I was watching Ong Bak on dvd the other day (it only recently come out on dvd in the UK) and after watching the movie, I watched the behind the scenes stuff that you get with the dvd. In one segment, Tony Jaa was about to do a stunt. He was standing on a platform about three stories high, he looked straight ahead, put his hands together and bowed his head before doing multiple flips down to a lower platform and then another.
I was very touched seeing Jaa wai before he did the stunt. It reminded me of a lesson I had with my Thai music teacher many years ago. I was learning Thai classical music and my mother had arranged for me to have private lessons one summer to learn a very well known, but difficult and long, piece. On my first one-to-one lesson my teacher spent a long time telling me about how music is traditionally taught in Thailand. He told me about his old music teachers and what he gained from his relationships with them. He told me that everytime before I perform, I should put my hands together and pay respect to all of the teachers that came before him who have played a part in passing their art down to me. It was a very deep and spiritual lesson. Compare this to my first clarinet lesson which started with, “put the reed up against your bottom lip, rest your top teeth in the instrument and blow!” Of course, I don’t know if Tony Jaa was paying respect to his teachers or if he was praying please don’t let me fall and break my neck, but in any case I felt it nice to see such an endearing, and very Thai, ritual on screen.
Rituals are very common in Thai culture. Of course, like many cultures, Thai people have rituals to remember and honor their ancestors. But Thais have many other rituals, like building a spirit house and making offerings to appease the spirit that occupied the land where the home is built. I saw one ritual that I will never forget in 1995, when there was an eclipse in Thailand. Thai superstition, which I think comes from a hindu myth, says that eclipses are omens of evil. In order to ward off evil, my aunt and uncle prepared a table of eight black offerings (such as a black chicken, coffee, black rice…) and we burned black joss sticks. My aunt and uncle didn’t actually know how to perform the ritual; either they never saw an eclipse or they couldn’t remember. They had to read the instructions out of a newspaper on how to conduct the ritual.
In the west, a lot of people are sceptical of rituals and superstitions. My philosophy is that it doesn’t hurt to try and there’s a possibility that it might actually work, so I may as well try it. But also, I see things this way…there are a lot of forces beyond my control that have contributed to my current situation; they may be human, spiritual, or natural. As an American raised Thai, I do not understand all of the Thai rituals and the reasons behind them but they at least remind me that nothing should ever be taken for granted.