The Thai Character : Religio-Psychical Orientation


5. Religio-Psychical Orientation

Theravada Buddhism, as the religion of the country, professed by 95% of the total population, undoubtedly has directly or indirectly exerted a strong influence on the people's everyday life. However to see how much such influence is actually perceived and functioning in the everyday life of the Thai people and thus differentiating them from other cultural group, might not be simple and needs closer scrutiny.

Komin's findings of value priority show that the value for Religious and Spiritual life has secured a very high and important place in the cognition of Thai people in general. There is no doubt that Buddhism has a conscious significant role in the everyday life of the Thai. The attitudinal data of 1981 show that most Thai (93.6%) perceived religion as important and having influence in their life, with more intense religious influence found in the rural Thai than Bangkokians, and more with the less educated than the highly educated, the poorer than the richer, and so on. It is very interesting to note here that the Thai-Muslims are clearly differentiated from the Thai-Buddhists for their extremely high value of religion.

With regards to religious activities, likewise, the Thai are constantly engaged in merit-making, and numerous other religious ceremonies. These activities are religious rituals. And as a Buddhist country, there are such activities to perform all year round, at home, at work, and in the community. Such occasions like, merit-makings on one's birthday, a new house, new company, new building, celebrations of anniversaries, etc., not to mention those of festivals, customs, and religious days. It is no wonder that the Komin's national samples showed high rate of these ritual religious behaviors and ceremony participation.

However, to which extent these religious attitudes and activities of Buddhist rites and customs reflect the depth and functions of Buddhism is another matter.

5.1. Psychological Function of Some Religious Concepts

The essence of Buddhism characterizes the truth of the phenomenal world of everyday life experiences - that everyday world is caught up in desires and thirst or Kilet, which inevitably produces karmic responses, leading to a cycle of rebirths. And the Buddhist doctrinal religious goal is to escape from the clutches of karma and the cycle of rebirths (Samsara), by separating oneself from the world of illusions, and thereby gaining wisdom and insight into the karmically conditioned world, underlying the phenomenal world; and ultimately reach nirvana.

Ideally, all Buddhists more or less believe in this doctrine. However, the more important question is to what extent this ideal teaching of Buddhism is actually taken and interpreted in everyday life experiences, and under what conditions those religious concepts are mostly used. Knowing so will surely contribute to a better understanding of the Thai social behavior.

While the Thai are seemingly overwhelmed by the perceived influence of Buddhism in their life, most of them have little deep knowledge about it. In general, the Thai do not make conscious effort to reach nirvana, nor do they fully and succinctly believe in it. It is not in the cognition of the general Thai to think of reaching the ultimate state of enlightenment. In fact, Bunnag, in her careful analysis of the social matrices of Thai Buddhism, has drawn attention to the striking fact that none of the Thai monks whom she interviewed "appeared to consider Nirvana a relevant goal for which to strive."

A Thai would not be too surprised with the finding, because it is an everyday life reality. However, in spite of such irrelevance of these two "other-worldly" doctrines, Buddhism is still perceived as important at all times.

Among all "other-worldly" doctrines, the doctrine of karma is the most functional one - in the sense that it always finds its place in everyday life interaction. In reality, the concept of karma has almost always been used in "after-event" description or attributions, with the differentiation between "good karma" (Bun wassana) and the "bad karma" usually referred to as Kam. The Thai generally believe in the unequal Bun wassana of each person. Each person is born with unequal results of predestined goodness (good karma). The Thai always use this concept in situations to attribute to someone else's success, fortune, high status, promotion, or having good family, good children, and so on. It is used to refer to self only as a conversational ploy to humbly refuse any suggestion for higher status or anything associated with success or promotion, etc. And it is always used in a negative form, like "I don't have the Bun wassana for...". In cases when it is used to truly reflect one's feeling, it indicates psychological acceptance of one's failure and other's achievement, attributing the cause of one's failure and the cause of other's achievement to something beyond one's ability. Thus, it helps to reduce tremendous psychological pressures on one's inability to measure up to one's achievement goals.

With regards to the concept of Kam (bad karma), it is found that the Thai usually use this concept in situations associated with negative events, bad fortunes, tragedies, disfavor, injustice, etc., that happened to oneself or others. Whether or not one is responsible for the mishaps that occurred to oneself, the cause of the mishaps or failure is attributed to one's Kam. Illustration of this is the common phrase: "It is my Kam to ... (have such and such consequence)", which is often said in a tone of accepting the state of being without ability to change one's lot. The belief of the "bad karma catching up with you" as in the phrase Kam taam sanong is evident. It is usually used to refer to the situation when misfortune happened to somebody who has been known to have had done something bad in the past. It is used for self only as a caution not to do anything bad, particularly to others, because the Kam will catch up.
The range of situations to which karma is used to attribute is widespread, covering all kinds of behavioral consequences, including those of one's own doing. In case of those who consciously know the results of their own doings, the use of this scapegoat concept psychologically helps to rid them of their conscience. The more one uses this concept, particularly when consequences of wrong doing is involved, the more one's sense of right and wrong is blurred. Thus, it explains the meaning of such often heard phrases, like "Kam jing jing thii thook jab" - meaning "It's my Kam (or my predestined bad luck) to be arrested". It is not his wrongdoing that should be blamed, but rather the bad luck of the situation that he is caught that is to be blamed. Indeed these religious notions have tremendous psychological functions. More often than not, they are "after-action" rationalization or justification. They serve psychologically as a defense mechanism for a whole range of negative experiences.

5.2. Superstitious Beliefs and Behaviour

Layman Buddhists in general do not have in-depth knowledge about Buddhism, but they have enough general concepts to make use of them to serve one's psychological equilibrium. In practice, they believe in spirits, in astrology, and practice a variety of magical, superstitious behaviors. Irrespective of group differences, this belief in supernatural power is a dominant characteristic of the Thai. Manifestations of supernatural belief are prevalent in everyday life, through belief in spirits, in predestinated Duang (one's personal astrological star), in fortune-telling, in Bon barn sarn klaw (making wishes and vows to the spirits), and in black magic and Sadoa Khroa (supernatural rituals to stop bad fortune), etc.

The influence of superstitious beliefs is so deep to the extent that even Western educated Ph.D. scientists would refuse to fathom the scientific and religious conflicts, and would never forget to wear their charms and amulets when traveling, for instance.

Apparently, superstitious beliefs and behaviors in various forms are self illustrative of the Thai belief-behavioral systems. As a check of some superstitious beliefs and practices, the results of Komin's Thai Value Studies revealed that for certain superstitious behaviors like Doo mo doo (fortune-telling) and Phook duang (having one's personal star read by fortune-teller), and Bon baan saan klaw (making vows to spirits), the urban Bangkokians engaged in such behaviors more often than the rural people; the educated Thai more than the uneducated; the Government officials of various levels as well as the hawkers did more than the farmers, laborers, etc.

6. Education and Competence Orientation

Full unedited text (includes footnotes and references)
Secondary Source :   S. KOMIN, Psychology of the Thai People: Values and Behavioral Patterns. Bangkok, Research Center, National Institute of Development Administration.