Before leaving this area of the space time continuum, let us talk a little about why my Person's wife wanted this Tibetan Buddhist scroll, with the Buddha's life history painted upon it. It will give us some insights into the manifestation of Buddhism in Thailand.
Was Laurie a Buddhist? No. Had she ever studied Buddhist thought or philosophy? No. Did she really know anything about Buddhist principles or practices? Not at all. Did she understand Buddhist ideas? Negative. What connection did she have with Buddhism in her life? None whatsoever. Then why was she suddenly so obsessed with this scroll? Why was she willing to spend close to $100 on something that has absolutely no connection with her ideas?
She was attracted to the image of Buddhism, its art, rather than its idea or philosophy. In a similar way the Thai people exhibit a greater attraction to the image of Buddhism, rather than its philosophy. The non-materialist, non-violent, non-sexual, non-family, vegetarian verbal message of Buddhism is constantly refuted by Thai culture. The Thai people are just like people anywhere, i.e. thinking themselves Persons with Mind and Body, they strive to get ahead by rules they have created, dominated by the pursuit of pleasure and the avoidance of pain, real and imaginary.
How about an example?
For us intellectuals, one of the most important messages of Buddhism was that meditation leads to self-realization or enlightenment, which leads to liberation from this plane. This aspect of Buddhism is certainly reflected in the images of meditating Buddhas, which are everywhere. However ...
D: "Yo, do you meditate?"
Y: "No, not enuf time."
D: "Do you know anyone who meditates?"
Y: “The monks, of course. Maybe a few older people. Most of the younger people are too busy."
D: "But what about all the meditating Buddhas that are everywhere?"
Y: "What about them? Each one has a different meaning depending upon the hand posture. The most common, with the hand upraised, means 'Stop fighting.'"
D: "Stop fighting?"
Y: "The Thai people are so aggressive that it is an important reminder to us to be more peaceful."
Here in Chiang Mai, Thailand, the heart of Theravada Buddhism, a branch of hinayana Buddhism - the small path - the strict Buddhism, the meditation aspect is virtually ignored by the 95% Buddhist population. This crucial message of meditation, while omnipresent in the Buddha images, is relegated to obscurity by most of the Thai people. While meditation is ignored or neglected, the symbolic message of the Buddha images are known and recognized by all. Everyone knows what the hand gestures mean. It seems, on the surface at least, that for the bulk of the Thai people that the Images of Buddhism, the temples and the Buddhas, have a greater influence than do the Ideas of Buddhism, its writings or teachings.
While the 'all is an illusion' idea of the Buddha seems to be ignored, the images of Buddhism are omnipresent. This is reflected in the temples and golden Buddhas that are found everywhere. These images reflect the messages of Buddhism in their symbolism and structure.
The main image of Buddhism is of a peaceful meditating non-threatening human figure not sexless, but a man with small breasts, a hermaphrodite.
Don: "Yo. Why do all the Buddhas have breasts?"
Yo: "Better for women. Strong man threatening."
Don: "More accessible to both sexes?"
An essence of these golden statues is of looking inward to find peace and quiet. This is the antithesis, the opposite, of the image of the masculine aggressive warrior found in Greek and Roman art. The meditating Buddha is an image that both men and women can relate to, while the warrior gods, Zeus, Thor, and Yahweh are gods of war, which are far more attractive to sons and fathers than mothers and daughters - Far more attractive to warriors, not so attractive to artists, scholars, and crafts people.
Notice in this talk of image, there is no need to refer to any writings or quotations. The images speak for themselves. One does not have know anything about Greek or Scandinavian mythology, or the Bible, to be able to sense the power of dominance contained in the image of these sky gods. Likewise one does not need to know anything about Buddhist writings to be able to appreciate the peace and quiet of a meditating Buddha. Thus my wife like the Thai people was attracted to the image of Buddha.
To further emphasize the notion of image vs. idea each of these golden Buddhas has some 22 different postures and hand gestures each of which means something different. One gets the feeling that all Thai people know what all the main Buddha postures mean, although they don't practice Buddhist asceticism. At the point they see one of these divine Buddhas the Right Brain image connects with the Left Brain idea to remind the Thai person of some sublime thought.
For instance every time they see the image of the Buddha with his hand raised as if he is halting someone, they think subliminally at least 'Stop fighting. On deeper levels without the aid of external interpretation, he might be reminding us to stop our addictions, curtail our bad habits, halt our attachment to the reality of our Person, to stop and slow down. Chill out. Relax.
Let us talk a little about the concepts of Image versus Idea, which, for convenience of reference we shall also refer to as Right Brain vs. Left Brain[i]. The Right Brain is associated with image, intuitive reasoning and holistic thinking, while the Left Brain is associated with idea, deductive reasoning and linear sequential perception. The Right Brain is associated with Being Now, while the Left Brain is associated with Doing in Time. Remember the Right Brain/Left Brain polarity is just a convenient way of communicating with very little basis in physical reality. It is however a useful metaphor for understanding if we don't forget it's not real.
For convenience again we will use the word scholar to represent a Left Brain dominated individuals. This is because they are word and thought specialists. The artist would be the image specialist. Those with a Left Brain dominance are many times considered smart in our society. Science is a Left Brain phenomenon. Superstitions are Right Brain. The world is civilized when it becomes Left Brain dominated, ruled by reason rather than superstition, at least according to Left Brain people. The Left Brain is associated with thoughts, ideas, and words, while the Right Brain is connected with images, sensations, feelings. We live in a Left Brain world dominated by law, rather than a Right Brain world which cultivates compassion. Left Brainers tend to prefer Science to Religion. A Left Brainer is attracted to beliefs not images. The Right Brainer prefers Art to War.
The Left Brain scholar or academic looks at the Ideas of a religion rather than its Images. To study Buddhism, they research the Buddhist texts; to research Christianity they research the Bible; to research Taoism they read Taoist texts.
"What do they believe in? Let's read what their leaders have written about their beliefs."
The Left Brainers assume that people choose their religion for its beliefs. If someone joins a church, it is because they have similar beliefs to the religion of the church. This is a Left Brain - deductive way of thinking about it.
This is very logical but reflects only one facet of a multi-faceted gem stone.
To truly understand the appeal of a religion, one must include the images of the religion, The images have a more universal appeal. The image sneaks past our Left Brain censor, infiltrating our subconscious world. While the Left Brain ideas which form the foundation of a philosophy are normally only accessible to the intellectual elite, the images appeal to all.
While having mass appeal images tend to be looked down upon by the intellectual elite as less sophisticated, as superstitious. This perspective is natural for the Left Brain. His limited perspective blinds his vision to the higher forms of Right Brain logic. Limited as he is by deductive logic, he thinks that is all there is. Because of this blindness, he categorizes religions by their belief systems based upon ideas rather than on its images, which rely on symbolism.
Anyway back to my wife. The images of Buddhism attracted her to the Tibetan scroll, while not knowing about the ideas of the Buddha. Thus her reaction to Buddhism was based upon Image not Idea. The belief part of the brain was secondary to the vision of this human sitting peacefully meditating upon a mat rather than a warrior making war. In a similar way to understand Buddhism in Thailand one would better understand these images than to study the writings of Buddhism.
While the Left Brainers choose a religion by its beliefs and the Right Brainers choose by its images, most people have another primary reason for choosing a religion which has nothing to do with image or idea. In actuality when most join a congregation or church, it is because they have beliefs in common with those in the church, not necessarily the religion of the church. While the church provides an outlet for religious expression, i.e. something beyond everyday reality, these practices are only loosely based upon anything set up by the founder of the religion. For the most part the members of a church allow the priests to do the religious thinking, while most members just follow the practices as a group.
"If this is what is takes to belong, then so be it - These people are my type of people I want to belong to their tribe - I want to be part of the 'in' group of my culture - I need to make connections, meet people, mix it up - certainly better than hanging out getting drunk in bars, unless that is where the powerful people are."
"Beliefs of my religion? It doesn't really matter. We just try to be good to each other and help each other out. The priest acts as our Shepherd, guiding us to green pastures."
We will call the underlying cultural religion the civil religion. Civil is defined as 'of the citizens'; citizens belong to a geographical political grouping, as small as a city, 'city-zens', to as large as a planet: from ‘citizens of Santa Barbara' to the 'citizens of the planet Earth'. A citizen of a country must have been born or legally naturalized in the country. A citizen of a city or state must live there permanently. The civil religion then refers to the underlying beliefs of the people who live in a common city, state or country. These underlying beliefs allow the citizens of the country to coexist peaceably. Once there is disagreement as to the nature of the civil religion, there is likely to be a civil war. One goes to war to preserve or extend their civil religion, not the beliefs of the founder of their religion.
There are some intersections between the ideas of the founder of the religion and the civil religion of the congregation, but there are more divergences. Most of the time the beliefs of the members of the church are much more aligned with the cultural values of their society rather than the religion of the church. Most of the time the religion is just loosely draped over the dominant civil religion of the congregation. One's culture is much more dominant than one's religion in determining political alliances.
Indeed the beliefs of Jesus who is supposedly the founder of Christianity have very little to do with Christianity. In many sects of Christianity his beliefs have absolutely no influence upon the congregation. The radical Sermon on the Mount, one of his longest and most authentic talks is virtually ignored in most Christian Churches. It is just too radical for Christian culture.
"'Turn the other cheek?' Yeah right. I say hit him back twice as hard. Then he won't hit you again."
So why is it that a religion is founded around a man that most find far too radical? Why did the militaristic Roman culture choose a pacifist Jesus for its image. Why not found a religion around someone with the prevailing beliefs of the culture rather than someone who died a long time ago in a society far different than ours?
Let us take a brief look at the founding of Christianity as the religion of the state. Constantine, a Roman Emperor about the 2nd or 3rd century, decided that for purposes of crowd control, that everyone needed to convert to Christianity, even though he was not a Christian himself. This was a convenient way of differentiating friend or foe. Convert or die, Hardly an issue of belief or image. Further he connected himself with the early Church fathers who had already done much to align the prevailing Christian Church with the civil religion of the day.
We can imagine the conversation between Constantine and one of the early Church bishops, as they try to convince him of the benefits of Christianity as the state religion.
Early Church Bishop: "I'm the leader of the early Christian church, the Bishop. I've got a proposition to make that will be a win-win situation for both of us. It will help us to consolidate and increase our power.
Constantine: "What could you possibly have that I should want?"
Bishop: "At present your Empire is in the midst of religious turmoil."
C: "So what does that have to with my political power?"
B: "The old gods and the old religions are being questioned. As they question the old gods they begin to question the traditional beliefs. As they begin to question traditions they begin to plot to overthrow the Empire, All this religious freedom threatens your regime. The new religions combine with revolutionary dialogue. New gods, new beliefs, new form of government. New leaders."
C: "So what do you suggest? The old are crumbling, while the new threatens to overthrow me.
Constantine's General: "I say stand with military power. All respect the might of my army - the power of the sword."
B: "That's just half the battle. You control the bodies of men. We are talking about controlling their minds, also."
C: "Speak on."
B: "Align yourself with the new religions, ours of course. Send out an order that everyone must join or perish. This way you have eliminated in one dictate those who oppose you for traditional reasons and those who want to overthrow you for modern reasons. Either you are for us or against us."
Constantine: "Brilliant. The old religions, which the traditionalists use as their rallying point are eliminated. The new religions are banned, and we co-opt them by choosing Christianity and giving it exclusive rights in the Empire."
G: "But Sire, why Christianity? If you don't mind my saying so that Jesus is a bit of a wimp. Why not choose some kind of a warrior cult, instead."
C: "Yes. I've heard that Jesus says that the rich will have a hard time getting into heaven."
G: "He's also said that men and women are equal before god. This is certainly not acceptable in our male dominated Roman society."
Early Church Bishop: "Don't worry. St. Jerome has turned that around. His writings stress the inferior position of women, even denying them a place in Paradise."
Constantine: "What about his living example of a non-violent existence with beliefs to match? This is certainly is not going to play well with the army. How are we going to be able to recruit any soldiers with him as an example."
Bishop: "We de-emphasize the non-violent side of his crucifixion and instead emphasize the sacrifice. This is what we tell them. ‘He sacrificed himself for you. He died for your sins. In the same you can sacrifice yourself or your son or husband for the country by going into war."
Constantine: "Sacrifice yourself for your country like Jesus did. That's good."
Bishop: "Jesus also says, ‘Render unto Caesar.' Which means 'Pay your taxes. It is a religious duty."'
C: "Yes that can stay."
Bishop: "That phrase will be emphasized. Pay the Church. Pay the country. Render unto Caesar your children in time of war."
Constantine: "Yes sirree Bob. That teaching will stay. But all this talk of equality and non-violence will have to no."
G: "Or at least we will certainly not talk about it."
Bishop: "With your permission we will connect him up with the Jewish Bible, that is certainly militaristic enough. Patriarchal - rigid - Believe or else the punishment is death."
C: "Yes perfect. The prestige of Jesus connected with the militaristic Jewish Bible, What a brainstorm! Did Jesus talk about the Bible much?"
B: "Not much, but he was Jewish."
C: "What do the Jews think of you co-opting their holy book?"
B: "Not too happy."
G: "They don't want you to corrupt their tradition?"
B: "They don't want to be portrayed as the murderers of their own Messiah, their own savior."
G: "But wasn't their Messiah supposed to a great General, who would lead them to freedom from Roman rule.”
B: "That's the beauty of our merger of Christianity with Judaism. We've neutralized their military Messiah myth with a pacifist philosopher Messiah."
G: "But this Jesus was a long hair radical, almost leading a popular revolt."
B: "No problem, our Public Relations men will turn him into a passive agent of the Establishment. Have no fear. We will have him leading the people into battle against those who oppose us."
G: "No way. The people are too smart for that. This guy who didn't even put up any kind of fight. You are going to have him leading the people into war. I can't believe it."
B: "Our PR men are good. Real good. I can even think of a nice jingle that might work; "Onward Christian soldiers. Onward into war. With the cross of Jesus Leading on before." Pretty catchy, if I do say so myself."
C: "But what about his radical beliefs?"
B: "No problem. People don't join churches because of beliefs. They join churches to associate with people of a like kind, to belong to the greater community. If the rich and powerful dictate, the people will follow regardless of beliefs. Most are slightly ambitious and realize that the way of fulfilling ambitions is to mimic those who have more power than do they. If you say convert to Christianity or else die. Most will convert enthusiastically just to please you. Only the die-hards, get the joke, will oppose you, but just briefly until you give them the opportunity for an early exit to heaven."
Miranda: "What does this Christian digression have to do with Thailand? Are you on drugs or something?"
Don: "I was pointing out that just because Thailand is 95% Buddhist, doesn't mean that they necessarily follow the ideas of the Buddha. Most people join a church for civil reasons rather than religious ones."
Miranda: "What does Constantine have to do with that?"
Don: "That historical recreation was showing that the conversion of the entire Roman Empire to Christianity was hardly voluntary on the part of the citizenry. The idea of the early Christians being thrown to the lions rather than give up their faith, while accurate, does not reflect why the Roman Empire converted to Christianity. There was no mass uprising, which forced the Emperor to convert or else. The citizenry in no way pressured Constantine into converting the Roman Empire to Christianity.
Further this early violent conversion was the real beginning of the Orthodox Christian Church, which then bifurcated into the 'Roman' Catholic Church and the Greek Orthodox Church some 600 to 800 years later around 1000 CE. The Roman Catholic Church then bifurcated into Catholic and Protestant about a half millennium later around 1500 CE. Therefore this violent conversion is at the heart of all the Christian religions, except the Gnostics, who have been persecuted by the Orthodox Christian Church from the beginning, for stressing the radical concepts of knowledge of Jesus' teaching, which included women's rights, rather than faith in the Church, which included Jesus' divinity.
Indeed while many times the Church is considered the mouthpiece of the religion, instead it is a mixture of civil and religious beliefs. The Church is many times the mouth of the State, telling the citizens what is considered appropriate and what not."
Miranda: "Are you losing it or what? Thailand, Thailand, Thailand. Tie it in."
Don: "The point is that the church supports the power structure, as in the example of the Christian church and Roman Empire. Those that want to join the social power structure join the church, for political not for religious reasons. Although 95% of the Thai people are Theravada Buddhist does not mean that the teachings of the Buddha, his beliefs, are at the heart of Thai culture."
Miranda: "Is this a long winded way of saying that Buddhism is just an overlay over traditional Thai culture?"
Don: "Thank you. Yes."
Miranda: "Are you suggesting that the Thai people were forced to adopt Buddhism as a religion by their leaders."
Don: "No. We are suggesting that social pressure encourages people to belong to the religion of a country, independent of belief or image.
Miranda: "What effect does this have?"
Don: "When a culture joins a religion because of social pressure, the underlying belief system remains; this is what we've deemed the civil religion. Their civil religion is more important than the beliefs of their religion's founder. In the case of the west the Christian religions have very little to do with the beliefs of Jesus of Nazareth. In the case of the east the Buddhist religions have very little to do with the beliefs of the Buddha. In both cases the teachings of the religious leader has a spotty and marginal effect upon the citizenry."
Miranda: "What does this have to do with our trip?"
Don: "The underlying beliefs of the Thai was not Buddhist, despite the huge number of Buddhist images everywhere."
Miranda: "So. Mr. Know it all, with your one week in Thailand and a few months exposure to Thai culture, why and how can you make this broad statement about Thai people of whom you've only known a few."
Don: "Spirit houses."
Flashback to an interaction with our guide.
Don: "What are these small structures, about the size of doll houses that we see all around."
Yo: "Spirit houses."
Don: "Spirit house?"
Yo: "The spirit of the house lives there. People will decorate their spirit house to make it more livable for their spirit giving him food, water, and flowers."\
Don: "What happens if they don't appease this spirit?"
Yo: "Many things. The spirit might cause mischief, including bad fortune and accidents. Or he might just leave."
Don: "What's so bad about the departure of the spirit?"
Yo: "The spirit won't be there to protect the house from the other evil spirits living all around."
Don: "So it's necessary to appease the spirit of the house so that he won't cause trouble and so that he will protect you from other spirits."
Don: "Are spirit houses part of Buddhism?"
Yo: "Not at all."
Don: "Who has spirit houses?"
Yo: "Everyone. Be stupid not to ..."
Don: "... have a spirit house."
My Person's wife, named Laurie, was raised non-denominational, i.e. her mother was Episcopalian, a Protestant sect, and her father was Jewish so they decided to raise her as neither. Therefore her civil religion is not cluttered by the trappings of religious beliefs. Her beliefs are like most other Americans with a strong confidence in science and a skepticism towards 'superstition'. No one would accuse Laurie of being a New Ager, believing in crystals, pyramids, and star power. Instead she's a traditionalist, believing in property, motherhood, family, monogamous love, beautiful possessions, music, and her dog Leo. Therefore ghosts, spirits and demons are not a part of her vocabulary. Therefor it was a surprise when …
Laurie: "How much money do you have?"
Laurie: "Who else."
Don: "About 3000 Baht."
Laurie: "How much is that?"
Don: "About 75 dollars."
Laurie: "Well I'm going to need about 2500 of it."
Don: "What for? Now."
Laurie: "A spirit house."
Don: "A spirit house?"
Laurie: "I saw just the one. It is so beautiful. I'm trying to talk the lady down now."
Don: "You need a spirit house?"
Laurie: "Desperately. I knew before I came that I was going to look for one. I've found it."
Don: "Just like the scroll."
Don: "A vision?"
Don: "You knew you needed it before you even knew what they were?"
Laurie: "Precisely. I saw one in that Thai restaurant we used to go to and have always wanted one, ever since.
Don looks doubtful.
Laurie: "You remember the one. Miranda used to be so fascinated with it that you would have to hold her up to it so that she could examine it."
Don: "Are you sure that it will even fit on the plane?"
Laurie: "People transport back stuff like this all the time. Don't worry. I'11 take care of everything."
Don: "Here's all my money. Who cares about retirement? At least we'll have a spirit house to protect us."
Laurie: "It is so beautiful."
So first my Person's wife Laurie buys a Tibetan Buddhist scroll painting, while she knows nothing about Buddhism. Then she buys a Thai spirit house, while she is neither Thai nor a spirit worshipper. Why? These images of Thai culture speak to her Being, separate from her Mind. If her Mind had been in charge, these two objects would have no meaning and would have been rejected. But because her Being is in charge, having cut loose her Mind years ago, she needs to have these images of Thai culture in her home. Independent of her cultural scientific mind, which does not believe in supernatural creatures, her Being wants to honor the spirit of her house with its own place of habitation. Further although her Mind does not believe in any religions, believing they have done more harm than good, she wants the image of this peaceful, quiet guy hanging in her house. The fact that he requires his disciples to abstain from sex, which Laurie enjoys as much as the next, doesn't phase her in the slightest. The only thing that matters is the image and the reflection of an inner intuitive reality in her core being.
In summary we've examined three aspects of a religion, its beliefs, which are written down, the images, which are artistic, symbolic representations, and the cultural, civil, aspect of the religion.
In Thailand the beliefs would be the written documents of Buddhism, the tripitaka. The images would be the temples and the golden Buddhas. The civil religion would include the idea of spirit worship reflected in the image of their spirit houses.
Of the three probably the civil comes first in importance followed by the image¿ and then last of all the ideas. The images of a religion are easier to incorporate into the civil religion than are the ideas. Therefore the images attain a greater significance. Scholars tend to start with the ideas. Studying the Buddhist texts to understand Buddhism in Thailand would give us a one dimensional view; including the images of Buddhism adds a second dimension. This vision would still be sadly lacking because it would not include the civil religion, the underlying cultural beliefs. This is based upon spirit worship reflected in their spirit houses, which is not at all a part of Buddhism. We'll speak of this even more in our next section upon Cambodia.