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An unprecedented phenomena

By METTANANDO BHIKKHU, Bangkok Post, May 5, 2007

The booming business of Buddhist spiritual placebos

Bangkok, Thailand -- It is about a quarter of an inch thick, in the shape of a medallion slightly smaller than a saucer, with the figure of a god seated with uplifted right knee in a casual yoga position. Usually, believers wear the talisman around the neck. In spite of its mysterious origins, the popularity of this talisman is unprecedented and has taken most Thai people by surprise.

<< The Jatukham Rammathep amulet

Two years ago, almost no one in Thailand had heard anything about it, but now everybody knows about the talisman. The popularity of this kind of amulet has been beyond expectations. For nearly a year this talisman has dominated the amulet market in Thailand, breaking all sales records in the entire history of Buddhist amulets. Currently, the estimated value of this particular variety of amulet is over one trillion baht, more than any kind of amulet ever sold in this country or elsewhere in the world.

The name of this talisman is Jatukarm Ramathep.

How has this mysterious talisman become so popular? Is it Buddhist or some form of an occult art? Why is it so popular? Is it going to transform spirituality in Thailand, or does it reflect something else quite decadent? And how is it going to end? These are the questions raised by most concerned thinkers.

Thailand is known as the largest market for amulets. Each year several classes and types of amulets are produced and commercialised by numerous producers and investors, most of whom have links with famous monks and masters of meditation. This fact, however, cannot be generalised to include other Theravada Buddhist countries like Sri Lanka and Burma, where Buddhists adhere to a more faithful interpretation of the precepts and teachings of the Lord Buddha. Although Sinhalese and Burmese Buddhists share the same belief in the Lord Buddha and the power of the Triple Gems, i.e. the highest refuge in the Buddhist religion: the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha, they do not agree with the belief commonly held among Thai Buddhists that an empowered, portable icon of the Buddha or a god can remain powerful once it is associated with the defiled human physique.

When a Burmese or Sinhalese Buddhist is presented with such a religious icon as a present, which is a common tradition in Thailand, they would prefer to keep the object in their personal shrine at home or in a temple and not carry it around, fearing that the power of the sacred object would be defiled and drained away through contact with the human body. Any trading of Buddha icons and amulets would be quite unthinkable there. Traditionally in Theravada countries, portable amulets are popular in Thailand, Laos and Cambodia. But it is only in Thailand that the industry has grown to mammoth proportions.

Formerly in Thailand, Buddhist amulets were not traded; they were gifts, offered by monks and meditation masters to their disciples. Amulets were also produced en masse, but they were commonly enshrined in a pagoda and were not for sale on the market.

It was the crisis of the Indochina War between Thailand and France in 1941 that gave birth to the amulet market, as many soldiers and volunteer recruits sought the power of protection and invulnerability in battle. After the war, the demand for amulets (boosted by stories of their miraculous powers of protection) persisted and even extended to include all kinds of portable sacred objects. Over the past 50 years the market has grown hand-in-hand with capitalism in Thailand.

Nevertheless, Thai Buddhists still hesitate to use the word ''buy'' when purchasing amulets. They simply used the word chaow, which literally means ''to rent'', when they actually buy the object from dealers. Marketed amulets in Thailand are not necessarily Buddhist. Very often they are produced by famous masters of meditation or even by those claiming to have magical powers. Most amulets are empowered by mantras in the Pali language based on the belief that it was the language of the Buddha, or are inscribed with the ancient Khmer alphabet. These sacred objects come in many shapes; some popular amulets are folded, small metallic tubes inscribed with sacred mantras, called trakrut; some are shaped like the phallus, inherited from ancient Shivaism of India via Cambodia; some are made from different kinds of utensils, including knives with their blades inscribed with sacred mantras, etc.

The diversity of these spiritual placebos shows another nature of the amulet market in Thailand, which is highly flexible and adaptive, ready to comply with any new emerging demand in society.

Similar to most industries in Thailand, the amulet industry is controlled by a few business tycoons through the use of the media for market manipulation. Usually, they use journals or magazines which are beautifully printed in full colour on shining, glossy paper where each amulet is splendidly presented as empowered by special rituals of the famous ritual masters. Generally these publications come with registration forms or telephone numbers for customers and, more recently, with website information for those interested in pre-paying for their spiritual merchandise.

The prices of the amulets are determined by their demand and supply, like all other commodities. In the case of these spiritual placebos, stories of miracles, anecdotes and luck brought about by these amulets have been the driving force behind their demand.

Amulets are not treated as antiques, therefore old ones do not necessarily fetch a higher price than newer models. New amulets which come with the assurance of miracles as related by reliable sources can be much more expensive than old ones.

The media in Thailand has been an excellent source of information for such sacred objects and as a result, Thai ears have always been eager to listen to any exciting new miracle regarding sacred objects. Once the supply of a particular type of amulet has satisfied its market, the investors slow down its production and promote other new products.

This is how the business of Buddhist spiritual placebos is conducted. There is a samsara of amulets in Thailand which is closely monitored and influenced by Buddhist tycoons; surprisingly, some of them are high-ranking monks. The profits generated by this lucrative industry are tax-free, as they are related to monks and the Buddhist religion.

The Jatukarm Ramathep is, however, a special case as it is not directly related to the sacred Triple Gems. From its very name, it is a pair of twin gods, the guardians of the Phra Dhaat(u) of Nagor Sri Dharma Raj, the largest and most sacred pagoda of Nakhon Si Thammarat province in southern Thailand. The first generation of the amulet of this god(s) was produced for the first time three decades ago. But for some unknown reason, the twin gods were cast in the shape of one god with a demonic appearance. It was not a god in Buddhism, but rather a demon with many arms surrounded by eight other demons or Rahu (Asura).

Seemingly, the amulet was originally made as a source of power rather than to serve as a Buddhist icon of virtue. For a long time, the market did not welcome this amulet, but it acquired a legend that clearly associates it with protection against harm from weapons and accidents.

The reason behind the rise in popularity of this talisman is without doubt the series of bad news concerning terrorist activities in the three southernmost provinces For over three years, Thai people have been worried about the violence in this Muslim-dominated area, especially people living in neighbouring provinces. Once a bomb exploded at the airport in Songkhla, a city next door to Nakhon Si Thammarat; it killed and maimed many innocent people. Insecurity and uncertainty were the major driving forces behind the demand of a new kind of amulet that could assure security and invulnerability to its owners.

The ongoing political turmoil led by the corruption scandals of Thaksin Shinawatra and the worsening economic atmosphere were behind the second wave of demand. This is witnessed in the names of the various classes of Jatukarm Ramathep, which are mostly related to wealth and financial magnetism, such as ''Roon Ngern Lai Ma'' (The Money-Flowing-In Class) or ''Roon Khoatr Sethi'' (Super-Millionaire Class), to name a few.

In April, Thailand saw another development in the cult of Jatukarm: songs and lyrics were composed in praise of Jatukarm Ramathep and became available on the market. No amulet in the past has had such an impact on Thai society. Without doubt, these songs will perpetuate the ongoing demand for this type of spiritual placebo, which is now being produced in different shapes and forms.

In this spiritual industry, the success of a single investor becomes a strong incentive for many new faces. A 35-year-old monk of Nakhon Si Thammarat who gained over 150 million baht in February from selling Jatukarm amulets has been an inspiration for many abbots and investors to launch several classes of this amulet. As a result, hundreds of temples in the South are now dedicatedly commercialising on this talisman. The cult has already spread to Chiang Mai and other provinces.

For educated Buddhists, the rise in popularity of this talisman is a bad omen for the religion. It is clear that the Lord Buddha never taught his followers to take refuge in any material object, portable or stationary alike. Buddhism was for self-empowerment and spiritual development through the cultivation of morality, meditation and wisdom. The icon of the gods is a clear paradigm shift from the Buddha as the ultimate refuge, to the local twin-god guardians of a pagoda. Apparently, Buddhists in Thailand have forgotten the true message of the Lord Buddha and they have taken refuge in things the Buddha told them not to.

As long as the political situation in Thailand does not stabilise, with bad news of social unrest in the deep South continuing to haunt the Thais, it is predictable that Jatukarm Ramathep will remain popular. Thai society is going to see more and more of this type of talisman, and the truth of the Buddha's teachings will remain completely ignored.

Honestly speaking, greed took over the conscience of these abbots of major temples all over Thailand, long before the rise of this amulet.

Mettanando Bhikkhu is a Thai Buddhist monk and former physician. He is special adviser on Buddhist affairs to the secretary-general of the World Conference of Religions for Peace.

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