Education About Asia: Online Archives

Spheres of Transaction in Thai Buddhism

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If the diversity of religious experience and expression share anything, it is that they are both transactional: one offers something in order to receive something. Actions of sacrifice, prayer, devotional study, and even service are ultimately seeking a balance of some kind between self and other. But, while transaction in itself is universal, the manner in which transactions are carried out is particular, in that it is necessarily determined by a cultural context. Each one shapes the other: where it is determines how it is. There is simply no such thing as a pure or “essential” religion. “Doctrine” is abstract when juxtaposed with how it is lived out in a particular culture. Consider the difference between the study of a foreign language in the classroom and the immediacy of learning it “on the street.” The classroom is indeed essential for learning the mechanics, but once in-country, one is oftentimes surprised to discover that no one actually talks like that. Such is the case with religion: the culture shapes the manner in which it “talks.” Nowhere is this dynamic played out more compellingly than in Buddhist practices in Thailand. What is Thai Buddhism? What makes it “Thai”? It would be far easier to say what Thai Buddhism is not, for it is so many things—animism, Hinduism, the Monarchy, the monastic community, popular and/or local practices . . . and, of course, Buddhism. As interrelated facets of the Thai cultural landscape, each one contributes to Thai Buddhism’s unique identity.

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