“Buddhism and Animism”
Shawnda, Anjali, Kevin and Steve spent a few days in Norhern Thailand to learn about the Shan community there. They were directed to a Shan village. Upon arrival, they went directly to the local temple: Wat San Pakow (‘wat’ means temple). After a tour of the area they came upon three priests, a lady dressed in civilian clothes, and a salesman. Below is an adaptation of their conversation with one of the priests, Anuarat Suwano, as well as some of their observations. Read on and learn about Shan religious practices.
We observed that one priest had tattoos of Shan script on his arms, chest, and back.
KEVIN: What are the tattoos for?
ANUARAT: They are to protect the person from bullets. If someone were to shoot at him, the bullets would not hit him. The tattoo on his back is there to protect him against bad spirits and poison. In general, to keep bad things from entering his body. Only priests or teachers (‘ajan’) with special spiritual powers are to wear tattoos. The ink for the tattoos is made with a special potion. Other priests use necklaces with amulets and ceremonial cloths as means for protection.
KEVIN: Is this a Buddhist or a Shan thing?
ANUARAT: Both the Thai and the Shan do it.
STEVE: (noticing that some of the priests wear light orange robes, while others wear dark orange robes) What is the significance of the different colors of the priestly robes?
ANUARAT: (he was wearing a darker robe outside of his lighter robe) The colors are based on strictness and self discipline. The lighter orange is for the priests when they are in the temple area. The darker robe is for travel, in case it gets dirty. It is also for priests who want to follow additional rules.
KEVIN: (directing his attention to the civilian woman) Why did you come to the temple today?
LADY: I came to have my stars read.
KEVIN: What are the reasons for having this done?
LADY: There are a number of reasons. First, if something has been stolen, the priest could possibly tell if it were a male or female who stole the item and where the item is now located. Second, if someone is in pursuit of another person in an attempt to kill him or her, that person can give his or her birth date to the priest. From this the priest will determine if the murder will happen or not.
KEVIN: How much does it cost to have your stars read?
LADY: One hundred baht (about $2.50).
KEVIN: Are there any other reasons you have come to the temple today? LADY: I have five children. I light candles for them, I buy lottery tickets, and I ask about their futures as well.
KEVIN: Are there any other priestly services offered here at the temple? LADY: There is another practice. A priest spreads rice on the floor in the shape of the person. He then covers the rice with a white cloth. The person lies down on the white cloth and is covered with four layers of priest cloth. The priest then chants over the person. This practice is believed to extend the person’s life.
[This interview was conducted on July 16th, 2002.]