Steve Suphan’s blog a few days ago on the Khmer Monk with the spooky knack of picking lottery numbers prompted me to think about the Monk’s motivation. Simply superstitious, spiritually endowed or just a con man. During my travels to the Kingdom over the years I have seen numerous examples of similar behaviour both as an observer and as a participant. Three of these incidents have always stuck in my mind.
In 1992 we were staying in the Isaan village of Ban Phutsa when we were phoned from Australia by a family friend and advised that thieves had broken into our home. My Mate from Australia said not to worry and that he would deal with it, but I was still tempted to return home early. Village family and friends learnt of my potential decision and at dusk of the same day my wife Mali and I were frog marched to a house in the village to have our bad luck dealt with. There a village layman reputed to be endowed with spiritual powers went to work. In his open air kitchen, he chanted, fed us mysterious herbs and on this cold December night he upended a bucket of water on both of us. The whole thing was so ridiculous I could only laugh. The moral of the story – we decided to continue with our holiday and had a fantastic time.
One morning the following year we rode our motorcycles at dawn into the town of Phimai. At the town’s famed Sgnam Banyan tree we came across a Phra Tudong – a wandering ascetic Monk. My sister-in-Law Orrathai who is a devout Buddhist saw it as a propitious moment and literally burst into tears with emotion. We invited the old Monk back to the village which is about 12 kilometres from Phimai. He came back with us to the village and stayed two days. Faithful to his tradition he slept outside beside a clump of bamboo on my father-in-laws property. He was invited into the house many times where villagers would come and present alms. He performed ceremonies which clearly had animist origins but did so in a spiritually calm manner. For me it was a remarkable experience. On the last day the old monk quietly advised that he was leaving. I offered to walk with him up to the main road but with a smiling admonition he waved me back to the house. That was the last time I ever saw him.
About three years later and back in Isaan, word was spreading about the village that another Phra Tudong had taken up temporary residence on the outskirts of the village. I rode out to the monk’s encampment but found in contrast to my previous encounter with a Phra Tudong the smell of Commerce. This Monk was a lot younger and chubbier than the ascetic I met in 1993. His camp included a table and chairs and a modern three-man tent. But what really gob smacked me was that he also had a late model Toyota Utility together with a driver. Beside the camp was an open fire on which sat a bubbling cauldron full of a foul smelling liquid. The Monk dispensed this supposedly “spiritually” endowed soup to several enthusiastic villagers who simultaneously passed over Baht contributions to the monk’s chauffeur. Call me a cynic but the whole scene reminded me of tent show hucksterism.
Looking back at these three incidents, I would have to say that the first was high farce, the second spiritually significant and the third simply buyer beware. The common thread between all three was superstitious practice but the difference was the individual motivation. My main rule of thumb when confronted with superstitious practice in Thailand is to try and determine the motivation. If it comes from the heart, just go with the ride and enjoy the spiritual rewards. If it’s a situation like Phra Commerce above, just walk on and make sure that your wallet is not missing.