Buddha, Spirits, and Brahma! Oh My!

I find other religions fascinating, always have and always will. It amazes me what some people can believe and make their life’s work and how it can be so different from my own beliefs, not to say their dogma is wrong or that they are bad beliefs but just different. I came to Thailand with the understanding that it is a Buddhist country, around 94%. This pleased me to hear since Buddhists are a peaceful people who believe in karma, so I feel pretty safe. The second largest religious group in Thailand at around 5% are Muslims, most live down at the southern border of the country toward Malaysia. The remaining percent are other/Christians at around 0.7%.

I understand that I am in the minority category for religion in Bangkok so everything I see and hear will be different from what I am used to seeing in the Bible Belt. I arrive in Bangkok and our first day I see this little house, like a doll house, up on a tall pedestal that contains what I think is maybe a Buddha but then I look closer and see that this statue looks more like a Hindu god, with 4 arms and the position the statute is sitting in. I find this odd but I am not sure what to make of it and I don’t have anyone to ask. My next encounter with a spirit house happened a few days later during a walk to the 7/11 and we see another shrine that has a statute of a different god but this time we are seeing people leave food and sodas (with a straw) at the alter. Again I am perplexed since I am still under the notion that everyone is Buddhist but I still haven’t seen one Buddha!

Chris and I debate about what the food and drinks are for… Are they for the god that the shrine is made for or is it for the monks that go out every morning to collect alms? (Monks are only allowed to receive gifts as part of their beliefs so in the morning they are given food and other essentials from the locals.) I finally meet someone who can at least tell me that these doll houses are called spirit houses but really can’t explain much more than that. I ask about the offerings and they said that someone comes to pick them up very early every morning and they are disposed of but this isn’t something that people talk about.

As the weeks go on my curiosity grows and finally Pai comes to work with us. Finally someone who can give me an answer! Pai explains to me that a spirit house (saan phra phum) is built whenever a new building is made to house the spirits that are displaced during the construction process. This is where the Hindu beliefs start to mesh with the Buddhist beliefs. Hindus/animist believe that spirits, or phi, are everywhere. Phi can live in trees, dirt, buildings, and even people. To ensure that the phi do not bother people during their daily routine they construct a spirit house for them to live in. For example, the temporary housing where we are staying now is a smaller building, only 8 floors, so the spirit house is modest to reflect that and when we move to the new housing,that has about 60 floors, the spirit house will reflect that building and be a little more flashy.

Since the Thais believe that an unhappy spirit is a bad thing they give offerings everyday. Pai explained to me that she has a spirit house at her home and she will leave water and fruit for the spirits. For the staff that work at this hotel they leave their offerings at the spirit house right outside the front door to keep the spirits happy and to bless their day at work. Pai says that everyone in Thailand believes something different. From what I have seen so far one of the four major Hindu gods will inhabit the spirit house, Brahma, Vishnu, Shiva, or Ganesh. She has a friend that will only go speak to Brahma (the hindu creation god) and Pai says her spirit house is of a former King of Thailand and that is the spirit she puts her faith in. I asked why she didn’t speak to Brahma and she said she has tried before but the god has never helped her or answered her request. Thais will bring their prayer requests to theses gods or, in Pai’s case, the king and if the outcome is favorable the Thai will come back to their spirit house to show thanks by bringing a better offering the next day.

I have gathered this information from reading that I have done in my travel book and with talking to Pai. I find the differences here amazing and there are so many more that Pai has taught me but that will have to be for another blog post, for another day.

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