Spirit houses

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By Tom Holmes

Contributing Reporter / Religion Blogger

Editor's note: In a series of blog posts, OakPark.com spirituality, ethics and religion blogger Tom Holmes recounts his experiences while travelling alone in Thailand towards the end of 2010. For links to all of the blog posts in this series, visit OakPark.com/ThailandTravels

I was writing as fast as I could in my journal as a way of processing the conversations I had with Bruce and Lori during lunch and with Satanun and Karsten at the seminary.  Every few minutes, I’d look up, take a sip of iced coffee, watch the traffic on Thanon Chiang Mai Lamphun and gather myself up for the next burst of writing.

During those short breaks, I noticed several people pausing in front of the big san phra poom (spirit house) outside the coffee shop, making a wai and a small bow, and then continuing on their way.  One in maybe every three people passing by would do this, and every once in awhile, one of them would linger with a prolonged wai, hands together and head bowed, as if they were praying.

Almost everyone in Thailand has one or two spirit houses standing in a corner of their property, inside their home or standing outside their business.  In every town, you’ll see dealers with spirit houses of all colors and sizes standing in rows like cars in an auto dealership parking lot in the States.

When I first came to Thailand, watching people praying in front of a spirit house or in a wat would confuse me.  In college I had taken a course on world religions in which I learned the four noble truths: 1) All life is sorrow and suffering; 2) suffering stems from craving; 3) the end of suffering is achieved by the end of craving; 4) the way to end craving is by following the Eightfold Path of right view, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness and right concentration.

In Buddhism, I had learned, achieving enlightenment and nirvana is all up to the individual.  Gods, if there are any, are irrelevant.  Praying for help instead of detaching from desire is just a sign that you still don’t get it.

So I walk into Wat Phra Kaew in 1994—which is sort of like the national “cathedral,” if you will, for Thai Buddhists—and I see people kneeling and offering hard boiled eggs, lotus blossoms and incense sticks.  It was another of those “the more you see, the less you know” kind of moments.

As usual I went to English speaking observers of Thai culture to help me sort out the puzzles pieces which weren’t fitting together the way I thought they should.  I talked to Thais I knew and all of them told me more or less what Donald Swearer has written in The Buddhist World of Southeast Asia: “All too often a textbook picture of Theravada Buddhism bears little resemblance to the actual practice of Buddhism in Southeast Asia.” (p. 1)

I learned that Buddhism as practiced by your average person in Thailand is a syncretistic blending of Buddhism and animism. . .and probably astrology and a dash of Hinduism.  That’s where the spirit houses fit in.  Contrary to what I read in my college textbook, traditional Thais live in a world full of spirits and powers. 

The spirits, it appears to me, are like neighbors.  If you treat them right, they won’t bother you, and maybe they’ll even help you out in a time of need.  But neglect them, and you might pay a price.  So, every day or two you need to make an offering to the spirit of your place.  I’ve seen everything from the standard incense sticks to orange soda to coconuts to money to cans of beer to bowls of rice placed in front of spirit houses. 

I heard that you have to get to know the particular personality of the spirit of your property in order to know what will keep it happy.  I even heard that one guy figured out that the spirit of his land liked pornography, so from time to time he’d place a Playboy magazine next to its house.

Somehow the marriage of a non-theistic religion like Buddhism and the animistic world view filled with spirits and powers everywhere has functioned fairly well in the Thai cultural ecology for centuries.  Buddhist meditation works for the forces you can’t control, but believing you can influence powers greater than you through prayer and offerings can make you feel you have some control of what you will encounter on a day to day basis. 

Buddhadasa would say that this is all nonsense which deludes people and distracts them from letting go of all attachments.

Swearer puts it this way:

“To be sure, the Theravada Buddhism of Southeast Asia, not unlike other great historic religions, defines ideal goals of moral perfection and ultimate self-transformation, and the means to attain them, but at the same time. . .provides the means by which people cope with day-to-day problems of life as well as a rationale to justify worldly pursuits.”(p. 2)

And, of course, that’s pretty much the way it is back home.  Most of my friends can recite what they were taught in religion classes while growing up, but as adults they have separated out what is doable by human beings from what is possible only for the Mother Theresas and Martin Luther Kings among us.  They edit what they were taught enough to allow them to function in the Monday through Friday world.

They’ll drive an hour or two into Indiana to visit an Amish settlement and think, “Wow, those people really live what they believe!”  Then they return home, tell all their friends what a good experience it was and go on living the way they had before. 

In both the East and the West, Maslow’s hierarchy of needs trumps both the Four Noble Truths and the Sermon on the Mount.  To take all that stuff seriously, the thinking goes, you’d have to become a monk.  The kingdom of God, as it were, doesn’t work in the real world.  Neither does the Eightfold Path.

I have to admit that I’ve always felt a bit of a connection with animists.  I spent a lot of time in nature while growing up and often felt like there was something about nature--Lake Michigan during a storm or a friendly chickadee or the stillness I felt when I was alone in the woods—some “thing” with which I could have a relationship.  When I read that Mohicans would thank the spirit of the deer they had just killed in order to feed their family, I could kind of relate to that reverential way of leaning into life.

Maybe that’s why, by percentage, tribal people are ten times more likely to become Christian than ethnic Thais.  In fact, I heard that 40% of all Christians in Thailand are tribal people even though they comprise only 10% of the population at most.  Animists, perhaps, can relate to the belief in the existence of a spiritual being which humans can communicate with better than a Buddhist who focuses on detachment through meditation.

What I couldn’t resonate to is this understanding that the spirits could harm you.  I grew up with a romantic picture of Native American animism in which the spirits in the trees and animals and streams were all smiling at me kindly as I walked through the woods.  In Thailand, the spirits are capable of messing with you and even harming you if you don’t keep them happy.  That’s why, just a few blocks from Wat Phra Kaew in Bangkok there is a large amulet market where you can buy all kinds of spiritual “Kevlar vests” to protect you from ornery spirits.

So then I got to thinking, “What if Buddhadasa is right?  What if all of this syncretistic modifying of pure Buddhism for the sake of being able to function in the ‘real’ world is a delusion?  What if the ‘real’ world isn’t as real as it advertises itself to be?”

And then, naturally, my thoughts shifted to the Sermon on the Mount.  See the birds in the air, said Jesus.  See the lilies.  God takes care of them.  So why are you anxious about being able to function in the “real” world.  “Seek first the kingdom of God,” he taught his followers, “and all these things will—somehow--be yours as well.”

I shouldn’t have looked up from my writing frenzy, I realized.  Instead of finding some order in the scattered puzzle pieces in front of me, watching people pray at the spirit house added even more pieces to my confusion.

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