Foreigners to Thailand often describe the ‘Buddhism’ here as a curious mix of superstition, animism and Buddhism, with the feeling that it is not ‘real’ Buddhism, but something tainted or corrupted.
The view is not exactly wrong. But there is a ‘but’.
Even the Buddha was seen to engage in what some people would call superstition. At one point he put his bowl into the river with the ‘Saccakiriya’ (a kind of resolution/wish) that the bowl float upstream if he was going to attain Enlightenment in that very lifetime. In fact, the bowl did float upstream, which mitigates his resolution under the Bodhi tree, where he determined that he would not raise from that seat until he had attained, even if his blood and bones were to turn to dust.
On the night of Enlightenment, the Buddha reportedly called on Darani the earth goddess to be witness to all the good deeds he had done in the past. After each deed he had poured water on the earth to symbolically share merits – a custom Thai’s still do in temples. This water pouring is a Brahmanic tradition, pre-dating Buddhism.
Other times he confirmed tree and air spirits, and many times taught about ghost realms. He also gave chants to the monks to ward off unpleasant influence.
One example of this is the Metta Sutta – the chant that all Theravada monks memorise by heart in the original Pali. The monks had been having a hard time meditating. The Buddha told them there were some unfriendly devas in the area, and that by chanting the stanza it would resolve the situation. It worked too.
Another chant was given to ward off attacks by animals – the 2 footed, 4 footed, many footed and the footless kind of animals.
In the Parinibbana Sutta, which documents the final days of the Buddha’s life, he tells the laypeople that they should respect, worship and maintain the local shrines, in order for their kingdom to last a long time.
It should be clear then that even ‘original’ Buddhism was full of aspects that are today condemned as being non-Buddhist. The religion grew up and was practised in a society that accepted many of these things as the norm. The monks even adopted many of the practises – such as the gatherings on the full and half moon days. The lines between superstition, animism and the tradition of Enlightenment were blurred right from the outset, and there is nothing wrong with this image.
Just for fun, here is a YouTube (thanks to Lee for sending) of some superstition on the wrong side of the blurry line: