This an academic book on Thai Buddhism, but one with a quite a new and creative approach. Justin Thomas McDaniel starts with the popular folk story of Mae Nak and Somdet To. Mae Nak and her husband were separated when he was called away to fight in Burma. Mae Nak died in childbirth, but he returns to be greeted by a loving wife and happy child. Several people try to warn him that his wife is a ghost, but all those who do are soon ripped apart by the ghost. Eventually Somdet To, a monk known for his magical powers, exorcises Mae Nak. Despite her murderous deeds, she is something of a folk hero for her loving devotion to her husband and a funeral is conducted for her every month at. Little is known about Somdet To, which makes his popularity amongst modern Thai Buddhist all the more interesting. McDaniel suggests that Somdet To becomes whatever people want him to be – nationalist icon, exemplar of the Thai virtue of abundance – hence his popularity. The story is set over one-hundred years ago in suburban Bangkok but the two feature heavily in modern Thai popular culture. They can be seen in advertisements, popular posters and car stickers (for protection from accidents) and several film versions have been made of their story (including one in 3D).
The story of Somdet To and Mae Nak – the Magical monk and the Lovelorn ghost – is used as a springboard for all the diversity of beliefs that modern Thai Buddhism encompasses. We learn something of the detailed science of amulet making. Highly-elaborate texts have been produced on how to use certain ingredients – flower petals, discarded robes, torn pieces of manuscripts, lemongrass taken from around the boundary stones of monasteries, oil made from burning the skin from corpses – to make sacred powder that can be pressed into making an amulet with a particular effect for the wearer. These are perhaps more popular today than they’ve ever been, with the price of some amulets reaching into the millions of dollars. A doctor in Bangkok has created a chair designed to blast chanting into patient’s heads, which he believes can cure virtually any kind of ailment. A wax resin statue of Somdet To holds a holy string that imbues a nearby pool of water it is connected to with sacred powers. One temple generates income from devotees to the corpse of a child that was washed up from the ground because of flooding.
The key point is that there is a tendency in scholarship and also Thai opinion to differentiate ‘real’ Buddhism, which is rational, promotes vipassana meditation and, often to a large extent, is frozen in a pastoral utopian idea of the past that has been ravaged by the effects of commercialism and elite political manipulation. This is opposed to the Buddhism of magical amulets, temple fairs and so on. McDaniel’s says that to split these two Buddhisms apart is to to get a warped, inherently-biased take on the situation. It might well be, he argues, that amulets and deification of famous monks have inspired people more over the years than Buddhist texts. Such a plurality of belief has certainly enabled Thai Buddhism to be more flexible in the face of the rapid changes Thai society has gone through in the last century. For McDaniel, the casual conversations of people browsing, trading, forming friends at a temple market is just as valuable – if not more valuable – for understanding modern Thai Buddhism as is a classical Pali text.
This is an impressively original study and demonstrates an all-to-rare impressive level of familiarity of both ancient texts and the quirks of modern day popular culture. McDaniel moves with ease through both realms, demonstrating their interdependence and essential equality. A very mind-opening read for those, such as myself, who have tended to over-emphasize the distinction between the profane and sacred, rational and superstitious, commercial and real in their approach to Thai Buddhism.