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Reaping what you sow: Looking at Karma through the lens of Thai literature
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Reaping what you sow: Looking at Karma through the lens of Thai literature

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The concept of karma, which is central in Buddhist teachings, makes it one of the key linchpins in Thai society. It becomes the motivation for people to maximise their good deeds and minimise their ...

The concept of karma, which is central in Buddhist teachings, makes it one of the key linchpins in Thai society. It becomes the motivation for people to maximise their good deeds and minimise their evil deeds. This paper explores how the concept of karma is portrayed in Thai literature, namely through three books – Four Reigns by Kukrit Pramoj (2005), The Prostitute by Kanha Surangkhanang (1994), and Khun Chang Khun Phan (1995). I give a macro picture of how karma is depicted in the books, followed by a more in-depth look of karma in four female characters – Mae Phloi, Khun Un, Wan Thong and Reun. The paper concludes by looking at how Thai society’s belief in karma has also evolved through time, as evidenced in the books.

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    Reaping what you sow: Looking at Karma through the lens of Thai literature Reaping what you sow: Looking at Karma through the lens of Thai literature Document Transcript

    • Reaping What You Sow: Looking at Karma through the lens of Thai literaturePlease contact xingledout[at]gmail.com if you’d like to use any information in this paper. 1
    • CONTENTSINTRODUCTION 1DEFINING KARMA (กรรม) 2SNAPSHOTS OF KARMA 3Karma as fatalism or predetermination 4Karma as cause of ups and downs in life 6Karma as an excuse for their behaviour 8Karma as insurance 9KARMA, ACTION! 10The Good Woman 11The Fallen Angel 13The Reformed Villain 14The Hidden Angel 15CONCLUSION 16REFERENCES 20APPENDIX 1 21 2
    • INTRODUCTION The concept of karma, which is central in Buddhist teachings, makes it one of thekey linchpins in Thai society. It becomes the motivation for people to maximise theirgood deeds and minimise their evil deeds. But interestingly, people seem to havewidely different interpretations of the concept. It is not uncommon to hear peopleblame their bad karma for a spate of bad luck. Or those with a fatalistic bent mightsee themselves as floating along the stream of karma, unable to change any of theircircumstances. This paper aims to explore how the concept of karma is portrayed in Thailiterature, namely through three books – Four Reigns by Kukrit Pramoj (2005), TheProstitute by Kanha Surangkhanang (1994), and Khun Chang Khun Phan (1995).First, I will give a macro picture of how karma is depicted in the books, followed by amore in-depth look of karma in four female characters – Mae Phloi, Khun Un, WanThong and Reun. Finally, I conclude the paper by looking at how Thai society’sbelief in karma has also evolved through time, as evidenced in the books. My research methodology is most unsophisticated, consisting of reading the booksa few times and flagging every explicit reference to karma. The limitation of usingtranslated versions for textual analysis is that there might actually have been more (orless) references to karma in the original versions. Also as a non-Buddhist, I am awarethat my reading of the text and classification of the karma references may perhapscome across as sacrilegious to conventional Buddhist interpretation. Perhaps a moreapt sub-title for my paper would be “A non-Buddhist’s initiation into Karma throughthe lens of Thai literature”. Limitations aside, I do hope that this paper provides anobjective view of karma as seen through Thai literary works. 1
    • DEFINING KARMA (กรรม) This is not a treatise on karma but I will sketch out main tenets of the concept toserve as a framework for the following discussion. My understanding of karma isdrawn largely from the teachings of Thailand’s foremost Buddhist scholar – PhraDhammapitaka (Payutto). Etymologically, the Sanskrit word “karma” (Pali: kamma) is derived from the root“kar” meaning “to do”, “to commit”, or “to perform”. Karma means an action, neverits result. The doctrine of karma is based on the law of cause and effect. It is thenatural law of morality which states than an intentional action will lead to a resultproportionate in nature and intensity to that intention. This is succinctly expressed inBuddha’s statement: “As the seed, so the fruit. Whoever does good, receives good, Whoever does bad, receives bad.” Karma can be divided into two main types: kusala karma and akusala karma. Theformer refers to actions which are skilful or good, specifically actions which are bornfrom the three kusala mūla (or roots of skill) which are non-greed, non-hatred andnon-delusion. The latter refers to actions which are not good or are evil, specificallyactions which are born from the akusala mūla (or roots of unskillfulness), which aregreed, hatred and delusion. Kusala (กุศล) and akusala (อกุศล) are conditions which arisein the mind, introducing results initially in the mind, and from there to externalactions and physical features. The meanings of kusala and akusala therefore stressthe state, the contents and the events of mind as their basis. So kusala can berendered generally as “intelligent, skilful, contented, beneficial, good” or “that which 2
    • removes affliction”. Akusala is defined in the opposite way. Some examples ofkusala conditions are: sati, or mindfulness; mettā (เมตตา), or goodwill; wisdom, clearunderstanding of the way things are; calm, relaxation and peace; a desire to know andact according to the truth; and gladness at the good fortune of others. Examples ofakusala conditions are: sexual desire; ill will; sloth and torpor; restlessness andanxiety; doubt, anger, jealousy and avarice. To put it simply, kusala leads to anincrease in merit (บุญบารมี) while akusala leads to increased defilement.SNAPSHOTS OF KARMA Literature, as a mirror of society, is affected and influenced by how the people ofthat country live. Likewise for Thai literature. The three books that will be discussedin this paper are set in different periods, although there is a slight overlap betweenFour Reigns and The Prostitute. Khun Chang Khun Phan is set in the Ayutthaya era,Four Reigns covers 54 years from 1892 to 1946 while The Prostitute is set in the1930s. I would like to explore how characters in these three books articulate theirbelief and concept of karma. There are altogether some 45 explicit references to karma in the three books (seeAppendix 1). For purpose of discussion, I have arbitrarily divided them into differentcategories. It is possible that a quotation can fall into more than one category but Iwill leave it in only one section to avoid confusion and double-counting. The mostcommon perception of karma, as seen through these three books, is that karma is likea person’s fate, and people cannot do anything about it except to go along with it.Seventeen quotations on karma are in this vein. The next most popular way oflooking at karma is through the fruit of karma. Fourteen quotations are related to the 3
    • good or bad results of karma. These two perspectives seem to be the dominant waythat Thai people perceive karma.Karma as fatalism or predetermination From the three books, especially in Four Reigns, it can be seen that people assumethat karma alone determines whether they will marry, who they will marry, when theywill have children and so on. This is most apparent in Phloi’s life. She saw herself asa krathong floating down the stream of karma and she never really strained or chafedagainst it until her son, Ot, and Rama VIII died. Her perspective was probably shapedby her mother who, when leaving Phloi’s father, said: “Let the course of karma takeme where it will.” (2005:9) Phloi seemed to echo her mother when writing to Nuang after she knew of hisimpending marriage, saying: “You’ll follow the course of your karma, and I mine.”(2005:139) Even on the day that she was getting married, as much as she wanted toturn back, she could not. She had to keep “going forward, plodding on, walking thepath her karma had built for her” (2005:209). She could not “stop the current of lifewhich is born of karma, destined by karma, and nourished by karma. The force ofkarma was too strong for her will to prevent it.” (Mattani 1998:89). And nearing theend of her life, karma is seen as being responsible for taking her back to her childhoodhome: “Now the course of karma is taking you back to Khlong Bang Luang. It’s from Khlong Bang Luang that you came to live here in the Inner Court, so it’s quite right that you should be stopping here for a while before returning there.” – Choi was speaking to Phloi, after the latter’s house was destroyed. (2005:622) 4
    • In The Prostitute, Reun looked at her newborn daughter and saw a bleak lifeahead of her, saying: “It’s your karma to have a prostitute for a mother, a womancursed and despised by everyone.” (1994:107) Reun also worried that Eet will “reapthe karma without knowing of the actions of those who brought her into the world”(1994:198). Interestingly, although many of the characters in the book looked upon karma asfate, Buddhist scholars would insist that this is a misunderstanding of the law ofkarma. The law of karma is supposed to be different from the idea of fatalism andpredetermination. The Anguttara Nikāya mentions three views which Buddhism doesnot subscribe to. The first is past-action determinism, which asserts that allexperiences in the present life are solely determined by past actions. The second istheistic determinism, which means that all experiences and all events are due to God’screation and will. And the third view rejected by the Buddha is called accidentalism,which holds that all experiences are merely manifestations of fortuitous elements,uncaused and unconditioned. The first two views allow no room for free will, and arefatalistic in nature. The third rejects the principle of causality. However the law ofkarma states that experiences are conditioned by actions rather than beingpredetermined or willed by God. It allows for a plurality of causes or conditioningfactors, including the factors of will and natural phenomena. The Buddha did notdismiss the importance of previous karma because it does play a part in the cause andeffect process, and thus has an effect on the present in its capacity as one of theconditioning factors. (Sunthorn 1994:122) 5
    • Karma as cause of ups and downs in life When something goes wrong, one of the first things that people blame is their badkarma from their previous lives. This thinking is related to the above discussion onthe law of karma and how it does not predetermine life. Doctrinal (in)accuracy aside,people are still quick to pin the blame on their past sins when misfortune strikes. I amaware that a few of the quotations in this category would belong quite comfortably inthe above section. However, the criteria that I set for this section is that amisfortune/fortune must have taken place and the character links it directly to karma.On the other hand, the quotations in the previous section depict a mindset towards lifeand how it is determined by karma instead of specific incidents. In Khun Chang Khun Phan, when Debtong found her husband’s impaled body inthe forest, she did not blame the robbers. Instead she blamed his past sins: “O, my dearest,” wailed Debtong, “what sin did you commit to come to such a horrible end? In your previous existence, you must have impaled fish on sticks, so now you yourself are impaled!” (1995:56)Wan Thong, too, subscribed to the same kind of karmic logic when Khun Changbrought false news that Khun Phan had died in battle. Instead of blaming KhunChang for her husband’s summons to war in the first place, she attributed themisfortune to her past sins: “… Alas what sins have I committed that so much misfortune befalls me, that my husband should leave me after two or three days of marriage and since then I have never looked upon his face?” (1995:166) In Four Reigns, Phloi – who was the queen of placidity in her earlier years wheneverything was going well – also began the it’s-my-karma’s-fault routine as she aged: 6
    • “I’d give anything,” Phloi said, “to see my sons settled down with wives and children – my grandchildren! Tell me, Khun Luang, what bad deeds have I committed in my previous incarnations that I should now have three unmarried sons on my hands and not one grandchild?” (2005:602)Phloi applied the same reasoning after bombs destroyed her house. Choi asked whysuch a harsh punishment had to be meted out on Phloi when she had not committedany bad deeds in her life. Phloi’s answer: “But perhaps I did in some former life.”The most poignant moment, however, was probably when Phloi was lamenting Ot’sdeath and trying to find a reason for it. What have I done to be so cruelly treated, sheasked. But there was no answer. Herein lies the second misunderstanding of the law of karma, which stems fromthe phrase “good actions bring good results; bad actions bring bad results”. Instead ofunderstanding the meaning as “in performing good actions, there is goodness”, theytake the meaning to be “good actions result in good things”. Also, most people tendto take note only of how karma affects external events like prosperity, failure,happiness, suffering (known as the lokadhamma or worldly conditions) instead ofkarma’s more important effect on the mental level. This kind of thinking arises fromthe confusion between the law of karma and social preference (สังคมนิยม). The phrase“as the seed, so the fruit” explains the natural law pertaining to plants: if tamarind isplanted, you get tamarind; if grapes are planted, you get grapes. It does not speak atall in terms of social preference, such as in “if tamarind is planted, you get money” or“planting grapes will make you rich”, which are different stages of the process. Ifyou plant grapes at a time when there is high demand, you will earn a lot of moneyand become rich when you sell them. But if there is an over-supply, you will have tosell cheap and perhaps even throw some of your grapes away. Put simply, bad things 7
    • sometimes happen to good people because the events in life are not entirely subject tothe law of karma. There are factors involved from other niyāma and value-systems,especially social preference. The best illustration, however, of the good-begets-good and bad-begets-badprinciple is probably found in The Prostitute when Khun Wichai got what wascoming to him for all his evil scams: The bad karma he had created had turned full circle and rebounded upon him without the need for anyone to mete out punishment. Whether there was justice in the world or not, the divine and the hand of the law had performed their duty by reaching out and seizing the criminal by the throat. (1994:180) Although this section is filled mostly with examples of how karma is the cause ofmisfortunes, karma is sometimes credited for the good things in life too. A goodexample is when Choi, in one sentence, sums up Phloi’s charmed life: “But you, Phloi, have nothing to worry about. Fortune’s darling, that’s what you are. You must have accumulated a lot of merit in your former lives to be so well-favoured in the present one. Born into a good family, grown up into a beautiful girl to marry a worthy man who rose to be a Phraya thus making you a Khunying, and now mother of a successful son.” (2005:475)It is interesting to note that the number of unhappy quotations in this section faroutnumber the happy ones. It could be an indication that when things are goingwell, people do not see a need for spiritual things. But when things fall apartand people need a reason, they turn to spiritual explanations.Karma as an excuse for their behaviour This section is possibly my favourite in the whole paper and is what prompted meto learn more about karma. In Thai literature, examples abound of how men ditchtheir wives for a new love by using karma as an excuse. It seemed to me a most 8
    • convenient cop-out to individual responsibility. The quotations in this category are allfrom men, except the story of Grandma Jaem taking a husband for the first time at theage of sixty. When asked by the queen why she did it, she laughingly said: “My badkarma. My very, very bad karma.” However I would say that “karma” in this casewas used more as a joke. On the other hand, the other quotations on karma from themen were used intentionally as an excuse for their bad behaviour. Khun Phan is the worst of the culprits. When leaving the monkhood because hewanted to be with Wan Thong, he told the abbot: “It must be my past sins that makeme unworthy of membership in the Holy Order.” (1995:106) Or when he chancedupon Kaew Kiriya in Khun Chang’s house, he told her that “the merit accrued in mypast existences has brought me to your bed”. (1995:255) Nuang in Four Reigns is no better. He fell in love with Phloi and promised tomarry her. But when he later got involved with another girl, he wrote in his letter toChoi: Please tell Phloi I think of her always, but ask her to forgive me. I did not accumulate enough merit in my former life to deserve her in this one. (2005:139)In a follow-up letter to Phloi, he wrote about his “acceptance of what his karma haddecreed for him in this life” (2005:150). Falling in love with another girl was hischoice yet he made it sound as though it was predetermined for him and he had nofree will in making the decision.Karma as insurance In previous sections, we have already explored how karma can result in good or inbad. In Four Reigns, we see yet another function of karma – as insurance against 9
    • harm. When Phloi refused to evacuate to the countryside despite the heavy bombing,Phoem supported her and “trusted to her past good deeds – her accumulated merit – tokeep her from harm” (2005:618). But to make doubly sure that no bad luck wouldcome away, he got her amulets that were supposed to ward off evil. Because of their belief in karma, it becomes important for Buddhists to makemerit and accumulate good deeds. For example Wan Thong made merit bysponsoring the recital of a chapter from Maha Chat while Choi had always been goodto old people, in the hope that by making a lot of merit that way, there would be somekind-hearted youngster to look after her in her old age. Even Choei realised that Phloiwas making merit by taking in Un despite the latter’s shameful treatment of her in thepast.KARMA, ACTION! In this section, I will look at how karma is played out in the lives of four womenwhom I have chosen to represent four archetypes – the Good Woman, the FallenAngel, the Reformed Villain, and the Hidden Angel. I will give a summary of eachcharacter’s life and discuss the impact of karma (if any) on each of their deaths. Thiswould be a simplified study because the process of karma fruition is extremelycomplex, a process that is beyond most people’s comprehension (Pali: acinteyya).However, given the largely didactic nature of Thai literature, it would be interesting tofind out whether the women get what their actions deserve. Before starting on the character analysis, it will be helpful to discuss whatconstitutes a “good death” and a “bad death”. According to Buddhism, death canoccur in any one of these four ways: 10
    • i. It can be due to the exhaustion of the life span assigned to beings of that particular species. This type of death is called Ayukkhaya ii. It can be due to the exhaustion of the karmic energy that caused the birth of the deceased. This is called Kammakkhaya iii. It can be due to the simultaneous exhaustion of (i) and (ii). This is called Ubhayakkhaya iv. It can be due to external circumstances, viz, accidents, untimely happenings – working of natural phenomena or due to a kamma of a previous existence not referred to in (ii). This is called Upacchedake. Death is given great importance in Buddhism. Hence the Tibetans have theirBook of the Dead while the Mahayana Buddhists have a list of 15 bad deaths1. Fromthe literature on death, a “good death” can generally be described as one where theperson dies peacefully and painlessly after fulfilling his obligations on earth, with hisloved ones by his side. On the other hand, a “bad death” is described as being full ofregrets, fears, troubles and pain.The Good Woman Mae Phloi was the typical ideal woman. She was obedient, gentle, sweet, pretty,kind and even loved her enemies. Nobody had anything bad to say about her andeverybody liked her instinctively. Sadet’s parting words to Phloi before her marriagesummed up the latter’s impeccable character: “…Looking after you has been an easy and gratifying task because you’re so easy to teach, because you’re amenable to reason and apply yourself diligently. Time and time again you have proven yourself a person of steadfast nature with a strong sense of gratitude worthy of your birth and upbringing. Your gentleness and tolerance should stand you in good stead in your new life.” (2005:208)1 Die of starvation or privation; Die from having been yoked, imprisoned, caned or otherwise beaten;Die at the hands of hostile enemies; Killed in military battle; Killed by tigers, wolves, or other toughbeasts; Die from the venom of poisonous snakes, black serpents, or scorpions; Drown or be burned todeath; Poisoned to death; Killed by poisonous insects; Die of madness or insanity; Killed by landslidesor falling trees; Die of nightmares sent by evil people; Killed by deviant spirits or evil ghosts; Die ofevil illnesses that bind the body; Commit suicide 11
    • Her peers also recognised her as one who must have accumulated a lot of merit inprevious lives to lead such a happy and good life in the present. However, as Phloi grew older, her happy life started to disintegrate and she startedblaming her past sins for her present misfortune. Her husband died, the family wassplit over political ideologies, her favourite son died, and her house was destroyed bythe bombs during the war. She finally died of a heart ailment. Just before she died,she became rather distressed over the death of young Rama VIII: She felt deeply tired and went to lie down on her bed…. But before sleep finally came certain thoughts, confused and blurred, did flit through some part of her mind. Had it really happened? But how could it be? What gods or demons, what dark powers of the universe had allowed this to come to pass? What devious course of karma? Why did Nai Luang have to die? Why did Ot have to die? Dearest beloved son, and sovereign…. Where are you, Khun Prem? Help me to understand… I begin to understand a little… But I’m so tired. I’ve lived under four reigns – lived a long time – long enough… (2005:656) Going by didactic conventions, Phloi should have a “good death” because she wasa good woman. Her death was not painful but her thoughts were not peaceful, ladendown by the death of her son and King Ananda. Yet right at the end, she said shebegins to understand a little of her confusion, almost like seeing the light at the end ofthe tunnel. Her death is probably best classified as Ayukkhaya since she lived to theend of her days and her life span was exhausted. I have to confess that I was a bitsurprised by the ending. Perhaps I was expecting a more fairytale-like ending.Afterall, Phloi was the heroine and had been the good girl, so I thought she woulddeserve more than losing her husband, her son and her house. But she had a good lifeand she lived to the end of it. 12
    • The Fallen Angel Wan Thong, or Pimpilalai as she was formerly known, was born into a wealthyfamily and brought up as a proper young lady. She was also known as the local beautyin Suphan Buri at that time. Her “goodness” was evident from her sponsorship of therecital of a chapter from the Maha Chat. Besides, the chapter that she sponsored wasabout Queen Matsi who was a prime example of the ideal self-sacrificial woman. WanThong then married Khun Phan but instead of a happily-ever-after ending, she wassoon caught in a tug-of-war between Khun Chang and Khun Phan, and was abductedalternately by both. Meanwhile, Wan Thong begins to sense the erosion of hergoodness: Already at my age, I have two husbands. Very bad, very wicked, from head to toe, Very shameful and very sad. Even after death, my name will be notorious. (Suwadee 1999:17) When the scandal was brought before the king and Wan Thong could not decideon either of them because she now sees their true nature, the king condemned as herbeing worse than a prostitute because even such a “bad” woman has one man at a timewhile Wan Thong wanted both husbands at the same time. She was then executed andher name became a synonym for a woman with sexual greed and uncertainty in Thaisociety. Despite making merit when she was younger, Wan Thong still could not escape amost gruesome death. Going by didactic convention, it was imperative that she had aterrible ending so that women would know not to follow in her footsteps. Her deathby beheading could certainly be classified as Upacchedake and a “bad death”. 13
    • The Reformed Villain Khun Un was the proverbial evil step-sister. She made life terrible for Phloi andher mother, causing them to leave Khlong Bang Luang. She took every opportunityto bully Phloi and would not even show some decent charity on the day of Phloi’swedding, giving her only a paltry gift. Young Choei’s vehement description of herolder sister is an apt one: “I knew she’d make you cry. She’s horrible, isn’t she? She likes hurting people and everyday she tries to make me unhappy. I tell you she has a demon’s heart.” (2005:71) But pride comes before a fall and Khun Un was brought to ruin by her much-pampered brother Khun Chit. Her partiality towards him blinded her to his faults. Bythe time she realised her mistake, he had already squandered most of the familytreasures. They would have lost the family home too if Khun Un had not humbledherself to ask Phloi for help and if Phloi had not forked out the 8,000 baht to pay offthe creditors. Khun Un then became a live-in dependant on her former victim. Shefinally died of breast cancer after her spinster’s modesty prevented her from seekingmedical help earlier. Khun Un’s death fits didactic conventions very well. On one hand, her badactions in the past should beget a bad result. Assuming that breast cancer was lesscommon in those days than now, Khun Un getting stricken by it must have seemedlike a clear sign that it was punishment. She acknowledged that herself, saying, “I’mmerely suffering for the bad action I’ve committed.” (2005:544) On the other hand,because she had turned over a new leaf later in life, the “badness” of her death shouldbe mitigated. So we see how calm she was when she knew she was going to die. Shehad no regrets, no anxiety and no fear. Her only concern was not to impose too great 14
    • a burden on Phloi. It was also written that Khun Un must have also accumulatedenough merit because she did not have to suffer too long: She had gone to bed one night and never woke again. There was no trace of pain on her face that morning and she looked as though she had been enjoying a well-earned rest. (2005:544)On the outset, it may have seemed like a “bad death” because it was painful and herlife was cut short by disease but ultimately, she did not have to suffer for long andended life peacefully.The Hidden Angel Reun, formerly called Wahn, was tricked into the flesh trade by a scumbag calledWichai. She later fell in love with the son of a Phraya, Khun Wit, who had promisedto take her away from the brothel and marry her. He of course forgot that promisewhile she bore his child and had to go back to prostitution to feed her daughter. Shewas always portrayed as the reluctant prostitute with the golden heart – gentle, sweet,self-sacrificial, and always considerate towards others. (In fact, Reun is thestereotypical ‘innocent’ Thai prostitute that Westerners in search of a wife hope tomeet in Patpong bars.) Reun’s character is quite similar to Phloi’s except for thevastly different circumstances. Both are placid by nature and both have a certainmeasure of inner strength under their gentle and accommodating exterior. Mae Peu-ut’s final thoughts of Reun summed up the latter’s character: Before, they had looked down on her as a prostitute. Now, they saw that, even if she was a prostitute, she was purer in heart and more single-minded than anyone they had ever met. (1994:226) Despite the purity of her being, Reun had a pitiful ending. Her parents had died,her best friend had died, the husband of her dreams had forgotten her and married 15
    • somebody else, she gave her daughter away and finally died of tuberculosis. It isdifficult to assess the impact of karma on how her life ended because The Prostituteitself challenges society’s ideas of what is sin and what is virtue. By socialpreference (สังคมนิยม), she is seen to be “doing bad” by engaging in sex work althoughthe motives for her actions were actually pure. Didactic conventions dictate that sheshould not have a happy ending because she is supposed to be a “bad woman”, so herlife was cut short by disease and her death could be classified as Upacchedake. Yetbecause of her virtuousness, she did not have a “bad death”. She did not die alone;Mae Peu-ut and Nai Klin truly cared for and looked after her by that time. She didnot die with regrets or fears. Instead she died with the satisfaction and happiness thatcame from seeing Khun Wit, albeit behind the curtain, for one last time. Kanha wrote:“Her face was pale but bore the trace of a happy smile.” (1994:227) It was a peacefuldeath.CONCLUSION This paper has shown how the law of karma is practised in Thai society as seenthrough the characters in Thai literature. Despite what Buddhist scholars define as thecorrect understanding of karma, it is obvious that Thai people have their own veryfixed and very prevalent ideas about it, namely, to see karma as a form of fate andkarma as the direct cause of one’s misfortune. One possible explanation for thisdisparity in understanding is that the masses actually practise a form of folkBuddhism which is slightly different from what the Buddha taught. Another probableexplanation is that while the Buddhist scholars are modern contemporary thinkers, thecharacters in the three books belong to a much earlier era, where Buddhist concepts 16
    • were perhaps understood and taught differently. Indeed, Four Reigns – which serveas a good historical chronicle of the changes in values and customs of Thai societyover 50 years – provides us with good examples of how Thai people’s belief andperceptions of karma have changed over time. Phloi represented the generation that looked upon karma as a person’s fate ordestiny. One had to walk in the course of one’s karma and there was no way tochange anything because everything was predetermined by karma. Contrast herfloating-down-the-stream-of-karma attitude with son An’s perspective when he brokethe news to Phloi that On has joined the soldiers in revolt against the government: “I know you love Phi On very much, but there’s nothing you can do. You must resign yourself to the fact that you can do nothing. He’s old enough, and he’s responsible for his own misguided actions – for his own karma, if you like.” (2005:485)To An, a person’s actions are not predetermined, one has free will in making choices.Hence one has to be responsible for one’s karma. Another change in the belief of karma is evident in the mother-daughterrelationship between Phloi and Praphai. To Phloi, marriage and childbirth are alldependent on karma. She would never have dreamt of divorcing Khun Prem becauseshe believed that it was their karma that brought them together. In the same way, thedecision to have or not have children is taken out of her hands because for all, it is alla matter of karma: “But there’s little choice in the matter,” Phloi said wisely. “When it comes, it comes. Some people long to have children but have to accept their fate and wait and wait, sometimes for years. With others the first child comes in the first year of marriage. It’s according to your karma.” (2005:535) 17
    • But for modern Praphai, she is not concerned with these old-fashioned ideas ofkarma. If she is not happy with Khun Sewi, she can always just get a divorce, like herelder brother. It would be her choice and not something predetermined by karma.Also, with science and technology, it seemed like even karma can be thwarted when itcomes to having babies: “No, Khun Mother,” she said, “not karma. It’s according to when you plan to have it. Birth can be controlled these days,” she explained. “Whatever your karma, you don’t need to have a baby in the first year of marriage if you don’t want to. You can postpone it until you’re ready to have one.” (2005:535)Hence, Praphai represents the new educated generation which begins to question thetraditional interpretations of the law of karma The last example of how people’s view of karma evolved over time can be seen ina conversation between Phloi, An and Phoem, nearing the end of Phloi’s life. An hadbeen upset that Sewi wanted to charge him an exorbitant amount for Phloi’s heartmedication. Phoem was equally disgusted but because he was convinced of karma’sevil-begets-evil principle, he was confident that Sewi would not be laughing andprospering for long. Then An dropped the bombshell: “The main thing is to prosper, to succeed. You can lie and cheat and stab people in the back as much as you like but as long as you do it expertly and succeed you can be sure of winning praise and admiration, Uncle. That’s our society today.” Phoem stared at his nephew with a mixture of impatience and concern. “You’re saying it causes no harm to commit bad deeds. But that can’t be!” “Oh, it causes harm, Uncle, but not to the perpetrators of those deeds, not to Sewi and Company. They don’t suffer the consequences of what they do. The suffering is done by other people. And if you think you’ll be all right because you’re honest and sincere and kind, you’d better revise your thinking, Uncle.” (2005:645) 18
    • This outburst from An is like the final attack on what Phoem’s generation hadalways firmly believed – that those who do evil will not have a good ending. But now,his generation is confronted with the possibility that the evildoers could actually getaway with their actions and worse still, be lauded for them. Moreover, while ThaiBuddhists usually believe that they are responsible for their own karma, Kukrit pointsout here that the results of karma may affect other innocent people, and not the doersthemselves. Hence innocent people may end up suffering for another person’s badactions. Kukrit’s philosophy on the results of karma, which is often expounded in hisbooks and lectures, is that if karma had a direct effect only on the doer, there is noneed to be afraid of the evil result, if the person is willing to be responsible for it. Butas this is not the case, people should refrain from evil. To him, evil that affects otherpeople and causes them to suffer is a great sin. In conclusion, while the Thai society has evolved in their understanding of the lawof karma over time, karma remains very much a cornerstone in the value system ofthe Thais and is best encapsulated in Buddha’s words: “All beings are owners of their karma Heirs of their karma Born of their karma Related to their karma Supported by their karma…” 19
    • REFERENCESKanha Surangkhanang (1994). The Prostitute. Translated from the Thai by David Smyth. Kuala Lumpur: Oxford University Press.Kukrit Pramoj (2005). Four Reigns (4th ed.). Translated from the Thai by Chancham Bunnag. Chiang Mai: Silkworm Books.Mattani Mordara Rutnim (1988). Modern Thai Literature: The process of modernisation and transformation of values. Bangkok: Thammasat University Press.P. A. Payutto (1996). Good, Evil and Beyond… Kamma in the Buddha’s Teaching (3rd ed.). Bangkok: Buddhadhamma Foundation.Prince Prem Purachatra (1995). The Story of Khun Chang Khun Phan. Bangok: Suksapan Panit.Sunthorn Plamintr (1994). Getting to Know Buddhism. Bangkok: Buddhadhamma Foundation.Suwadee T. Patana (1999) ‘Gender relations in the traditional Thai lower class family’. Paper presented at the 7th International Conference on Thai Studies in Amsterdam, The Netherlands, 4-8 July. 20
    • APPENDIX 1Karma as fatalism or predeterminationFour Reigns1. “Let the course of karma take me where it will.” Mae Phloi’s mother, when leaving Mae Phloi’s father. (2005:9)2. “You’ll follow the course of your karma, and I mine.” Mae Phloi on Nuang’s impending marriage. (2005:139)3. “Hmm, I don’t know,” Khun Sai said vaguely. “This kind of thing depends on your karma, I suppose. Maybe it’s happened for the best,” she went on. “Life would have been more troublesome, I’m almost sure. When you’re old, to be without ties is better in a way. So it’s hard to decide which was responsible, my good or my bad karma.” – discussing why Khun Sai remained single. (2005:165)4. How she longed to do the impossible – call off the trip, turn back and retrieve all that had ever been, but of course she kept going forward, plodding on, walking the path her karma had built for her. – when Mae Phloi was leaving the palace to get married. (2005:209)5. Slowly she had recovered from the blow, adjusted to the changed shape of her world and gone on pursuing the course of her karma. – Mae Phloi recovering from Sadet’s death. (2005:289)6. “I’m around my old ladies so much that I’ve become old like them. They are my karma, my destiny. There is nothing else for me in this life.” Mae Choi on looking after her aging mum and Khun Aunt Sai. (2005:326)7. Phloi often gave thanks that their respective courses of karma had brought htem together and kept them together, as permanently as could be in the impermanent scheme of existence. (2005:445)8. “Please don’t feel too badly, Your Highness. Let’s accept it as the result of our karmic past,” Mae Phloi in telling Than Chai that Praphai had chosen Khun Sewi. (2005:526)9. “But there’s little choice in the matter,” Phloi said wisely. “When it comes, it comes. Some people long to have children but have to accept their fate and wait and wait, sometimes for years. With others the first child comes in the first year of marriage. It’s according to your karma.” (2005:535)10. “Now the course of karma is taking you back to Khlong Bang Luang. It’s from Khlong Bang Luang that you came to live here in the Inner Court, so it’s quite right that you should be stopping here for a while before returning there.” Choi to Phloi, after she got bombed out of her house. (2005:622) 21
    • 11. In the past, Phloi had been able to do it – accept the death of her loved ones. Each time she had mourned her loss, then come to terms with it. But it had been many months now since Ot’s cremation, held in the South without her presence because she had been too ill to travel, and she had yet to resign herself to the fact that he was gone from this world while she, his old ailing mother, was fated to go on living in it. Is this the course of karma? She kept putting the question to herself whereas on previous occasions she had more or less taken the course of karma for granted. What have I done to be so cruelly treated? What blundering unjust Power has snatched Ot from me? She ached for him; she repeated to herself those well- worn phrases about mortality and ached all the more. Their obvious truth failed to solace her and she was tired of hearing other people recite them at her. All of us were born to die. Rich or poor, young or old, death claims us all. So true, and so meaningless where Ot was concerned. (2005:633)12. She would recover or she would not: either way it would depend on her karma – and the question of the disease taking its own course. – Phloi not wanting to take the expensive medicine for her heart ailment. (2005:644)13. Had it really happened? But how could it be? What gods or demons, what dark powers of the universe had allowed this to come to pass? What devious course of karma? Why did Nai Luang have to die? – Phloi. (2005:656).The Prostitute14. “… It’s your karma to have a prostitute for a mother, a woman cursed and despised by everyone.” – Reun speaking to her newborn daughter. (1994:107)15. Seeing that Reun was dragging up the past, Samorn quickly stopped her. “Don’t keep talking about what’s in the past. It won’t make things any better. It’s better to try and think of the new place we’re going to move to. There’s good and bad in everyone’s life, depending on their karma. People can’t choose just the good things. If they could, no one would choose to be a prostitute. I’d be a khunying and you could be a mom, Reun.” (1994:111)16. “It was their karma that the mother and father should die and Wahn should become a prostitute.” – Poom, Reun’s childhood friend. (1994:170)17. “… All I’m afraid of is that without me, the child will suffer because there’ll be no one to look after her. She will reap the karma without knowing of the actions of those who brought her into the world.” – Reun speaking to Khun Wit. (1994:198) 22
    • Karma blamed for misfortuneKhun Chang Khun Phan1. “O, my dearest,” wailed Debtong, “what sin did you commit to come to such a horrible end? In your previous existence, you must have impaled fish on sticks, so now you yourself are impaled!” (1995:56)2. “… Alas what sins have I committed that so much misfortune befalls me, that my husband should leave me after two or three days of marriage and since then I have never looked upon his face?” – Wan Thong lamenting at Khun Chang’s false news that Khun Phan has died. (1995:166)3. At this moment, Wan Thong thought more than ever of Plai Kaew. “I know not whether you are dead or alive. But, surely, if you are dead, there would have been some evil presage. I cannot go to Ayudhya to find out for myself. As a woman, I am unable to journey through forest and jungle where wild animals roam. Yet I cannot go on living like this with danger so near at hand! I must die, for my past sins have caught up with me!” (1995:187)4. As she passed the place where Khun Chang still lay prostrate on the floor, pangs of remorse struck her. She knelt down and embraced his feet, while tears came to her eyes. “O, I depart from you like a kite that is cut loose and blown away by the wind! You will wait in vain for me to return. O, your store of merit is truly exhausted now! However much I try to wake you, you lie there still. And so you lose a wife! How can I even let you know that Khun Phan forces me to go against my will, for otherwise he would surely kill you as well as me. I leave you because I must!” (1995:266)Four Reigns5. “My karma,” Chao Khun Father said, “it’s my karma that has brought me these two hopeless sons.” (2005:125)6. It showed Khun Un was capable of metta – loving compassion. But what bad karma, what misfortune, that she had chosen to bestow her metta on the one person who was beyond its redeeming power. – On Khun Un helping Khun Chit, giving him another chance again and again. (2005:315)7. Then her face twitched with pain, and when it had gone she said, “Don’t cry, Mae Phloi. I’m merely suffering for the bad action I’ve committed.” – Khun Un to Phloi. (2005:544)8. “I’d give anything,” Phloi said, “to see my sons settled down with wives and children – my grandchildren! Tell me, Khun Luang, what bad deeds have I committed in my previous incarnations that I should now have three unmarried sons on my hands and not one grandchild?” (2005:602) 23
    • 9. “… I still can’t get over it, Phloi. Why should this harsh punishment have been meted out to you of all people? You’ve committed no bad action in your life – not to my knowledge anyway.” “I don’t think I have either. But perhaps I did in some former life, Choi.” (2005:622)10. What have I done to be so cruelly treated? What blundering unjust Power has snatched Ot from me? She ached for him; she repeated to herself those well-worn phrases about mortality and ached all the more. Their obvious truth failed to solace her and she was tired of hearing other people recite them at her. All of us were born to die. Rich or poor, young or old, death claims us all. So true, and so meaningless where Ot was concerned. (2005:633)The Prostitute11. The bad karma he had created had turned full circle and rebounded upon him without the need for anyone to mete out punishment. Whether there was justice in the world or not, the divine and the hand of the law had performed their duty by reaching out and seizing the criminal by the throat. – Wichai’s arrest (1994:180)Karma credited for good fortuneFour Reigns1. She heard him chuckle – and knew he was pleased – and then heard his voice saying: “Don’t feel so shy, my daughter. To marry is a normal thing, you know. I’m glad that I have an obedient daughter. Both of us must have made enough merit, Phloi, for you to be able to give me happiness, and for me to have lived long enough to see you securely established.” – Chao Khun Father speaking to Phloi. (2005:195)2. “But you, Phloi, have nothing to worry about. Fortune’s darling, that’s what you are. You must have accumulated a lot of merit in your former lives to be so well- favoured in the present one. Born into a good family, grown up into a beautiful girl to marry a worthy man who rose to be a Phraya thus making you a Khunying, and now mother of a successful son.” (2005:475)3. She must have also accumulated enough merit, however, for she did not have to suffer too long. The end came a few months after that first examination. – on Khun Un’s death. (2005:544) 24
    • Karma as excuse for bad behaviourKhun Chang Khun Phan1. Prostrating before the venerable one, he said: “Great sorrow has descended upon me, my revered teacher. A fire burns within my breast, consuming my whole being and making the yellow robe too hot for me to wear. It must be my past sins that make me unworthy of membership in the Holy Order. I humbly beg your permission to leave it; which, if denied, would surely lead to my destruction.” (1995:106)2. “You speak prettily and cleverly, my dear,” observed Khun Phan. “Each of your sweet words strikes a responsive chord in my heart. It is a pity that you are yet without a lover. Any man who is fortunate enough to win you and hold you in his arms would surely attain his ultimate desire. Since there is none other, I myself will fill the role and prove myself a lover who never tires. No, I do not say this to deceive you, so be not dismayed. I will deliver you from bondage, even if it costs me five catties. The merit accrued in my past existences has brought me to your bed. Dearest, be not amazed and deny not what I seek.” – Khun Phan chancing upon Kaew Kiriya at Khun Chang’s house. (1995:255)Four Reigns3. An old woman laughingly told the queen what had happened to her since their last encounter and the queen laughed back, saying: “Well, well, taking a husband for the first time at the age of sixty! What made you do it, Grandma Jaem?” “My bad karma,” Grandma replied, laughing harder. “My very, very bad karma, isn’t’ that so and may it please Your Majesty, yes?” (2005:155)4. Please tell Phloi I think of her always, but ask her to forgive me. I did not accumulate enough merit in my former life to deserve her in this one. – Nuang’s letter to Choi disclosing his coming marriage. (2005:139)5. The letter, another phleng yao, sang of his anguish at having to part with the silk, his acceptance of what his karma had decreed for him in this life, and his hopes for a happier encounter with her in the next one. – from Nuang to Phloi in reply. (2005:150)Karma as reason for good behaviourFour Reigns1. They climbed the steps to the balcony and, call it instinct or the result of past karma or what you will, when she saw the boy Phloi’s heart went out to him immediately. (2005:231) 25
    • Karma can prevent harmFour Reigns1. He trusted to her past good deeds – her accumulated merit – to keep her from harm, but to make doubly sure that no bad luck would come her way he took to providing her with every protective measure he could think of. (2005:618)Stocking up good karmaFour Reigns1. “Say no more, my dear Phloi. If you think I’m contemplating going outside to get myself a husband like the others, forget it. For one thing I can’t leave Khun Aunt. And for another I can never leave my cage, for I’m a caged bird who will perish if you release me. I’ve always been good to the old people – made a lot of merit that way, so I hope that in my extreme old age some kind-hearted youngster will be ministering to me.” (2005:298)2. “Well, Mae Phloi,” Khun Choei said before departing that day, “I do think you are making merit and I rejoice with you. When she’s settled down I’ll come and see her to make amends. You can count on me to help you, Phloi.” (2005:342)Responsibility for own karmaFour Reigns1. “I forgot to warn you,” Khun Choei said on the way back to the big house. “And now it’s too late. Khun Chit should not have been allowed to see the gold you gave the children. Too much temptation for him. No, I’m not exaggerating, Mae Phloi. Don’t be shocked if your gifts turn into opium smoke within the next few days. You’ve learned many things living in the palace, and now you’re going to learn a few more here in your own house, like accepting the fact that your own brother can sink so low. I can speak frankly with you. With other people I’m ashamed even to mention his name. But I’ve stopped having anxieties about him. I’ve become immune. It’s his own karma after all, isn’t it?” (2005:124)2. “I know you love Phi On very much, but there’s nothing you can do. You must resign yourself to the fact that you can do nothing. He’s old enough, and he’s responsible for his own misguided actions – for his own karma, if you like.” – An speaking to Phloi. (2005:485)The Prostitute3. “Our surroundings which are necessary for our lives force us all to commit sins and to face sin with courage. The weak are victims of sin and they can never feel pure in their hearts until they have paid the debt for their sin.” – Khun Wit (1994:195) 26