Accommodating the Discarnate: Spirit houses in contemporary urban Thailand

Michael Pearce (2010). Accommodating the Discarnate: Spirit houses in contemporary urban Thailand PhD Thesis, History, Philosophy, Religion and Classics, The University of Queensland.

       
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Author Michael Pearce
Thesis Title Accommodating the Discarnate: Spirit houses in contemporary urban Thailand
School, Centre or Institute History, Philosophy, Religion and Classics
Institution The University of Queensland
Publication date 2010-07
Thesis type PhD Thesis
Supervisor Assoc. Prof. Lynne Hume
Prof. Philip Almond
Total pages 297
Total colour pages 15
Total black and white pages 282
Subjects 22 Philosophy and Religious Studies
Abstract/Summary In Thailand, many house compounds are adorned with small shrines dedicated to locality and guardian spirits. The shrines are known by various names; in English they are popularly referred to as ‘spirit houses’, in Thai they are called sǎn phrá phuum and sǎn câw thí. This study is offered as an ethnographic exploration into the religious dimensions of accommodating discarnate entities within these two shrines, and addresses the pervasiveness of locality and guardian spirits in contemporary urban Thailand. In short, my thesis is that Thai spirit houses are evidence for a relational episteme in contemporary urban Thailand, and they objectify relationships between people and the spirits of particular places. Such objectifications are instrumental in the mediation of the phenomenology of places. Spirit houses come in many guises and exhibit stylistic variance, something evidenced via the myriad spiritual structures in Thailand established for the veneration of various discarnate entities. These include: rural guardian spirits that form the village-oriented religions of ethnic minorities such as Hmong and Karen, Chinese and Hindu deities, ancestors, ex-monarchs, and other historical figures. In light of the diversity, the focus of this thesis is tapered to an ethnographic discussion of two particularly salient shrines that are popular features of the places where people establish their home in urban areas that are culturally dominated by the ‘central Thai’ or Siamese, who are predominately Buddhist. These two structures house and provide an appropriate apparatus for the propitiation of various discarnate entities, which are either inexorably associated with the place or invocated in order to protect the human occupants of the place. The ubiquity of these shrines throughout contemporary Thailand has been noted in popular literature intended for a general readership; however, it is surprising that very little scholarship has been directed towards spirit houses. Where the Thai practice of housing spirits has been briefly addressed within both scholarly and popular literature, the two main types have been conflated and their stark differences glossed over. Thus the primary task of this thesis is to address the spirit house lacuna within the study of Thai popular religion by providing an ethnographic description and discussion of this popular expression of contemporary urban religiosity. This thesis will demonstrate that although the shrines are by-and-large grouped together as a single praxis, they are installed for divergent types of spirits. The spirit house referred to as sǎn phrá phuum is installed within the house compound for a single tutelary angelic being that is conceived of as descending from a heavenly realm to protect human beings. Sǎn câw thí on the other hand, is home to any number of locality and/or ancestor spirits possessing strong associations with a place. Such diversity is exemplary for the multivalence and prosperity-orientation which characterises Thai popular religion during the contemporary period. Whilst providing practical means for negotiating immanent and materially-oriented anxieties, the shrines also reflect Buddhist millennialist concepts. The spirits for which the shrines are installed are thus engaged with very clear outcomes in mind; protection and the avoidance of various misfortunes that are often framed in the context of Thai Buddhism’s rationalisation, decline, and subsequent mediation at the hands of a bureaucratized sangha. The shrines are a substantive indication that contemporary Thais have defied the kind of rationalizing disenchantment intended to remove practices labelled ‘superstitious’, ‘animist’, or ‘magical’ from Thai Buddhism. Yet spirit houses themselves do not constitute a millennial or new religious movement. This thesis will demonstrate that spirit houses in contemporary urban Thailand may be well represented by the notion of ‘vernacular religion’, a theoretical approach to the study of ‘lived religion’ which helps avoid the hierarchical dichotomization of particular examples into sub-categories such as folk /official or the Little/Great tradition. Engaged within the context of the country’s rapid modernisation and the rationalisation of the monastic sangha, spirit houses incorporate many cultural and social voices, rendering classifications that centre upon notions of ‘folk religion’ or ‘popular Buddhism’ problematic. I will argue that the shrines do not represent an unbroken line to a pre-Buddhist and indigenous animism. Traditionally, animism has been understood as an underdeveloped bedrock upon which more sophisticated expressions of religion became founded. The ethnographic data presented in this thesis engages in a critique of the scholarly term ‘animism’. Yet I do not seek to jettison the term entirely. Rather, more recent and critical discussions of animism do not connote a layered or archaeological approach to religion. My argument flows from the recent resurrection of the term ‘animism’ within scholarly discourse, and implementations of ‘new-animism’ as signifying relational epistemologies. Animism in the present context is no longer cast as a specific religious doctrine, nor does it represent inferred erroneous thinking by those who were assumed to be ‘under-developed’ in an evolutionary sense when contrasted with the West. Rather, ‘animism’ may be one fundamental modality by which human beings socially engage the world, and understand their relationships with other actors in it. The discussion of spirit houses in this thesis posits that the shrines are instrumental within a Thai phenomenology of place. Within the Thai context, experience of the social reality is highly relational, and this may extend somewhat to the physical environment. The spirit or genius loci of particular places and the human experience of such places largely depend upon which ‘geniuses’ may be located where. The type of entity and its identity reveal something about how contemporary urban Thais frame their experience of home-place. I will discuss Thai spirit houses in terms of an animist or relational epistemology, which informs the socially-construed phenomenology of particular places. This is but one method of acknowledging that human beings’ relationships with places are contingent upon relating appropriately, and the shrines represent the objectification of social relationships involving discarnate entities as Thai people act in the world.
Keyword Animism
Anthropology of religion
Home-place
Phenomenology
Religious shrines
Spirit houses
Thai popular Buddhism
Vernacular religion
Additional Notes 1, 91, 118, 131, 137, 140 - 141, 144, 146 - 147, 149 - 150, 176 - 177, 189.

 
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