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When Fascination Becomes Appropriation: A Look at Buddhism in Thailand

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Colloquially known as "The Land of Smiles," Thailand has become the mecca for tourism in Southeast Asia. According to the World Bank, over 24 million people visited Thailand in 2014 alone. For many tourists, the strength of foreign currencies (notably the Euro and US dollar) in comparison to the Thai baht makes traveling to Thailand a luxurious vacation at an attractive price. Tourism has become an integral part of the Thai economy, especially with programs such as "Unseen Thailand" that promote the tourism in less traveled areas.

An increase in the number of "Yoga Retreats" and "Mindfulness Workshops" has drawn even more vacationers to Thailand, which presents a unique opportunity to explore Buddhism. Many come to view ancient temples, such as the UNESCO World Heritage sites in Ayutthaya and Sukhothai. These visits are the more traditional way tourists engage with Buddhism in Thailand. However, many tourists, perhaps unknowingly, encounter Buddhism in a more commercialized way.

One of the more popular activities tourists engage in when on holiday in Thailand is getting tattoos of the Buddha image or getting tattoos from a monk--a Buddhist tradition. The Sak Yant or Yantra tattoo has been part of Buddhist culture for thousands of years. The tattoos, which are engraved by a monk, using only a long metal spike or sharpened bamboo, are believed to hold magical powers and good luck. Many people flock to the Wat Bang Pra just outside of Bangkok to receive the geometrical patterns from the monks living there. Along with receiving the tattoo, the wearer must follow a set of rules according to Buddhist tradition. To many tourists, this "exotic" activity is a huge draw and a way to engage with Buddhism.

Many foreigners visiting Thailand are enamored by Buddhism--as a fad and an exotic culture, not for the teachings of Theravada Buddhism, the branch of Buddhism more commonly practiced in Thailand. Many tourists also enjoy taking photos with monks, buying figurines, jewelry and small statues of the Buddha, going on meditation retreats, or even attending "full moon parties."

There is a two-pronged problem here: the appropriation of Buddhism by tourists that has increased the commercialization of Buddhism by Thai government bodies and businesses in the tourism industry that see an opportunity for major profits. Appropriation in this case refers to how tourists engage with part of a culture, in this case Buddhism in Thailand, and adopt and modify that culture for their own use. This kind of behavior serves to dilute the meaning of Buddhism as a religion and can be extremely problematic for how Buddhism is perceived worldwide.

Many people in the West, or those who are not acquainted with Buddhism as a religion, see the image of the Buddha and associate it with a relaxed culture, a representation of the free-spirited and of the spiritual. To many foreigners, Buddhism is not looked at as a religion in the same way as Christianity or Islam. Rather, Buddhism is seen as a part of popular culture, appropriated by the West.

The image of the Buddha and associated symbols of Buddhism have been used as marketing techniques by clothing companies and even bars, both in Thailand and around the world. Meditation has also become very popular in the West, but removed from the religious context that is associated with Buddhism. With this rise in popularity, it is people in the West that are appropriating Buddhist practices and traditions.

When coming to Thailand, one of the first signs you see upon passing through immigration at Suvarnabhumi Airport implores visitors to not appropriate Buddhism, but rather to respect the religion as part of Thai culture. Yet, as soon as you step out into Bangkok, opportunities to buy relics of the Buddha image, to get a Sak Yant or Yantra tattoo from a monk or to visit the Grand Palace are easily available for a reasonable price.

The contrast of traditional Buddhism with tourist culture in Thailand can be quite striking. Song Kran, the holiday that is now well known for its all day water fighting escapades and drinking events, is actually a Buddhist holiday celebrating the Thai New Year. Song Kran has been increasingly commercialized to foreigners, notably in southern Thailand, Bangkok and Chiang Mai. In these tourist hot-spot areas, the Song Kran holiday is catered to the vacationer, looking more like a college spring break trip than a religious holiday.

It is important to recognize that Buddhism is a religion that is practiced worldwide; according to the Pew Research Center, over 488 million people practice Buddhism around the world as of 2010. At the same time, the large majority of practicing Buddhists are in Southeast Asia, primarily countries that are economically centered on the exportation of raw materials to the West and tourism--which equates to a lot of foreign influence.

One can also make the argument that the increase in tourism related to Buddhism in Thailand and the rest of Southeast Asia actually does more good than harm. The increasing amount of foreigners allows for greater cultural exchange and provides awareness about the religion to foreigners. In turn, the increased tourism provides a major boost to the Thai economy.
However, when tourists coming to Thailand for Buddhist experiences use aspects of these practices, it takes away from the original people's culture--even if no one seems to be offended by the appropriation.

Within Thailand specifically, there is a large population of people that have been historically marginalized, notably those from the northeastern region, called "Isaan." These people are increasingly working in Bangkok and southern Thailand as a means to earn a higher income than an agrarian lifestyle. The way tourists are currently engaging with Buddhism in Thailand appropriates traditional cultural practices and further marginalizes the people of Isaan.

As the National Council of Peace and Order (NCPO), the military government that took over in 2014, continually encourage foreigners coming to Thailand, the trend of tourism related to seeking out "spiritual" Buddhist experiences will also increase. It is critical then, to constantly evaluate one's behavior as a tourist in Thailand--to be able to engage and exchange culturally without appropriating Buddhist traditions. If the trend of appropriation decreases, it might have an impact on the commercialized Buddhism that many people visiting Thailand see today. As ethical tourists going to Thailand, we can leverage our privilege and make a difference in how we interact with Buddhism, subsequently affecting how the Thai government perceives religious tourism.