Some of my favorite movies are those by Hayao Miyazaki. It was in Spirited Away that I was first introduced to the ideas of “spirits”: little beings with one foot in our physical domain, another foot in the spirit domain. It seemed very silly to me at first. How could anyone believe it such things? The irony of me thinking this is actually rather embarrassing because of my self-proclaimed Irishness. The three things Ireland is known for (in the US) is the color green, drinking alcohol and Leprechauns. Actually, If you look into Irish folklore further, you’ll find that there’s a thick and disorganized belief in the fairy world, of which leprechauns are a minority. All this to say, when I arrived in Thailand, and saw a “spirit house” on each property in Thailand, it represented a learning opportunity to me.
You can scour the internet and find photos of elaborate spirit houses. From what I’ve been told, spirit houses are erected on each plot of land to serve as a home for the spirits, a sort of distraction from your home, so that they will leave you alone. Everywhere you drive, you can find shops on the side of road selling porcelain spirit houses. Other shops sells garlands to hang from the corners or incense sticks to light for them.
The houses are actually kind of cute and bring about a sort of enchantment to the imagination. Even I’ve imagined how I might decorate one if I followed this belief system. My daughter has, on a few occasions, asked if we could have our own spirit house so she could decorate it. She asked that because, well… it looks like a lot of fun to decorate them(!), but also because our landlord keeps our spirit house on his property so he can upkeep it. The thought on this is that the spirits will go after the landlord if they don’t appease the spirits, which means we’re off the hook! This brings me to a recent experience I had.
The land manager of our farm, I’ll call him Bruce, stops in from time to time to say hi and inspect the land. Last week, however, he had a whole chicken (skinned) with some moonshine-quality alcohol and vegetables. I was told that Bruce believed that if he sacrificed the chicken (with blood still in it?), the alcohol and veggies to the spirits, that our land would produce very well. I didn’t think much of the idea of sacrificing meat to the spirits, but I stuck around to watch… and I’m glad I did!
I’ve never seen an actual physical sacrifice before. In Christianity, our sacrifices are singing, service, prayer, fasting, offerings, etc. Don’t get me wrong. They feel totally special and can really help you understand God and even give you a supernatural experience, but there really isn’t any prescription to it. By this I mean: there isn’t a prescribed incantation or body movements you do. It’s more of a relationship with God than a set of rules which to interface with him. What I saw Bruce was full of ritualistic overtones that would peak any westerner’s interest.
My Thai is still pretty weak. I can read the letters and know a few words, but I’m lost in conversation. But when Bruce started his ceremony, even I knew what he was doing. He started by getting down on his knees and reciting words. He then stood up and stuffed the chicken, which had been doused in moonshine, into the spirit house. (It actually didn’t fit, but he made it fit.) He then lit some incense sticks and began chanting while waving the incense in a very a specific motion. He hit the ground a few times and said a few more words, bowing to the spirit house. He finished up with trying to find a way to put the vegetables in the already overflowing house. He settled for making a small stand next to the spirit house that he placed the remaining alcohol and veggies on.
I have to say that I was humbled by what Bruce did. I like to think that I take my faith seriously. I mean, I moved to Thailand because of it. But most Christians consider going to church weekly to be what constitutes the Christian life. I have to admit that the sincerity of Bruce’s faith rivaled that of many of my own friends’ in the US. Also, I was almost kind of jealous because he had something very concrete that he could do. It was very physical, tangible. For the Christian, it’s really about the faith. One can try to be good all day long, but at the end of the day, you have to trust that God, who is untouchable, has taken care of the paperwork that approves your transfer request into Heaven (this worldview is actually just the tip of the Jesus-iceberg, but it’s a view that most Christians feel comfortable with). That said, there remains the room for fear at the end of the day for a Christian because your level of comfort is directly related with the strength of your resolve to trust what you believe. It may be the same for a Thai Buddhist native like Bruce (I don’t know, I’m not him), but from the outside, there appears to be a finality to the sacrifice…. Until when he has to do it again next time.
The moral of this story? I’m still trying to figure it out. I see lots of good in what Bruce represented that draws me closer to a Greater Good. I just hope I’m able to share this with the people I’ve come to serve.