Alex Wright

Siam Diary: Part VII

May 26, 2004

The Buddhist Kingdom

The first European visitors to Siam recoiled at the local people's devotion to images of the Buddha. Seeing the heathen coolies bowing to their false god, Christian missionaries and traders recognized a sure sign of pagan idolatry. English soldier Frederich Arthur Neale, visiting Bangkok in the 1850s, recorded his Protestant indignation:

An ignorant demi-civilized being goes into the temple where he worships, and he sees idols and hears fabulous tales rehearsed by the priestcraft of his idolatrous creed; he sees certain forms and prostrations practiced - the burning of incense, and bowing before well-lit shrines.

Now, let's imagine that scene inverted. Picture an 1850s Thai fellow wandering into the Cathedral of Notre Dame: seeing monstrous gargoyles perched on the buttresses, gold-plated saints projected on stained glass windows, and high priests presiding over practitioners offering candles, genuflecting and bowing before a well-lit shrine. Would he too have condemned the idolatries of these misbegotten sauvages?

Notions of cultural relativism were still a long way off when Harold Hall, another English visitor writing in 1898, made this prescient observation:

I have thought that the difficulty arises from the fact there are two ways of seeing a religion - from within and from without - and that these are as different as can possibly be. It is because we forget there are the two standpoints that we fall into error. The outsider judges a religion as he judges everything else in the world. He cannot begin by accepting it as the only revelation of truth; he cannot proceed from the unknown to the known, but the reverse.

It was only after the dharma began to penetrate the Western consciousness in the early twentieth century that farang visitors began to look more deeply into practitioners' relationship to the Buddha image: not as god, but as guide.

As a neophyte practitioner visiting a Buddhist country for the first time, I wrestled with the question of how to approach the tradition here: as an observer, or as a participant?

I ended up situating myself somewhere between those poles. Inside the shrines, I sat with monks and laypeople, but with a camera at my side. At a few wats I tried out the practice of offering flowers and incense, candles and an occasional prostration, but keenly aware that I was doing so with a self-conscious, playing-at-native-customs sort of mentality. I reminded myself of Chogyam Trungpa's admonition against "spiritual materialism": the temptation to try on foreign religions as a kind of fashion, much as one might try on a leather jacket in Florence.

Spending time among the Thai practitioners, I also felt a certain disconnect between my own practice - largely an internal affair, and one I don't care to talk about much - and the outward religiosity of Thailand's State brand of Buddhism. Buddhist practice here is so culturally entrenched that a kind of reflexive rituality envelops the practice. Could it be, as Jung said, that religion is a defense against religious experience?

In former times - a hundred or so years ago - Buddhism in Thailand operated quite differently. Before the nation of Thailand emerged, Buddhist monks played more central roles in their local communities as spiritual guides, healers, resolvers of disputes. Small communities of monks operated with relative autonomy; and hermit monks roamed the mountains.

When the Thai nation emerged in the early 20th century, the king sought to institutionalize Buddhism as a means of uniting the kingdom. The state asserted its authority over the monasteries and temples, codified doctrines and standardized monastic practices. The result today is that monks, though still revered, have ceded much of their real power in the community. And for lay practitioners, Buddhist practice seems to assume a dimension of institutional fealty that strikes me as problematic for anyone pursuing a path of individual liberation.

All that said, the Thai people seem deeply imbued with a Buddhist outlook: open, friendly and full of spontaneous insight. A woman in a gift shop told me about her practice: how she had wrestled with Buddhism and even rejected it altogether for a while, before coming full circle and embracing the path. Standing in a store surrounded by cheap plastic Buddhas, prayer amulets and assorted religious knick-knacks - the very currency of spiritual materialism - she told me: "With Buddhism, you have to decide for yourself."

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