To the average Thai, popular "Buddhism" plays a great role in their lives. In front of virtually every shop, store, factory, company, business building, and office building, including the house of the Ministry of Science and Technology, Spirit houses can be found, often filled with a lot of religious paraphernalia. A Spirit house is usually a model of a temple placed on top of a 3 feet pole. They are believed to be dwelling places for local patron spirits - and sometimes patroness spirits. When placed in front of hotels and business premises, the Spirit houses may be considerably larger. Inside the Spirit house, one can often find a Hindu god.
It has been noted that the historical Buddhism differs significantly from contemporary popular religion. Thai religiousity consists of various varieties of belief: Animism, Hinduism, Chinese belief systems, and popular folk Buddhism, as well as the pure and more textual versions. In practice, the average middle class Thai who claims to be Buddhist, believes in spirits, in astrology, and in a variety of magic practices. An excellent spot to study contemporary Thai religiosity is the Erawan Comer in the tourist and business area of Bangkok.
At the Erawan Comer, the most powerful shrine is the statue of Brahma in front of which for instance Miss Asia, in 1987 , performed a ritualistic Thai dance to fulfill her vow to the shrine.
The Erawan shrine was erected in the early 1950s at a time when the Thai Govemment was building the first world-class hotel. At the construction site of the Union Thai Hotel (today's Hyatt Erawan hotel), the Erawan management was faced with a great misfortune. One mishap followed the other, and in 1951, the construction work was completely stopped as a result of the sinking of a ship loaded with marble intended for the hotel. The workers simply refused to work. As a result, an astrologer, Rear Admiral Luang Suwicharn, was consulted. Re pointed out that since the name Erawan (the three-headed elephant Brahma rides) had been chosen, they had to place themselves under Brahma's protection. Therefore, a statue of Lord Brahma was erected on the hotel grounds; and fortune changed...
The Erawan shrine is venerated by people from all fields of life, including business and hotel management. Passersby make their wais - a respectful gesture to greet a person, in particular a social or spiritual superior - to the statue and spread the blessing with both hands over their heads, even while driving car. People offer classical dance performances, money, acrobat shows, flowers, incense, yet most often they offer little carved wooden elephant statues to the shrine which are then given to a Buddhist temple to gain merit. A large percentage of the money donated to the shrine is re-donated to the hospitals of the country.
The Erawan area is considered to be a spiritual minefield. One of the reasons is that it used to be a site where crirninals were put on public display.
In the mid-1980s, there was a spiritually complicated challenge to World Trade Center kitty-corner' s building site and to the Brahma shrine. A Feng Shui consultant recommended a mirrored pyramid.
Feng Shui is a Chinese geomancy by which houses are designed in harmony with the winds generated by the breathing of the earth and the universe. In Chinatowns, the puy kuei (or ha gua), eight-sided mirrors are seen in front of almost every house. In Taiwan, Singapore, and Rong Kong, most of the business premises are laid out following Feng Shui principles. In Thailand, however, Feng Shui is not enough. Brahmin ceremonies as well as Buddhist presence are also required.
To call a Feng Shui geomancer a 'Feng Shui priest' is a misnomer in Thailand. The Feng Shui man in Thailand is more like a surveyor with his own know-how in physics, calculus, and computers.
The World Trade Center is basically in three ways protected against the spiritual influences from the Erawan intersection: First, there is a mirrored pyramid according to the Feng Shui principles, then there is a spatial spiritual buffer zone, and thirdly a statue, the Siam Thevatirat, which is the guardian spirit of the King and of the nation. It has a Hindu-like appearance which resembles some of the statues of Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara.
In the third comer of the intersection, there is a curved facade faithful to the Feng Shui principles, and a problematic Garuda ("Krut" in Thai) statue. This mythological bird is the official symbol of honour and prestige granted by the gracious permission of His Majesty the King only to certain business enterprises which have made sizeable contributions to the country. It has turned out to be a threatening figure to those enterprises whose offices are located directly opposite the spot where a Garuda is mounted. Local legends tell of a series of bankruptcies, scandals, fatal accidents, and deaths caused by a residence opposite to where the Garuda is placed. The Japanese Mitsui Bank, which is opposite the huge Garuda donated to the Bangkok Bank on Silom Road, is reported to have built a spirit house and installed several anti-ghostmirrors after having experienced a series of scandals, fatal accidents, the death of the Japanese managing director in a car accident, and serious illnesses without any apparent explanation.
The fourth comer of the latest, Grayson building seems rather empty in having no spirit house. The only obvious sign of awareness of the spiritual influence is the multiangled comer of the building shaped according to Feng Shui principles.
Popular Thai Buddhism is highly ritualistic in nature. Openings, company anniversaries, contract signings, and many other events have to be marked by some sort of religious confirmation. Each year, 87.8% of the business people engage in Buddhist ceremonies. According to a survey by Ms.Suntaree Komin, Ph.D., 38.1 % of business people consider religion a major influence in their lives, while 45.2% considered if to be of moderate importance. According to the same survey, a considerable part of Thailand' s educated and professional classes consult various types of mordu - astrologers and fortune tellers - on a regular basis. 35% of the business people report consulting a fortune teller, a palm reader, or astrologer at least once a year. Surprisingly, higher educational levels correlate positively with an increased tendency to consult metaphysical practitioners. 47% of MA and Ph.D. holders, and 35% of all business people report that they consult such practitioners with a frequency of one to twenty times a year. Ms. Suntaree Komin also found out that Bangkok residents "engaged in such behaviour more often than rural people", and that "the highly educated seek fortune telling as often as the uneducated".
This is what you may observe at the Erawan Comer and around the Brahma' s shrine.
The modernization and urbanization of Thailand do not seem to decrease the religiosity of the educated Thai. Rather it removes it even further away from the textual and orthodox Theravada Buddhism. There is middle class religiosity emerging in the developing parts of Thailand. It is a religiosity that "guarantees" power and success.
Blaufarb, Ross: The Ghost in the Machine. - Manager: Thailand's Business Monthly, No 42, June, 1992. - Economic life in the kingdom sees the world of spirit and high finance moving together in harmony.
Suntaree Komin, Ph.D.: Psychology of The Thai People. - Bangkok: Research Center, National Institute of Development Administration (NIDA), 1991.
Segaller, Dennis: More Thai Ways. - Bangkok: Allied Newspaper Ltd., 1982.Segaller, Dennis: Thai Ways. - 3rd. impression. - Bangkok: Allied Newspapers Ltd., March 1984. - (Originally published by Thai International).