Craig Kaufman critiques a New York Times piece on Thai spirituality that completely fails to mention the Thai Buddhist tradition. It is understandable and all too common for people to have misconceptions about Thailand, a distant country that has not figured into global news the way its neighbors have. Even news outlets known for excellence in overseas reporting can present a confusing picture. The New York Times recently published a piece regarding contemporary belief in Thailand, entitled “Thais Look to the Supernatural.” It was then republished a few days later with the title, “When the Spirits Talk, As They Frequently Do, Thais Are Eager to Listen.” The latter is actually a better fit for a piece laden with questionable vignettes. Lacking any Buddhist context, the article risks feeding into myths as well as misinforming people about the crucial encounter between Buddhism and modernity. We would do well to move beyond these myths. Supernatural matters have a long and colorful history in Thailand, to the extent that they intertwine with aspects of Thai Buddhism, which has long been dominant there. Thailand has provided one of the more consistently "safe" homes for Buddhism during modern Asia’s turbulent history. Aside from being the chosen faith of 95% of Thais, it plays a fundamental role in Thai society and culture. Yet the far-ranging Times piece includes literally no mention of Buddhism. Misplaced Emphases about Thai Spirituality. The piece opens with a mention of shamans and their importance in Thailand’s recently violent politics (which the piece whimsically dubs, “the black art of the possible”). Times correspondent Thomas Fuller then writes about the founder of a company selling protector-ghost miniature houses, who speaks of “‘our customers and their Brahmin priests.’” Having been in a number of parts of Thailand in the past dozen years, I would have to say that encountering a Brahmin priest or shaman before, say, a Buddhist monk, would be extremely unlikely. To provide a relevant comparison: imagine a piece on contemporary Saudi Arabian spirituality not mentioning Islam. That would never happen. (It also ought to be noted also that amid the Brahmins and shamans Fuller does not mention Muslims, who comprise over 4% of the Thai population.) In general, the piece presents dubious assertions without balancing them. Fuller introduces a horoscopes tycoon named, “coincidentally,” Mr. Luck. This interlocutor informs us that with regard to his fellow Thais: “‘There are only two things that people are really, really interested in: sex and fortune telling.’” One would hope that readers might be made aware of other Thai interests and activities. For example: At 5 o’clock each morning countless thousands of people emerge from their homes, rain or shine, to offer food to Buddhist monastics. As barefoot monks approach, families step outside (or line main thoroughfares) to place donations of food, often home-cooked, into the bowls of the monks. They kneel, while the monks perform a chant that expresses both gratitude and reminders of the Buddha’s teachings. Even on weekends sex and fortunes have to wait: though the tens of thousands of Thai monastics live on one round of food a day, if they do not walk the neighborhood after their 3 a.m. meditation session, they will have to wait till the next morning. Recalling my own experience of that profoundly selfless rite and so many other age-old elements of Thai culture that persist in the face of modernity, the Times's account made me feel like I was reading about some other tropical country. Thai Buddhist Thinkers’ Critiques Can Counter Sensational Narratives. Let us – as economically-empowered friends of Buddhist societies -- grapple with the issues raised by the article, keeping in mind the dynamic thinking of great Thai Buddhists like Buddhadasa Bhikkhu, or Sulak Sivaraksa and Phra Paisal Visalo today. These teachers and writers have taken up social issues without compromising their spiritual commitment, turning their social engagement and inquiry into dharma practice. We can start by identifying new retellings of the “exotic Thailand” stereotype. Such stereotypes are relevant for readers because overseas tourism is a major part of the Thai economy. Most of our fellow foreigners are not likely going there for meditation. Instead they tend to involve local people in decidedly "non-dharmic" activities, which can bolster harmful institutions. A piece that talks about spirit-houses as opposed to Buddhist houses or the increase in protests against government ones, is one that can make Thai culture appear diminutive, when in reality it has fostered economic development alongside a continued respect for its Buddhist roots. Thailand is many things, and decades of rapid-fire consumerism, aided by the tourist economy, have had a huge impact there, far more than in fellow Theravada Buddhist countries Sri Lanka, Burma, Laos, and Cambodia. The developments in Thailand are themselves part of why horoscope and spirit-house businesses are growing. There is more to the piece’s "supernatural world" than one might imagine. It notes how Thai evening news regularly features villagers coming across potential lottery numbers via signs like the number of legs on “stillborn Siamese piglets.” It bears mentioning that great modern masters like Buddhadasa Bhikkhu and the forest monks also honed in on rural life – but as a way to return Thai Buddhist practice to its stronger (rural) roots. Yet Westerners reading about lucky piglets are more likely to think of the political axiom that lotteries are the poor tax. We would do well instead to consider an important dharma issue brought up by Thai thinkers. Phra Paisal Visalo and others have discussed how consumerism misinterprets punya, a seminal dharma concept referring to increasing one’s merit through giving, virtue and meditation. These scholars lament how laypeople increasingly use material donations as a substitute for morality and practice. The idea of giving to temples in the hopes of improving one’s future can appear almost similar to lottery spending. One cannot expect mainstream newspapers to cover issues like punya in detail, but it would be illuminating for them to point out complexities of Thai spirituality, since Thai people have serious relationships to these ideas. Buddhism’s Problems Should not be Downplayed in the Face of Louder Trends. Buddhism can be less a news-maker than other religions, and that serves to weaken reporting on it and its practitioners. But Buddhism is relevant in other ways, due to its presence in many of the world’s fastest-rising countries. It has played the leading religious role in many countries, or at least was a transformative force in their history or development. We see this with China, India, and Japan -- and Thailand, too. Thailand’s thriving marketplace, for the mundane and the supernatural, is strongly connected to its stability, a stability that is tied to a moral order based on traditional culture. Thailand has avoided the harsh colonization and consuming violence that has plagued the mostly-Theravada Southeast Asian region. A quick look at its neighbors reveals the threat to the modern-day Theravada world. Decades of violence have been crippling. In Cambodia only a few dozen fully-trained monastics remained after the Khmer Rouge bloodbath. (Intensive efforts to train new monks may be the only way to keep its original dharma lineage intact.) With violence and political crisis rising in Thailand, its Buddhism -- and its stereotyped designation as "playground," for what it’s worth -- cannot be taken for granted. Thailand’s Buddhism has unique properties, including how it can weave ancient (supernatural-oriented) culture into a larger Buddhist fabric, one that provides a fundamental source of wisdom to Thai people. As Western beneficiaries of Buddhism, we can also draw from this fabric. For example, there is a rich social-action tradition, including pioneering spiritual ecological tactics. “Ordained” trees come to mind, decked in saffron robes to protect them from being cut down. (In the US, we can see this tactic mirrored in the collaboration between famed Redwood tree-sitter Julia Butterfly Hill and Western Thai-Buddhist abbot Ajahn Pasanno.) Yet, nowadays Thailand’s dharma activists are focusing a great deal of energy on trying to ensure that Buddhist spirituality and institutions retain vitality for people. As outsiders, we should keep in mind that sangha, "community," is a broad term and includes the wellbeing of people’s local groups as well as the older Asian dharma cultures themselves. In the past half-century these cultures have caused Buddhism to explode in countries that had barely encountered it before, such as the US. So the fact that Westerners go to Thailand to fulfill pursuits that often include drugs and even sex tourism with girls and boys, is a serious concern for numerous reasons. Seeing Thailand as a playground instead of a "dharma ground" represents a great loss. People are not only all the more likely to miss out on the depths of Thai culture and spirituality, but also to help ensure that superficial culture continues to solidify.