K. Swearer, Consecrating the Buddha, in ed. D. S. Lopez, Jr., Buddhism in Practice (Princeton University Press, 1995), 50.
12. D. K. Swearer, Bimba’s Lament, in ed. D. S. Lopez, Jr., Buddhism in Practice (Princeton University Press, 1995), 543.
13. Y. Ishii, Sangha, State and Society: Thai Buddhism in History, 22.
14. Ibid., 22.
15. Ibid., 22.
16. Ibid., 14.
17. B.J. Terwiel, Monks and Magic: An Analysis of Religious Ceremonies in Central Thailand, 114.
18. Ibid., 114.
19. Ibid., 115.
20. Ibid., 115.
21. D. K. Swearer, A Summary of the Seven Books of Abhidamma, in ed. D. S. Lopez, Jr., Buddhism in Practice (Princeton University Press, 1995), 336-7.
22. Ibid., 340.
23. P. Pranke, On Becoming a Buddhist Wizard, in ed. D. S. Lopez, Jr., Buddhism in Practice (Princeton University Press, 1995), 343.
24. Ibid., 345.
25. Ibid., 351.

GWENDOLYN TOYNTON is the editor and founder of Primordial Traditionswww.primordialtraditions.com. Her articles have been published in many magazines and she is also published in the New Zealand Collection of Poetry & Prose 2002.

The above article appeared in New Dawn Special Issue 7.

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