Justin McDaniel: Amulets and the Commercialization of Thai Buddhism

Justin McDaniel, The Lovelorn GhostThe following is a guest post by Justin McDaniel, author of The Lovelorn Ghost and the Magical Monk: Practicing Buddhism in Modern Thailand.

In June 2001 a police sergeant in Pattaya (Central Thailand) was arrested and charged with attempted murder and grand theft. He was caught after he held up a 61-year-old wealthy man who was wearing a Buddhist amulet around his neck. The off-duty police officer drew a concealed pistol and pulled the trigger twice. The gun jammed and the wealthy man took off on foot. The police officer was later identified and arrested. The small clay amulet, worth approximately 8 million baht (240,000 U.S. dollars), was recovered.
This story is one of many that have made headlines in the past few years regarding amulet theft, assault, and even murder. In fact, there are hundreds of miracle stories in amulet collectors’ magazines and related between friends in the amulet markets or while relaxing at monasteries. Some tell of people who were protected from house fires because of amulets. Others tell of those who successfully passed entrance examinations and people who were cured of cancer.

Amulets are big business. Even though they are made mostly of clay, honey, lime, and flowers and five or six will fit in the palm of your hand, some can cost upward of two million U.S. dollars apiece. A regular section in the popular Thai language newspaper, Thai Rath, features new amulets on the market, stories of their production, and occasionally a miracle story about how an amulet saved a person from drowning or other adversity.

The popularity of amulets has generally been approached by scholars as a reflection of a growing crisis in Thai Buddhism and the rise of religious commercialism. Most of these critics have very little appreciation for the history of Buddhist material culture and so are surprised by its apparent growth now. They are shocked by the prices of amulets, the excessive trading, the prominent display, the miracle stories, and the crime caused by the economics of the trade. They seem surprised by materialism in Buddhism, as if it is a new phenomenon. Their surprise is often characterized by anger at Thai society in general for being duped by this duplicitous religious commercialism.

Some studies express shock in a different way. They explain away the phenomenon, reducing amulets to empty signifiers onto which those uneducated in Buddhist doctrine place their lower-class frustrations, their modern anxieties, their insecurities over the Islamic insurgency or the global economic downturn, their fears regarding health, and their petty aspirations for wealth. These studies are condescending on the one hand, and longing on the other—longing for a Buddhism that fits more in line with a certain Protestant rationality that eschews materiality in favor of an undefined spirituality. Scholars have not been studying amulets and other objects used in Thai religious ritual; they have been looking at these objects and seeing them as referents to something else.

Herein lies a tension. A minority of elite and vocal critics condemn the use of objects in Buddhist life for anything more than symbolic purposes. They see the amulet industry as somehow part of the globalization of Thai culture and amulet traders and enthusiasts as victims of this new global reality. This approach effectively marginalizes any serious historical or sociological study of amulets.

In my recent book, I ask, what can we learn from amulets? Instead of criticizing them as a sign of religious commercialism or Western corruption, I look at the social impact of their trade and the religious significance of their production and ritualization. In Thailand, amulet sales fund important social services, like schools for impoverished children. Some people have criticized the commercialization of Thai Buddhism, especially the sale of amulets, as fostering negative stereotypes of Buddhists. I assert that we need to pay attention to economics, but also not have a simplistic moralist view that economics and religion should not mix.

Let me make a few quick points. First, the income from amulet “sales” is widely distributed. The amulets produced at ceremonies are rented or given as gifts, and the direct profits are usually insignificant. These gifts are considered among the most gracious ways of thanking another person for their friendship, because you are giving them the gift of merit-making. They might not have been able to go to the monastery or ritual, but you did, so by giving them a material object from the monastery, you allow them to share in the merit. Many people who sponsor the production of amulets and the monks who host the consecration and later distribution or sale would not go through the trouble if they were simply interested in profits. However, the production and “renting” of other batches of amulets can be quite profitable, as I will discuss below. The point is that the history and production of each amulet needs to be investigated before the motivation for creating or selling it is reduced to pure commercialism.

Second, if we do view the phenomenon of amulets in Thailand through the lens of economics, we need to study indirect profits as well. The consecrations of batches of amulets are very popular local events often connected to annual monastic fairs or anniversaries. These events attract locals in various provinces, students, and monks, as well as pilgrims and invited honorary guests. These people need places to eat, sleep, and shop. Therefore, hundreds, if not thousands of people profit: food vendors, carnival ride operators, astrologers, renters of sound equipment, local shopkeepers, souvenir makers, candle and incense companies and vendors, florists, motel owners, charter bus companies, dance troupes, and the like.

Of course, the publishers of amulet magazines and commemorative volumes and the manufacturers of cases and necklaces also indirectly or directly profit from this industry. Even when amulets are distributed freely, most people who visit monasteries make small or large donations. A considerable amount of local revenue is produced. Hundreds of shopkeepers, students, carpenters, and truck drivers depend on amulet sales and festivals. Amulets are often the most consistent local income stream, especially when the agricultural commodities markets change so frequently and the region fluctuates between flood seasons and droughts. Amulets provide a desperately needed boost to the local economy. People from all classes are profiting. Monks are not simply manipulating people into buying trinkets, they are participating in a micro-economic environment that is encouraged by many who have nothing to do with the monastery and may or may not be interested in collecting amulets, or believe in their power; these people may not even self-identify as Buddhist. There certainly are problems with the amulet trade, as with any other: theft, fraud, obsession. These have been well discussed by others. However, in scholarly studies, the negative effects of the trade too often overshadow the benefits.

Third, the sale of amulets, old or new, in the amulet markets outside of monasteries is a profitable business, but not a centrally controlled one like a brewery, oil company, toy factory, or automobile producer. There is no centralized group of monks who make amulets and are hoarding the raw materials or secrets of production. Amulets are produced by many monks of different ranks in many different monasteries. Amulet sales do not require elaborate storefronts, access to foreign technology, heavy machinery, tech-repair specialists, lawyers, insurance, or a highly trained staff with salaries and benefits. It is an industry that the uneducated and nonelite can break into and become experts in. Most amulet dealers I know are not wealthy. Since the businesses are rarely sold, large conglomerates or franchise chain stores have not infiltrated the market. Taxes are extremely low since no one reports their full income and there are few receipts. Sidewalk vendors pay no taxes, but pay the shopkeepers in the neighborhood inexpensive under-the-table fees. In large part, this is one of the few industries in Thailand, like the street restaurant business, that help the lower and middle classes as well as the rich.

Fourth, there are indeed many monasteries that “get rich” from amulet sales, but it is where the profits go that is worth noting. For example, at Wat Srapathum, PhraThawon organized a casting of Jatukham Ramathep amulets of various colors and sizes in 2006. This ceremony and its products raised 65 million baht (almost 2 million U.S. dollars). This money has been used to build a Buddhist school for poor children in rural Bangladesh and to help fund the building of a monastery in Australia. It also helped support the repairs and restoration of the nineteenth-century ubosot and wihan of Wat Srapathum itself. Not just cash is generated, though; the people employed at monasteries (alongside the novices, maechi, and monks, who labor for free) are often the handicapped, destitute, or orphans.

Therefore, I encourage a study of the religious use of material objects that doesn’t assume that materiality and religion are or ever have been wholly separate. The most cursory reading of Buddhist canonical texts or study of South and Southeast Asian archaeology reveals that objects have been integral in the spread of Buddhism since its inception 2,500 years ago, beginning with the relics of the Buddha himself. One could argue that buildings, images, stupas, and amulets, like the Wat Sri Chum, Phra That Lampang Luang, the Sandalwood Buddha, the image of King Chulalongkorn in front of Parliament, and so on, have inspired Buddhist practice and belief in Southeast Asia more than doctrine. Pilgrimage to images, the cherishing (not just the collecting) of amulets, the prostration to images, and the circumambulation of stupas certainly occupy the days of more Buddhists than the close study of Pali texts.

Although commercialism is generally seen as a sign of the demise of Thai Buddhism, we must start to study amulets as part of the study of Southeast Asian and, I would argue, Buddhist history. The earliest Buddhist communities in India, including nuns and monks, were involved quite extensively in the production of religious art, the economics of worship, the accumulation of wealth, and the use of objects to propitiate ghosts, land spirits, deities, and demons. Indeed, numerous archaeologists and South Asian historians have demonstrated that this intense Buddhist concern with relics, corpses, and stupas dates from a very early time in India. Canonical texts and early Pali commentaries frequently mention the use of holy water, the molding and entreatment of images, the collection of relics, and the building of stupas. There is considerable evidence to show that the popularity of amulets and the commercialization of Thai Buddhism are not new, and they are also not simply flourishing on the margins of Thai society, but central to it.

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