This paper begins with a brief presentation on the basic religious outlook of Thai folk Buddhists followed by a discussion of how ritual materiality reflects vital expressions of spirituality that reveal the way Thai folk Buddhists see the world. The paper looks at possible redemptive expressions in the realm of ritual materiality through which the gospel can be articulated when discipling converts from Thai folk Buddhism.
Samuel Lim is the Regional Facilitator for Southwest Mekong. He is also involved in church-planting amongst the Tai Yuan in Chiang Rai. Samuel is a Singaporean and a graduate from Singapore Bible College with an MDiv in Intercultural Studies.
The Gospel Expressed Through Ritual Materiality for Discipleship in the Context of Thai Folk Buddhism
Mission Round Table vol. 14 no. 3 (Sep-Dec 2019): 34-39
Thailand has had a strong missionary presence for many years. As early as 1662, French Jesuit missionaries were allowed to preach Christianity and were even given permission to operate a seminary in the capital. From that time on, the nation of Thailand has witnessed the hard work of Christian missionaries. While it is a delight to hear that the Thai population has demonstrated a greater openness to the gospel message since the 1970s, listening from the ground, from local Thai Churches, one hears a cry for help instead.
In an article in Evangelical Missions Quarterly, Daniel Kim reported that when influential Thai Christian leaders were asked what they saw as the greatest need of Thai churches, the majority responded that the Thai church is ineffective in making active and mature disciples after evangelizing people. Proper discipleship takes time, investment, and much work. And without proper contextualized discipleship, allowing the gospel to become integrated with life and challenge the everyday life issues of the people, the church becomes ineffective and irrelevant to its soil.
Thus, the importance for the gospel to be understood in context cannot be underestimated when it comes to efforts in discipleship. If there is any hope of seeing an ongoing missional movement that will produce growth among indigenous churches, we must realize that it is not enough to help grow an indigenous Christian community of faith demographically. Rather, we must recognize the importance of encouraging these communities to understand the gospel, critically reflect upon it, and articulate the Christian faith within their own social and cultural frameworks.
This paper proposes that, in Thailand, the gospel needs to be understood in the context of Thai folk Buddhism for discipleship to effectively bridge the critical gap between theory and praxis. It expresses a specific interest in exploring the role of ritual materiality. The paper will begin with a brief presentation on the basic religious outlook of Thai folk Buddhists followed by a discussion of how ritual materiality reflects vital expressions of spirituality that reveal the way Thai folk Buddhists see the world. The paper will continue by identifying possible redemptive expressions in the realm of ritual materiality through which the gospel can be articulated when discipling converts from Thai folk Buddhism. In conclusion, the paper hopes to show that the emphasis in presenting the gospel through ritual materiality in discipleship among converts from Thai folk Buddhism is driven by the innate need in these converts to understand their new allegiance in ways and forms that they are accustomed to.
Basic religious outlook of Thai folk Buddhists
Buddhism is often seen as the pillar of Thai society. It inevitably has effects and influence on cultural issues and the worldview of the Thai people. Understanding this basic religious outlook is a prerequisite for any effective dialogue on religion and spirituality amongst the Thai people. Although Thai Buddhism is one form of Theravada Buddhism, if studied more deeply, it is clear that the Buddhism practiced in Thailand, even by a large majority of monks, cannot be considered a pure form of Theravada Buddhism. The form of Buddhism in Thailand is better described as Thai folk Buddhism. This paper defines Thai folk Buddhism simply as a veneer of Buddhist philosophy undergirded by animistic beliefs expressed through Brahmin-influenced rituals. Although Buddhism through its teachings and philosophy puts forward a rather impersonal worldview, Thai folk Buddhism readily accommodates the concept of personal spirits and deities, which is diametrically opposed to an impersonal worldview.
This profound incongruence of having three major belief systems in a single religious worldview bothers many who are trained to think dialectically. I once asked a Thai monk about the contradictions of Thai folk Buddhism and was silenced when he replied, “Only those brought up with a Western-influenced education struggle to deal with contradictions. We have no problem with it.” What that conversation surfaced was a view of religion and spirituality that transcends coherent, cognitive engagement. The ability to conceive and compartmentalize all three belief systems in a peaceful co-existence so as to fulfill different practical needs in daily living further accentuates this point. It must be noted that the accommodation of Brahmanism and Animism served a practical role when Buddhist teachings left many questions unanswered in the everyday life of a Thai, such as basic needs relating to forces of nature and one’s survival and well-being in the material world.
Thai folk Buddhism can then be aptly elucidated by Edmund Leach’s concept of “practical religion” in which religion and spirituality are not only preoccupied with life hereafter but actually speak to the realities of daily living. Thai folk Buddhism thus allows a form of pragmatism to surface. That is to say, Thai folk Buddhists are most concerned with practicing what they believe to work for them in accordance to their understanding of how the world is ordered.
Ritual materiality in Thai folk Buddhism
Ritual materiality, or rituals and materiality—used interchangeably in this paper—are the expression of the combined roles of religious rituals and religious materiality or religious symbols/objects in understanding spirituality. While the idea of “ritual” and “materiality” may evoke a somewhat negative view in Protestantism, it should not be seen as an unfamiliar expression of faith. In Protestantism, many are more accustomed to terms like liturgy, ceremony, service, or celebration to express the concept of ritual. One can also see the role that materiality plays within the confines of Protestant worship with examples like the use of the pulpit and pews, the clergy/pastoral robes, or the lighting of candles.
In Thai folk Buddhism, both rituals and materiality are closely united aspects of one’s expression of spirituality. “Rituals chart the geography and define the architecture of sacred space and are expressed in the material symbols that are manipulated in the rituals.” This explains why Thai folk Buddhism is visually engaging within Thai society. The observances with ritual materiality are not entirely religious accessories or visual stimuli. Underlying the use of religious objects and symbols is the belief that these ritual materials either help ward off evil powers or can be used to manipulate powers for good. That is why tattoos of Pali-Sanskrit writings are very popular among Thai folk Buddhists—they are seen as charms providing spiritual protection.
Another illustration comes from a Thai taxi ride. From the time one gets into a taxi in Thailand, one’s visual senses will be overloaded as the car may be filled with pictures of monks, sacred amulets, or jasmine garlands hanging on and around the rear-view mirror or Pali-Sanskrit drawings on the ceiling. These active engagements with rituals and materiality reveal how Thai folk Buddhists see the world.
Ritual materiality as windows
The animistic tradition of power play between spiritual forces and human beings conditions Thai folk Buddhists to have a heightened recognition of the spiritual and supernatural world and its interaction with the material world. The world of a Thai folk Buddhist is occupied with more than just human affairs. To them, the world is an integration of man, spirit, nature, and things.
Ritual materiality has the potential to address the dimensions of time and space in understanding spirituality and cosmology. Rituals are like windows that allow us a glimpse into the worldview of the people. Underlying every expression of spirituality acted out through rituals is a set of beliefs that directs, inspires, and promotes. More specifically, rituals in Thai folk Buddhism reveal the cosmological order of the people, or as Stanley Tambiah succinctly puts it, “In rituals we see cosmology in action.” That is why Tambiah’s study of Thai folk Buddhist rituals begins with the exposition of cosmology rather than doctrines. Ritual materiality, then, becomes a tangible and visible way by which meanings of the order of the world are stored and dramatized to serve as a reminder of “what is known about the way the world is, the quality of the emotional life it supports, and the way one ought to behave while in it.”
An example of ritual materiality giving a glimpse of cosmology would be the ton kathin (kathin tree), also known as the money tree, in the merit-making rituals for thod kathin (kathina) ceremonies in Thailand. The ton kathin is a colorful tree decked vividly with banknotes as its leaves. These trees as cash gifts are offered as donations to temples as a form of merit-making for Thai folk Buddhists. Where then does the idea of decking trees with banknotes come from? In Thai folk Buddhist cosmology, the fourth level of heaven, called Tusita, is the most attractive of heavens because it is a place where all desires are satisfied. In Tusita grows the ton kamaphruk (kalpa tree), a wish-fulfilling tree that produces fruits of gold, silver, and jewels. This specific imagery and meaning of wealth in Thai folk Buddhist cosmology is thus expressed through a simple ritual material called ton kathin.
Ritual materiality strengthens identity
In Asia, believers of different religions are actively engaged with the tangible and material because these are what shape the character of their faith among other competing belief systems. It is in Asia, with its plurality of religious beliefs, that the apparent importance of ritual materiality is brought out. Commonplace objects in rituals, such as statues of deities, candles, incense sticks, strings, spirit houses, amulets, and objects of offering, are not merely conduits towards a cognitive world of divine ideas and beliefs, but are actually significant aspects that craft and determine the character of one’s belief.
If we move the application of ritual materiality in strengthening identity from a personal to communal and national levels, we discover why the visibility of Thai folk Buddhism is important in Thailand, where culture, community, and religion are closely interwoven. Thus, the common expression, “To be Thai is to be Buddhist,” is not to be taken in its entirety as a statement of religious belief. Rather, it reflects a need in Thais to belong and be identified as a Thai national united by the spirit of Buddhism. The veneer of Buddhism practiced through ritual materiality plays a significant role in that it provides avenues for the strengthening of Thai identity by surfacing religious allegiance through one’s engagement in ritual materiality.
For many Thai folk Buddhists, the engagement in rituals and materiality is not solely motivated by the ultimate aim of attaining Nirvana; it is also driven by the desire for belonging and identity, or rather, a sense of fear in losing one’s acceptance in the community. Thus, ritual materiality acts to visibly characterize and enhance a Thai person’s religious allegiance. What better way to articulate, “To be Thai is to be Buddhist,” than to wear an amulet, get a sacred tattoo, or have a spirit house in one’s property?
Redemptive expression in ritual materiality for the gospel
Any discourse on the redemptive possibilities of understanding the gospel through ritual materiality has to move away from just seeing it as idolatry. Neither is it to be watered down into just an “aesthetic predilection of the faith.” Understanding the role of ritual materiality will point one toward understanding the formation and maintenance of belief from a host of practices and feelings conditioned by tangible things. Therefore, it is of value to appreciate that the forming and maintaining of belief comes in accepting a wider perspective that belief is not solely a cognitive transmission of doctrines, theologies, or Scriptures. This then highlights the need to resituate the role of ritual materiality when presenting the gospel and discipling converts from Thai folk Buddhism.
Replacement not removal of materiality
A total repudiation of any ritual and materiality is futile because animistic beliefs have been deeply ingrained in Thai culture for many generations. One must not be naive to think that animism is disappearing, as Alan Tippet did in 1973 when he gave animism “ten years, at the very utmost twenty” to disappear. Therefore, any presentation of the gospel that does not attempt to address this dominant worldview of Thais, but instead seeks to remove all practices of rituals and materiality may only succeed in burying animism underneath the façade of Christianity. The gospel presented to converts from Thai folk Buddhism must seek to engage the dominant animistic worldview with the hope of transformation towards Christlikeness.
The history of Israel demonstrates that God’s chosen people were actually influenced by animism, and God called them out from the midst of animistic societies (Josh 24:2–3). God acknowledged the existence of other gods in the lives of the Israelites. We also note the mention of Elisha’s approval of Naaman bringing the earth in Israel back to Syria to worship God there and how it seems acceptable that Naaman’s obligation to serve his master may require certain actions that might be seen as compromising to Naaman’s newfound allegiance (2 Kgs 5:15–19). All these point towards the issue of transference of allegiance and loyalty and the role ritual materiality plays in such a transition when it comes to engaging with animism.
Instead of demanding an immediate removal and repudiation of ritual materiality, God was more interested in the condition of the person’s heart and allegiance. He thus allowed time for the transformation of their allegiances.
Having examined how ritual materiality speaks specifically to the issue of transference of allegiance and also a show of loyalty in Thai folk Buddhism, we now turn to the exploration of the theory of replacement in ritual materiality that is centered on the visible confession of allegiance towards Christ in understanding the gospel. We will draw from the theological principle in Matthew 12:43–45 that speaks of the man who was swept clean of evil spirits, but, being unoccupied, was repossessed when the evil spirit returned with seven stronger spirits to occupy him. The last state of the man became worse than the first. In adding the qualifier “unoccupied” before providing the image of being “swept and put in order,” Matthew presents the stark picture that the emptiness of the house is calling for a new tenant. Something else was expected to take place after the clearing of the demonic occupation, but did not. Jesus is teaching that deliverance from demon possession alone is not enough, because “ownership by the devil must be replaced with ownership by Christ.” Being cleansed is not enough if it does not lead to a new allegiance because the devil will exploit the void that is left behind.
Recognizing the importance of replacing and not merely removing, the theory of replacement advocates the use of ritual materiality as a visible confession of allegiance to God. This is because the language of a Thai folk Buddhist is not mainly doctrinal words, but rather rituals and materiality. A verbal confession of faith alone does not speak to the heart of a Thai folk Buddhist in the same way as when it is accompanied with a visible confession of faith. While removing idols from the life of a Thai folk Buddhist, the theory of replacement proposed here takes a further step to encourage visible religious materiality that speaks of the Christian faith, be it a cross or the Bible.
The theory of replacement is not an end in itself. Rather, it is an important first step in understanding the gospel when discipling converts from Thai folk Buddhism. The New Testament teaching on belonging and new identity in Christ becomes important because now the new convert, having made the visible confession of allegiance, is constantly reminding himself and his community that God is the only true God in his life.
Since the ideas of allegiance and loyalty are key when engaging Thai folk Buddhists, it is vital to recognize the possible role that ritual materiality can play in the presentation of the gospel to bridge one from Thai folk Buddhism to Christianity and help disciple them how to better articulate this newfound allegiance.
Give new meanings to old rituals
The idea of giving new meanings to old existing rituals is not novel. The model of the tabernacle that was central to Israelite worship of God was not an original one. Craig Keener argues well to show the presence of an Egyptian setting for the biblical material in the model of the tabernacle that God provided Israel. It is interesting to note that even in the ritual of tabernacle worship, a new meaning to understanding the God who is worshipped is given to the Israelites in the mold of an existing and familiar structure of surrounding cultures. Much of the furniture of the tabernacle parallels what surrounding cultures placed in temples and, therefore, most ancient Near Eastern people were able to acknowledge the presence of deity with the Israelites. Ultimately, it is the proclamation of a God-given theology that renews and distinguishes Israel’s worship of God from that of surrounding cultures.
Can the gospel message be presented through the lens of prevailing rituals of the Thai folk Buddhists, redeeming them for Christ by renewing their significance and meaning for the Thai Church? Yes, and most certainly so. An excellent application of this can be read in depth from DeNeui’s work on Thai Sukhwan rituals in an Isaan church in Northeast Thailand. To the Isaan people, there is not a more important ceremony than the Sukhwan ceremonies, in which the essence of life of a person is brought back, or insured that it continues residing with the person for the success and well-being of day-to-day survival. Without going into the details about Sukhwan rituals, it will suffice to note that cotton strings tied to the wrist are the central visual representation of the ritual through which blessings and protection are sought for the person. The church in Northeast Thailand referred to in DeNeui’s writing adopted the ritual and used the same cotton strings in church, but now understood the strings as a visual representation of the love and power of God available to followers of Jesus Christ. The tying of the strings on the wrist of believers is followed with oral blessings affirming again that while the strings will break, the love of Jesus Christ will never break and never be removed.
This example of redeeming the Sukhwan ritual in the Isaan context shows that giving new meanings to old rituals through the engagement of prevailing ritual materiality can indeed be helpful. DeNeui notes that with such engagement, the gospel message of Jesus Christ became less foreign and closer to the Isaan people and, as a result, the Isaan church has seen many of their Buddhist neighbours come to Christ.
The diversity of ethnicity and culture in Thailand reminds us that one should not rush into adopting a particular way of contextualized ritual into another faith community. What may work for Thai Christians from Northeast Thailand may not work for Thai Christians from Central, South, or North Thailand, because the prevailing Thai folk Buddhist ritual that is being contextualized may not be of equal significance or identification with the realities of daily life in different regions of Thailand.
A case in point is that Thai Christians from North Thailand have not adopted the contextualized Sukhwan ritual because the Sukhwan ritual amongst Thai Buddhists in the North is not as popular and significant in its practice and meaning as compared to their Isaan neighbours in Northeast Thailand. Instead, Thai Christians in the North are more likely to practice the old ritual of Kheun Baan Mai (house warming) by redeeming its significance with the message of the gospel. Without expounding the details, the old ritual of Kheun Baan Mai sees the owner of the new house inviting Buddhist monks to chant a blessing over the new house and gifting it with protective cotton strings, with guests usually giving gifts of framed pictures of Buddhist monks or Buddha. Thai Christian owners of new houses in the North have, in ritualistic order, the Christian pastor give a message on the protection and blessings that Christ brings to a new house, pray a blessing over the new house, attach a cross near the main door of the house, and unlock the doors to the new house as an invitation for the presence of Christ to dwell in it. After this, fellow Thai Christians enter the new house to sing worship songs and usually guests give gifts of crosses or framed pictures of Bible verses.
From the two examples above, one can see how the gospel message becomes more relevant with the approach of giving new meanings to prevailing rituals because the faith lessons are now identified with the realities of daily life and understood through ritual materiality familiar to the recipients.
Provide new solutions to old problems
As noted earlier, the animistic tradition of power play between spiritual forces and human beings conditions Thai folk Buddhists to have a heightened sensitivity toward the spiritual and supernatural world and its interaction with the material world. The world of a Thai folk Buddhist is more than just human occupation. To them, the world is an integration of man, spirit, nature, and things. The gospel presented in context requires this aspect of their cosmology and worldview to be addressed.
Understanding the Thai folk Buddhist cosmology is important for any gospel engagement with Thai folk Buddhists because their worldview is interpreted through their notion of cosmology. Thai folk Buddhist cosmology highlights the various powers in the experience of a human being. To understand these powers is to understand the order of the cosmos and the general rule of the cosmos. Thus, a Thai folk Buddhist’s fear of the power play between spirits and humans is wrought from their cosmology “as an arena of competing a-moral powers with unpredictable results.”
Therefore, if we can appreciate the fact that repentance during one’s conversion experience is seen as a “repudiation of lesser lords,” then in the context of a Thai folk Buddhist, the gospel being presented has to emphasize the experiential aspect of the power of Christ over all spirits. When the gospel is proclaimed, a spiritual power encounter ensues that challenges and confronts existing worldviews. It is not merely an introduction of right beliefs producing right behaviors; it is primarily a confrontation of spiritual power and authority.
The usual way in addressing this old problem is with what many would term “power encounters”—encouraging new converts to experience the healing power of Christ over illness and the power of Christ over evil spirits. Recognizing this old problem of spiritual power play in the life of a convert from the Thai folk Buddhist context, this paper proposes a new solution in addressing this old problem. This is to elucidate the power of the gospel of Christ by promoting the role that ritual materiality can have in building up the faith of the convert because of the convert’s already heightened sense in understanding spiritual lessons through the expression of rituals and materiality. This can be done with the celebration of the Eucharist as often as believers meet for fellowship.
The visual and material effect of the Eucharist is capable of communicating the power of the gospel deeply to the convert by engaging the various senses of sight, touch, and taste. Together with the teaching of its rich theology, the Eucharist can actually be a powerful pedagogical tool to address the old problem of the fear of evil spirits. In a way, the Eucharist, as a material ritual acts like a visual mnemonic, reminding the new convert of the assured covenant and promise in the completed works of Jesus Christ. The Eucharist is able to bring the believer into an “extraordinary eschatological consciousness” that is the confidence that is needed to help address the fear of spiritual power play in converts from Thai folk Buddhism.
Firstly, the Eucharist as a material ritual should be introduced, as a sharing of the end time banquet where what is being celebrated is the surety of God’s final judgment and victory over all powers. Secondly, by partaking of the Eucharist the person is reminded of God’s real presence with the believer. If these lessons are taught to converts from Thai folk Buddhism on a regular basis, the Eucharist as a material ritual may well offer a transforming alternative to addressing the old spiritual power play problem.
The way forward
The proposed applications in this paper are based on the innate need in these converts to understand their new allegiance in ways and forms that they are accustomed to, thus advancing the possible role that ritual materiality has in gospel expression amongst Thai folk Buddhists. The paper also recognizes that while presenting the gospel through ritual materiality is an essential early step in the discipleship of these converts, it is not sufficient, and should not be an end in itself.
Dionysus the Areopagite rightly observed that objects have the power to shape and form one’s spiritual path, therefore surfacing the need to start one’s spiritual path with embodied realities and limitations of humanity. Discipling converts from Thai folk Buddhism towards a holistic understanding of the gospel cannot stop with the dependence on rituals and materiality, but their role and power in bridging the gap of faith between the cerebral and the visceral experiences must not be dismissed. A similar observation is Pannyas Bhadrankarvijaygani’s expression that the role of matter and spirit in a person’s spiritual path is one of ordered procession:
It is an ordered procession from that which has form (murt) to the formless (amurt), from using a support (salamban) to not using a support (niralamban), from matter (dravya) to spirit (bhav), and from the gross (sthul) to the subtle (sukshma).
Although Bhadrankarvijaygani is expressing a person’s spiritual journey from the perspective of Jain theology, there is much value in understanding how he sees the interaction between the role of matter and spirit in an ordered procession. In his view, the aim of the procession between matter and spirit is eventually towards a destination, a state of a pure, living soul.
We can modify Bhadrankarvijaygani’s expression to bring out the power of the gospel of Christ—while the Christian ordered procession is towards a destination, that destination is not in a state, but rather in a person, the person of Jesus Christ. The gospel that enlightens one towards the incarnation and resurrection of Jesus Christ charges us not to be satisfied with either a cerebral or a visceral spiritual experience because growing in Christlikeness is both a cerebral and a visceral experience, both of matter and of spirit. “But we all, with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image (eikon) from glory to glory, just as from the Lord, the Spirit (pneuma)” (2 Cor 3:18).
Therefore, the Christian spiritual journey moving towards Christlikeness demands us to live in a tension of moving back and forth, a cyclical progression in growth of moving to and fro from form to formlessness, to and fro from using support to not using support, to and fro from matter to spirit, to and fro from the gross to the subtle.
This paper is driven by the remembrance of the cry of the local Thai church leaders who desired to make more effective and mature disciples of Jesus Christ. Considering the rich history of missionary efforts in Thailand and the steady growth in openness towards the gospel message, one must constantly relook and rethink whether gospel proclamation and discipleship are transforming the foundational needs and worldview of converts from Thai folk Buddhism.
In setting forth practical suggestions towards redemptive expressions of ritual materiality for the gospel in discipling converts from Thai folk Buddhism, the paper concludes by putting forward the notion that while it is necessary to engage with this visible expression of spirituality in Thai folk Buddhism, it is in itself insufficient to move the convert towards spiritual growth and maturity. The way forward to grasping the power of the gospel in such a discipleship process is not to stop at just engaging at the material level, but to encourage a Christian spiritual journey that accepts the tension that growth in Christlikeness includes moving back and forth between a cerebral and a visceral experience.
There is much more that can be expanded and worked on, but recognizing the magnitude of such a study and the limitations and constraints of this paper, it is my hope that this paper will become a stepping stone for more deliberations to see a growing movement of indigenous Thai churches robustly articulating the power of the gospel within their own social and cultural frameworks.
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