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Bastian Friborg 040788-1907


Practical Religion and its Influence on
Regional Identity in Northeast Thailand
Nye religise bevgelser dukker til stadighed op i det religise landskab i (nordst) Thailand (Isan). Dette
projekt fokusere p de bevgelser, der i de sidste 50-60 r er opstet omkring spirit mediums og magic
monks og hvordan det kan have betydning for identitetsskabelse i Isan omrdet, som af mange Thaier ses
som et andenrangs sted at komme fra. Jeg benytter mig af Yukio Hayashi og Stanley Tambiah, som begge
har vret p flerrigt feltarbejde i forskellige dele af nordst Thailand, desuden benytter jeg Pattana
Kitiarsa, hvis teori om hydridisering af religionen i Thailand, har vret meget nyttig. Jeg ser, hvordan de
forskellige religise handlinger kommer til udtryk gennem det at g til et spirit medium og prver at forst
baggrunden for dette, og hvad det kan betyde for identitetskabelsen. Blandt mine resultater er, at spirit
medium og magic monks passer godt ind i det senmoderne Thailand, hvor der kmpes med at f de
traditionelle Buddhistiske leveregler til at passe ind i den kapitalistiske verdensorden, der til stadighed
trnger sig p.
Bastian Friborg, Humaniora, Kbenhavns Universitet, 2014.
Keywords: Buddhism, religion, spirit, identity, Thailand, Isan.
In this dissertation I want to explore the multifaceted phenomenon that is religion in Thailand and how
religion is an important factor for the construction of the individuals identity, Thai as well as regional, Isan.
I will especially be focusing on what Yukio Hayashi calls practical religion in the northeast of Thailand.
Yukio Hayshi is one of the three main writers who have had great influence on the anthropological study of
religion in (northeast) Thailand that I will be using in this dissertation, the other two are Stanley Tambiah
and Pattana Kitiarsa, and since I use them a lot, an introduction to their works seems appropriate.
First, Yukio Hayashi, who in Practical Buddhism among the Thai-Lao, an in-depth study of practical religion
in northeast Thailand, attempts to study the reality of religion by focusing on the social configuration of its
practitioners rather than upon the concepts presented in its sacred texts
. This way to study religion makes
a clear difference between the sacred text, which is the usual way to study scriptural religion, and the daily
practice of the followers, it is a technique inspired by Edmund R. Leach and John R. Bowen, who in his
introduction to Religions in Practice: An Approach to the Anthropology of Religion talks about how there,
with all scriptural religions, is a huge difference on how the scriptures are used in Buddhism. Some find it
crucial to follow the word of the script as closely as possible while others never really read it; some go to

Yukio Hayashi, 2003, p. 2.
Bastian Friborg 040788-1907

the wat every day with offerings, while others might only go there on special occasion and then maybe only
because of the social element in meeting with family and friends.
Second, Tambiah, who takes the Weberian approach, which points out that the sacred values of a religion,
even though they from outside seem to be directed to a beyond, it is not always desirable to study them
like that, because the practitioners of the religion in question may well have a different understanding of
what the beyond is and isnt
. Both Yukio and Tambiah have been conducting years of field work in the
Isan region and in this way they have gotten the 'local perspective' on beliefs and ideas rather than reading
the holy script and then see if the locals follow it; it is an inside-out study rather than an outside-in study
and it could be argued that the scholar is 'going native' and becomes part of the society he study
. And
finally I will use Pattana Kitiarsas approach to understanding the new developments in the religious
landscape of Thailand and how it has influenced the construction of identity
Yukio Hayashi uses the practical Buddhism as a way of describing and explaining the complexity and
dynamics of religious practices among the Thai-Lao villagers in Isan and part of Laos. As mentioned above it
was Edmund R. Leach who was among the first to advocate the study of practical religion by studying
religion which is concerned with the life here and now,
so dealing with everyday life and the actions
which can secure ones journey to the world beyond, rather than through the principles found in the sacred
texts. Leach pointed out that the gap between the theology of the religious enlightened and the principles
guiding the behavior of everyday life was quite immense. Until then the study of scriptural religions had
been based on these scriptures, while the anthropological approach had been reserved the non-text
, springing to mind as an example is the study carried out by Mikael Rothstein among the Penans
on Borneo, these people have o texts, not even a word for religion, and Rothstein is studying them
anthropologically, writing everything down.
For a long time syncretism has been the model used in the study of Thai Buddhism, but as Pattana Kitiarsa
points out in his article, Beyond Syncretism: Hybridization of Popular Religion in Contemporary Thailand, it
is without flaws. From the outside viewer Buddhism do look syncretic, a harmony between Theravada
Buddhism, folk Brahmanism and animism, but this model over-shadow popular religious beliefs and
practices and put the model under a microscope and you will find that it too has cracks; it is not all
harmony and smoothness. Yukio Hayashi, as an example, seem to have a romantic, syncretic, view on
Buddhism, which seem less relevant when studying the new religious practices and what Charles Keyes call

Tambiah, 1970, p. 55.
Bowen, 2014, p. 5.
Pattana Kitiarsa, Beyond Syncretism: Hybridization of Popular Religion in Contemporary Thailand, 2005.
Tambiah, 1970, p. 3.
Yukio Hayashi, 2003, p. 11-12.
Bastian Friborg 040788-1907

the crisis of modernity in modern Thailand, since Buddhism is no longer rosy and innocent
. Following
Pattana Kitiarsa, this idolizing behavior among scholars keeps life in a practice that might not be as useful as
it once were. It could be that the syncretic model can no longer explain the changes that we see in Thai
religious life. To come with a significant example on where the syncretic model comes to short, it is the
mass media. The syncretic model cannot account for the effects of the mass media and the role this might
play in religious practices and the construction and re-construction of the individuals religious identity
(Pattana Kitiarsa, Beyond Syncretism: Hybridization of Popular Religion in Contemporary Thailand, 2005).
The last few decades the popular religion in Thailand has had a renaissance and is slowly getting to be
more and more a hybrid between different religious practices; and a materialistic consumer orientation.
This is popular religion that cannot be denied, and should therefore have a fair share of the scholars
Another who has worked with new models for studying religion in Thailand is Peter Jackson, who according
to Pattana Kitiarsas article, argues for the use of the term 'postmodernization of Thai religion'. Jackson
argues that modernity in Thai religion was "following a path of doctrinal rationalization accompanied by
organizational centralization and bureaucratization"
, and the postmodern Thai religion is dominated by
the revitalization of supernaturalism and decentralized religious movements operating beyond the control
of the state or the Sangha, expressing local religious authority, often with focus on commercialization of
the religion. Religion in this sense seem to bring together otherwise opposing ideologies or beliefs in a new
way of creating meaning and identity, what Pattana Kitiarsa calls hybridization of popular religion
When it comes to identity, I will, in addition to the already mentioned theories, be using two of the five
cultural dimensions presented by Geert Hofstede. The two I use are: individualism vs. collectivism, people
of a certain culture tend to act as an individual or as a group; and short-term vs. long-term perspective,
describing if the culture is focusing on long-term values, like steady growth and persistence or short-term
values, like fast growth and ambition
Religion and Buddhism
Religion, at least in the Europe and the United States, tend to be thought of as belonging in a separate
religious sphere separated from the state, but I will argue that this way of understanding religion is flawed
when trying to comprehend Thai practical religion. For many Thais religion is an integrated part of everyday

Because of the upcoming of materialistic oriented practices, which I will talk more about in this paper.
Pattana Kitiarsa, Beyond Syncretism: Hybridization of Popular Religion in Contemporary Thailand, 2005.
Pattana Kitiarsa, Beyond Syncretism: Hybridization of Popular Religion in Contemporary Thailand, 2005, p. 476.
The other three are: power distance, describing the degree of inequality among people in a culture and whether or
not it is considered normal; uncertainty avoidance, the way people feel about uncertainty and how willing they are to
take risks; masculinity vs. femininity describes how much values like performance, and competition are weighed
compared to more soft values like service and quality of life (Hofstede).
Bastian Friborg 040788-1907

life, where the cultivating of rice is closely related to the offerings made at the temple (wat) or spirit shrine,
and magical amulets are bought to protect the business or help with other everyday actions
. When talking
about the concept religion, it seems necessary to give some clarification as to what is meant by it. It is a
tricky business to define religion; it is not enough to say that religion is literal traditions with sacred
scriptures opposite something like magic as non-literate traditions, and one should always be vary not to
lose the context of the locality when making or applying definitions. So far there hasnt been one definition
that could encompass all the different kinds of religion found around the globe, and I think it very unlikely
that such a definition will ever be found, since it either gets to broad, including football or too narrow
excluding some of the major world religions. What scholars of religion often do is, they use or in some cases
make up definitions that fits the specific field of study
. In this dissertation I will be following a rather
broad definition of religion, defined as beliefs and practices concerning supernatural agents
. And on a
more local level, I follow Yukio Hayashi when he suggests the differentiated classification of Buddhism and
non-Buddhism, as a discourse for the religion and magic already embedded in the locality and hence
indispensable when studying practical religion
About 95 % of the population in Thailand is Theravada Buddhist, making Thailand one of the main centers
for Theravada Buddhism in the world. Buddhism is very visible in the everyday life, with monks and novices
making alms-rounds in the villages every morning, and its influence on culture, and politics. Buddhism in
Thailand is far from limited to the sacred Pali canons; it is incorporated in the daily life of every individual
Compared to the Mahayana Buddhism, the Theravada Buddhism is very homogenous since the same Pali
texts (Tripitaka) are used in all the countries where Theravada Buddhism is present
. An example of the
same can be seen in Christianity; here the Catholic Church is significantly more homogenous than the
protestant tradition where we can find hundreds of different interpretations, much like in the Mahayana
tradition. Buddhism is a strong source for identity, since most Thai men, at some point in their life, live as
monks for at least a short period.
Buddhism, like any other scriptural based religion, does not only consist of sacred texts, it is also very much
a practiced religion with its own life in the everyday life of the villages, where the temple, wat, is the
natural center of social as well as religious activities

Bowen, 2014, p. 6.
This practice often raises questions about whether or not the scholar manipulate the research object by making
being the one making the definition for what is and isnt religion, but that is an whole other discussion better suited
Bowen, 2014, p. 3.
Yukio Hayashi, 2003, p. 2.
Yukio Hayashi, 2003, p. 3.
Yukio Hayashi, 2003, p. 4.
Tambiah, 1970, p. 11; Yukio, 2003, p. 1
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Buddhism in Thailand is an authoritarian religion, even though they dont exercise their power politically,
scholars and newspapers are very reluctant to write something that defames the Sangha or its leaders
So, while Thai Buddhism seems very tolerant on the outside, it is in fact becoming intolerant of critical
voices from the inside
. In the last six decades the religious stage in Thailand has seen some new actors,
forest monks
and magic monks
who are gaining more and more influence, getting part in the mosaic
making up the religious identity of modern Thais. Other, older actors still relevant for this study will be
introduced later on, among these are the mo tham
Much like Buddhism is represented locally in each village by the presence of the wat, where the monks live
and service the villagers with merit-making activities, and again at regional festivals and pilgrimage, so do
the guardian spirit cult exist on both a local village level, at the shrines and with the spirit mediums; and on
a larger regional level, at festivals, connecting the villages together
. The spirit cult is by nature bound to a
certain area, this being a village or a region, since it is the spirits of that certain area, who are the center for
reverence, while Buddhism have a broader universal domain with no locational boundaries. Alongside the
cult of the guardian spirit, we have the above mentioned cults surrounding magic monks and forest
monks, where it could be argued that they belong in the Buddhist tradition, being monks and living in
monasteries, as well as in the spirit cult tradition.
Thailand and Isan
As the only country in Southeast Asia Thailand have managed never to be formally colonized. Although they
during the Cold War had to choose side, resulting in a string of different reforms, all with the common goal
of centralization and unity. As a result of these reforms, regional traditions and languages came under
pressure and in many cases they succumbed to the mainstream religion, the Sanghas Theravada Buddhism,

McCargo, 2004, p. 166.
McCargo, 2004, p. 166.
'Forest monks', as the name suggest, is mainly used for monks who live in solitude in forest monasteries,
practicing meditation and mind training. Some of these monks have used their training to use magic, and
earn money in that way, hence they have moved from being 'forest monks' to being 'magic monks'. So even
though the two are related forest monks' and 'magic monks' they are not the same (Pattana Kitiarsa,
Beyond Syncretism: Hybridization of Popular Religion in Contemporary Thailand, 2005).
A magic monk is, like the name implies, a monk who has gained knowledge about and uses magic or supernatural
powers. Asked about how they can be Buddhist monks and practice magic, the monks say that Buddhism and magic
are entwined (Pattana Kitiarsa, Magic monks and spirit mediums in the politics of Thai popular religion, 2005). The
magic monks are not to be confused with mo tham, who uses his knowledge about the sacred Pali scripture to
exorcise evil spirits from the body of sick people or from places where someone wants to build a house (Hayashi,
2003), but mo tham are not monk when he practices his mtier. Magic monks operate within the accepted boundaries
of Thai Buddhism; they provide a service that is not expected of them, while still following the rules laid out by the
The mo tham is considered a pious Buddhist (Tambiah, 1970; Yukio, 2003) and at the same time he uses
his knowledge in a totally different way. He can be considered both a caricature and an inversion of the
orthodox Buddhist monk (Tambiah, 1970, p. 322) since the mo tham uses the sacred Pali to drive out
spirits, whereas the monks uses it to teach and transfer merit.
See also Thai and Isan Identity and Tambiah, 1970, p. 280.
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and central Thai language, which is now the language of education meaning that it is taught in schools
instead of the regional language
In many ways the northeast of Thailand (Isan) stands out as a special region. It is located at the Khorat
Plateau and covers one-third of the countrys total landmass, besides it is home to one-third of the Thai
population. Looking at the development of the region, Isan is the least developed, economically and
socially, compared to north-, south- and central Thailand
. This somewhat lower status of the region have
had an influence on how the people living there sees themselves and how they talk about themselves,
which I will turn back to later. Placed bordering the relatively poor countries, Laos and Cambodia, the lower
economic development is quite understandable, this location similarly gives a very natural explanation
concerning the demography of the population in the Isan region. The population consist of a mix between
many different groups, counting Thais from other regions, Lao, Khmer (Cambodia), Chinese and of cause
people originally from that area, giving the region uniqueness compared to the rest of Thailand
. A special
characteristic for villages in Isan is that they are part of a network consisting of social relationships binding
villages together. Before the eighteenth century, Isan was a kind of no-man land keeping the kingdoms of
Vientiane and Champasak, subordinated to the Siamese kingdom, on a safe distance in case of rebellion.
Until the reforms introduced by king Chulalongkorn, Isan was almost independent, living their lives without
interference from Bangkok, except at the sporadic tax collection
. Before Prince Damrong Rajanubhabs
reforms of centralization were enhanced, limiting the movement of population, the people living in the
region had had a long tradition of traveling around, moving from place to place, buying or cultivating new
land for paddy rice. After the reform this changed, and for the identity of the people living there it meant
that it turned to be more and more regional instead of national or ethnical
The region of Isan is a true melting pot for identity. The word 'Isan' originates from Pali-Sanskrit and means
'Northeast'. And even though the majority living in the region is Thai citizens, most of them speak Isan
language, a kind of Lao, and identify themselves as Isan or Lao, rather than as Thai, at least among
themselves, to outsiders they are Thai. The construction of identity is very much a political issue, and most
often the Isan identify themselves as opposite an 'other', in this case people from central Thailand,
. The unique mix of cultural backgrounds among the population may well help explain the
dynamical religious life of the region, where changes happens all the time both connected to the
development locally of the village and the growing of paddy rice, and also as the effects of the global starts

Sakurai, 2006.
See Grabowsky, 1995, 107; and Hayashi, 2003, p. 5.
Southern Thailand has many Malay-Muslims and northern Thailand got hill tribes and Burmese, giving each of these
regions their own unique source of identity.
McCargo & Krisadawan Hongladarom, 2004.
Keyes, 1995; Tambiah, 1970; Hayashi, 2003.
McCargo & Krisadawan Hongladarom, 2004.
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to show locally, and affect the individual. New religious movements and practices, often with magic
monks, forest monks or mo tham as a kind of spiritual leader, have started to show more and more, and
they are getting a still increasing attention from scholars
Religion and Identity
In this part of my dissertation, I will describe a couple of concerns. First, a selection of the different religious
practices, which can be found in the Isan region. For this I will use the works by Hayashi Yukio and S. J.
Tambiah, together with Pattana Kitiarsa who I have found relevant for this part of my study. Secondly, I will
describe identity and how it is created in Isan using Sakurai, McCargo and Krisadawan Hongladarom, as well
as Pattana Kitiarsa again.
As a consequence of using terms like village religion, practical religion and popular religion I have
thought it best to give a short explanation of what I mean with each of these terms. Starting with village
religion it is the religion practiced in the village, whether this is Buddhism, spirit cults or something third.
Mostly it refers to the spirit cult that is practiced in most of northeast Thailand. Next, the term practical
religion is much what it sounds like. It is used for the religion actually practiced in the everyday life of the
villagers and is not necessarily closely connected with the religion described in the sacred scriptures. Lastly,
there is popular religion, which, as the name suggest, have to do with the religious practice that in resent
time has started to come forward, with magic monks, and spirit mediums, who take a more materialistic
approach to the religion, i.e. movie star monks, who go on television to preach the words of Buddha and
give blessings and winning lottery numbers in exchange for money. Of cause there are many overlaps in
these terms, which is why I, when such an overlap turns up, use the term that is closes to the meaning I
want to communicate.
As it is, it serves as a fact that most of the magic monks and spirit mediums have come from the lower
social classes, hence popular religion can be used to understand class, gender, since many spirit mediums
are women, and religious practices. The magic monks and spirit mediums described here are using the
dynamics and complexity of the religious landscape, as well as the fast changing socioeconomic
environment to move from being marginalized individuals to being famous religious agents, moving up the
social ladder using popular religion as a tool to empower themselves

Pattana Kitiarsa, Magic monks and Spirit Mediums in the Politics of Thai Popular Religion, 2005.
Pattana Kitiarsa, Magic monks and spirit mediums in the politics of Thai popular religion, 2005.
Bastian Friborg 040788-1907

Religion in Thailand
In Theravada Buddhism there is a strong tradition connected to the Sangha of the hosting country, it is an
institution of monks who ordinate others to monkhood and live, more or less, detached from this world in
search for Nirvana, through obedience to a long list of precepts prescribed by the Buddha
. Since
Buddhism is very philosophical in its theological ideas, the popular form of the religion tend to be focusing
on images, rituals and festivals; the monks who are the caretakers of these images and rituals have gained
considerable importance in Thai society, as we can see in the case of forest- and magic monks described
in this paper. The Sangha is currently promoting a worldview with Thailand in the middle, instead of using
its potential political influence to uphold the universal ideas of Buddhism. The Sangha actually has close
ties to the state but have long been uncritical and silence when it comes to politics, hence the state have
gained more and more control of the Sangha. As Somboon Sulesamran put it, [d]espite its esteem and
prestige, the Sangha has not been able to exercise its influence over the political authority
Both in philosophical, orthodox Buddhism; village Buddhism and practical religion in the villages there is
an ample focus on death. In fact death seems to be the most important rite of passage in Buddhism and
Thailand (Isan). Death, naturally, changes the status of the person and the fate of the dead is determined
by how the person has lived life and how the balance between bun and baab looks
. If the sum of good
deeds, bun, is greater than the sum of bad deeds, baab, then rebirth will be for the better, and the time
between death and rebirth will be pleasant. Villagers take special precautions in the case of abnormal or
sudden death, such as accidents, death by childbirth and homicide. They believe that the kind of death is of
vital significance for the soul of the dead (winjan
Hayashi describe two kinds of Buddhism in the beginning of his book. Instead of talking about just
Buddhism and non-Buddhism, which in Hayashis opinion is unable to grasp the dynamics of the religious
practices in northeast Thailand, then he introduces the Buddhism of rebirth, focusing on the merit-making
acts and social environment surrounding the wat, and the Buddhism of power which is practiced by the
mo tham
adding this to the spirit cult and we have a truly amazing cocktail of religious worldviews and

Yukio Hayashi, 2003, p. 4.
McCargo, Buddhism, democracy, and identity in Thailand, 2004, p. 156.
Tambiah, 1970, p. 179.
Winjan is in some ways equivalent to the Western term, soul.
Tambiah, 1970, p. 179.
Yukio Hayashi, 2003, p. 10.
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The last few decades has shown an upcoming trend in the religious landscape of (northeast) Thailand, cults
of magic monks (kechi achan) and spirit mediums (khon song)
have appeared in the villages as well as in
the towns. According to Pattana Kitiarsa
this is a trait of the crises of modernity and what he calls
hybridization of Buddhism in Thailand. For long time the study of religion in Thailand has been using a
model of religious syncretism combining Theravada Buddhism with folk Brahmanism, and animism. Time is
apt for a new way of studying religion in Thailand, since popular Buddhism, with its magic monks and spirit
mediums, doesnt quite seem to fit into the institutionalized structure that is Theravada Buddhism. In fact
the appearance of these cults might signify a new way to understand the development of religion, since
everyone are equals in this new way of practicing religion. The users of magic monks and spirit mediums
are coming from every layer of the Thai society, and they seem likely to have some common traits as to
why they use the services provided by these individuals (the monks and mediums). It may well be, as
Pattana Kitiarsa suggests, that they simply need some spiritual assurance to their existing way of life, with
all that it contains in material goods and wealth, something that Buddhism traditionally try to evade.
Therefore they seek out magic monks or spirit mediums that are believed to possess supernatural powers,
in order to get assurances
When entering a spirit shrine, one will notice that there is a number of different icons at the altar,
indicating the hybrid religious practice taking place here, confirming Pattana Kitiarsas idea about the need
for a new analytical model for the study of religion in modern Thailand
. If we then take a look at the
rituals used in the spirit cults it is clear that Indian Brahmantism has had its influence. This is in large part
due to the affiliation between Brahmantism and the royal court of Thailand. Many mediums are convinced
that rituals following the liturgical of royal rituals have more power than those that doesnt. Also, it is not
uncommon to see icons of Hindu deities around on the altars and in the shrines; just they may well have a
slightly different function in the Thai context than they do in a Hindu context
. For example the Hindu god
of war, Indra, who in Thailand is called, Phra In, is very popular in Thailand, where he is seen as a

Spirit mediums, as the name indicates, uses spirit possession to provide services like, the winning lottery numbers,
or advice concerning business or personal life. It is always a negotiation between the medium and the spirit, the
medium are normally offering to gain merit for the spirit, so that it can gain a better existence in the after-life, but if
the spirit say no, there is nothing to do. To give an example, the famous magic monk Achan Samsak is guided by the
spirit wicha duangtham
, and it is because of his relationship to this spirit that he can provide services like fortune-
telling, exorcising evil spirits and bless properties with good luck. The medium is an agent making communication
between the supernatural agent and normal people possible, which is why there are special rules for how a medium
should behave. Hence it is normal that a medium follow four to eight of the Buddhist precepts, in this way connecting
the spirit cult to Buddhism, and acts with the greatest respect around the alter or shrine of the spirit (Pattana Kitiarsa,
Beyond Syncretism: Hybridization of Popular Religion in Contemporary Thailand, 2005). Unlike magic monks, spirit
mediums do not have a formal public space where they can gather their followers, they usually meet with the clients
in their own house, where they have designated a certain area to the alter for the spirit that possesses them.
Pattana Kitiarsa, Beyond Syncretism: Hybridization of Popular Religion in Contemporary Thailand, 2005, p. 464.
Pattana Kitiarsa, Magic monks and spirit mediums in the politics of Thai popular religion, 2005, p. 214.
Pattana Kitiarsa, Beyond Syncretism: Hybridization of Popular Religion in Contemporary Thailand, 2005, p. 484.
Pattana Kitiarsa, Beyond Syncretism: Hybridization of Popular Religion in Contemporary Thailand, 2005, p. 472-473.
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rainmaking god, who ensure fertility to the rice fields by sending rain. In urban areas he is asked to bring
another kind of 'fertility', for example when he is asked to bring luck to a business or luck in the lottery
The justification for why spirit cults are to be accepted in a Buddhist context can be found in popular
Buddhist myths, telling that angels, thewada, possesses human mediums to defend Buddhism from fading
and disappearing after the year BE 2500 (AD 1957 following the Gregorian calendar), because the myth tells
that the religion of Buddha will last for 5000 years, but it will start to fall apart when it crosses half-way
This is why spirit mediums and magic monks
are popping up all over Thailand, mostly in the urban areas,
where the population is dense. And unlike monkhood, many spirit mediums are women, a way for them to
hallmark the influence of women on practical religion
. Spirit mediums and magic monks are not new
inventions on the religious stage, rather they seem to have lurked in the local practices, half hidden, always
a potential. They bring together the existing religious practices remodeling them to fit the dynamics of
modern Thailand
Spirits in Isan
In addition to Buddhism and the affiliated magic monks, the religious scenery of northeast Thailand consists
of many spirit cults, often concerning the guardian spirit of the village. Spirit cults seem to be quite
numerous in this region, and like everywhere else in Thailand, there are six main groups into which the
spirits can be divided: thep, phrom (both of Hindu origin), chao, thewada, phii
and winjan. While the two
first groups are mostly reserved Hindu gods and goddesses, the third is used for deities of Chinese origin,
and the fourth, fifth and sixth are classifications indigenous to the Isan region, and hence I will be talking
more about those two in the following
Thewada and phii are opposed categories, at least in this context. The thewadas are divine beings living in
the above, while phii are more atrocious and vile, living in this world
. Because of its vile nature the phii
are the one who causes misfortune for the business or in a persons life, or it can cause illness. In these

Pattana Kitiarsa, Beyond Syncretism: Hybridization of Popular Religion in Contemporary Thailand, 2005, p. 480.
Pattana Kitiarsa write about this in his article Beyond Syncretism, mentioning different eras and how Buddhism will
slowly disappear, until a new Buddha comes forth after 5000 years and renew Buddhism once again.
Wondering about how Buddhism can tolerate having all these other deities mixed into the practice, it is important
to think about the fact, that 'Buddha' is a title for someone who have achieved enlightenment, and not the name of a
god. Actually Buddhism operates with more than one Buddha, which also explains the difference of the statues made
of Buddha, in China he is fat and in Thailand he is thin, and in some part of Buddhism, Buddha is a woman. That being
said, Buddha always has the highest place of honor at the shrines, temples or alters. Buddha is seen as the most
powerful spirit in the Thai spiritual world. And unlike almost every other spirit, no medium has ever claimed to be the
medium for Buddha. (Beyond syncretism, 2005, 477).
Pattana Kitiarsa, Magic monks and spirit mediums in the politics of Thai popular religion, 2005B.
Pattana Kitiarsa, Beyond Syncretism: Hybridization of Popular Religion in Contemporary Thailand, 2005A, p. 471.
The category phii is a term that refers to powerful spirits. It is a broad category including permanent supernatural
beings and those who are the spirits of dead people (also known as winjan) (Tambiah, 1970, p. 263).
Pattana Kitiarsa, Beyond Syncretism: Hybridization of Popular Religion in Contemporary Thailand, 2005A, p. 477.
Tambiah, 1970, p. 57-59.
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cases a mau song, religious specialist, specialized in diagnose, will summon a thewada to help make the phii
identify itself, afterward another religious specialist, cham
or mo tham, depending on the kind of phii and
the sickness, takes over and uses either the thewada or in the mo thams case sacred Pali texts and power
to exorcise the phii.
The villagers tend to see the forest, wilderness, as the home of (wild) spirits and a wild place, while the
village, society, is an ordered entity, where the spirits are under control most of the time, and guarded over
by the village guardian spirit. So what we have is kind of a dual worldview, chaos/wilderness versus
, where order is represented by the well-known village and chaos by everything that
surrounds the village and that cant be controlled, such as the forest but also forces like national and
international politics and economy. The fact that there is something out-there that cant be controlled can
be scary and for that reason some could find it useful to identify oneself with a special area and seek the
protection of that areas special guardian spirit in order to gain at least an illusion of control and security
back in life.
It should not be forgotten that in addition to the above mentioned indigenous categoriesvillage
religionalso operates with the same primary concepts of merit (bun) and demerit (baab) as the national
religion, Theravada Buddhism; and like the other six mentioned categories they are frequently used in
everyday life
. There are a great many ways in which merit can be earned; these include giving food to the
monks, bringing offerings to the wat or part taking in the big annual festivals like Bun Phrawees
. In
general, people avoid acts of demerit and seek acts of merit to achieve certain goals. These goals are often
a better afterlife for oneself or some dead kin
, but it can also be a hope for improving this life. I see this
drive as something like what Aristotle noted, [w]e may lay it down that Pleasure is a movement, a
movement by which the soul as a whole is consciously brought into its normal state of being; and that Pain
is the opposite
. Villagers generally believe that, if a person has lived a good life and earned a lot of merit
then his winjan will go to heaven, where it will have pleasant existents until it is born again

The cham and tiam are intermediary and medium for the guardian spirits, respectively. The cham is chosen by
possession of the guardian spirit, who thereafter rarely or never possesses him again. The tiam is also chosen by
possession, but unlike the cham he experience possession on later occasions as well, when he summons the spirits for
curing ceremonies. Neither cham nor tiam have, in the case that Tambiah present, ever been novice or monks
(Tambiah, 1970, p. 274). Unlike the mo tham that Yukio describes, who is a devoted Buddhist.
Special words in the sacred Pali language that carries a special meaning, which can be used to drive out spirits from
a body or an area, the mo tham knows these words because of his time as a monk (Tambiah, 1970, p. 320).
Yukio, 2003; Feldt, 2012.
Tambiah, 1970, p. 53.
Bun Phraawes is the largest festival and ceremony for merit-making in the villages. The name originates from the
myth of Phraa Wes, relating the story of the Buddha in his last incarnation before attaining Buddhahood (Tambiah,
1970, p. 160).
Tambiah, 1970, p. 53.
Aristotle, book 1, Chapter 11.
Tambiah, 1970, p. 54.
Bastian Friborg 040788-1907

The guardian spirits cults that I am describing have an all but simple relationship to Buddhism. Some might
call the cults animism or pre-Buddhist, since there is a lot of crossing back and forth between the spirit
cult and practical Buddhism
, as described earlier some religious specialists in the guardian spirit cult, uses
Buddhism as their source of power when dealing with the spirits. Two indigenous categories, which are
important to mention here, are khwan and winjan, both kind of spiritual essences connected with the body,
to describe them can be difficult, the khwan is kind of a life soul, which is connected to the body, yet able
to leave it. There is some discussion among scholars as well as people living in Isan, whether the khwan
leaves the body because the body gets sick and weak, or if the body gets sick and weak because the khwan
leaves it, it is like the Danish saying about the chicken and the egg, which one came first
. When talking to
people in Isan I have heard most say that the body gets weak because of the khwan leaving it
Winjan rites are about death, and both monks and villagers work together preparing the body and sending
the soul of the deceased safely on its way to the next circle in Samsara
63, 64
. Khwan rites (sukhwan) are
performed for the younger generation by the elders, who have more religious experience as well as more
life experience
. There are different kinds of sukhwan rites for different occasions: rites of passage, such
as marriage, ordination and pregnancy, one of the village elders, often a religious specialist of some kind,
depending on the ceremony, calls to the khwan and ask it to protect the young (couple) who is the center
of the particular rite, and give a peaceful life with lots of happiness; threshold ceremonies, when someone
enter a new phase of activity, for example get a new job, and therefore needs protection, and ceremonies
of reintegration, when someone get back after long time of absent or recover from illness, where the
khwan might have lingered behind leaving the body temporarily. All these different rites are referred to as
sukhwan and the general technique by which the calling of the khwan and the binding of wrist is performed
is the same for all of them, even though the actual way of doing it can differ depending on who is
performing the ritual
. As in Buddhist rites, the wording is the most essential part of the sukhwan rites.
What distinguishes sukhwan rites from the ones performed by Buddhist monks is that the language spoken
is the local language (Isan), and that it is therefore understood by the audience. The monks on the other
hand chant in the ancient Pali language, which is the sacred language of Theravada Buddhism, but
understood only by the educated monks, and people studying Pali

Tambiah, 1970, p. 263.
Tambiah, 1970, p. 58.
Friborg, Khamkongkaeo, Khamokongkaeo, & Khamkongkaeo, 2014.
The great wheel of rebirth in Buddhism
Tambiah, 1970, p. 223.
Tambiah, 1970, p. 224-227.
Tambiah, 1970, p. 229.
Bastian Friborg 040788-1907

As it is often seen two of the phii have higher status than the rest
. They are called Tabubaan and Chao
Phau Phraa Khao
. Both are referred to as chao phau and they are respected as deities as well as phii
Villagers in Northeast Thailand sees Tabubaan and Chau Phau as belonging in a different, even opposed
domain, compared to Buddhism when it comes to religious actions. Naturally the Buddhist monks take no
part in the celebrations and cult activities surrounding the guardian spirit cult. Where religious Buddhist
activities are understood in terms of the idea of bun (merit) and how to get it or transfer it to dead love-
ones, by giving gifts to the wat or to the monks. The actions in the spirit cult are more like a bargain, where
the spirit gets gifts, offered to them by family members of the sick, to take away sickness caused by a phii,
maybe as a result of some offence committed to it
. As mentioned earlier there are many different
religious specialists in the villages, who can cure diseases and communicate with the beyond (spirits). They
each have a title or a name with the prefix mau or mo. Some examples are mau song
(diviner/diagnostician) [and] mau khwan (intermediary for khwan/or spiritual essence, who is also called
and the mo tham (exorcist)
. Each of them has their own area of expertise, as well as their own
way of performing the rituals.
Thai and Isan Identity
Radical Buddhist thinkers, like the prominent social critic Sulak Sivaraksa, argues for a definition of
Thainess based on traditional Thai Buddhist traditions. They think that the Thai identity is endangered by
increasing western influence and western consumerism, Thailand is an attractive market for Western
economies, which needs a market for investments and trade
. Because of the different culture found in
Thailand, the country is still struggling with incorporating the modern, Western technology and the
ideology of capitalism into their Buddhist-based culture
. A cultural conflict that could be seen as
threatening to both the local, village way of life and the Thainess as such, is the conflict between: the
traditional values based on Buddhism where one of the best things to do is to give vs. the Western values
where capitalistic thought of achievement and material goods as a sign of success.
When Buddhism says that attachment to material goods is not something to strive for and Western thought
says the opposite, it will have to result in some alternative ways of building relationships and doing
business, in order to incorporate both the old and the new values. For example, Thai businesses
traditionally build on the concept of Buun Kuhn, which basically meanings, mutual help; if I give you

Think of the spirits in Chinese or Japanese mythology here as well we see that some spirits have more influence
than others. See Andersen, 2011 and Srensen, 2011.
Translation of names
Tambiah, 1970, p. 263.
Tambiah, 1970, p. 264.
Tambiah, 1970, p. 271.
Yukio Hayashi, 2003.
McCargo, Buddhism, democracy, and identity in Thailand, 2004, p. 162; Niffenegger, Kulviwat, & Engchanil, 2006.
Klausner, 1998.
Bastian Friborg 040788-1907

something now, then you give me something later. At the same time the businesses in modern Thailand are
funded by Western investors, who are trying to make the relationships between the companies more
transparent, and they are trying to focus on fast results; however, both approaches have proved to be
ineffective, simply because Thais tend to rely more on long-term than short-term orientation
. The Thais
in general have this struggle when trying to find a place to stand, and after the centralizing reforms, the
combination of economic scarcity, second rank citizen status, and the fact that many Isan people lived long
time in other regions working as factory workers or in the service sector, the Isan created an identity for
the Isan people as a disadvantage and marginalized group, at least seen from the outside, and to some
extent from the inside of Isan as well. Perhaps as a consequence of the economic disadvantage in the
region, Communism and other left-wing parties have emerged in Isan, and still today most of Isan are 'red
The people of Isan take great joy in festivals and parties, and they have a lot of them. The most important
ceremony or festival in northeast Thailand is Bunbangfai, where it is associated with the guardian spirit and
the Naga spirit of the (Mekong) river and swamps
the ceremony is a show of respect, and a request to
him for plenty of rain to the rice fields and buffaloes,
who otherwise would fall ill, this is often done by
having big parties with lots of food and people
coming from different villages to meet with family
and friends and walk from house to house eating and
The construction of identity is not a simple matter; I
have therefore chosen to add a figure
, to help
understand the complexity of Thainess and to show
the many different aspects that is in play:

Niffenegger, Kulviwat, & Engchanil, 2006, p. 408.
McCargo & Krisadawan Hongladarom, Contesting Isan-ness: Discourses of Politics and Identity in Northeast
Thailand, 2004.
The myth about the Naga serves to form a regional identity and a sense of common history. According to the myth,
all the swamps are results from the eating of the Naga prince, Pangkee, in the shape of a squirrel, by the villagers. It
brought disaster down upon the villages and made them into swamps (Tambiah, 1970, p. 298-299). As the mythical
reason for the Bunbangfai festival it is providing the foundation of the guardian spirit cult and deals with the relations
between the wilderness and society (Feldt, 2012; Tambiah, 1970, p. 285). Addressing both the Naga spirit, and the
two village guardians, Tabubaan and Chao Phau Phraa Khao, the festival put into play both the wat and the shrine of
the guardian spirit.
Tambiah, 1970, p. 286; Friborg, Khamkongkaeo, Khamokongkaeo, & Khamkongkaeo, 2014.
Sakurai, 2006.
Central Thai
Popular religion
Thai Sangha
Bastian Friborg 040788-1907

Where all three circles overlap we have Thainess, while the other areas describe parts of the Thai identity,
each of which might take up more or less space than any other of the three depending on the individual. In
this sense some people may well have regionalism playing a big role in the definition of their identity,
whereas others may well be more religious or national in their orientation and way of identifying
Taking a quick look at the language used to describe someone coming from Isan, it is the term khon Isan,
people from Isan, that is most commonly used among Isan people, since it can include everyone living in
the region and not only the ones speaking Isan language. At the same time it allows the people to assume a
kind of Thai identity, without giving up the roots connecting to Laos, Cambodia or Vietnam. A sort of
hierarchy exist among the words used to describe a person from Isan, to illustrate this I will use this quote,
"[i]f someone called me Lao, I wouldn't be angry but I wouldn't like it. If someone called me Phu Tai, I
wouldn't go so far as to say I liked it. If someone called me Isan I'd be indifferent. If someone called me Thai-
Isan, I'd really like it"
. So just like Bangkokians tend to look down upon Isan, the khon Isan can look down
upon Laos, simply because Isan, as a part of Thailand, is more developed and people are better educated
than their counterparts in Laos, therefore they have higher status
The Isan identity have a different meaning to different people, and it especially differs between age groups,
where elder people tends to be more proud of the regional origin, the younger generations are more
orientated towards Bangkok and the possibilities accessible with a (central) Thai identity.
In this final part of my dissertation, I try to draw some conclusions on what have been covered; this has
turned into eight aspects following here:
First, it would seem that a certain kind of popular religious practices is gaining ground in the constant
negotiating and renegotiating of belief, religion and identity; and it looks like syncretism, as a model for
studying Buddhism in Thailand, has played its role and is slowly being replaced by Pattana Kitiarsas model
of hybridization or Jacksons postmodern approach to Thai religion, since it can no longer explain the
dynamical changes that has happened the last few decades in the landscape of religion in Thailand, with
the many new movements popping up around magic monks and spirit mediums. It is a revitalization of
decentralized religious movements not controlled by the Sangha, bringing together opposing thoughts like
economics and Buddhism, creating a new way of identification, which can be necessary in a global world,

Sakurai, 2006.
McCargo & Krisadawan Hongladarom, Contesting Isan-ness: Discourses of Politics and Identity in Northeast
Thailand, 2004, p. 231.
McCargo & Krisadawan Hongladarom, Contesting Isan-ness: Discourses of Politics and Identity in Northeast
Thailand, 2004.
Bastian Friborg 040788-1907

where global politics and economy play a role in the life of the individual. Hence hybrid is indeed a soothing
word for the new and ever-changing landscape of religion in modern Thailand. Hybridization, as it is taking
place in Thailand with the appearance of spirit cults, can be understood in several different ways. First of
all, it is an interaction between religious beliefs and the market economy, when the 'magic monks' sell
supernatural protection to their clients, or spirit mediums take a fee for giving lucky lottery numbers.
Secondly, it is a mix between different gods, from slightly different belief systems, here talking about how
Hindu gods and goddesses can be found on the same altar as Buddha and indigenous spirits. Thirdly, the
hybridization of Thai religion, has made it possible, or rather more normal, to see social movement, from
rural temple monk to high class 'magic monk', and fourthly, it seem to fit into and solve some issues in a
society that is developing very fast, and where people may well be in need of something spiritual to hold
onto, with everything around them getting more and more rationalized
Third, it would seem that Buddhism continues to be a strong source of identity for Thai people, partly
because there is still the tradition that most men at some point doing their life, spent time as a monk
learning about the scriptures. Buddhism is more than just a religion; it is a source of identity for many Thai
people. Even though there is a huge difference on how close people follow their holy scriptures and how
they are interpreted; some follow closely every word, while others stretch the meaning allowing to be part
of a fast changing socioeconomic environment and thus profit from their religious practices. So fourthly,
even though Thai Buddhism looks very harmonious to the outsider looking in, there is actually a growing
intolerance, among the Sangha leadership, to critical voices from the outside as well as the inside; this is
also why many Thai scholars and critics are reluctant to write anything critical about the Sangha.
Fifth, the multicity of religion in Thai villages, with spirit cults, the cults surrounding magic monks and
Buddhism, gives the individuals free choice between local as well as (inter-) national religions and beliefs.
This can have an influence on how they create and support their identity; if needed they have the bound to
the locality through the spirit cult, since the spirit cult in its nature is bound to a certain area, whereas
Buddhism isnt, and thereby have a much broader, international, domain. It should be said that many magic
monks and spirit mediums in urban areas because of the tendency for higher accumulation of wealth and
hence a more materialistic way of life in the urban areas. So the multicity of religion means that there are
some individuals, who use religion to move up the social ladder, from being born into poor rural families to
becoming popular magic monks with many cars and lots of land at the disposal. However, these popular
religions have always been part of the religious picture in Thailand, the new evolvement is the significance
of these movements presence and their impact on the way people construct and reconstruct their

Pattana Kitiarsa, Beyond Syncretism: Hybridization of Popular Religion in Contemporary Thailand, 2005A, p. 485-
Bastian Friborg 040788-1907

Sixth, the conflict between Western and Buddhist ideologies have influence on how identity is constructed.
Thais are struggling to find their place in a world lead by capitalistic ideologies, and for the relatively poorer
citizens of the Isan region, who often works as factory workers in other regions, this mean that they have a
disadvantage in starting point and often are identified as a marginalized group, both by themselves and
others. Seventh, the somewhat lower status of the Isan region, have an influence on how people from that
area talk about themselves, especially when around people not from Isan. It is not always they want
others, meaning people from outside Isan, to know that they themselves are Isan, simply because Thais
from other region have a certain bias, when it comes to people from Isan. So in company with other Thais
the language spoken will be standard Thai, while many will use Isan language when together with family.
Even though this changes from person to person, there is a tendency among the young generation to
identify themselves more with central, Bangkok, Thai than with Isan.
Eighth, the unique composition of cultural and linguistic backgrounds represented in the Isan region can be
used to explain the dynamics and changes in religious as well as regional identity; similarly it might very
well be part of the reason as to why regional identity underwent a boost after the reforms enhanced by
prince Damrong. The region was what the people had in common, they didnt share linguistic or cultural
background, but they shared the land, hence the growing identification with the Isan region. And then
identity is very much a political issue, and claiming to be Isan, even though other Thais would look down
upon you, then Isan was still better than Lao or Cambodian, this without giving up the identity of the region
with all its many facets.
The topics that I have tried to cover in this dissertation are huge and deserves more room, but
unfortunately because of my limited space, I have had to exclude some otherwise relevant names and
themes; it could have made sense in a dissertation like this to include the writings of James Taylor in his
book Buddhism and Postmodern Imaginings in Thailand and questions about gender in practical Buddhism,
likewise I could have made use of two other books written by Tambiah, The Buddhist saints of the forest
and the cult of amulets and Magic, science, religion, and the scope of rationality, like a more extensive use
of Regions and National Integration in Thailand 1892-1992 by Volker Grabowsky, perhaps could have given
more depth in the question of identity, but unfortunately I have had to make some tough priorities. I can
only recommend the books, if the reader seeks more knowledge about these and related areas. Lastly I can
only hope that I will be fortunately enough to get the chance to go deeper in to this and similar topics in the

Bastian Friborg 040788-1907

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