Soul and Religion in Thailand.
The question of what is the soul for a culture and a set of people remains a central question for the subject of religious studies and as such the backdrop of Thailand is a glorious place to explore this inquiry into the set of beliefs that hold the cultural unity of the people of this nation. For a country where Theravada Buddhism and animism have a deep hold in the beliefs of the people, the very definition of the word soul can fuel a problematic of whether it would be a question of one of the two concepts associated to the soul, the Kwan or the Winyaan. A bibliographical exploration of the subject was performed and is presented in the first part of this essay. The second part describes an anthropological inquiry in Chiangmai city, of the homonymous province, the biggest city of Northern Thailand, where the subject was explored through conversations with local women. In the third part of this essay the validity of the exploration was contrasted with Western beliefs of the soul and a proposal was given of what the concept of the soul can be understood as. The exploration into the living traditions and practices of the people was a brief journey into the depths of the beliefs of Thai people.
The concept of soul in Thailand is very complex. There seems to be an amalgam of Buddhist explanations and beliefs that merge with animistic and magic beliefs. Anthropologists strive to explain what the concept of the soul can be understood as. At the basis of the investigation is the inquiry of what would constitute a possible translation of the word soul and how it can be understood in Thai, and the realization that in Thai there are two distinct words that describe the soul: Kwan and Winyaan. The Kwan soul emerges at birth and disappears at death whereas the Winyaan is the afterlife soul that will be reborn and in many ways is closer to the concept of the soul as described in the Western World. In Thailand it seems understood that every person has in fact two distinct souls or spirits: the Kwan and the Winyaan even though none of these really refer to the same idea or concept that the word soul itself, as used in the West, refers to. Moreover the belief of the Thai is mixed between the world of the Wat and of Buddhism, and the world of sorcerers and spirit mediums, with Theravada Buddhism offering merits for the afterlife for good actions that determines the karma or gam of the Winyaan, whereas the Kwan, that will disappear at the moment of death is an elusive and fickle spirit that the Ghosts can control. Anthropologist Marlene Guelden (2007) proposes that there is no conflict for Thai people to the world of Theravada Buddhism and the world of Magic and Spirit Beliefs because they find different purposes to each one. “For death rituals and making merits, the Buddhist temple is the place to go. For improving one’s luck and gaining protection, fortune tellers, Brahmin priests, spirit mediums, tattooist and amulet dealers have something to offer.” With these distinctions in mind an exploration of the literature can be performed with a spirit of respect and investigation striving to understand what the Thai people use as the basis of their beliefs (Morris, 1987).
Ethnologist Phya Anuma Rajadhon describes Kwan as a primitive belief that yet has survived as something vaguely understood in a confused way, an unsubstantial “thing” supposed to reside in the physical body of a person. “When it is there the person will enjoy good health and happiness. If it leaves the body the person will be ill or experience some undesirable effects.” Moreover, “when the Kwan is frightened it will take flight into the wilderness and will not come back until it has regained its normal self.” The Kwan is not confined to human beings only. It can be found in animals, or trees, especially large trees, this is why trees are adorned in a skirt through a special consecration ceremony. The Kwan can also be found in animate objects, like the first post in the house which is the most important element of the house, called the Kwan post, or premier post and marks the concept of an axis mundi almost (Eliade, 1957). This is also part of a village, of a city or of a country, with the Lak Mueang in Bangkok marking the grounding of the nation of the Thai people. The Thai word Kwan is closely linked to the Chinese word Khwun, composed of two characters meaning vapor and demon. The Sanskrit word atman, meaning etymologically breath are linked to this and is as such similar to the English word spirit. The Thai words ghwan and fwa meaning dream and smoke respectively are derived of the same source as that of kwan. When the baby is born it has a tender Kwan, or a Kwan awn. When a child suffers a shock and cries sharply and continuously it is believed that the child’s Kwan has taken flight, in such cases it is known in Thai as Kwan Hai, Kwan Nee or Kwan Bin meaning Kwan disappears, flees or runs away respectively (Anuman, 1968). Buddhist monks refer to and perform the Tham Khwan or Riak Khwan ceremony to bring back the Kwan. A person is believed to have 32 Kwans, this belief in the plurality of the souls of a person is to be found particularly amongst the people of the North. The Thai people believe that the Kwan could leave through the head so it is not without resentment that a Thai person would tolerate a person touching their head, and a fight can be anticipated if someone even touches the head of another with their feet. Also this leads to the characteristic topknot of braided hair observed in children (the rest of their hair being shaved at regular intervals) which marks a proper way to keep the Kwan inside the child’s head, most notably in members of the Thai Royal Family. In Chiangmai there is a special ceremony of Tham Kwan, or bringing back the Kwan, called Bai Si. Another notable characteristic is the use of amulets or charms for protection traditionally those are given by the monks to the believers for protection and hold an image of the Buddha, and in some instances in a break from tradition they hold an image of a Phra, or holy man (Anuman, 1968). Amulets, or phra khruang, are small Buddhist images ranging from 2 to 8 centimeters made out of clay or metal and worn on a chain around the neck. They are given as blessings from the monks but can also be found for exorbitant prices in amulet dealers. Almost all Thai people wear an amulet around their neck, be it hidden or visible, sometimes multiple amulets proudly decorating the believer’s neck.
The second soul, the Winyaan, an Indian term that comes from the word vinnana, the Pali word for consciousness, is what the Buddhist monks are concerned about since it is the second soul that survives the death and will be reborn with the karma (Pali Kamma) accumulated in this lifetime. While the Kwan dies for good when the person dies, the winyaan disengages itself from the mortal body and must see Yommabaan the Hindu King of Hell, and this is where Hinduism and Buddhism get mixed. The Winyaan is considered to be a fund of merit and demerit that comprise Karma and according to this is allocated to heaven (sawan) or hell (narog). The soul actions determine where it will go into the path of reincarnation. In Buddhist beliefs there can be no actual permanent soul because human, nature and objects are impermanent. Only nirvana is permanent. Every soul reincarnates multiple times, even the Buddha himself had to reincarnate 500 times. The common belief is that what happens in this life is showing that this life is a manifestation of previous kamma accumulated through past lives. While any soul can become a ghost, the Winyaan of people who die violently or suddenly is more likely to be an angry soul, thus refuse to depart into the next cycle of rebirth. These are the souls appeased through the offerings through the spirit houses that can be seen in every neighborhood if not every house (Guelden, 2007; Cunningham, 1999). It is noteworthy that Thai people for this specific reason would not willingly live in a home where a violent crime has been committed because it could imply that an angry soul is living there.
Thailand, the “land of the Free” as the name implies, holds its first traces of unity when King Phra Ruang, who is said to have had magical powers, ruled in was a fertile land for the spread of Theravada Buddhism. In 1279, the fourth King Rama Kamheang adopted this form of the Buddhism of Ceylon borrowed by the Khmers as the state religion. So this merging that is still prevalent in modern Thailand between magic and Buddhism was born (Charuvast, 1976). On the Northern Borders of Thailand live six hill tribes (Meo / Hmong, Lisu, Karen, Akha, Yao and Lahu) who entered through Laos and Burma and are animists and spirit worshipers who follow purely animistic and spirit worshiping traditions. The Tribal Research Center of the University of Chiangmai researches them and supports their survival, and the government of Taksin instituted the tradition of the Sunday Market in Chiangmai to provide a contact with commerce and tourism, establishing a clear political preference in the Northern Thailand for Taksin himself that they still consider the rightful ruler of the country today. In the area surrounding Chiangmai the peasants have a deep sense of animism that supports a different flavor in their views of the concepts of spirit and their beliefs. The setting for a project that could show the view of the people of the North was then set in Chiangmai and five interviews of lay women were conducted to discuss their views of what the soul is in Thailand. The hilltribe peoples of Northern Thailand are not native to Thailand. They originated further in the North and North West in the highlands of South and Southwestern China, and Tibet. The belief of those people who live mostly as farmers is distinctly animistic displaying elements of ancestor worship and shamanism. This belief in spirits that can interfere with human affairs was very well portrayed in one of the conversations that is in parts discussed below.
It is interesting to note that Thai Society consisted on precise and definable strata in which everyone showed deference to superiors, headed by the king who was considered divine. So in the present day Thais are very anxious to please and extremely reluctant to offend anyone above them in social status, as could be considered for example a doctorate student at a prestigious university (Charuvast, 1976). Face saving, called kreng chai, plays a vital role in social life and is expressed in the way of not wanting to be recorded through an audio device for fear of their English ability. This hindered the emic methodological approach necessary for an impartial anthropological study (Pelto & Pelto, 1970), yet the following account, written as notes from a conversation, is a beautiful account of how Buddhism, spirits, ancestors, and magic all blend together as in the way this woman in Chiangmai provided an explanation of an experience she had.
This is the story of a peasant woman named Naowadee who in a teary account was describing an event that changed the course of her life. The story is interesting and is worth special mention here. This was an account that happened in Naowadee’s life many years prior yet it affected her enough that she was still emotional about it at the time of the interview. She was describing an accident that happened in her car in the mountains. She had left Chiangmai to go to the mountains on some business and she drove with her partner in her old car for this long trip. On the road an unusual event happened: they were stopped by a monk who was feeling sick and asked to get a ride with them to Chiangrai. They would not be going so far but they accepted to accommodate him until a certain point. The monk started asking them strange questions. The monk also offered blessings to them and an amulet. This amulet was given for protection. At one point of the trip in a gas station the monk told Naowadee that she was very lucky. The car was used and the original owner was an angry Chinese lady that he had bargained with for their soul. The monk kept repeating that she was very lucky, to which Naowadee did not pay much attention to except in her later recollection of the events, and then he parted ways with them as they were following different paths. The car was old and could not take the treacherous road through the mountains to Chiangrai, so they left the car with a friend before borrowing his car to go to the mountains. That evening they received a call from the brother of their friend who wanted to borrow the car. Naowadee and her partner gladly agreed. An hour later they received a call from their friend. His brother and his passenger friend had met their fate in an accident with her car. In an account from an interview of the Hmong, Boyes (1997, pp 29-46) describes the practice of name changing as a practice of protecting from bad luck or illness. In her account Naowadee, as a justification for this accident that claimed the life of these two young people, described how another monk two days prior to the accident had advised the driver to change his name, but the young man did not listen to the monk so his life was in fact claimed by the angry spirit. There was an after-death ceremony performed for the local medium, or mophi, where the young man’s spirit successfully communicated with the mophi in Naowadee’s account and explained that the accident happened because an angry spirit came and started fighting with him in the car and he could no longer control the car so they crashed into a tree. Naowadee further explained that in order to appease the spirits she has a spirit house where she gives offerings to every day. This picturesque story is a detailed account on how the Buddhist beliefs and traditions merge in the North with the animistic beliefs and traditions, to the point where it almost becomes impossible to distinguish one from the other. Naowadee identified herself as a Buddhist and she also was adamant about the need to keep a spirit house where she would feed the spirits for her house, her business and her neighborhood.
One interesting note was that none of the subjects interviewed had the ability to express any understanding of Kwan outside the idea that, as described by Anuman, the Kwan will jump out of the body. In the express question whether there was a difference between Winyaan and Kwan all subjects agreed that there was a difference. Interestingly enough in follow up question of what is the one all subjects, gave a uniform response that the Kwan was the thing that would jump out of the body in case of an accident except Naowadee who said she cannot explain to me what the Kwan is. Even more interestingly another subject, a housewife named Ning, described an account of how once she had an accident where she was not hurt yet afterwards her mother contracted a monk to perform a Bai Si ceremony that would collect the piece of her soul that had broken out of her body. In an incomplete account of the Bai Si ceremony performed she mentioned the seven cones made of banana leaves and decorated with flowers. In the follow up question of whether that had made a difference she candidly admitted that she had left no difference after the accident and certainly not after the ceremony was completed. This account seemed to support the idea that the traditions are maintained and perpetuated though the women and that possibly the younger generation of Thai women might not be as engaged in those traditions. This is interesting to observe as a possible effect of globalization.
It seems then that what clearly differentiates the Thai concept of the soul with the Western concept of the soul is that there are two layers in Thai belief: the inner and the outer layer. The outer layer is the layer of the ceremony, where folk belief is used mostly to repel and appease the bad spirits and stems from a sense of fear of the people. This outer layer is displayed widely and is the first one encountered. There is however an inner layer that involves the Buddhist teachings in terms of the rise of the awareness of the consciousness. Through the practice of meditation, that in Thailand appears to be widely practiced (SD), this inner layer is approached. An explanation of the teachings of meditation was given through a second round of interviews to understand the idea and process investigating Buddhist practices and beliefs. A youth named Sawatt, explained that by observing the breath one is asked to be aware of each of the five receiver, namely the eyes, the ears, the nose, the tongue and the body through the sense of touch. All the information from the five receivers will be processed through the mind, Jai, and that is where the desire arises, which leads to the rise of emotions. These emotions can be categorized as either positive or negative. The good emotions come from meritorious actions and as for example joy arises is gets recorded in the mind and is later used as an anchor. The bad emotions give rise to the bad feelings and the bad emotions arise: anger (krot), fear (kwua), lust (ra-kha) and anxiety (kwam gkangwon). The accumulation of these resulting feelings is what determines the karma or kamma at the time of death, thus the state of consciousness at that time, and by extension the fate of the Winyaan in the next reincarnation. If one is in a state of peace they are sure to be reborn in a meritorious life or as an angel (the-wa-da), or as a human being in a meritorious life. If one lacks awareness at the time of death then the winyaan will be transported into hell or a non-meritorious life.
The soul that anthropologist Frazier described as “the man inside the man” (Frazier, 1922) is the physical body’s spiritual counterpart. In the West it is generally conceived to be non-material and essentially immortal, and as existing before the body was formed. This idea contrasts with the idea of the Winyaan that travels through reincarnations and of the Kwan that is brought into existence at the moment of intercourse when the man’s sperm meets the woman’s ovary, as described by the Buddhist monks. The Kwan holds inside it the will power or Gam Lang Jai (words signifying power, heart, and mind) and holds its distinct existence in this life only. The idea of the soul as differentiated from the body was introduced to the West through Plato. The idea of the consciousness was thus defined as the organization of the man’s psyche (ψυχή) “allowing him to have knowledge of his statements, actions and their moral value”. The concept of the Winyaan, that could be as such understood here as consciousness, is contrasting with this idea because it is understood to be the vehicle that carries the kamma of the person through the afterlife to the next reincarnation. This is reminiscent of Plato in Phaedo “the one aim of those who practice philosophy in the proper manner is to practice for dying and death”, where he defines death as a separation of the body and soul similar to the idea of the Kwan leaving the body at death, yet the Winyaan remains, similar to the soul remaining.
There is always a confusion of the definition of what Buddhism is and how it relates to supernatural phenomena as described in this paper. The ceremonies of Bai Si, the mophi ceremonies, the spirit houses, kwan ceremonies, even the practice of name changing as suggested by monks, are outside of the core teachings of Buddhism. Buddhism takes an insightful look at what happens in the mind as we receive information through the senses. In essence the teachings of the Buddha are meant to help cultivate consciousness (sa-ti) in order for the mind to be peaceful and free of desires at the time of transition, with the ultimate goal for the Thai Buddhist to achieve enlightment. To describe the connection between the soul and the religious beliefs it is important to refer to the core of Buddhism as explained earlier. The Thai people live in this world of separation and extremes and so it is confusing for them to clearly define what their soul is, let alone to really know how they are really supposed to live their lives.
In conclusion this project was an exploration into the depths of the perception as it relates to the concept of the soul. The idea of the soul in Thailand is very open to interpretation, especially since neither of the concepts of the Kwan or the Winyaan really can determine it completely. The anthropological investigation in Chiangmai clearly defined this question since the notion of soul does not seem to enter clearly into Thai folk beliefs and understanding. Theravada Buddhism simply has distinct teachings. The second round of interviews allowed a perspective into the outer and inner layers of belief that mark the depth of Thai perception. And whereas clearly the concept of the soul is not well defined in what concerns Thai culture and beliefs, it was nonetheless a worthy exercise to explore Thai practices.
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Kellis, Maria - final project for “Methodologies in Religious studies” survey data. (SD)
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