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  • Sharon Feigal

Buddhism and Traditional Thai Medicine


Krathong, offering
A krathong is made for the holiday of Loi Krathong, and is floated away on moving water. There are several different legends related to this practice and offering. Some are about the Buddha, and some are about the water goddess, Mae Khongkha, I was able to participate once in this festival in Thailand, and this is one I made here in the Netherlands last October.

My teacher says that while all Buddhist medicine isn't Thai, all Thai medicine is Buddhist medicine. While Buddhism isn't the only influence on the history of Thai medicine, it is as important to the understanding of the practice of it as is the cultural influence of Christianity in Europe and places that Europe colonized. To be clear, in modern Thailand just as in modern Europe and the rest of the world, allopathic medicine ("modern medicine") is practiced. Alongside this, similarly to the often more well-known Traditional Chinese Medicine or Ayurvedic medicine, traditional Thai medical practices are sometimes used alongside modern techniques, even in large hospitals.

This is Dr. Jivaka (he has a much longer name), the famous doctor of the Buddha. Thai medicine reveres him as its progenitor and some legends have him personally bringing medicine to Thailand, although that is most likely only a myth.

To put this into perspective on how it relates to me, massage is part of the physical therapies branch of traditional Thai medicine, just as physiotherapy is part of allopathic medicine. There are other specialties in this branch, and there are other branches, and all of them can be directly related to specialties in modern medicine. My teacher emphasizes that one doesn't need to become a Buddhist to practice traditional Thai medicine (or any of its branches), but one should try to get a good understanding of how it affects the practice.

Just a picture of part of my altar sometime last year. That bottle of liniment really shouldn't be on there unless it's an offering. I get sloppy sometimes.

Since the pandemic started, I've been very lucky to have been included in the online lectures my teacher's teacher has been giving from his home in Thailand. On Wednesdays the lectures are primarily about Buddhist practices as taught to him by his many teachers. On Thursdays the lectures are about traditional Thai medicine, such as element theory, historic texts and herbal formulas. Although I initially thought I'd be joining primarily for the Thursday lectures, I find myself more engaged in the Wednesday ones. Perhaps that stems from my long-ago university background in comparative religions and philosophies (among other things - I was an over-achiever), but I also think it has to do with my Catholic upbringing and my initial distrust of ritual without better understanding. It helps put many things that are taught in even the most commercial massage schools into better perspective.


I have long been comfortable with the practice of chanting a wai khru (respect to teachers). I remember kneeling in one of my first schools at the beginning of the day beside a new student who hadn't really come across it yet and explaining to her that she didn't have to do it if she felt uncomfortable (she did). To me, back then, I'd already had a chance to learn what the words meant, found them pretty comfortable, and the practice basically a good way of centering myself and directing my attention at the business of the day. But I had been uncomfortable too the very first time I had heard it, and like her had just sat there listening.


These days, I really enjoy some of the rituals. They make me feel respectful of the culture that has given me my livelihood. I am grateful to understand them better.


Does this make me a Buddhist? I'm not sure. I don't think it matters to me very much. Like many things, you never know how that will change over time. Of all the world religions, I've always felt most comfortable with Buddhism, but ultimately I don't think I'm particularly seeking their form of enlightenment.


(If interested, I've captioned all the photos with very brief explanations.)

Me last autumn about to place my krathong in the creek. This is one of my favorite Thai festivals, and celebrating it makes me feel like I am holding Thai culture close to me even when I'm not practicing massage.

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