'Magic monks' face harsh reality in Thailand1:44 PM, December 2, 2018
Thailand:Scientists on a mission to debunk the superstitions and sometimes fraudulent powers that have a stranglehold on Thai society.
A monk with magical tattoos on his back sits at a Buddhist monastery in Bangkok. Age-old beliefs in everything from ghosts to lucky charms continue to be widely accepted by Thais. (Photo by Tibor Krausz/ucanews.com)
Wat Cha-ang on the northern outskirts of Bangkok boasts an old Buddha statue whose origins date back to the era of the Thai capital city's founding in the late 18th century.
Yet that's not why people from far and wide have been flocking to the Buddhist monastery in a riverside community on a bank of the Chao Phraya River. The object of most visitors' interest is an old tree trunk.
The trunk was fished out of the river two years ago after an elderly monk, since deceased, had a dream in which a female arboreal spirit told him of the dead tree lying underwater nearby and asked him to help retrieve it from its watery grave.
Or so locals believe.
"We found the trunk submerged in water," recalls Chalerm Tongmorn, a local man who now guards the trunk, which many Thais believe to have belonged to a sacred tree once growing by the river. "It was there on the opposite bank," he adds with a hand gesture indicating the place.
"The tree trunk was pointing in the direction of the temple, against the current. It was showing us where it wanted to be taken."
Taken to the monastery, the trunk has been on display at a specially built teakwood pavilion ever since.
The sacred tree trunk's storied discovery and alleged magical powers have been drawing a steady stream of visitors who come with gifts and donations in the hope of being rewarded with good fortune.
Most supplicants seek to be shown winning lottery numbers. These they hope to find out by rubbing talcum powder on the off-white trunk and looking for number-shaped patters in it. Some of the people who have visited the shrine have reportedly won the lottery.
However, those with the most to gain from the venerated trunk's presence are clearly local monks. Wat Cha-ang has received several million baht in donations, resident monks say.
"Thais have strong beliefs about sacred trees," says Wipat Pathumkij, the monastery's abbot. "When people hear about this tree [trunk], they come and come. They want to see. They believe they will get lucky."
Local monks do not discourage such beliefs.
"In Buddhism we should only believe in things that we can prove," the abbot acknowledges. "But it's part of Thai culture to believe in spirits. I don't want to scold people for placing their trust in supernatural things."
Yet scientifically minded Thais see the continued stranglehold of superstitions on Thais from all walks of life as something of a curse.
"How can we become a modern society if people continue to believe in nonsense?" asks Jessada Denduangboripant, a biologist who lectures at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok.
An energetic man in his early 40s, Jessada is a science popularizer on a mission. He's been waging a one-man crusade against self-styled mystics and miracle-mongers who set out to strike it rich by deceiving gullible Thais.
The scientist has especially had it in for Buddhist monks who claim to possess miraculous powers or peddle what they pass off as supernatural phenomena. On his widely popular YouTube channel called Wittaya Tasawang ("Open Your Eyes With Science"), Jessada has debunked the stunts of several self-styled saffron-robed miracle workers, showing them to be cheap tricks.
His targets included monks at a monastery in the northeastern province of Nong Bua Lamphu who came to fame two years ago when some began performing what seemed to be miraculous deeds.
The monks would sit down in a meditative pose within large vats of oil, under which attendants then light a pile of wood. Despite the intense heat, the monks appear unperturbed and unharmed as they continue meditating.
Donations from the faithful — mostly poor rural folk — started pouring in. The Buddhist temple also began making a brisk business selling mass-produced talismans and small bottles of "sacred oil," which were touted as potions with magical medicinal properties.
Jessada was skeptical. The vats the monks used, he noticed from watching a YouTube video, had an odd shape: a large flat rim was attached to a round bowl. The containers, he surmised, had an inner layer for insulation, which allowed the monks to remain unaffected by the heat.
He demonstrated how it was done in a simple science experiment in his lab and went on Thai television to debunk the alleged miracle performed by the "magic monks."
"I am a practicing Buddhist, but I believe it's my job to help expose monks like these," Jessada says. "They bring discredit on my religion by deceiving people."
He has his work cut out for him. Numerous monks around Thailand, a country where age-old superstitions continue to proliferate, claim to have magical abilities.
In the southern province of Nakhon Si Thammarat, a Buddhist monk called Phra Ajarn Cha ("Venerable Teacher Cha") shot to fame not long ago after he claimed that he could sweat red crystals.
Because of his great spiritual accomplishments and moral character, it was claimed, his beads of sweat and drops of blood miraculously morphed into crystals. These "sacred relics" came to be coveted as protective talismans by his followers, many of whom paid large sums of money to acquire some of them.
Yet this monk too turned out to be a swindler.
Weerachai Phutdhawong, an associate professor of organic chemistry at Kasetsart University in Bangkok, got hold of a few "magic crystals" allegedly perspired by the holy man and tested them in his lab. They were common plastic beads.
The monk wasn't amused. "He started threatening me," recalls Weerachai, who is a practicing Buddhist. "Monks like him sell belief in themselves and use tricks as signs of their spiritual powers."
Yet the monks do not themselves create Thais' unquestioning belief in an unseen world of magic and mystery. Rather, they simply tap into a dense miasma of superstition that continues to permeate Thai society from top to bottom. Age-old beliefs in everything from ghosts to lucky charms continue to be widely credited by locals.
Magic tattoos are believed to protect their wearers from various forms of physical harm and spiritual misfortune. Strange occurrences are presumed to hold clues about winning lottery numbers. Animals like cobras are taken to be manifestations of supernatural beings like mythical Naga serpents: when they trespass into homes they are welcomed as harbingers of good fortune.
When locals do not understand puzzling natural phenomena, they reflexively attribute supernatural causes to them.
Jessada wants to help change that. The university lecturer has been travelling around the Thai countryside, visiting primary schools and high schools to explain the benefits of skepticism and scientific methods to students.
"We can teach young people to seek evidence for their beliefs and not to take everything at face value," he explains. "That way they will be far less credulous when they grow up."
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