Merit and Power in the ThaiSocial Order

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As good Buddhists, the Thai perceive that all living beings stand in a hierarchyof varying ability to make actions effective and of varying degreesof freedom from suffering. As actions become more effective, beings sufferless; the two vary together; such is the nature of existence. Above man inshimmering space stand the angels and gods who, with a single word, canstop the course of rivers. Man, however, must dig and delve to turn a rivulet, feeble efforts that may be wrecked in a moment by a sudden freshet.But man’s effectiveness in action and freedom from suffering exceed thoseof the animals standing beneath him on the hierarchy. Animals share withman a corporeal existence limited to the surface of the earth, but man issomewhat more able to cope with rain and cold. While animals wander insearch of food, man has learned to produce and store his, at least until thenext harvest.This hierarchy depends on a composite quality called “merit” (bun) or“virtue” (khwaamdii), or one may also speak of a graded series of penalties(baap). Yet in translation these words fail to convey the particular Thai emphasis.Like a dog snarling to keep his bone, a lower being is more covetousthan a higher one who would generously give away his last bowl of rice. Theemphasis lies in selflessness. Instead of using his effectiveness in action totend his own wants, the selfless farmer, feeling compassionate toward creaturesof greater suffering, feeds his buffalo before turning to his own meal.Compassion, however, cannot work unaided by understanding; the powerful angel in the forest allows many lost and weary travelers to pass unaided,for he chooses to help only the worthy ones who will be strengthened invirtue, knowing that the evil will continue their evil deeds.In English, “merit” implies a fixed characteristic, but the Thai equivalentsees a person always gaining or losing merit. Even a humble ox can do good, be it only by drawing faithfully his master’s cart. Of course, by dintof his greater merit, an angel is freer to help and also to harm than this ox.There are no fallen angels in the Thai cosmos. When sins cause the fall ofSatan and Lucifer, they metamorphose for their next existence into creatureslower in the hierarchy with less effective action and greater suffering. Theloathsome demons of the Thai cosmos are only powerful beings who inflictsuffering on the sinful with as much justice as the angels who bring good.Such is the nature of the cosmic hierarchy where effectiveness in actionand freedom from suffering vary with the degree of merit, yet no being isfixed to any special position. Only the stations are fixed, while the metamorphosingindividual beings rise and fall in the hierarchy. In accordancewith past merit, one being may be born a snake to crawl helplessly in darknesswhile another may be born an angel free to move unhampered by matter.After death their positions might be reversed.

 

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