Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Challenge for Christian missionary in the Thai spiritual milieu

There are three anecdotes that reveal quite a bit about religious beliefs and habits held by Thai people. The first anecdote was told to me by a priest in Bangkok. In front of a church located in a busy district of Bangkok, there is a motorbike taxi “station”. Here men, clad in orange jackets wait for passengers needing to go to the Sky Train station or other places in the city. Just inside the gate is a small shrine to Our Lady where there are always flowers which have been offered by the people. According to parish priest at the church, that shrine was not always there. Before it was built, when walking by that corner of the church ground, one was often attacked by a foul odor that one was quite certain caused by men working all day on the side of the street without a public restroom nearby. However, ever since the shrine was placed there, the foul odor has disappeared, and one often saw these same men “wai”(1) in front of the statue of Our Lady as they begin their day of work, praying for a good earning. For these Buddhist men, the fact that they wai to Our Lady wasn’t because they knew who she was or what she stood for; they only hoped that whoever she was, she would help them.

The second anecdote also relates to the act of praying in front of statues. In Thailand, all businesses big and small, have shrines to either the Buddha or various gods. Central World, one of Bangkok’s upscale shopping centers, have ornate shrines placed side by side on the wide plaza in the front dedicated to both the Buddha and a Hindu god. From morning to late night, the shrines are encapped in smoke as people of all ages come to make offerings and earnestly pray for the things that they need in life. It would not be odd to see the same person praying before the Buddha one day, then before the Hindu god the next. By the Erawan hotel not far away, one such shrine is a tourist destination where people make offering requests at a business table. When it is their turn, they kneel below a tent, pressing their palms together in deep prayer, while behind them, a troup of traditional Thai dancers perform and chant.

The third anecdote takes us from Thailand’s bustling capital to one of the villages in Nong Khai province in the northeast region, where recently, villagers discovered a strange plant growing up from the soil. They haven’t seen this plant before, but its peculiar features led them to believe that the plant may have special power. Villagers thus began bringing incense and flowers to place around the plant, praying for various needs. Some prayed for luck in winning the lottery.

According to a count in 2004, in Thailand, there are 40,717 Buddhist temples. The country population is almost 65 million. Most Thai identify themselves as Buddhists, including the villagers who bring incense and candles to offer to the strange flower and the motorbike taxi men who prostrate before the statue of Our Lady.

What one observes in Thai people’s spirituality is the eclectic nature in their beliefs that incorporate elements of Buddhism, Brahmanism, and animism into a complex system that is nearly impossible to say it is either this or that. While Western mentality and religions tend to make clear distinctions as to what one must renounce when one chooses to believe in certain things, Thai people seem to think that they can believe in anything as long as whatever it is that they believe in suits their needs and they have true faith to that thing. Recently, I met a woman who was well educated in the Buddhist religion and rituals, but she has also chosen to follow and learn from a Catholic priest because she is impressed with what Catholicism teaches her. She describes her religion as “Buddolic,” so to speak. My barber told me the Buddha would never forbid you from prostrating before a plant if you believed it was holy.

This fluidity in Thai people’s spirituality has made them welcoming of Christian missionaries in their midst, but presents extreme challenges to the missionaries who find themselves unable to grasp the seemingly arbitrary and noncommittal attitudes of the Thai people to specific tenets of the particular religion in which they profess to follow. Despite the huge numbers of temples built, many on vast grounds, the temples stand mostly quiet throughout the year. Thai people seldom go to temple except on some special occasions. Temples seem to be most crowded when there are annual feasts organized with food and free music concerts.

As a result, many Thai Catholics who live among the mostly Buddhist population, influenced by their outlook, also adopt an attitude in which they see going to church as not an essential part of their spiritual life. This problem is further exasperated in a place such as Nong Bua Lamphu province, where the only Catholic church in the entire region has been open a mere 6 years, whereas Catholics have been present in the area for decades.

Thai Buddhists, while not placing heavy value on going to temples, do place a lot of value on the act of merit making (tham bun). Thai people are often seen lining up the streets in the morning to provide food to monks passing by. Others go to the temple to offer food and other material things to the monks, especially on their birthdays or death anniversaries of loved ones. The support for construction and maintenance of temples is one of the primary methods of gaining merit for Thai people. It may be said that merit making is the pillar of Thai people’s practical religious observance and the act that they are most strongly committed to. The act of giving alms to the monk to make merit for oneself or for loved ones, especially the deceased, has become so ingrained in the Thai spiritual observance that it often becomes the thing that prevents them from following other religions that forbid such an act.

In many ways the Buddhist practice of merit making has influenced the thinking of Catholics and have shaped their spiritual outlook, both negatively and positively. Like Thai Buddhists, many Catholics place the act of merit making above regular church attendance. At my church, some families are never seen at the church except on tham bun occasions, particularly death anniversaries. Well-off families may present all sorts of goods on that day and help fill up the church from wall to wall. But the following week, none of them are seen in church again until the following death anniversary occasion. Many non-church going Catholics are also very willing to donate to the church when asked, such as donating flowers or contribute to church programs and feasts. This reality makes one wonder whether Catholics, like Buddhists, also depend primarily on their good works to get to heaven. Nonetheless, it can also be very heart warming to see Thai villagers in the offertory procession, lining up to present father with small fruits of their labor – a basket of bananas, a bag of rice, or other things that they have bought.

Thai Buddhism is unlike Buddhism anywhere else in the world. The Thai worldview is rather fluid and some might even say, arbitrary. In this milieu, it is hardly surprising to see that although welcomed, Christian missionaries find it difficult to attract Thai people to follow a religion that can be very strict and uncompromising in certain beliefs and practices, and does not accept one believing in multiple traditions simultaneously. This dilemma is illustrated rather well by small but telling problem for some Catholics who are taught that they cannot give alms to Buddhist monks. This has led some good-hearted Thai Christians to ask the parish priest, “Father, is it a sin to do merit?”


  1. You gave me great insight to a question that a student from America was supposed to find out concerning missionary work in Asia as part of his project. I will share this blog but particularly this article with the boy. Thanks Father!

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