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Interpreting a Cosmology: Guardian Spirits in Thai Buddhism

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Interpreting a Cosmology: Guardian Spirits in Thai Buddhism


This paper argues that the Thai hierarchy of guardian spirits can and should be incorporated in a Buddhist conceptual order. Reasons for intra- cultural diver?sity in the labelling of and behavior toward guardian spirits in a Central Thai village may be traced to canonical sources and cosmological structure. A set of principles underlying the villagers* classification of supernatural beings are proposed demonstrating how ambi?guities permit

alternate orderings of spirits. Ethnographic and textual evidence are com?bined in this argument. Finally, this argument raises questions of broader theoretical interest in cultural anthropology regarding the relation between cognition and action, and the use of folk taxonomies. [[[Thailand]], Buddhism,

Cosmology, Supernatural Beings] No anthropologist who has worked in Thailand would underestimate the importance of guardian spirits in Thai religion. From the elaborate shrines northeast of the Grand Palace, and the Erawan Hotel in Bangkok, to the makeshift stands in most rural compounds, these spirits are

well housed. Western interpreters of Thai religion, however, are not agreed on the nature of these spirits. In a recent monograph on Thai Buddhism Terwiel argues that the "basic magico-anirnism which characterizes tribal T'ai also underlies the religion of the farmers in lowland Thailand" (1975: 21). The theory arguing that Buddhism is only a thin veneer over a more pervasive animism is not dead. Building on earlier similar arguments, Terwiel, in his analysis of religious ceremonies in central Thailand, has returned to this position. This essay will argue that guardian spirits can and should be

incorporated in a Penny Van Esterik is currently a research associate in international nutrition and a fellow in the Southeast Asia Program, Cornell University, Ithaca, N.Y. She received her BA from University of Toronto and her MA and PhD from University of Illinois. A mono?graph entitled Cognition and Design Production in Ban Chiang Painted Pottery, based on her doctoral dissertation, was published by Ohio University Press, 1981. Other recent articles on Thai culture history include Symmetry and Symbolism in Ban Chiang Painted Pottery (Journal of Anthropological Research), and Ban Chiang Rollers: Experiment and Speculation (Asian Perspectives). Previous fieldwork in Thailand on aspects of village re?ligion contributed to articles on tonsure ceremonies, women in Buddhism, caste ideology and symbolism. Current research interests are in nutritional anthropology and food ideology.

Buddhist conceptual order.

In fact, spirits, and specifically guardian spirits, are referred to in the Buddhist canon, a fact that argues against "veneer" theory of Buddhism in Thailand. Secondly, this study suggests that guardian spirits may be the vehicle by which nature and locality spirits and Hindu deities were integrated into a single Buddhist world view. This should in no way obscure the fact that spirits are an integral part of the belief system of Theravada Buddhism today. The study was prompted by recognition of ex?tensive intra-cultural diversity (Pelto and Pelto 1975) in the labelling of and

behavior toward spirits, particularly guardian spirits, in a Thai community. I will propose some of the principles which underlie the villager's classification of supernatural beings, showing where the ambiguities exist. But the guar?dian spirit "problem" also raises of broader

theoretical interest regarding the relation between cognition and action and the use of folk taxonomies. The problem of how to understand the system of categorization of supernatural beings came to my attention while studying the rituals instal?ling guardian spirits.1 I was unable to

discover whether these guardian spirits were phi (ghosts) or thëwada (deities).2 My initial problem, then, was to de?fine the extent and composition of the important domain of spirits. I at?tempted to define the guardian spirits spatially in a cosmological framework

and to determine whether they were "good" or "bad." Clearly, moral at?tributes and spatial location of these spirits were important characteristics to my informants, but they did not provide the basis for a hierarchical ordering of spirits (cf. Endicott 1970: 98-100 for similar

difficulties ordering the Malay spirit pantheon). Eventually, I realized that this category of guardian spirits were phi to some people, and thëwada to others, and my attempts to anchor guardian spirits in one category or another world would distort and oversimplify the interpretations given me by the villagers. There was no con?sensus on the labelling of guardian spirits and conflicting criteria for estab?lishing attributes defining the categories of pAíand thêwadã.

Thus, I faced an immediate problem in the interpretation of guardian spirits. Before looking at how other scholars have resolved this difficulty, I consider briefly the Hindu-Buddhist cosmological structure. The boundaries and levels of the world of sensuous desires (kãmaloka) appear very clearly

Fieldwork in Thailand was conducted in a large village in Uthong district, Sup?hanburi province, from June 1971 to January 1972 under the auspices of the National Research Council of Thailand. Funds were provided by a training grant from the Depart?ment of Anthropology, and a fellowship from the Center for Asian Studies, University of Illinois. My husband continued study of village religion in 1973-74, while I was involved in another

research project elsewhere. Much of my work has benefitted from his criticism and from the opportunity to revisit the village while he worked there. I wish to thank F. K. Lehman, who stimulated the theoretical approach used here, and also advised me while I was in the village. Transcription of Thai words is based on the form standardized in Skinner and Kirsch (eds.) 1975. However, I have, at times, followed conventional usage or

forms used by authors I am quoting, at the expensive of consistency. Interpreting a Cosmology: Thai Buddhism g defined. The upper six worlds are inhabited by thëwada (deities) residing on the upper slopes of Mount Meru and above. Beneath the world of humans, animals, suffering ghosts (peta), and demons (asura), is located an increasing?ly hideous series of eight hells (cf. Tambiah 1970: 36-

9; King 1964: 113). This cosmology, described in the fourteenth century Thai text, The Three Worlds According to King Ruang (Trai Phüm Phra Ruang; Reynolds and Reynolds n.d.), is widely known in rural Thai villages. Guardian spirits are not anchored in this structure, although in another sense, they can be loca?ted at several levels in this cosmology. In their relatively undefined position, they fill the interstices of cosmological and politiceli space, linking the two systems metaphorically.

1 . The Supernatural World and Its Interpreters

The wide variety of interpretations of the spirit world given by Thai villagers is reflected in the difficulty scholars have recognized in defining phi, thëwada, and guardian spirits. B.C. Law concluded his Buddhist Conception of Spirits with the observation that there is a continuous grading of goodness and evil in the spirits, with thëwada "having a preponderance of good and meritorious deeds in their favour, though they are tainted, at least in the lower ranks, with some stain of evil which they have got to work out"(1936: 107f.). Between the lowest of the thëwada and the highest of the peta there is "hardly any line of cleavage" (108). Tambiah (1970) notes that spir?its addressed as chao phõ (respected father) are a mixture of phi and thëwa?da since the border between the two is vague. Yet he still opposes phi and

thëwada. He simplifies the analysis by admitting that phi are differentiated into good and bad, but thëwada are treated as a single class. He does not deal with the fact that guardian spirits may be treated as respected deities. Kauf?man (1960), too, notes that the villagers of Bangkhuad could not explain the distinction between phi and thëwada, and gives the guardian spirit of the house compound as an example, making no

attempt to account for the am?biguity. Kirsch (1967) uses a syncretic approach that distinguishes animistic, Brahmanistic, and Buddhist subsystems. He suggests that animistic locality spirits are being up-graded to Brahman deities. These, in turn, are transfor?med and given Buddhist meaning. By this "upgrading" of spirits (or Buddhai?zation; Kirsch 1967), apAí may be transformed into a thëwada.

Attagara (1967), approaching the question as a Thai, recognizes that villagers find it difficult to distinguish ghosts from deities and concludes that the people solve the problem by lumping all supernatural agents together as phi. She gives historical evidence to suggest that in its earliest usage, phi re?ferred to both phi and thêwadã. Her example is the powerful Phra Khap?hung, the guardian spirit of the fourteenth century Thai kingdom of Sukho?thai. Her evidence suggests that since the earliest Thai kingdoms guardian spirits have been an ambiguous category capable of interpretation either as phi or thëwada.

Attagara's work supports the views of the authority on supernatural en?tities, as on so many aspects of Thai traditions, Phya Anuman Rajadhon, who writes (1954: 154) that "the dividing line between gods and devils, like men, is a thin one which is a matter of varying degree." He bases this ambi?guity on the historical development of Buddhism replacing an earlier ani?mism. He writes: "It followed that all the good phi of the Thai had by now

become thêwadã or gods in their popular use of the language. The generic word 'phi' therefore, degenerated into a restricted meaning of bad phi (1954: 153). Clearly, the spirit hierarchy is relevant to an understanding of Thai religion and world view, but there is little agreement in the literature about the nature of the spirit hierarchy or how guardian spirits should be classified. In our concern with classifying and defining phi and thêwadã, perhaps we have missed the most significant point about guardian spirits. By their ambiguous position, guardian spirits are capable of interpretation in more than one way.

2. Guardian Spirits as phi

Guardian spirits are interpreted by some Thai ãsphi (ghosts). This state?ment alone conveys very little information, since phi itself is an ambiguous category, as the following examples illustrate. Great ambiguity surrounds the spirits known as phi prêt (Pali: peta). These

spirits have been reborn in the realm of suffering ghosts between the realms of the animals and the asura (demons) in the kãmaloka world, the world of sensuous desire. In the vil?lagers' terms, these spirits do not have enough demerit to cause them to be reborn in one of the lower hells nor enough merit to be reborn in the human or heavenly levels. Even though they inhabit another realm in the kãmaloka world, they may wander

into the realm of humans where villagers occasional?ly claim to encounter them. In fact, the phi prêt wander into the human realm for the express purpose of gaining merit. According to the villagers, they cannot gain merit for themselves by listening to the words of the Bud?dha, but must rely on humans to share their merit with them. These villagers attending a temple service do, by means of a ritual known as

kruat nãm whereby Buddhists share merit with all living beings (cf. Wells 1960: 118). Their interaction with phi prêt is in a Buddhist context. Phi prêt are terrifying beings, gruesomely described in the sermons and illustrated in pictures in the preaching hall. One villager explained that you do not need to feed phi prêt and you cannot bribe them with food, but if you meet one, you can say, "please don't scare me -I will make merit and transfer it to you." These phi, then, only need a small amount of merit to be reborn in a higher realm. They are ambiguous transitional category of spirits, fixed in a level between the hells and the human realm. They are labelled phi but not treated as other phi. A Thai villager learns that phi prêt are cruel ghosts but no personal incidents suggested reasons to fear phi prêt, as one would fear other cruel phi.

Interpreting a Cosmology: Thai Buddhism 5

A second scriptural source of potential ambiguity about phi could be the guardian spirits of one of the subhells described in the TraiPhüm. There is a category of semi-permanent guardians who have done both virtuous and sinful deeds and, as a result, spend fifteen days a month as guardians inflic?ting punishment on others and fifteen days as victims of the same punish?ment. Some of these beings are phi prêt for the waxing moon and thêwadã

for the waning moon. The existence of such a category of spirits provides an excellent argument against those who conceptualize phi and thêwadã as fixed categories representing absolute and opposed spiritual beings that can be represented in a taxonomy.

The scriptures acknowledge the existence of spirits although they do not specify their nature or the extent of their power (cf. Khuddaka-nikaya, Petavatthu). Similarly, the scriptures provide limited means of protection against them in the form of paritta (protective verses). Since these spirits are not clearly defined in the scriptures, there is room for a variety of interpreta?tions as to their origin and nature. Their existence is not defined, but the de?tails are left for the individual to fill in for himself.

Villagers are able to account for a category of good spirits (phi dì) who can be supplicated and help solve daily problems such as lost cattle or sick children. Phi dì are most commonly those spirits who are associated with a particular territory and have fixed duties to protect and help those residing in their territory. If a villager can define the responsibilities and duties of a phi, then he usually interacts with them positively.

A few villagers accounted for the existence of good spirits by referring to the account of the existence of premature death recorded in the Ques?tion of King Milinda (Rhys-David 1963). In this text, which is familiar to the villagers through sermons, King Milinda asks, "Venerable Nagasena, when beings die, do they all die in fulness of time or do some die out of due season?" And Nagasena replies, "There is such a thing, O

King, as death at the due time and such a thing as premature death" (Rhys-David 1963: 162). In the words of one old woman, people may die of old age when they "should" (Pali: upayakãya), that is, when Phra Yamarat (Yama, god of death) calls them. They are then reborn in the appropriate realm depending on

their past merit. But some people die of accidents or illness before Phra Yamarat calls them. These people (Pali: upaccheda kãmakãya) become phi who wander freely until Phra Yamarat calls them to be reborn. If they had more demerit than merit at the time of their death, they will become evil spirits; if they had more merit, they will become good spirits. This inter?pretation allows for free wandering, spirits who are benevolent, and it can be traced to a well known scriptural source, although the villager version is phrased with an animate actor, Yama, who records the appropriate time of death.

The creation of "bad and good" phi

1. Natural Death Birth Death

(Pali: upayakãya) Phra Yamarai calls normal rebirth

2. Unnatural Death Birth Death Phra Yamarat calls

(Psliiupaccheda kãmakãya) > + demerit > dangerous phi

3. Unnatural Death Birth Death Phra Yamarat calls

(Pali: upaccheda kãmakãya) ) + merit > goodpht

Guardian spirits addressed as phï are described as immoral and untrust?worthy, emotional, unreasonable, and, just like humans, a little stupid. They are quite easily fooled: "You may promise them one hundred eggs if they assist you, then give them only one egg" (cf. Endicott 1970: 55). They can be bribed and will help those residing in their territory only if the individuals have shown respect to the guardian spirits. But the help

and protection they give does not depend on Buddhist morality. If ever an individual begins honouring and feeding a guardian spirit and then stops, he is in great danger. However, if a reciprocal relationship was never set up in the first place, the guardian spirit will not harm him nor will he give him protection. Guardian spirits addressed as phï, are treated aspAiand given offerings appropriate for phi, such as whiskey, cigarettes, meat, dishes, and an unappetizing spicy, sour, fish mixture.

To summarize, guardian spirits can be interpreted as good or bad spirits (phi), behaving morally or immorally. In making sense out of the spirit world, villagers must be able to account for phï prêt who are feared but do not interfere in this world, guardian prêt who spend part of their time asp/ti and part as thêwadã, and good spirits (phï di) who can actively protect indi?viduals residing in their territory. These latter guardians are more likely to be trusted because they are perceived of as being under the control of a "pa?tron." Villagers can describe guardian spirits labelled as phï as being good, bad, or neutral depending on the context. There is a body of lore and personnal experience that allows a villager to interact with these spirits in an appropriate way. Further , these interpretations cannot be dismissed as individual perversions,

underlying animism, or even ignorant "folk Bud?dhism," since there are scriptural references for villager's interpretations. More importantly, they are representative of the way people interpret their cultural categories. Ambiguity, paradox, contradiction are all potential

interpretative strategies for categories as complex as guardian spirits. Interpreting a Cosmology: Thai Buddhism 7

3. Guardian Spirits as thêwadã

There are also contradictions concerning the category of spirits labelled as thêwadã, a term that includes both the Hindu-derived deities and the un?named thêwadã who live in the heaven because of the merit accumulated in their past lives. These unnamed thêwadã are the ones that villagers interact with most regularly.

The Hindu-derived deities, such as Phra In (Indra), and Phra Phrom (Brahma) represent a pantheon of permanent positions or slots which are fil?led by a progression of beings who take up such a position because of their accumulation of merit in past lives. The "offices," much like the political hierarchy of village headman, district officer, and governor, are permanent, but the slots are filled by a succession of different people. Gombrich (1971: 181) also notes the analogy between the human and the divine power struc?ture in Ceylon. Since even low level thêwadã live for the equivalent of mil?lions of years, it is not surprising that these spirits are considered permanent.

Included among these thêwadã are nine guardian spirits with jurisdic?tion over different kinds of territory. Using the Pali or Sanskrit versions of their names, these guardians include Jayamangala, with jurisdiction over hou?ses; Nagararãja, with jurisdiction over doors, forts, and ladders; Devat hera, with jurisdiction over domestic animals; Jayasabana, with jurisdiction over food and stored rice; Gandharva, protector of marriage; D harma h orã, with jurisdiction over garden plots; and Dãsadhãra, with jurisdiction over bodies of water.

To most villagers, the guardians of the house, fields, temples, and stored rice are relevant, but their names are not often known. Only the guardian of the house compound can generally be given his full title, Phra Chai Mong Khon (Sanskrit: Jayamangala). The ritual specialists3 have texts which use the Sanskrit or Pali titles, and they can associate these guardians with certain astrological configurations, in order to invoke the protection of the guar?dians and to choose appropriate days for initiating activities within their territory, such as building a house or transplanting rice, for example. These guardians were described as the servants of the kãmaloka world who reside just belowr Indra's heaven at the summit of Mount Mem (cf. Tambiah 1970: 37). They are anchored in the cosmological structure.

The conventional, common sense meaning of thêwadã refers to a "rela?tively undifferentiated category of divine benevolent agents" (Tambiah 1970: 60). It is this category of unnamed spirits that is invited to the temple and to ceremonies in the home to offer a general benevolent protection to those practicing Buddhist morality. But this general class of thêwadã can also provide guardian spirits, as will be seen later.

3 My primary concern in the field was the study of "Brahmanic" ritual, and Brahmanic knowledge. The ritual specialists were described as being "like Brahmans" and officiate at rites of passage such as weddings, tonsures, and pre-ordination celebrations. g Penny Van Esterik Anthropos 77.1982 Included in the category thêwadã are somutthithëp, gods by their posi?tion in this world, the king and the royal family. Possessing some traits simi?lar to guardian spirits, the King is viewed as the protector of Buddhism and

the boundaries of a Buddhist kingdom. Similarly, the term wisutthithêp labels a category of pure gods who obtain the status of a god in this life, in?cluding the Buddha and the saints who have reached nirvana. Although resi?ding in the human realm, these can be labelled thêwadã. Those who label guardian spirits as thêwadã perceive of them as an integral part of Buddhist order and describe them as subservient to but supportive of

the Buddha. These guardians, then, can only assist those prac?tising Buddhist morality. According to a popular abbot in Uthong district, all guardian spirits are worthy of respect as thêwadã since they have all fin?ished the eighth perfection (Pali: pãraraz -perfections) and are stream winners (Pali: sotãpatti "stream entry"). By their great accumulation of merit, they may be reborn as thêwadã with "offices"

such as Phra Phrom (Brahma) or Phra In (Indra). These guardian spirits interpreted as thêwadã are conceived of as moral, dependable, benevolent, and powerful creatures worthy of ho?nour and respect because of their merit accumulated in past lives. They are offered vegetarian food gift for a thêwadã, such as young coconuts, boiled eggs, and pink and white sweets.

A label such as thêwadã does not simply apply to supernatural entities of high moral standards. It includes kings and members of the royal family, as well as the saints who may reside in the human realm, deities of the Hindu pantheon converted to Buddhism, such as Indra, Brahma, and the world guardians;

spirits of humans reborn in the heavenly realms by virtue of their merit accumulated in past lives; and even "bad" thêwadã capable of harming or tempting humans (we might include Mãra here).4 To further complicate the ordering, monks and lay devotees who keep Buddhist precepts are often interpreted as morally superior to the thêwadã inhabiting a higher realm, for they have the opportunity to make merit.

4. The Creation of Guardian Spirits

Although guardian spirits are labelled as phi by some individuals, and as thêwadã by others, villagers have no difficulty in behaving appropriately to the guardians. Individual Thai villagers, then, are able to construct a hierar- 4 Tambiah cites a Burmese legend, which was also recited to him by villagers in northeast Thailand, in which Mãra is converted to Buddhism by Upagupta (Tambiah 1970: 176). The legend of Upagupta converting Mãra was not familiar to

village religious "experts" in Uthong district. The figure of Mãra is indeed complex and ambiguous, but he was not consistently described as the enemy of the Buddha, much as Ferguson and Jo?hannsen (1976: 650f.) described in Buddhist murals. I concur with Falk' s statement that Mãra never became a servant of the Buddha. He remains the "perpetual antagonist" 13). Several villagers explained the existence of "evil" thêwadã analogously to their expla?nation for good phi (Figure 1). Interpreting a Cosmology: Thai Buddhism 9

chy of guardian spirits. I have not yet demonstrated the logic by which these spirit hierarchies are organized, nor have I demonstrated how this hierarchy can be related to political and social order. To do this, it will be necessary to examine the creation of guardian spirits.

A free-wandering spirit can be committed permanently to a specific ter?ritory by a ritual converting the spirit to a guardian spirit. Guardian spirits interpreted as phi originate from victims killed before the end of their allot?ted lifespan. Such installation rituals set up a patron-client relation between a spirit-client and his human patron who needs super-natural assistance. Villa?gers can cite stories of rich men who murdered a client and charged him with the responsibility for protecting a treasure against spirit or

human encroach?ment. These guardian spirits are dangerous only to those who would disturb the treasure they guard. Stories such as Khun Chang, Khun Phan (Simmonds 1963), set in Suphanburi province, describe these spirit guardians. Similarly, throughout the history of the Thai kingdom, victims were sacrificed to protect the gates on the cities. These intentionally murdered victims- commonly pregnant women- were also used to create the Chao Ph5 Lak Müéang (Lord father of the city post) and were buried under the city shrine. Wales (1931: 302 f.) also refers to the shrine of Chao Cet, another guardian spirit of Bangkok maintained until 1919, who was "a true phi since he was manufactured by the sacrifice of a suitable individual/' But guardian spirits may also be created after natural death. Such spirits are usually considered benevolent and labelled thêwadã. For example, some villagers argued that the guardian spirit of the house compound was the winyãn ("consciousness) of the first cultivators of that piece of land. In a similar manner, the deceased abbot of the village temple is described by most villagers and some monks as the guardian spirit of the temple. Since the abbot was addressed

as Phra during his life, a term reserved for objects full or merit, most villagers associated this guardian spirit with thêwadã and other high status guardian spirits.

Phra Chao Uthong (King of Uthong), the guardian spirit associated with the ancient royal city of Uthong, was described by a famous abbot of a local temple as a composite of all the winyãn of the most powerful kings of the Uthong dynasty. Although created in the same manner as the household and temple

guardian spirit, Phra Chao Uthong and Phra Siam Thevothirat (guar?dian deity of the kingdom) could not be classified as a phi by the villagers because of their royal status and their term of adress- Phra. Kirsch, in an insightful essay, has linked the religious and the political

domain topped by the king pointing out that they are both separated from and above the secular realm. Thus monks, Buddha statues, and Kings are classified as ong (mana-filled) powerful objects and are addressed as Phra (1975: 187). Guardian spirits addressed as Phra are conceptually linked to persons or objects of great merit, and are referred to as thêwadã. For example, the guardian spirit of the kingdom, Phra Siam Thevothi?rat, is a

composite spirit composed of the winyãn of the most powerful kings 1 0 Penny Van Esterik Anthropos 77.1982 of Thai history- specifically those that successfully defended the boundaries of the kingdom against invaders. According to several villagers, the guardian

of the kingdom includes Ràmkhamhãeng (1276-1317), Naresuan (1590- 1605), Narai (1656-1688), Taksin (1767-1782), and Chulalongkorn (Rama 5, 1868-1910),5 although many of the villagers did not know his term of ad?dress and just referred to him as the guardian spirit of the kingdom.

5. Guardian Spirits as Ordered Hierarchies 

Guardian spirits, whether interpreted as phi or thêwadã, are a part of Buddhist civilized order. They protect those within their territory from un?converted hostile spirits. These guardian spirits can be further transformed into guardians with larger territorial jurisdiction if they are

incorporated into the political administration by rituals of consecration, such as the coronation of a king (cf. Gerini 1895; Wales 1931;Tambiah 1976). They are thus incor?porated into the political domain of a Buddhist polity and are in fact prere?quisites for Buddhist social order. Tambiah (1976: 73)

documents the rela?tion between Buddhism and polity in Thailand. He cites Mus who writes that the main purpose of a state religion "seems to have been the authentication of the whole system, enlisting as it did, at ground level, the tutelary spirits and genii of the commonfolk." Hanks expresses the hierarchial relation be?tween the guardians as he describes a farmer offering food and flowers to a local guardian spirit. Yet this simple ceremony without the proceeding royal plowing rites at the capital may well be ineffectual. The king in his capacity as Lord of the

Flatness of the Earth addresses higher beings in the hierarchy of gods and angels . . . with word passed on from on high, the many local guardians are prepared to assist in every valley and backwater (Hanks 1972: 78).

A villager, then, knows that there is some order to guardian spirits al?though he may not know the appropriate labels. There are several possible analogies which may be used to aid interpretation of guardian spirits. These analogies may be known to a limited segment of the

population, and appear in my field notes as isolated, esoteric pieces of knowledge, superficially at least, unconnected to the organization of ideas held by the majority of vil?lagers. This field data can be accounted for by viewing the concept of terri?torial domains and their spirit guardians as encompassing seven structural

levels. Labels for guardian spirits could potentially be drawn from the level of the house, house compound, village locality, province, kingdom, and kãmaloka world. Each level has its own guardians but the organization of guardian spirits is structurally similar on all levels (cf. J. Van Esterik 1972, 5 Two informants included another King, Boromracha (1370-1388), who was Prince of Suphanburi, marched his troops from Suphanburi, and took over Ayudhya (Kasetsiri 1976: 109).

Interpreting a Cosmology: Thai Buddhism

on the structural similarity of the rituals installing these guardians). The guardians of the lower level domains, such as house, compound, and vil?lage are usually interpreted as phi, while the higher level domains, such as province, kingdom, and kãmaloka worlds are guarded by more powerful and higher status spirits interpreted as thêwadã. Those villagers who have a wider knowledge of the world outside the village are more likely

to apply the name of a higher level guardian to a guardian of a lower domain. Thus, knowledge of the guardians of different domains is not evenly distributed in the village. Levels of relevance to most villagers are guardians of the house compound, village, and locality. Some are aware of the cosmological analogies with the guardian of the kãmaloka world. Others are aware of the political impor?tance of the guardians of the

district and provincial centres. Not all villagers label the spirit hierarchy in exactly the same way, as a consideration of the labels applied to the guardian spirits of the house compound demonstrates. Villagers referred to this spirit as phi chao thï, chao thi, phi ban, Phra Phüm, Phra Phüm chao

thi, and Phra Chai Mong Khon. The first three terms are used by the villagers that consider the guardian spirit a phi, and treat him ac?cordingly. The latter three terms are used by villagers that treat the guardian spirit as a thêwadã. The few who knew the term Phra Chai Mong Khon

(almost always ritual specialists) identified the guardian spirit with the world protectors of kãmaloka (sensual world). It is consistent with the villager's treatment of and belief in guardian spirits to consider that the variety of labels given to the guardian of the house compound stems from the

fact that several domains have guardian spirits occupying the same structural position. Thus, labels for a higher domain, such as the kãmakola, can be applied to the analogous guardian of a lower domain, such as a house compound.

The domains of territorial guardian spirits, hierarchically ordered 7 Kãmaloka World

6 Kingdom I Guardians commonly

5 Province Ì treated as théwadã

4 I Locality

3 Village Guardians commonly

2 House Compound ( treated as phi T"| I I I I I I - House ' As a part of the cosmological system, guardian spirits link the ideologi?cal and political realms, and are an integral part of a Theravada Buddhist state (cf. Heine-Geldern 1956;Tambiah 1976). However, knowledge about

the labelling and meaning of this cosmology is not distributed evenly in the village. Those practitioners possessing Brahmanic knowledge (P.Van Esterik 1973: 117) are more likely to label the domains "correctly" and in more detail. The farmer knows that he is protected by a myriad of spirits, but he may only have occasion to know the names of a few.

6. Conclusion

Knowledge of guardian spirits is not evenly distributed in this Thai community. Yet all villagers can interpret guardian spirits in a way that could be understood by other villagers. There is a single conceptual structure underlying the variety of behavior toward and labelling of spirits, which allows a villager to generalize about them, and serves as a reference for the interpretations of guardian spirits as either phi or thêwadã or both. There are clearly canonical inputs into this conceptual structure, but references to spir?its in the canon are themselves ambiguous (recall the phi prêt, the guardians of the hells, references to Indra, etc.).

It is no longer possible to take refuge in an outmoded theory of Thai animism to avoid more complex analysis of Thai spirits. Analysts must make use of scriptural sources if they wish to understand Thai religious belief and practice, because Thai villagers can and do make use of such sources them?selves. It is only by examining the ambiguities and paradoxes in the system of spirits that an analyst (or a villager, for that matter)

can begin to discern the principles of ordering guardian spirits and assigning them meaning. Some of the principles underlying the order include the following: 1) Guardian spirits can be interpreted as phi or thêwadã, depending on their perceived merit level. Those incorporated into the higher levels of

the politiceli hierarchy are viewed as supporters of Buddhism, and labelled thëwa?dã. They include spirits that have been described as being derived from the "Brahmanical substratum." Guardians with fixed duties and bounded terri?tories are considered

"controlled" and therefore dependable. Guardians interpreted as phi are perceived as having a low merit level and are capable of disrupting Buddhist order. Because they are not "controlled," and may have few fixed duties, their behavior is more unpredictable. 2) But neither guardians as

phi or thêwadã can be distinguished abso?lutely by "goodness" or "badness." There is a continuity of merit level in the supernatural world, just as in the human world.

3) Just as humans cannot "know" their own merit level with any degree of certainty, so they cannot know the merit level of occupants of the super?natural world. They must rely on cues which may lie outside of the super?natural domain, such as personal difficulties or the apparent disintegration of political or social order (cf. J. Van Esterik 1977).

4) Guardian spirits are linked to the social and political world through patron-client relations established through ritual. Intentionally killed victims and those dying of natural causes become different kinds of guardians. 5) But rituals can convert one kind of spirit into another kind. Thus, the process of creating guardian spirits is continuous.

6) Since distribution of knowledge of the supernatural world differs among specialists and non-specialists, there is unlikely to be agreement on the mapping of the spirit world. Not all villagers structure the spirit hier?archy in the same way. From the point of view of a single individual, there Interpreting a Cosmology: Thai Buddhism

are at least seven structural levels of guardian spirits which might provide la?bels and possible interpretations for guardian spirits. Only by conceptuali?zing these different levels as potential sources for interpretation, or potential analogies, does this intra-cultural variation become

meaningful. This essay underscores the importance of relating the meaning an indi?vidual assigns to the spirit hierarchy, and his behavior toward those spirits (cf. Lehman 1971; Tambiah 1970). Further it demonstrates why taxonomies are totally inadequate to express knowledge of the spirit domain. Taxonomies of the spirit domain (cf. Frake 1964; Brown 1976) would not permit recog?nition of ambiguity, and would

simply reflect a few labels at one point in time in some particular context. In fact, the power of guardian spirits may be derived from the potential of ambiguous items to be ordered in more than one way. Guardian spirits, as identities on the boundaries of major categories (phi and théwadã), can be powerful and dangerous (cf. Van Gennep 1960; Douglas 1966; Endicott 1970).

At the base of this question of Thai guardian spirits is the more general problem of how to express both process and structure simultaneously (cf. Willis 1967; Cicourel 1974). Guardian spirits are ideal vehicles for mediating a basic contradiction in Buddhist cosmological paradox dealt with by Spiro (1970),

King (1964); and Tambiah (1970), among others. Briefly put, how can a religious system emphasizing central values such as anattã (non-self) and anicca (impermanence) provide the basis for a stable social and political organization based on permanent statuses, hierarchy, and kingship? This con?tradiction is encapsulated in the guardian spirit paradox, where spirit entities must be capable of interpretation both as temporary manifestations contin?ually being created and as a fixed permanent bounded set of identities lin?king cosmological and political order.

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