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On Saturday morning, we went to North Birmingham, to a Thai friend named Geow’s house, for a religious ceremony. It was her sixth wedding anniversary, and she was having her marriage and home blessed by three monks from the local Thai temple. Three pleasant Thai 30 year olds with shaven heads and Saffron robes (but sensible socks and vests; it is Britain!) arrived and began an hour-long session of chanting in Pali, the source language of Thai, but one which is as alien to Thai as Latin is to English today. None of the Thais I know can understand Pali; it’s just memorised and chanted at religious occasions.
I’ve been interested in Buddhism for a long time; after a period in India, one of my reasons for visiting Thailand was to find out more about Buddhism, but I was shocked at how corrupted the philosophy was in Thailand. Most people eat meat (on the spurious grounds that it isn’t sinful if they don’t actually do the killing); Buddha images are sacred, as if he were a god, when he was only a man; many monks openly smoke, get rich and have many wives; many "Buddhist" Thais also worship Hindu gods like Ganesh and Shiva and animist traditions like spirit houses continue. Not that there’s anything wrong with these things – it makes Thailand the wonderful, unique place that I love – but it certainly didn’t match what I’d learned in India about the religion.
So it was great to be able to ask these English-speaking Thai monks about such matters. (I couldn’t in Thailand, because my conversational Thai is fluent, but it doesn’t stretch to theological debate, and it would’ve been unseemly for me to interrogate a man of the cloth there.) The boss monk explained that
he agreed that spirit-worship, and praying to Buddha to intercede in a devotee’s life were corruptions of Buddhism, which is not a religion, as it believes in no god. Dharma and Karma are natural laws like gravity, and there is no deity to intervene on your behalf, no matter how hard you pray or how much money you give to the temple.
To my mind, though, it’s easy to see why it got so corrupted. The godless, "pure" Buddhism is pretty austere and intellectual, and for uneducated people at the whim of the monsoon and the burning sun, it must have been tempting to believe in gods and spirits that can be mollified and cajoled. It also seems
to me that, as long as Thai Buddhism continues to chant in a dead language that even the monks admitted to not understanding, it’s never going to supplant animism in the everyday lives of the simpler farmers, up in the mountains, miles away from Bangkok. In many ways I was put in mind of medieval Catholics, chanting away in Latin, with celibate monks whose lives were totally out of sync with the people they minister to.