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Worship and Devotional Life in Southeast Asia
Worship and Devotional Life in Southeast Asia:Buddhist
Acts of Devotion
Devotion may be public or private. Public devotion is a social act that announces an individual's active participation in a Buddhist community. Private devotion confirms and strengthens an individual's consciousness as a Buddhist. In both cases it is ritualized and formulaic, but at the same time it is flexible and renewable.
Devotion is expressed through rituals that engage the "three doors" of body, speech, and mind. It is enacted physically through prostration, raising the hands with palms pressed together, and sitting with legs tucked behind. With speech one murmurs or recites formulas. The mental workings of devotion—the worshipper's wishes and aspirations—are ultimately private, but, as seen below, they have often been recorded in inscriptions.
The simplest act of devotion is homage in front of an image, usually of the Buddha, accompanied by offerings of flowers, incense, and candles. Its focus is the "three jewels": the Buddha, the dhamma, and the saṃgha (always in the same order), and for that reason three incense sticks are usually offered. Reflections on the virtues of these three are the "three recollections" that structure daily chanting programs. First, praises will be offered to the Buddha, and his blessing and protection will be invoked; the same will then be done for the dhamma and the saṃgha.
The Buddha is seen as the acme of wisdom, power, and compassion. His many names express his many virtues: the Awakened One, the Blessed One, the Teacher, the Protector, the Omniscient One, the Ten-Powered One, and so on. His power comes from his practice of the perfections (parami) during countless previous births. This aspect of the Buddha is seen in the Ṃhākāruṇiko Ṇātho (Stanzas on the greatly compassionate protector):
For the welfare, benefit, and happiness
Of all breathing things
The Greatly Compassionate Protector
Fulfilled all of the perfections
And realized ultimate awakening:
By virtue of these words of truth
May all afflictions never be.
The Buddha's virtues are so many that he is ultimately beyond praise. This idea is expressed in a Pali stanza included in old Thai liturgical manuscripts (Skilling, 1998):
If a person had a thousand heads—
Each head with a hundred mouths,
Each mouth with a hundred tongues—If he could live as long as an aeon
And possessed great supernormal power:
He would still be unable to enumerate The virtues of the
Teacher in full.
Devotion and Liturgy
Devotion has produced a vast liturgical corpus in Pali and in vernaculars. The shared use of Pali does not mean that the regional Buddhisms chose the same texts for recitation or gave the Pali the same pronunciation and cadence. Texts and recitation styles differ widely in the Mon, Khmer, Burmese, Thai, and Lao traditions. Even within a single tradition they vary according to ordination lineage and individual temple custom.
Liturgy lies at the heart of Buddhist practice. An integral part of living Buddhism, it is a teaching vehicle for both monastics and lay followers. In public rituals there is often a leader—a layperson, nun, or monk—who recites the formulas through a microphone, to be followed by the assembly. The recitation of formulas is a powerful vehicle of inspiration. Choral chanting by well-trained monks or nuns has a musical aesthetic that, combined with the fragrance of incense, the serenity of images, and the rich tapestry of mural paintings, is one of Buddhism's most sensuous expressions.
Throughout the region liturgy opens with a simple statement of reverence towards the Buddha, repeated three times: Namo tassa bhagavato arahato sammā-sambuddhassa (Homage to the Blessed One, the Worthy One, the Truly and Fully Awakened One). In public rituals this is followed by the taking of the five, eight, or ten precepts. After this a specific ritual will take place: offering food, offering robes, recitation of texts appropriate to the occasion, and so on, enacted with appropriate formulas. Some rituals end with the spreading of loving kindness towards all beings, or a brief session of silent meditation. At the end of an offering ceremony the monks chant verses that rejoice in the merit performed (anumodanā). The liturgy closes with invocations of blessing through the power of the three jewels:
May all blessings come to be, may all deities protect:
By the power of all buddhas (dhammas, and saṃghas)
May you always be well.
The generic name for apotropaic texts is paritta (protection). The core texts of the paritta come from the tipiṭaka, and have been used in all traditions of the region for centuries. These are supplemented by noncanonical protections, among which the Jinapañjara, Sambuddhe, and Bāhuṃ are three of the most popular. The Jinapañjara (Cage of the conquerors) stations buddhas, arhats, and the parittas themselves around the body at specific points, thereby making a protective cage. The Sambuddhe stanzas (Skilling, 1996) invoke the power of multitudes of buddhas, and the Bāhuṃ invokes the eight victories of the Buddha, such as his defeat of Māra or his taming of the maddened elephant Nālāgiri. The interdependence of liturgy and art is seen in the fact that the eight victories are depicted in temple murals in Cambodia and Thailand.
The formula requesting the chanting of paritta, recited by lay followers to the monks three times at the beginning of the ceremony, succinctly expresses the function of paritta:
To ward off disaster, to accomplish all blessings,
To eradicate all suffering, fear, and illness:
Please recite the auspicious paritta.
A bewildering variety of chanting books, in all shapes and sizes, is readily available in the region's bookstalls. In Thailand the sixteenth printing of the Royal Chanting Book (ten thousand copies) is 427 pages long; first published in 1880, it is available in Pali only and in Pali with Thai translation. Other popular sellers are the Seven or the Twelve Protections and the Manual for Laymen and Laywomen. Cambodian paritta collections include the Anthology of Pali Paritta and Pali Recitations; for laypeople there is the Householders' Practice. A comprehensive collection used in Burma is the Great Paritta. Popular throughout the region are books devoted to magic diagrams, talismans, and spells.
Many of these collections are bilingual. Translations may follow the Pali, or face it on the opposite page. In one translation style the Pali is embedded in the translation: Pali and vernacular follow each other phrase by phrase. An early Thai collection in this style, the Translated Chants, dates to the beginning of the nineteenth century. Other devotional poems or chants are composed directly in the vernacular. There is, however, no body of devotional literature, either authored or anonymous, comparable to the vernacular Indian bhakti literature.
Books serve as aids to memory. Monastery regulations and ritual needs require monks and novices to commit liturgical repertoires to memory. Long-term monks memorize the pātimokkha, the monk's code, which takes up to an hour to recite. Nuns are adept at chanting, and in Thailand today it is primarily nuns who preserve the vernacular Phra Malay recitation, often chanted at funerals. The presence of nuns at ceremonies was noted by early Western travelers to Siam, such as Jeremias van Vliet, an agent for the Dutch East India Company at Ayutthaya from 1629 to 1634:
Besides these male priests, there are connected with the principal temples many old women, who also have to shave their heads. They are dressed in white linen, and they are present at all sermons, songs, ceremonies and other occasions connected with the religion. They are not, however, subject to any extraordinary rules, and they do everything out of religious fervour and free will. Also they have to live on the alms which they receive from the people. There are no young maidens or pregnant women among them.
Lay knowledge of chanting varies. Most people are familiar with the basic chants—the three refuges, the precepts, and the formulas of offering—and can at least repeat them after a leader. Many memorize short texts like the Jinapañjara, Sambuddhe, or Bāhuṃ stanzas, and recite them in their private devotions. The same text can be recited more than once. In Thailand the number of repetitions may be determined by one's day of birth; for example, a person born on a Monday should recite the Pali stanzas beginning "yaṃ dunimittaṃ" ("Whatever ill omens…") fifteen times daily. Some learn to recite chants backwards, in the belief that this increases the efficacy of the syllables.
Demonstration of devotion is not limited to temple ritual. Verses of homage to the three jewels open classical and popular texts. The Cintāmaṇi, a manual of Thai language and prosody dating to seventeenth-century Ayutthaya, contains many examples of homage to the Buddha, some quite elaborate, in a range of meters. Thai religion has always been inclusive and eclectic, and homage does not neglect the classical deities of India or local spirits of all stripes. Reverence is also due to teachers and parents, and when they are invoked five joss-sticks or five candles may be offered.
The opening of Samutthakhot Kham Chan, a metrical adaptation of the nonclassical Samuddaghosa Jātaka, offers extravagant praise to the Buddha followed by homage to Brahmā, Śiva, and Viṣṇu. A Southern Thai verse version of a well-known jātaka, "The Story of the Six-Tusked Elephant King" (Phraya Chaddanta), invokes the protection of a catalogue of deities:
I pay homage to my teachers
Who have trained and instructed me
That I might compose this tale.
I pay homage to the Buddha,
To the dhamma, and the saṃgha,
To my Mother who protected me—
May I be free from danger.
I pay homage to my Father
Who cared for me until I grew up. I pay homage to
Goddess of Grain
Who guards us all and always.
I pay homage to all spirits
Who dwell on earth up to the sky:
To Vessuvanna, to Thousand Eyes,
To Indra and Brahmā who always
Protect against danger, obstacles,
Disaster, and misfortune. May that called danger
Never approach or trouble me!
Modern studies tend to compartmentalize divinities, goddesses, and spirits as "Hindu," "non-Buddhist," or "animistic," assigning them static textbook identities that miss the point. In the tolerant pluralism of Southeast Asian culture they are part of a seamless hierarchy of power and merit, with the Buddha, at least ideally, at the top.
The Cult of Images
The production and worship of images of the Buddha has fired the religious imagination to the point that images are everywhere—not only in temples, but in the open air, homes, and schoolyards. Altars bear not just one image, but dozens. In Thailand nearly every roadside shop boasts a shelf lined with deities, raised up on a wall facing the entrance. Many of these shrines are extraordinarily eclectic, with a profusion of figures from the revered King Rāma V (r. 1868–1910) to bearded Chinese deities. A seventeenth-century Persian visitor to Ayutthaya observed that:
The Siamese persevere in worshipping idols…They are not even like the other idolaters who worship one special idol which has a determined shape and form. In Siam anyone who pleases makes an image out of plaster, wood, or mud, sets it up in a particular spot and worships it…The scholars of Siam exclaim, "Since we cannot experience direct contact with God in all His glory and perfection, we are obliged to seek him through substitutes, which we can behold with our own eyes. Therefore we make the idols our masters and gods."
Although Ibn Muhammad Ibrahim's understanding of the Buddha as "God" may not be strictly accurate, he does grasp one important point: images can be made by anyone. The production of images is deemed a source of great merit; according to a uniquely Theravādin belief, it helps to preserve the sāsana for its allotted five-thousand-year life span. The result of this potent authorization is that those who are able to do so sponsor images, often as a family or group project. In most cases an altar is not the product of a conscious and finite iconographic program. Living altars continue to grow, to accumulate new images in accordance with the imperatives of merit. Since to restore an image is also a source of merit, the images themselves undergo periodic repair and are never finished. This is also true of temple buildings, mural paintings, and manuscripts: they must constantly be renovated, restored, and rewritten, in the insatiable quest for merit and perfection.
In the middle of the twentieth century a Thai scholar remarked that:
Perhaps more than any other country in the world, Thailand is the land of Buddha images. They range in size from tiny miniatures to huge giants. They are made of many different kinds of materials—stone, plaster or terracotta, wood, crystal or jade, silver, or gold…For more than 1300 years the artists of our country have concentrated on making Buddha images, to such an extent that at the present time the images far outnumber the human population.
If one counts the small amulets highly prized by the Thai, the statement may well be true. But the other cultures of the region share the same ideology of merit, and also produce images in large numbers. A popular custom was to turn spacious limestone caves into cathedrals filled with images, such as the Pak U grottoes on the Mekong River near Luang Prabang in Laos, or, in Burma, the Pindiya Caves in the Shan States and the Kaw-gun caves on the Salween River near Moulmein. The latter was eloquently described by a "bygone traveler":
Everywhere, on the floor, overhead, on the jutting points, and on the stalactite festoons of the roof, are crowded together images of Gautama—the offerings of successive ages. Some are perfectly gilded; others encrusted with calcareous matter; some fallen, yet sound; others mouldered; others just erected. Some are of stupendous size; some not larger than one's finger; and some of all the intermediate sizes—marble, stone, wood, brick, and clay. Here and there are models of temples, some not larger than half a bushel, and some ten or fifteen feet square, absolutely filled with small idols, heaped promiscuously one on the other. A ship of five hundred tons could not carry away the half of them.
When an image is installed there is an inauguration ceremony and a celebration, which may last a week or more. At certain times of the year, often the solar New Year, images may be carried in procession on land or water with grand festivity and merrymaking. Such a procession was witnessed by Ibn Muhammad Ibrahim:
There are also special occasions when the idols are mounted on traveling palanquins and brought in from the outlying temples to the city temples where the king and monks worship. In such a case the Siamese say that one idol has come to visit another.…Then the city population gathers together and they play drums and flutes. The devout bring flowers and leaves from the trees and fasten them on the temple walls to make festoons. They also fashion artificial flowers from paper. (Ibn Muhammad Ibrahim, 1972.
Other foci of devotion are cetiyas, bodhi trees, and replicas of the Buddha's feet or footprints. In Southeast Asia cetiya and stupa are generally synonymous, and refer to solid free-standing structures built to house relics. Cetiyas come in all shapes and sizes; as reliquaries they are often called Phra That (from Pali and Sanskrit dhātu, "relic") or Phra Mahathat (from mahādhātu, "great relic") in Thai, Lao, and Lanna Thai. Cetiyas can enshrine images, scriptures, and other objects of reverence, as well as rich offerings of gold, gems, and pearls. Relics are frequently installed in Buddha images, sometimes (if the chronicles are to be believed) miraculously. A well-known verse venerates most of the sacred objects together: "I pay homage to all cetiyas, all and always, wherever they are established— / Physical relics, Great Awakening Trees, and images of the Buddha."
Relics and images are installed with pomp and celebration. In 1718 in the central Thai principality of Chainat, for example, high-ranking monks were invited from the capital (at that time Ayutthaya) to lead the festivities for the Great Relic. These included one day each of recitation of the "(Summarized Account of) the Buddhist Councils" (Saṅgāyanā), of the tipiṭaka, and of the "Great Birth" or Vessantara Jātaka. The site was decorated with offerings, parasols, banners, flowers, torches, and candles, and there were performances of masked dance, shadow-puppet plays, and drama. The event was carefully recorded in a large stone inscription that stands at the temple today .
Cetiyas fill temple compounds and dot the countryside of the region. Bodhi trees are planted in temple precincts. A liturgical genre, both Pali and vernacular, offers homage to the trees of past and future buddhas. Theravādin tradition lists ten future buddhas, starting with Metteyya (this does not mean that there are no others—there are, but they are not named). A class of texts known as Anāgatavaṃsa (Chronicle of the future) is devoted to them. A Thai-language version of one such text explains at the end that, "Any human beings, female or male, who offer homage and bow in respect to the ten Lord Buddhas along with the ten Glorious Great Awakening Trees … will gain fruit and benefit. They will not be born in hell for as long a period as one hundred thousand aeons. This is a result of the wholesome intentions of the person who recollects the ten Lord Buddhas."
Shrines housing replicas of the soles of a Buddha's feet (positive models) or of his footprints (negative impressions) as the primary icon are common. The replicas are made on stone slabs, wooden panels, or cloth painting. In addition to replicas, there are also "natural" footprints, believed to have been left by a buddha—not only Śākyamuni, but also his three predecessors in this "Auspicious Aeon." According to old traditions, Śākyamuni left the impression of his foot or feet at five sites in India and Sri Lanka. These are listed in chants that venerate the five prints "from afar": that is, it is possible to render homage and request protection without going on pilgrimage, although several of the sites have been localized in Burma and Thailand and are relatively accessible.
Other verse compositions, in Pali, Khmer, Burmese, and Thai, list the one hundred and eight auspicious signs that adorn the soles of the Ten-Powered One's feet and invoke their protection. A Southern Thai text on the signs opens as follows:
May I offer obeisance to the supreme feet of the Buddha,
The glorious and resplendent pair.
My ten fingers raised in a row are bright like golden candles;
My two eyes are alight like a pair of lamps: these I offer.
My hair-knot is like a flower-garland, like beautiful golden nenuphars.
My melodious voice is like an offering of incense and candles.
My heart I dedicate like fragrant scents.
The text ends with the promise that whoever recites the names of the signs will gain vast merit and meet the future Buddha Metteyya. Such texts can be recited at home, or in the presence of one of the replicas of the Buddha's footprints enshrined in temples and pavilions throughout the region.
Devotion and Custom
Devotion has its own protocols—it invests parts of the body, direction, and space with its own values. Shoes must be removed before entering a temple or shrine, or—mainly in Burma—at the very first gate, before entering the precincts of monasteries and pagodas. Feet should not be pointed at images or objects of respect, which should be placed higher than the worshipper. One should keep to the right of revered objects, and use the right hand when making offerings. Damaged or discarded objects of reverence are not thrown away or sold: they are left in temples or at the foot of bodhi trees. To steal or damage an image of the Buddha, a bodhi tree, a cetiya, or a religious text is a heinous crime that will send the culprit straight to hells of unremitting torment. Such values were incorporated into legal codes, for example the Three Seals Code of medieval Siam, which stipulated severe if not gruesome punishments for those guilty of such crimes.
In some cultures access to sanctuaries is determined by gender. In Burma, only males are allowed onto the upper platforms of pagodas—for example, at the Shwedagon Pagoda in Rangoon, where they can sit in meditation or apply gold leaf directly to the revered shrine. In Northern Thailand, women are barred from the raised platform upon which the images are installed; in Northeastern Thailand, females cannot enter the ordination hall; and in Central Thailand they cannot sit on the raised platform within the ordination hall.
Devotion has its own vocabulary. Special terms, often derived from Sanskrit, are used to describe images: one does not buy an image, one rents or reveres it. One does not take it home: one invites it into one's house. The features of the image are spoken of in a special language used also for members of the royal family. Venerated images are addressed directly, in the second person, with kinship terms identical to those used for revered monks, such as "Great Father."
Devotion and Material Culture
Worship has had an immense impact on material culture and technology, and thereby on the economy. Special utensils, crafted from bronze, silver, or gold, fulfill ritual functions. Offerings to monks or idols require fine trays and bowls made from lacquer or metal. At the end of a merit-making ceremony, water is poured from a bronze vessel into a small bowl, both purpose-made. In Thailand the monks hold ornate fans in front of themselves when performing certain ceremonies; the fans are a unique art form.
Skilled bronze casters, stonecutters, and woodcarvers produce images in a range of styles, sizes, and materials. Gold beaters produce delicate squares of gold leaf to apply to images. Garland makers station themselves at pagoda gates, threading fragrant flowers such as jasmine and roses into beautiful shapes. Annual rituals have led to the development of unique products, such as the giant candles offered to monasteries at the beginning of the three-month rains-retreat, or the fine threaded sweets prepared at Nakhon Si Thammarat in Southern Thailand to offer to pretas (so-called hungry ghosts, tormented by hunger because their mouths are the size of needles).
The premodern landscape was transfigured by devotion. Land, groves, fields, and villages were offered to temples and exempted from taxation. The architecture of the region is in part a response to the needs of devotion. Monastic complexes include buildings for public worship, from simple open-sided pavilions to grand and ornately decorated halls. Large stupas have broad circumambulatories. In Thailand, distinctive shrines—often miniature versions of grander structures—stand raised on pillars in gardens: these are the spirit houses, which accommodate the spirit of the land. Opulent shrines to Brahmā, Indra, or other deities stand in front of banks and office buildings.
Special shops cater to the needs of the faithful, offering a wide range of paraphernalia, including incense, candles, images, monastic requisites, and shrine tables. Crafts and trades were integrated into city plans: the gold beaters' quarters in Mandalay and Bangkok, the religious supplies stores in central Bangkok, and the image makers district in Thonburi, across the river from Bangkok. The economy of worship played a role in the exploitation of natural products and translocal trade. Lime, laterite, and stone were quarried for use as construction materials (lime for the manufacture of stucco to decorate religious structures). Gold, bronze, and tin were mined, exported, or imported, and from antiquity the tropical forests of Southeast Asia supplied the international market with aromatics and exotic timber.
Daily Routines and Ritual Calendars
The daily monastic routine includes morning and evening chanting structured around homage to the three jewels. The time of the chanting (from four in the morning on) and the selection of texts vary from temple to temple. Lay people may start their day with chanting and meditation before a private altar. In Thailand the day ends with an act of homage, as recommended by the nineteenth-century poet Sunthorn Phu in his Svasti Raksa, a book of stanzas on etiquette for the maintenance of one's well-being:
When you go to bed,
Don't forget to salute the pillow,
While saying your praise and gratitude
To your parents and your teachers.
The lunar calendar is used for religious purposes. Special offerings are made on the "holy days" of the four quarters of the moon, especially the lunar fortnight, when the monks recite the pātimokkha. The Thai cycle of court festivals is described in several late-nineteenth-century texts, including an elegant verse composition by Prince Maha Mala and two detailed historical studies by King Chulalongkorn (Rāma V). In Thailand today the highlights of the year are the great full-moon celebrations or pūjā of the months of Māgha, Visākha, and Āsāḷha. On these nights, lay people throng to circumambulate uposatha halls and cetiyas, carrying candles, incense, and flowers. The monks recite Pali texts and give sermons explaining the significance of the ceremonies, which mark events in the life of the Blessed One. Visākhā Pūjā, which usually falls in April, commemorates the birth, awakening, and passing away of the Master, while Āsāḷha Pūjā marks his first sermon in the Deer Park at Sārnāth near Vārāṇasī—the "Turning of the Wheel of the Dharma." The rich ritual calendar includes the day-long "Sermon on the Great Birth"—the Vessantara Jātaka—formerly one of the greatest entertainments of the year, and in the countryside still indispensable as a rainmaking festival. At the New Year people fashion cetiyas from sand, and decorate them with papers parasols, flags, and banners.
For the monks the most important event is the three-month Vassa, or "rains-retreat," during which they remain in their home-temple and do not travel. In Thailand males often ordain as monks especially for this three-month period in order to deepen their understanding of the Awakened One's teaching. Male government officials may obtain fully paid leave for this purpose. Although the Vassa is originally and primarily a monastic retreat, during this period devout lay followers may stay overnight in the temple each lunar quarter to chant and meditate. A few take extra vows of abstention or devote themselves to meditation throughout the three-month period. In Northern Thailand, collections of texts to be chanted during this period are called Nangsu non wat (Books for staying overnight in the temple), and special quarters are erected for females within the temple precincts. Other monastic rites that take place after the rains are Pavāraṇā, when monastics invite their fellows to point out any wrongs they may have committed during the rains-retreat, and Parivāsa, penitence for having concealed breaches of certain monastic rules. In Thailand and Cambodia the latter has become ritualized; large numbers of monks from many temples gather at a designated site for the period. Another important festival is the offering of Kaṭhina robes to the monks.
People make special offerings on their birthdays, or in memory of their parents or loved and respected ones on the anniversary of their deaths. They may offer food to the monks on the early morning alms-round, or to the saṃgha in general at a temple. Monks are invited to bless newlyweds at wedding ceremonies. At funerals the monks recite texts for the benefit of the deceased. In Thailand they recite extracts from the abhidhamma, often every night for forty-nine days in front of the coffin in special funerary pavilions in the temple precincts. For the final passage, the cremation, monks recite a simple stanza on impermanence. On this occasion sons may "ordain in front of the fire," that is, become a monk for a few hours or a few days in order to offer the merit to a deceased parent.
In Thailand a major source of temple income is the annual festival (ngan wat), a full-fledged fair with Ferris wheels, rock music concerts, and entertainments of every description. For several days the temple becomes a noisy hive of activity. Another grand affair is the consecration of the monastic boundary, or sima. In Central Thailand this has become a weeklong fund-raising event usually held to coincide with the Chinese New Year in order to attract the wealth of the powerful business and merchant communities of Chinese origin. Less frequent are image-consecrations, for which revered monks are invited to chant special Pali stanzas.
From chronicles and inscriptions we know that pilgrims from Southeast Asia regularly visited the holy sites of India and Sri Lanka. Royal missions were sent to repair the temple at Bodh Gayā, the "Diamond Seat" where Śākyamuni achieved awakening. In the Pala and Sena periods, Southeast Asian monks traveled to study at the famed universities of Northern India and the monasteries of Sri Lanka, carrying images, scriptures, practices, and ideas back and forth. Pilgrims and monks also traveled throughout Southeast Asia, which had its own study centers and pilgrimage sites.
The most important pilgrimage sites are reliquary shrines (cetiya, stupa) and footprints of the Buddha. Cetiyas housing hair and bone relics of Śākyamuni are found throughout the region; many boast a chronicle that validates their claims to the pilgrims' devotions and offerings. In lower Burma two of the greatest attractions are the old Mon stupa of Shwedagon, which enshrines the relics of four buddhas, and the extraordinary pagoda of Kyaiktiyo, which perches precariously on a massive boulder at the top of a hill. In upper Burma pilgrims are drawn to the Mahamuni image in Mandalay and to Mandalay hill. But there are many others: "Most of the commanding heights in Burma have long since been crowned with pagodas, and a visit to any of these gratifies the innate piety and gaiety of the people".
For the Lao, one of the holiest stupas is Phra That Phanom on the western bank of the Mekong River. Northern Thailand has a tradition of pilgrimage to twelve sites determined by one's year of birth according to the twelve-year cycle. These include the Shwedagon Pagoda in Burma, the old Mon stupa at Hariphunchai in northern Thailand, and the stupa at Wat Suthep overlooking the Chiang Mai Valley. In Southern Thailand the tall, tapering reliquary at Nakhon Si Thammarat draws busloads of pilgrims from the Thai and Chinese Buddhist communities in Malaysia and Singapore. On the way they stop at other sites, such as Wat Pa Kho in the narrow Sathing Phra peninsula, where a footprint was left on top of a hill by a revered seventeenth-century monk named Luang Pu Thuat. To attract wealthy Chinese pilgrims, temples along the route have built statues of Kuan-yin, the "Goddess of Mercy," some of them immense.
Pilgrimage centers in central Thailand include Thung Yang in Uttaradit province, where there is a large stone slab where the four buddhas have sat, and the fifth, Metteyya, will sit. Thung Yang was formerly the goal of royal pilgrimage (e.g., during the reign of King Borommakot of Ayutthaya, who restored the complex of sites). Its foundational legend is narrated in both Pali and Thai texts. To the west of the old capital of Ayutthaya and the present capital of Bangkok is Phra Taen Dong Rang, a localized site of the Buddha's passing away, which was visited in 1836 by the poet Nai Mi, who wrote:
We brought incense, candles, and choice flowers
And gathered to pay homage to the stone couch
Between a pair of Rang trees.
Their branches, twigs, and sprouts bowed low in homage.
Oh, the Rang trees still adore the Teacher—
How sad that we were born too late to meet him!
All we can see is the stone couch,
Our minds overwhelmed with sorrow and dismay.
Tears stream down as we call to mind
The Holy Omniscient One.
Rang tree is the Thai name for the Indian sala tree. At the same site the poet saw a stone held to be the blood that the Buddha vomited during his final illness, and the site of his cremation on a nearby hill.
From the seventeenth century on, the leading Thai pilgrimage site has been Phra Phutthabat, in Saraburi province to the east of Ayutthaya, identified with one of the five places where the Omniscient One left his print. The annual pilgrimage was a grand affair. Commoners streamed in by boat, horse, and oxcart, and on foot. Stalls were set up at the approach to the shrine, and for a week there were festivities of all kinds—acrobatics, shadow and puppet theatre, dance-drama, and fireworks. King and court made the pilgrimage regularly, first by boat and then by elephant with opulent pageantry. The king would make grand offerings, and perform a unique sword-dance on elephant-back in homage to the footprint. Surviving records—poems, official documents, and a seventeenth-century Dutch account—leave no doubt about the significance of the pilgrimage.
Ideologies of Benefit and Exchange
The human predicament is a life of insecurity, suffering, and impermanence, inevitably ending in death. The Buddha taught people to recognize the predicament, identify its roots, and then to practice in order to free themselves from it. Therefore it is said that the Buddha arose in the world "for the benefit of the many, for the happiness of the many, from compassion for the world, for the welfare, benefit, and happiness of gods and humans." Buddhism is a quest for security and benefit, and it is the Buddha who explains the "ultimate blessings" (maṅgala).
Tradition lists "three bases for the performance of merit" (puññakiriyavatthu): giving or charity, precepts or ethical conduct, and mental culture or meditation. The performance of these leads to three types of felicity (sampatti): felicity as a human, felicity in heaven, and the felicity of nirvāṇa. Worship and devotional life are directed towards these three goals, which are often referred to in sermons and narrative literature. They are inspired and guided by the ideology of benefit or advantage. The Pali term for this is ānisaṃsa (Skt., ānuśaṃsa, Tib., phan yon). It is a key concept not only in Theravāda Buddhism but in all Buddhisms; it is prominent in the earliest texts—the sūtras of the Pali Nikāyas and Sanskrit Āgamas—for example in the Metta-ānisaṃsa-sutta of the former, which promises eleven benefits for those who practice loving kindness: they will sleep well, they will wake happily, they will not have bad dreams, and so on. Thai Buddhists developed a genre of sermon, both in Pali and in Thai, that lauds the specific benefits of specific meritorious acts, such as producing an image of the Buddha, offering candles at the beginning of the rains-retreat, or erecting sand cetiyas. Anisamsa texts are known in other traditions, such as the Sanskrit Triratnabhājana-ānuśaṃsa (Advantages of revering the three gems) from Nepal, or the Advantages of the Diamond Sūtra from Tibet.
Another key term in the pragmatics of offering is paṇidhāna (Skt., praṇidhāna): wish, aspiration, or prayer. When making offerings, one makes a silent wish for specific benefits. This is the private and personal aspect of devotion mentioned above. There are also generalized and public aspirations, such as prayers for the health and welfare of teachers, preceptors, parents, rulers, and all sentient beings. Many of the earliest Buddhist inscriptions (starting from the second century BCE) in India record aspirations. The practice was followed in Southeast Asia; some of the Thai and Cambodian aspirations recorded on stone are long and elaborate verse compositions.
The ideology of ānisaṃsa and paṇidhāna is one of exchange. One takes refuge in the three jewels, and in return they grant protection or fulfill wishes. When supplicants pray before an image they promise something in return—special food, servants, or entertainment, for example—if their wish is fulfilled. In earlier periods servitors, livestock, groves, fields, and land were granted to images. Such grants were recorded in inscriptions and legal documents, which today are primary sources for the study of economic history. Today live music and dance are offered in some temples; in others one sees small model dancers.
Together, the complex of worship—the chants of refuge and homage, the prayers and aspirations—invokes and constructs an intricate universe of relations and obligations. Offerings are made to the Buddha, and merits are shared with relatives, deities, and spirits, who in turn are asked to offer protection or grant wishes. Offerings to the monks transmit merit to deceased relatives; Buddha images convey benefits. The question of whether it is the image or the Buddha that is addressed and responds can never be resolved, since in the imagination they are both the same and different.
Modernity and Beyond
Modernity and its cognates are troubled and troublesome terms. In this entry they are used as unavoidable conventions for a modernity that begins in the early nineteenth century and continues through the twentieth century to the present. In the last half of the twentieth century the impact of new ideologies and technologies effected enormous change throughout the region.
The Western calendar and the "working week" have broken the rhythm of the lunar calendar, especially in the cities, where urban life has its own priorities. Urban migration has disrupted the agricultural calendar and the transmission of knowledge within village communities, as has compulsory secular education. This—along with the rapid spread of modern communications, culminating in the internet—has contributed to the erosion of community memories. People have less time for festivals and religious practice; ceremonies and chants have been simplified and abridged, and also standardized as a result of centralized monastic education and print technology. This has led to an impoverishment of liturgical and ritual repertoires, since many of the older chants and rites have fallen into disuse. Old temple districts and craft quarters have been savaged by ruthless construction of roads and commercial buildings, and temple precincts have become parking lots. Festivals are packaged for tourist consumption.
The commercialization of worship in the cash economy has led to questions about the nature of devotion. Is Buddhism being packaged and sold like any other product? Have devotees turned into consumers? Have values gone awry? Do people equate the degree of merit with the financial value of their offering? Some temples, such as Wat Chonlaprathan in Nonthaburi, Thailand, explicitly discourage lay followers from offering commercialized products. The temple donates excess offerings to orphanages, prisons, or victims of natural disasters; on festival days this amounts to several truckloads.
But the human predicament remains. Buddhist teachings address human needs, and they have always shown resilience and adaptation. The vitality of Buddhist worship and practice is undaunted by modernity. On offering-days devotees bring traffic jams into temple compounds. Radio, television, and the internet are used to propagate Buddhist values. New generations explore the relationship between the teachings of Buddhism and contemporary understandings of society and the universe, proposing compatibilities with science, ecology, feminism, and human rights. Throughout Thailand there has been a rapid development of the cult of Kuan-yin, whose image graces separate shrines or altars beside the presiding Buddha. Migration has led to the construction of Khmer, Lao, Burmese, and Thai temples abroad, especially in the United States, where new forms of worship are developing.
The primary sources for the study of devotional life in Southeast Asia are inscriptions, chronicles, royal orders, poetry, and the accounts of foreign travelers. Very little research on the subject has been published. The best comprehensive English-language source remains a work first published in 1939: Kenneth Wells, Thai Buddhism: Its Rites and Ceremonies (Bangkok, 1975). Wells describes the main ceremonies and translates many formulas and chants. One of the few works dealing with anisamsa—specifically that connected with erecting sand cetiyas—is Louis Gabaude, Les cetiya de sable au Laos et en Thaïlande: Les textes (Paris, 1979). The present entry is based on Pali and Thai sources and field observations. Translations are the author's unless otherwise noted; in some cases the translations are condensed.
The chanting books mentioned in the essay are as follows:
Bhanavara Pali (Pali recitations)
Chet tamnan, Sattaparitta, Cularajaparitta (Seven protections)
Gihipatipatti (Householders' practice)
Khu mu ubasok ubasika (Manual for laymen and laywomen)
Mahaparitta (Great paritta)
Parittasamodhana Pali (Anthology of Pali paritta)
Sipsong Tamnan, Dvadasaparitta, Maharajaparitta (Twelve protections)
Suat mon chabap luang (Royal chanting book)
Suat mon plae (Translated chants)
Luang Boribal Buribhand. Thai Images of the Buddha. Bangkok, 1956.
Ibn Muhammad Ibrahim. The Ship of Sulaiman. Translated by John O'Kane. New York, 1972. Translation of a seventeenth-century account of a journey to Siam.
O'Conner, V. C. Scott. The Silken East: A Record of Life and Travel in Burma (1904). Gartmore, Stirling, U.K., 1993.
Phraya Chaddanta (The six-tusked elephant king). Nakhon Si Thammarat, 1992.
Prachum Silacharuk (Corpus of inscriptions). Vol. 4. Bangkok, 1970.
Skilling, Peter. "The Sambuddhe Verses and Later Theravādin Buddhology." Journal of the Pali Text Society 22 (1996): 151–183.
Skilling, Peter. "Praises of the Buddha Beyond Praise." Journal of the Pali Text Society 24 (1998): 195–200.
Umavijani, Montri. Sunthorn Phu: An Anthology. Bangkok, 1990.
van Vliet, Jeremias. "Description of the Kingdom of Siam." 1636. Translated by L. F. van Ravenswaay in Journal of the Siam Society 7, no.1 (1910) 1–105.