THE LOVELORN GHOST & THE MAGICAL MONK
Practicing Buddhism in Modern Thailand
By Justin Thomas McDaniel
The immense spirit of devotion that runs through the place will have struck anyone who has visited Thailand. Taxi drivers have mobile shrines – often very crowded ones – on their dashboards, and tuk tuk drivers will lift both hands and salute an important holy place as they are speeding past it. Thailand is, officially and passionately, a Buddhist nation, but Justin Thomas McDaniel’s fascinating and thoroughly original book shows that this Buddhism is not the pure and rational religion so esteemed by Western writers. It is, instead, a much more complicated and nuanced lived practice that incorporates ideas of magic, animism and shamanism, and which features a slew of spiritual influences that aren’t so easily identified by purists as “Buddhist.”
“The Lovelorn Ghost” of the book’s title is the mythic Thai demon called Mae Nak, a beautiful ghost who tricked a living man into marrying her. This story is one of the most well-known folktales in Thai culture and has been made into a film countless times – indeed, I just saw a new 3D version at a cinema in Phnom Penh which had teenagers screaming each time the ghostly heroine murdered another person who would betray her. McDaniel investigates this tale thoroughly, including the peculiar cult that has developed around it, and the popular Bangkok shrine to her which attracts a huge following of soldiers and their families. A celebrity Buddhist monk of the nineteenth century called Somdet To eventually defeated the wicked Nak.
Despite being dead for a hundred years, Somdet To remains the most beloved Buddhist figure in Thailand, and his image is cast on amulets that people wear around their necks, and more and more statues are being erected in his honour around the country. Somdet To, himself a prolific creator of magically imbued amulets, promulgated a specific religious practice of the chanting of an obscure mantra called the Jinapanjara Gatha. This short verse is almost entirely unknown outside of Thailand, and legend has it that Somdet To wrote most of it himself, creating a specifically Thai magical text that grows in popularity from year to year. McDaniel writes about clubs devoted to the chanting of the mantra and of modern medical clinics that pipe the sounds of the mantra through their in-house sound systems.
McDaniel makes the fascinating claim that, far from homogenising in the face of globalism, Thai Buddhism becomes increasingly local and concerned with questions of race, nationalism and identity. It becomes more and more a privatised expression of religious feeling and mystical conviction, and people create a self-organised theology that uses the image and memory of famous monks, but doesn’t necessarily revere them for the purity of their Buddhist ideas. Instead, a canon of saints is being created that is as likely to incorporate members of the Thai royal family and Hindu deities as it is traditionally recognisable Buddhist religious figures.
The Lovelorn Ghost and the Magical Monk is an academic book, and McDaniel is, in my opinion, one of the most brilliant and savvy scholars of religion I have ever encountered. He realises that religion is not about the pure textual study so beloved of Western academics and the popular exponents of Buddhism in the English language.
He does not see a world in which “pure” (i.e. text and meditation based) Buddhism can be separated from the “corrupted” forms of its popular practice. He sees in the eccentric collections of statues, sacred pictures, amulets and rosaries that make up any Buddhist home, a clear and sincere articulation of religious understanding, though one that might make Western converts uncomfortable, or even scornful. What is being expressed is not “religious materialism” but instead, as he writes:
“Aspirations are interconnected with objects. Beliefs are articulated through objects. Objects are not empty signifiers onto which meaning is placed. The fan base and the objects, the collectors and their stuff, are overlooked in the study of religion…”
He is an accessible writer and an enormously entertaining storyteller, an ex-monk who is fluent in Thai and has spent a lifetime in Thailand observing and participating in the things he writes about. There is nothing of the execrable academic “style” about this book, and it would be a thoroughly satisfying read for anyone interested in Thailand, in Buddhism or in the South East Asian traditions of shamanism and animism. It is scholarship of the most provocative kind, and you will come away from it with many of your preconceptions shattered.
– Reviewed by Walter Mason in New Dawn 133