123rd Meeting – August 1994

Signs of the Buddha in the Northern Thai Chronicles

A talk by Donald Swearer

Donald Swearer's research has focused on the chronicles of sacred mountains and other religious sites in Northern Thailand, such as ‘Phra Chao Liep Lok’ [the Lord Buddha wanders or tours the world], dating from the 15th century on. Buddha tamnan cover a wide variety of texts and take their definition from the contents. These used to abound in Northern Thailand in monastic libraries and describe the Buddha's wanderings here and his encounters with people and their conversion. The tamnan are quite folkloric. The particular text he discussed in detail was ‘Tamnan Ang Salung’ [The Chronicle of the Water Basin] which is concerned with Doi Luang Chiang Dao in Chiang Mai Province. Lawa people often appear with arahants, King Asoka, naga, yakka, Indra, Visukamma, Ananda, Brahma, and devata in these tales. They give signs that make the relics, footprints and Buddha images. They name places and explain the reasoning behind it. Some of the tamnan are apocalyptic and eerily prophetic in the context of present day events, describing the decline of the sasana [religion] during the last half of the present 5,000-year era. It will be a time of the ascendancy of evildoers, war and suffering. Ten-year-old girls will engage in sexual intercourse; parents will encourage their very young daughters to marry; families will fall apart. People will sell images and amulets of the Buddha and the King. People will be unable to distinguish right from wrong; will be illiterate and without skills; pursue their own selfish interests. Monks will not study the dhamma. The laity will be lazy and interested only in eating and sleeping . . . until the righteous world leader [dhammikaraja] addresses the evils of the world.

Donald's analysis is three-part. A tamnan is a window on popular Northern Thai Buddhism from before the 15th century to the modern period. By 'popular' is meant 'as practiced by most people’. First, it provides a magical instrumentalist view of the happenings and relics. The relics and images ensure the survival of the religion and bless patrons as well. Next, it serves as a cosmological map of a region which is now Buddha-land. The Buddha's presence gives the region an identity - he is the name-er, creating a cosmos. Thirdly, the Buddha is 'read' from his relics. Tamnan were never written to be read as history. The utter disregard of time, space and history is irrelevant. They are the story of the Buddha's living presence.


Here is Don’s summary of his talk:

Signs of the Buddha in the Northern Thai Chronicles

By Don Swearer

Northern Thailand can lay claim to having produced a truly extraordinarily collection of legendary accounts of the Buddha’s wanderings in northern Thailand known as tamnån (chronicle) or tamån-nidåna (chronicle-legend). These Buddha tamnån come under the general classification of vohara text, that is, they are written in the Tai Yüan vernacular although in a vestigial manner they retain the form of a Påli commentary.  That is, Påli words and phrases are interspersed throughout the text giving the impression that the vernacular functions as an explanation of the Påli.

David Wyatt divides northern Thai tamnån into two broad categories: the tamnån of the distant past or 'universal histories' in Påli and Thai, and 'monumental histories' concerning Buddhist images, relics, and institutions. Hans Penth proposes five descriptive classifications: chronicles that deal with the history of Buddhism, chronicles about Buddha images, chronicles of religious sites, inscriptions, and a miscellaneous category. The term tamnån covers such a wide variety of texts that it may be best understood in the primitive sense of the term, namely, a hollow stalk or container.  That is to say, a tamnån takes its definition from its particular content rather than the other way around.[i]  This suggestion goes against the analytical grain of Western scholarship but it may more accurately represent the variety of documents that bear the title, tamnån.

In general terms, all buddha-tamnån (Thai, phuttha-tamnån) texts share a similar content.  They treat in varying detail the Buddha's wanderings in northern Thailand and beyond, his encounter with different ethnic and occupational groups, e.g. Lawa, Burmese, farmers, artisans, and so on, their conversion to the path of the tathågata, the establishment of particular historical and religious sites or the prediction of their future appearance, and a passing on of a legacy of Buddha relics, images, and footprints to ensure the long-term success of the Buddha's religion in the absence of its founder.  In a  study of the Legend of Water Basin Mountain (Tamnån Ang Salung) I proposed that the Buddha’s journey not only sacralizes particular locations, but that through the act of naming, his visit actually creates a “realm” or and grounds the region in the body of the Buddha (buddhakåya) through his relics (i.e. the Buddha’s on-going physical presence).

The northern Thai Buddha tamnån presuppose earlier developments in the Theravåda tradition associated with Buddha cult and devotion found in texts ranging from the Mahåparinibbåna Sutta and Apadånas to the Påli commentaries of the fifth century and later.  They are, furthermore, remniscent of Påli vaµsa composed in Sri Lanka as well as the stories recorded in the diaries of the Chinese pilgrims Faxian and Xuangzang.  In addition to lengthy Buddha tamnån of several palm leaf bundles that provide a broad, comprehensive account of the Buddha's travels in northern Thailand, major monastery-temples (Thai, wat), hills and mountains  (Thai, doi) topped by a cetiya reliquary (Thai, ched¥)  has its tamnån. In many cases, the histories in booklet form that are sold today at various wats in northern Thailand are adapted from the tamnån accounts of these sites.  One of the more unusual of these locations in the district of Chom Thong, Chiang Mai Province, is Wat Yang Wit, the Buddha’s Bathroom Resting Place. If you visit the Wat today you can witness the Buddha's privy!

Of course, the Buddha did not confine his travels to northern Thailand and in this sense tamnån, while distinctive as a type of literary genre, is not unique to northern Thailand. Legendary chronicles in other Buddhist lands recount the Buddha’s travels throughout Asia; however, it appears that northern Thailand produced a larger body of Buddha tamnån and vernacular jåtaka stories of the Buddha’s previous lives than other regions of Buddhist Asia.   Consequently, we might speculate that one of the most distinctive achievements during the classical period of northern Thai Buddhism from the fourteenth to the early sixteenth centuries was the multifaceted way the Buddha was made present in this region of Buddhist Asia