Buddhist magic monks and spirit mediums in Thailand assist people both morally and spiritually, and they give them guidance on financial matters that may help them to become rich. Essential actors of what could properly be called “popular Buddhism,” they provide important services to the urban and rural Thai—in some ways, perhaps, more than the conventional temples do.
Compared to the monks of the Dhammic temples—traditional Buddhism—the magic monks and spirit mediums deal with more worldly matters. An article by Pattana Kitiarsa explains this Thai popular religious phenomenon.
A magic monk specializes in using magical practices to help others materially, psychologically, socially, economically, and spiritually. The magic monk is normally well known for his charisma and his supernatural powers. As an example, the author discusses the life of a prominent monk born into an average rural Thai farm family. He did well in school, attended a teacher-training college, then went into business rather than into teaching.
He discovered he had a strong interest in, and ability with, magic practices. He became a forest monk. As he faced the hardships and challenges of living in a forest setting, he began to learn magical incantations. He found he was good at it and started attracting followers and customers. He insists that he only uses a form of benevolent magic called wicha dunagtham.
The author asked an assistant who has worked for years with the magic monk about his success. He replied, “he is famous because of his magical practices, which are efficacious and helpful, especially his tips on winning lottery numbers. … With this magic, he showed no fear at all in places like village cemeteries, sharp-curve sections of the highway where a large number of people were killed in car accidents, or spots where people have just committed suicide” (p.212).
The magic monk is asked to bless new properties or vehicles, to tell fortunes, to protect people from evil spirits, and to exorcize harmful spirits when necessary. People pay him well for his advice, psychological assurances, and moral or spiritual assistance. He has earned from these activities nearly 100 million baht (almost 3,000,000 USD). His temple has numerous vehicles, a lot of land, and a variety of other assets.
He has attracted disciples from all over the country, and he is asked to perform at many business events and homes. His miracle stories have been cited in a mass-circulation Thai magazine devoted to magic practices, and he has received invitations to travel to Malaysia, Singapore, and the U.S.
The author accompanied him during a visit to a business establishment owned by a man who was also a government official. The client wanted to set up a spirit house, a dwelling place on the premises for the spirits that might reside there or be passing through. The magic monk advised the owner about the importance of providing a house for the spirits, so they will not cause damage to buildings or harm people’s lives. He also, during the visit, gave the hosts amulets, blessed a new car, sprinkled holy water, and gave advice about various potential investments and business deals.
In the second half of the article, Kitiarsa discusses the life of a spirit medium, a woman who was also born into a poor landless rural family. She has had a much harder life than the magic monk, but she is now living in a city in northeastern Thailand where she does a brisk business as an agent who intervenes with the supernatural forces for her clients, the ordinary people of her community. The second floor of the elderly lady’s house, located in a poor neighborhood of the town, is a spirit shrine.
Her clients are mostly working-class people—factory workers, drivers of pedi-cabs, and market vendors. Sometimes she also has business people, college students, and civil servants as customers. She describes her customers as people who “seek advice on their business matters. … [They] have problems with major and minor wives, and ask questions pertaining to their respective jobs and fortunes” (p.218). She listens to problems and difficulties and helps her customers by interpreting the will of the deities with which she communicates.
She feels she has to practice regular Buddhist meditations in order to maintain the respect of her clientele. She realizes that her work does not help everyone, but her clients do not blame her when her efforts are unsuccessful. The lady told the author she wishes she could become a business person, but apparently the deity that manages her affairs will not allow it.
Female spirit mediums have a lower social status than the magic monks, and they don’t own formal public spaces such as temples. Their work normally occurs in private shrines located in homes. The spirit mediums receive monetary compensation for practicing their magic with clients.
Both the magic monk and the spirit medium the author profiles came from poor, rural beginnings. The author concludes that the monkhood has traditionally been a channel for social mobility, a way for young males to escape from their marginalized social and economic positions. Spirit mediumship likewise has been a traditional way for women, particularly in the villages of northern and northeastern Thailand, to express their identities and voices. “For generations, spirit mediumship has been retained as a religious sanctuary for women’s religious empowerment,” Kitiarsa indicates (p.221).
While the monk has achieved fame and fortune and the medium has not, they both work hard in their religious careers. The monk has wealthy business clients from many communities, while the clients of the medium are relatively poor housewives and working people from her neighborhood. The monk uses the latest sport utility vehicles and communications equipment, assets that the medium does not have access to. But for both, one of the driving desires is money—a major factor in determining social class in Thailand. The two magical professions are similar, but wealth and status are apparently reserved for the men who become magic monks.
Kitiarsa, Pattana. 2005. “Magic Monks and Spirit Mediums in the Politics of Thai Popular Religion.” Inter-Asia Cultural Studies 6(2):209-226