Friday, 30 May 2008
At The Fringes of Belief
I have great respect for the positive influence of Buddhism in Thailand.
Buddhism is a fine personal philosophy and the temple in our village in Isaan along with the school is an institution of huge importance in holding together an agricultural community under considerable strain.
In the modern world Buddhism is much threatened by an opposing religion, namely materialism, and it often falls short of the ideal. Its focus for example on building more and gaudier temples is contrary to the essence of a simple and ascetic religion and elaborate rituals seem to supplant its true spiritual core.
Nonetheless many young men still see it as an important part of their lives to become a monk even for a short period and this rite of passage is often observed in the villages. Recently a cousin of Cat’s became a monk along with many others and it really was a good party!
We went along to the house and watched as his thick black hair was shaven off to much laughter. Then we all went to the temple and processed around it and of course there was loud music, food and drink for the rest for the day. All was sanuk as it usually is!
Buddhism has always had to coexist with older beliefs such as animism and spirit worship and, in the absence of the jealous god of the mono-theistic religions, it tolerates them remarkably well. The result is a tangle of rituals and practices where the elements of the different beliefs become intermingled and indistinguishable. The monks regularly participate in ceremonies that are far more animist in content than they are Buddhist.
At the fringes of belief the monks thus bless amulets for sale at high prices, provide lucky numbers for the lottery and take part in the ancient rites of blessing a new house or car. Very worldly they sometimes seem.
And people often turn to the monks when they fall sick.
Cat’s Mama suffers from a painfully stiff knee. She’s had it examined at a hospital in Bangkok who say nothing can be done but when conventional medicine fails, like everyone else, she’ll try the alternatives. She’s recently been told of a temple not far away where there’s a monk who has special powers of healing and sells strong medicines and she’s asked us to take her there. The visit proved very interesting.
We drove for an hour or so and when we got there it wasn’t like approaching a traditional Buddhist temple at all. The place was more like a shanty town with a few permanent buildings surrounded by shacks of corrugated iron and cardboard. Literally hundreds of elderly people were lying around on the ground under tarpaulins being fanned by their relatives in the oppressive heat. These were the sick and dying who’d come to seek out the famous monk for a last chance cure.
There were old people bent double on sticks with terrible disfigurements and skin diseases, deranged old folk jabbering wildly and the aged struggling in the throes of death. It was like a medieval picture of hell.
Just as we arrived, there was a big commotion, everyone running round and shouting, their attention focused on a big pond. Someone had just tried to drown themselves.
After they’d all calmed down and dispersed, I walked over to the pond. I think they’d been bathing because spread around on the banks were clothes and sarongs strewn around in abandon , the tattered residue of desperate humanity. This must be how it looks at the scene of a genocide.
I’m not sure how you define poverty but the condition I saw people in that day looked as desperate as it gets. To be old and sick and to come here as a last resort exemplified poverty for me as strongly as I’ve ever seen it, whether in Africa, India or elsewhere.
Yet for these people the monk and his temple represented hope and so some benefit must come of it. In the West we have access to modern medicine but we now also accept the importance of alternative, holistic and herbal medicines. This was what seemed to be on offer at the temple.
I watch as a group of evidently sick people sit in a group in the blazing sun close by the monk’s verandah. At last he comes out and chanting loudly begins tipping buckets of water over their heads. Then they turn towards him and he throws water hard into their faces. They sit and wait and the ones who can walk go up to him. Taking a mouthful of water from a plastic cup, he then spits it over them before they walk away shuddering with cold.
One family arrives in a large Toyota Vigo pickup, top of the range with alloy wheels and a Bangkok registration. They help their old Papa out of the front seat. He can hardly walk and they half drag him to the monk who performs the same rituals. Money changes hands and they leave with their bag full of medicines.
Cat’s Mama stays dry thank goodness but buys potions from the monk which she later swears are highly effective in helping the pain in her bad knee. It wasn’t particularly cheap and for less money I’ve been treated by a specialist at a top Bangkok hospital. With hundreds of sick constantly in attendance at the temple, the takings for medicines must thus be substantial.
The Thai government provides treatment in small hospitals in every town and they look clean and well managed. Other than a nominal thirty baht fee, treatment is free. Like all public health systems this one isn’t perfect but it seems to provide a reasonably good service and so people are not unprovided for.
So where does this now leave the traditional healers such as the Buddhist monks? They still have an important role to play, though I’m a bit sceptical about those who work on the fringes of medicine wherever they may be. But then placebos really do work and perhaps it's the holy men who offer the strongest ones.
Mama certainly wants to go back again to the temple when her medicine finally runs out and I guess I'll have to take her!