I was in steamy hot Bangkok in Feb 2013; my hotel was the renovated version of an R&R hotel filled with US troops during the Vietnam war, against which I had been a conscientious objector in the early 1970’s. In my hotel foyer I read newspapers which wrote of the systematic persecution of moslem communities dependant on catching fish. The Thai government was instead creating a mass harvesting fish industry. My friend & I sat in the cool local Buddhist wat or temple, where locals gathered at odd hours; their devotion was obvious to all. The monks or priests in their sangha seemed to drift about, an invisible layer above the devotion of ordinary people.
When I first studied Theravada Buddhism, I was told that unlike the Mahayana Buddhism of Japan & China it did not resort to the use of religious imagery. Nevertheless, in Bangkok the wats or temples contained huge images of the Buddha seated in meditation or reclining, the latter was an enormous gilded image. I was also told that the monks tolerated the superstitions of ordinary people. In market places I saw stalls where images or medals of the Buddha were sold, virtually as good luck charms. My pleasant stall minder kindly told me the images I was examining were not antiques, “mai giao”, he said. Tolerance or patronising, one might ask of the monks.
Next door in Burma, the Buddhist monks were part of the support structure of a repressive military regime.
The so-called superstition of ordinary people involved ascribing spiritual power to certain places and things. Monks & intellectuals might sneeringly retort that humble folk had no capacity to conceive of an underlying universal principle. Perhaps it was the language of ordinary folk that was the stumbling block. Given the way that politicians & bankers make use of a discourse that is fluid but not illuminating, it might be better to describe the most important things without words. As Shakespeare said, “the rest is silence”.