We then spoke about karma, which as you probably know, is the Buddhist belief that the sum total of the good and bad you’ve done in this world follows you throughout this life, and the next, through the process of reincarnation.
Many beautiful things come from the Thai perspective on karma, like Thai spirit houses – the little ornate houses found outside of each building that are there to ward off bad spirits and bad karma.
As we mentioned in the previous column, Thai people often can be found performing rituals in front of spirit houses.
Thai Buddhists also “make merit” by offering food and gifts to monks in the morning. Making merit means to provide a virtuous gift onto the community and accrue good karma as a side-effect.
Buddha himself said that a gift given from a person who is pure of heart, to a pious recipient who is also pure of heart, is the greatest of all human gifts. The good will it generates will come back to us many times over.
The Thai notion of karma tends to lean towards generating good karma by observing ancient rituals that are considered virtuous and holy.
We still celebrate the Royal Plough Ceremony near the Grand Palace every year in Bangkok in the hopes of a good harvest.
Most Thai people would rarely fail to observe a major Buddhist holiday, even if they don’t practice all that much Buddhism in their daily lives.
My articles have frequently referred to the “Five Precepts” of Buddhism, which are similar to the Christian “Ten Commandments”.
They are easy to say, but not so easy to observe – a reality which Thai Buddhists know well.
This has caused an important cultural shift in Thailand, as places like Phuket, Bangkok, Chiang Mai and so many others provinces become littered with shopping malls, consumerist extravaganzas and pubs, many people have begun to focus less on observing the precepts of Buddhism and shifted towards trying to generate good karma through ritual, or perhaps by making merit by giving gifts to monks.
Thailand also lost many of its enlightened monks as the West discovered Buddhism. Believe it or not, you can find a lot of Thai monks in Australia or Los Angeles, as there is a strong demand for their knowledge and wisdom.
Meaning that in turn, some Thai people have lost access to gifted teachers of Buddhism. Having lost them, some turn to astrologers and fortune tellers, hoping to catch a glimpse of their future.
Meanwhile, in the West, we are largely in the dark about the intricacies of karma.
A long time ago, Buddha gave a sermon about karma which explains it very well. I’ve modernised it a bit so it is more understandable, but it goes something like this:
Once upon a time, there was a man in ancient India who had four wives. His ancient Indian name was long and funny, so we’re just going to call him ‘Raj’. Raj was very rich and was growing old.
He knew that he would soon die and did not know what to do about it. Terrified of death, he called upon his fourth wife.
His fourth wife was very beautiful and young. Most men would work very hard to have a wife just like this. You might say that she was a trophy wife.
Raj said to her, “I’ve always been good to you. I treated you better than any wife. I took meticulous care of you. I’m afraid of death. Sweetheart, would you follow me into death?”
Stunned, she said “Are you crazy? No, I won’t follow you into death! But, I will say wonderful things about you at your funeral.” Devastated, Raj threw her out of the house.
Then Raj called in his third wife. She was a lot older than the fourth but was very attractive. Men in fact still swooned over her.
Raj told her what his fourth wife had said and, of course, asked the same question. Surprised, his third wife said, “No, my love, I cannot follow you into death. But, I will pay for the most beautiful funeral ever seen and, once you are dead, I will give myself to your oldest son, Rich.” Shocked and enraged, Raj threw her out.
Still not dissuaded, Raj now called upon his second wife. She was not all that attractive and was rather old. But, she was the most doting wife of all of the four.
Raj told her what his other wives said and asked the same question. This wife looked sad. She cried. She said that she loved him more than all the world, but, she could not follow him into death. Raj was disappointed and politely asked her to leave.
Finally, Raj called upon his first wife. Raj’s first wife was anything but beautiful. She was just as old as he. She was haggard, unattractive, and men paid no attention to her. Raj told her the truth about what happened with his other three wives.
Desperate and dejected, Raj wearily asked the same question. Would she follow him into death?
His first wife answered without skipping a beat and said, “We have had a special bond since the day you arrived in this world. I’ve always loved you, and that’s why I was so strict with you. This is why people call me Mrs Karma and I’m coming with you into death.”
You see, Raj’s fourth wife was his reputation. It can do great things for you on earth, but nothing when you die.
His third wife was money. It attracts men like insects to a shiny light, but it leaves you alone upon death and goes to your eldest son.
Raj’s second wife was family. They love you and make a lot possible while you’re alive, but they cannot follow you into death. Only Raj’s first wife – karma – could follow him to the afterlife.
This clever and enlightening sermon still has a very powerful message to teach us: We all go into death alone. Only our good and bad deeds will follow us.
So, how can you build good karma? Fortunately, the answer is that you do not need to be Buddhist to build good karma. Buddhism welcomes people of all faiths.
A simple way of building better karma is to become mindful of what you take from the world and compare it to what you give.
If you build a new house and clear 2.5 rai of trees, replant the same amount, because those trees provide oxygen. If you learn that a company is buying meat from suppliers who are cruel to animals, buy it somewhere else.
If you are depressed and don’t know what to do about it, go to the fish market, buy some live fish that would be cooked, and release them into our overfished oceans. Stop killing mosquitoes.
If you change your heart, you change your whole life... and your next life.
All About Buddhism is a monthly column in The Phuket News where I take readers on my exotic journey into Thai Buddhism and debunk a number of myths about Buddhism. If you have any specific queries, or ideas for articles, please let us know. Email firstname.lastname@example.org, and we will do our best to accommodate your interests.