I was strolling along the street of Fukuoka feeling quite bored. I think it may be because I really enjoy visitting shrines and temples in Japan, and I have just finished a week-full of them in Kyoto before coming to Fukuoka. Hence, the relatively more vibrant and urbanized atmosphere of Fukuoka really left me a bit dry inside. Yet, the boredom actually is not too bad afterall, I was left minding my own thoughts and one very interesting question popped up in my mind:
Why am I feel super excited about purchasing charms at shrines and temples in Japan, but frowning at the paying for anything at Bhuddhist temples in Thailand?
It is quite fascinating for me to have this question (or may be I am quite dumb) because I have always thought of myself as someone who is quite liberal and really don’t give much “shit” about what religions are doing. However, deep down inside, I think there is still a root of conservatist and purist in me.
Thailand is the land of Hinayana Bhuddhism, a completely different form of Bhuddhism from those in Japan or China, which is Mahayana. Hinayana Bhuddhism encourages a strict adherence to the rules and codes of conducts of both the monks and followers. From observing the practices myself, the more renown Thai monks are also known to be more of deep-state meditator - as in sit and meditate in silence - rather than other form of meditative activities. Having been ordained as a “apprentice monk” myself, I have also been taught that we are forbidden from touching and handling money directly (though can receive an envelope and not open it - /me smirking inside) as money is seen as a source of sin (greed).
However, commercialism and Bhuddhism in Thailand has been a hot topic for quite a while now. Flood of Chinese tourists (and many other nationalities of Asian tourists actually) come to Thailand to purchase charms, Bhuddha statute, Bhuddha amulet, and even tattoos from temples and monks. A lot of these purchases are frowned upon by conservative and purist Thais along with many others with interests in politics. Let me separate the two groups.
The conservatives and purists believe that monks and temples should be a dedicated space for Bhuddhism practices, such as prayer and meditation, and NOT the sales of supersitious goods, which are not in-line with Hinayana Bhuddhism teachings (or at least Thai version of such).
Those with interests in politics and economics would also say that the government tax politices give unfair advantage to the companies that are temples. The Bhuddhist temples in Thailand actually make more money and majority of SMEs from donations and sales of religious goods. The act of donation is further promoted through tax deductability from the Revenue Department. Hence, a lot of non-religious groups are proponant of taxing temples in Thailand - especially since they are, not unlike typical companies, “sell” goods (though in Thai, we use other vocabs for the act of purchase - deeming the word “purhcase” unfit for such holy items).
I don’t disagree with the second proponant for taxing the temples actually. However, I’m a bit perplexed by my own feeling toward the my inner feeling, which is quite close to the conservatives and purists - when I would feel myself as not one of them. Why?
I think this have to go back to my upbringings and education. Bhuddhism in Thailand perceived as “holy and pure” by people of my parents’ generation. It is perceived as such to the point that even my sister, who is not even Bhuddhist, would at times make comment along the same line unconsciously. The view is passed down through culture and education system to herald anything related to Bhuddhism in the similar way - monks and temples, of course, included. Now, the view of commercialism is the complete opposite. The Thai media and general view of my parents’ generation is that money and grandoise are sins - hence, commercialization is not viewed as something very “clean”. Hence, when you bring the two - Bhuddhism and commercials - together, these are frowned upon. Additionally, because the belief was passed down through culture and education in our primitive age, it is quite hard to “shake off” despite the change of mindset through better understanding of the world - myself included.
In Japan, almost every famous temple (and shrine - which is not the really relevant here because Shrine is for Shinto) has charms and service counters where you can purchase and pay for special services. Everything is fairly commercialized here. During my recent trip, I would just swing by the counter and buy some charms either for myself or my friends as souvenirs. I think this is true for a lot of Thai people as well. The special part is that I don’t feel any negativity about it.
The main reason for me feeling that way is probably attributed to a few things. First, there is a different frame of reference. When I’m in Thailand, I am unconsciously (or consciously for that matter) influenced by the teaching of the polarity between the holy religion and the evil sin of greed. However, I don’t really carry that coming to Japan. Plus, I have also been taught that Japanese Buddhism is somewhat inferior to that of Thailand (“Hinayana is more true than Mahayana”). Another reason is the degree of transparency, sales and services in temples in Thailand are not out in the open in many circumstances. Hence, the perception is quite negative when things are being done in secret versus the vice versa - unless you are in the anarchy era, then that’s a different story.
I have found this topic very interesting. Now, I’m wondering how this would apply to my home country vs other countries as well. Japan is closer to my heart as my favorite destination for leisure, but it is also qutie developed. How would this apply to countries with similar stage of development to Thailand? That would be an interesting debate.