Breaking into the Thai CultureAndre Provost
PO Box 1
Ubon Ratchathani 34160
I Breaking the Stereotype
One of the most impressive things that we discovered as we began to converse with Thai people was that their response towards us was consistent and almost predictable. Many even used the same words. This is because they already have certain preconceived ideas of who we are and these ideas were not positive. In order to get them to receive our message, and us we had to find a way to break through this stereotype.
They typically picture the Westerner as one with great economic resources. Westerners are gullible and are there to be “taken advantage of.” Foreign businesses treat their workers better than Thai or Chinese companies. Therefore developing a relationship with a foreigner can lead to a position in a foreign company and possible a ticket to the west. Western education is highly esteemed as a strong source of power. Thai people therefore look to the westerner for a possible connection to some western school. They see all westerners as Christians and Christianity as an inferior religion. Even though economically the westerner is more powerful, due to his religion he is considered inferior. Deep relationships are looked down upon by other Thais. They automatically suspect the motives of their countrymen when seen pursuing such relationships.
How do we move ourselves from that stereotype so that the Thai will respond positively to our message and us? This is the dilemma faced by every outsider breaking into the Thai culture. Being a missionary, a propagator of the Christian religion, makes this even more difficult.
I suggest that first, we must find a positive category to be placed in. It all begins with our answer to the question “Who are you?” I will present four models I used in my encounters with the Thai people.
Model 1: A Teacher of Christianity
The first response to the question “Who are you?” is that we are missionaries, teachers of the Christian religion. On hearing this, Thai people quickly let us know that “westerners have their own religion and the Thais have their own religion.” The only legitimate purpose they would allow us to have was to take care of the Christian ex-pat society. Even though there is a sub-culture of Thais who have converted to Christianity, these people are considered traitors to the rest of the society. They do not want to be reminded of this disgraceful part of their society. If we did remind them we were sure to get negative responses. They then would quickly quarantine us with the rest of the Thai believers. Even if we didn’t remind them of this, their response would be, “That’s great, every religion is good. All religions are the same.” Then they would politely excuse themselves of any more interactions with us. In their worldview, avoidance of conformation with another religion is the proper path to take.
Model 2: A Teacher of the Religion of Their Ancestors before They Became Buddhists
No, Thai people would never ask or assume this. It was one of my innovations on trying to find an answer to “Who am I?” When we asked a Thai why he was a Buddhist, he would answer “I am a Buddhist because my ancestors were Buddhist.” If we follow that logic, every person on this earth would be a believer because our first ancestors walked with God. According to my presuppositions based on my belief of the historical accuracy of the Bible, Thais, along with all other inhabitants of the human race, descended from the same family: the family of Noah. Noah’s family believed in a monotheistic creator God who promised a Savior to bear the sins of fallen humanity. Over the period of 4,500 years there have been paradigm shifts that have brought the Thai to their present worldview. I began to search for things in their culture that have carried over from that monotheistic primitive worldview.
As I began to question the Thai people about their pre-Buddhist history, they usually came up blank. It has been 2,000 years since Buddhism came to Thailand. Their history and calendars date back only this far. Some claimed that they were animists, but could not go beyond that. Another thing that they claimed was that their primitive ancestors migrated from an area in the southern part of China. There are even 16 million Chinese who speak Thai Yai, a dialect of Thai in China.
It was at this point that I came across the work of Mr. C.H. Kang and Ethel Nelson in their book The Discovery of Genesis, How the Truths of Genesis Were Found Hidden in the Chinese Language. One of the earliest languages we have is the Chinese language. According to historians, the development of the Chinese language was close to the time of the dispersion of races from the tower of Babel – around 4,200 years ago. We find that the designer of the Chinese language designed the language using pictures to define words. When compared with the stories in the historical accounts of the pre-Babel world from the Bible, we can understand why they chose many of the characters that they did. It would only be common sense that all men shared common knowledge of this history. Therefore using these characters, the people would quickly understand their meaning.
At this point, I would contradict one of the theories pushed on the Thais by Western innovators. This is the theory that the past is inferior and we cannot learn from it. Because of the tremendous escalation of crime and immorality in recent years, there is an inner feeling among most Thais that the past was much better. I inject the possibility that years ago men were closer to the beginning of time and had more knowledge of how things came about than we do now. By having this knowledge, we may find answers to why there is more immorality and wickedness on the earth now than before. We also can find answers in solving problems both in our inner personal lives and that of society.
As we study the characters developed by the Chinese, we find that they believed that there was a creator God who was the emperor of the universe. Through the authority of the Chinese characters and the primitive writings of a Hebrew person named Moses, I fill Thai people in with their missing history. I tell them the stories of creation, the fall of Lucifer, the garden, the fall of man, the promise, the sacrifice as a preparation for the promise and temporal way to righteousness until the fulfilment of the promise, the entrance of violence by Cain and Abel, the multiplication of evil and destruction of the first inhabitants in the time of Noah and the tower. I use the Chinese characters to validate this history. From that foundation, it was only a small step to present the call of Abraham, the development of a nation for the birth of the promised one, the prophecies concerning the promise, and then Christ as the Lamb of God—the fulfilment of the Chinese lamb sacrificed for righteousness.
Presenting myself in the initial stage as a teacher of this religion caused some difficulties. The Buddhist religious leaders controlled the religion category. For me to present myself as a teacher of a primitive religion puts me into the category of some type of unorthodox freaky guru. They just were not interested in knowing about another religion. Even though it did break the stereotype and give me a little more of their attention, there was no orthodox category for such a person as me. I felt that much of this content would be very valuable in my teaching, but that it had to be wrapped in a different package.
Model 3: A Teacher of Buddhism: Messianic Buddhist
A Buddhist? Yes, this would really excite the Thais. They are extremely proud to find a westerner that has come to find the “true religion.” I would claim that I am a follower of the true teachings of Buddha – that is, those things that are written in his teachings. From studying the teachings of Buddha, we should come to the conclusion that Buddha had set up a temporary set of moral laws to follow until the coming of the one who brings mercy. In their language the “mettrai.” Could this be the messiah? He would be the one who takes their sins. All are to turn away from the old way and follow this messiah.
I would ask them if they ever heard of the discourse of Buddha between an old monastic follower of Buddha’s teaching and the Buddha himself from the 13th book of the prophecies of the Buddha -- the teaching of the messiah. Usually they have some recollection of this teaching and the folk tales that have grown up around it. I quickly pull out my photocopy of the prophecy and hold it up for them to read. My translation of the discourse within my language limitations is as follows:
The old priest dressed in white goes in and asks the Buddha, “Man and priest will remember the law and walk in the way, but what will he do to get free from his sin?”
The Buddha answers, “Even if you give alms, give offerings, follow the 5 commandments, 8 commandments, 10 commandments, or the 227 commandments, raise your hands in reverence, give your body to be burned or pray 5 times a day, you will not be saved from your sins. You have received merit only as much as one piece of hair on a baby in the mother’s womb for eight months.
The old priest then asks again, “If it’s like that, what must I do to be saved?”
The Buddha answers, “The sin of man is very heavy and thick. Heavier than the heaven, thicker than the earth, taller than a certain type of stone. Whenever an angel can take a cloth to cover it, that will be the time that man’s sin will end.” He goes on explaining how it doesn’t matter how much merit we make; we cannot free ourselves from this sin.
The old man then asks again, “If it’s that way, what do you want us to do?”
The Buddha then says, “You should do alms and seek another one. This one will come in the future to help the world. His name will be Phrasriareemettrai. This name translated into English means as follows: Phra- special, holy; Aree- pure, the highest; and Mettrai- mercy.
The old man then asks, “What are the distinguishing characteristics that this one will have? What will he look like?”
The Buddha answers, “Prasriareemettra that will come to help the world in the future has these characteristics: He will have in the center of his hand and center of his feet a circular type jagged thing. In his side will be a scar from a wound of something piercing him, and on his forehead it will be full of scars. This one will be to you a large golden boat that will take you across the sea of the cycle of suffering to Nirvana. You will meet the three emerald points. Don’t continue in the old path or you will never be set free. You must turn away from the old way and you will receive a new spirit like a firefly that comes down from heaven. It will live in your heart and you will have the victory over your enemy from the four points, the eight points of the compass. Whoever tries to do bad to you won’t be able to. If you die, you will not come back to live on this earth again. You will enter Nirvana.”
Thai people are not that literate in the teachings of Buddha. They have faith in what the orthodox monks tell them. Therefore they must take this prophecy to the monks to get it verified. The monks in Thailand do not believe the literal teachings of Buddha. They have integrated the teachings of the innovators from the west into the Buddhist teachings. They now deny miracles, heaven, and hell. Most believe that Buddha’s teachings must only be taken allegorically. Those who try to promote any sense of the possibility that any of Buddha’s teachings are to be taken literally are quickly quarantined. They are considered unorthodox and heretical. Those in power, the religious department, have even put unorthodox monks in prison. Therefore, I as a propagator of some new unorthodox sect of Buddhism am put in the category of one that must be removed from the country.
It is interesting to note that there are Thai Christians who have become believers through this prophecy. Also, about 20 years ago, a case came before the religious department about the use of this prophecy. The Thai government decided that the stories of nailing of Jesus to the cross through His hands and feet, the thorns on His head and the piercing of His side are a corruption of our scriputes used to deceive Buddhists.
Model 4: A Social Worker who Helps Those Struggling in Overcoming Society’s Ills – Life Enrichment Course
This has been the answer that has brought about the best response. One day I brought my children to play at a mall. As I was watching them, I began a conversation with another man sitting next to me. He asked me what I was doing in Thailand. I told him I was working to help the Thai people and that I teach a life enrichment course -- those who take this course find their lives enriched. I told him that after taking the course, I have had alcoholics who did not drink alcohol, wife beaters who did not beat their wives, and lonely persons who found new meaning to life. Surprisingly, the man responded really positively. He quickly pulled out his card and asked me to give him a call at his office. The card showed he held a post in the Interior Ministry of Thailand.
With this type of introduction, I have been able to get the attention of many that were struggling with problems. From this angle, I would begin my studies with the truth that their problem stems for the fact that they don’t know who they are and where they came from. The problem they are facing today began from an incident, which happened about 6,000 years ago. I bring in the Chinese characters to help authenticate the Judeo-Christian (never using this terminology) historical worldview as the view known by our forefathers and lost through time. As they listen to these stories, their philosophical presuppositions begin to change according to their faith. I use the same stories as Model 3, but present it in a contemporary wrapper. Charles Kraft tells us that, “The message that is not predictable in terms of some stereotype, like the communicator that thus resists predictability, has greater impact on the receptors.”
When I come to the prophecies of the coming of the promised one- the one that will destroy Satan and will be the fulfilment of the sacrifice for our sins, I include the prophecy of Buddha. I emphasize the truths that Buddha had discovered that are consistent with Moses and Christ’s teachings. Then I bring them to the fulfilment of these prophecies in Christ; the one that has paid the price for the sin that is causing our problem. Christ’s death for our atonement and his resurrection are included in all eight of these lessons. Questions are asked to help the student process this new information and what is means to the student’s personal life. When faith in these things we say enters their lives, it challenges their powers. This brings a drastic change in their philosophical presuppositions. This will cause a change in their behaviour, from the inside out. This is what we call true “Life Enrichment.” From those who finish our course we make support groups (contemporary churches) to continue their enrichment.
To develop an answer to this question, we have to understand the code store of the receptor. If what we are doing is offensive to the receptor, we will only be put into quarantine. Definitely the cross does offend, the are Christians quarantines because of the preaching of the cross? Or, is it because of the package that the gospel is wrapped in? The Thai church has been a replica of the church of the west. The complaint of those who are on the outside is not the preaching of the cross, but that these Thais have chosen the way of the westerners. This persecution has caused most of the church to retreat into its own sub-culture, building its boundaries even stronger. Even the language of the church people is not understood outside of the churches.
Isn’t the outcome of the power of the gospel more than just joining a “Christian Club” of quarantined western style people? The Thai church has accepted this defeatist mentality placed on it from the outsiders. This mentality must be changed in order to go on with Christ’s commission. The biggest problem of freeing the slaves was not gaining their release, but the problem of taking the slave mentality out of the ex-slaves.
I propose that we establish a movement that is more true to the Thai culture. This movement will break the stereotype of the western “Christian Club,” hopefully increasing the impact of the message. After his resurrection Jesus told his disciples, “Go into all the world and make disciples: baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.” This movement should do just that in the context of the Thai culture, trying not to impose any of our own cultural baggage on them. It would be a movement that should enrich Thai society by assisting in doing away with the social ills of that society.
Why do we want to help? At this point, they begin to question our motives. Can we claim that our motivation is only our love for them? They ask us, “How much is your government paying you to do this work? How much money could they get for assisting you in this work? Could they get “rich” if they take on this occupation?” At this point, I feel we must be very sensitive and check our own motives. I would suggest that in Thailand a missionary may opt out of receiving a salary, in keeping with the tradition of Paul (1 Cor 9). We then demonstrate our motives are not for financial gain, but only because we have received such enrichment in our own lives. We therefore are in debt to share this enrichment with them, even sacrificially. We do have friends who feel the same way and thus send voluntary gifts to help us to live here. There is no guarantee that any will come and it continually varies. Thus we set an example for them to follow when they also receive this enrichment.
II Understanding Their Code Store
The Thai culture is in the process of rapid change. Those in power have chosen to lead the country to economic recession. Innovators from the west are attempting to change Thailand from a religion-based society to a secular economic based society in the name of “modernism.” In the eyes of the sensors, it is bringing havoc to their culture. Even the Buddhist religious teachers are complaining that they are being quarantined. New western ideas have left a vacuum in the moral areas of Thai people’s lives. The traditional culturally defined roles are being questioned. Most men have turned to alcohol to cope. Others sit mesmerised in front of televisions drowning out their misery. “ What went wrong? Why do I feel like this? They promised us utopia but have only havoc.”
We should look at the Thai Philosophical assumptions to help us understand their code store. One day I attended a debate at a very highly esteemed Thai university. The debate was between a renowned American creation scientist, Doctor Gish, and a renowned Thai spiritual leader. The subject of time came into the picture. The monk claimed that the only real element of time was a very small microsecond. This was the time for the passing of one frame of the movie script we were involved in watching. This brought Doctor Gish to the conclusion that the Thai’s unscientific explanation of time left them with no point to debate, because Doctor Gish was a scientist. Even though this explanation of time seems to somehow exist, the Thai I have encountered have not held to it. The linear scientific concept has been taught in the schools for some time now. Even the teaching of reincarnation, which as a cyclical view of time, is beginning to be treated as a myth by many Thai.
When I was placing my daughter into kindergarten, I asked the teacher if I could preview the science curriculum. I discovered that the stated goal of this curriculum was to teach the children that everything in this universe could be explained by reason. Reason was the ultimate authority. The teachers were to teach the children that all allusions to evil spirits and mystical beings were superstition. Even with this type of teaching, they have not snuffed out such beliefs. Belief in spirits is rampant among the Thai. They believe spirits exist in all places. Most houses have a shrine built for the land spirit, to which they present incense regularly for good luck. Spirit or demon possession is also common. Ancestral spirits are believed to be floating around. There are even spirits in trees, rocks, and caves. Because this belief is close to their cultural base line it continues on.
Due to this ontology, the people find themselves living in bondage to spiritual forces. They try to get special luck from such forces. They burn incense daily, hoping that the forces will make them rich.
III. Pulling Down the Barriers
The more time that we spent in Thailand, the more we realized we could not bring a
movement only by our words. These spiritual forces need to be dealt with. There is a need for a power encounter between those forces and the power of Christ. Those who have listened to us, taken our course, and behaved in the way we asked them, did not always stick to their faith. In the center of their worldview are other powers that have to be dealt with. They must finally be convinced that all power must be in subjection to Christ. They must see Christ as the one who has the supreme place of ultimate power in their lives. From this encounter their philosophical presuppositions will automatically change and work their way out to the behavioral sphere.
One family studied with us and decided to follow through with the behavior we asked from them. They got rid of their idols and were baptized. Later the wife became ill. Due to our claim of Christ’s power over sickness, we prayed for her regularly. She was not healed. Later, based on an intuitive feeling (which, I believe came from God), my wife challenged her on their sincerity in getting rid of the idols. The wife admitted that they still had an idol. She decided to get rid of it and was then healed.
A street sweeper was studying our lessons. The other street sweepers began to put pressure on her to quit studying with the foreigners. Because it is a sin to them to cause disputation among the community, she was really in a dilemma. She decided that night she would quit studying with us. During the night, she had a dream. In this dream, she was taking a trip with my wife and I. We came to a river and my wife walked across the water to the other side. The Thai girl began to follow my wife, but she fell into the water. She screamed for help because something was pulling her down. I suddenly turned into an elephant and entered the water. She climbed on my back and I carried her across. As she shared this dream with the other street sweepers the next morning, they concluded that she needed to continue to study with us. The elephant was an omen for good luck. They told her that something good would happen to her if she continued her studies. She did finish the lessons and became a believer.
Another case of a power encounter happened to Chai. Chai is a 45-year-old man married to a Filipino wife. His wife was a believer in Christ and had asked us to hold communion meetings with her weekly. We agreed to do so, but on this first week her husband asked to participate. I challenged his faith, but he was insistent. Therefore, I gave him a Bible with pages turned to the warning in 1 Corinthians about what happens to those who take communion unworthily. I asked him to read it. When he finished reading it, he closed the Bible and still insisted on taking communion. Later that week, Chai had a motorcycle accident. He broke his leg in two places. On visiting him that Sunday at the hospital, he asked me why that happened to him. I told him that I didn’t know, but I also asked him if he remembered what he read the week before. At that, Chai quickly admitted that he was testing God. He turned to his daughter and told her to go home and remove all the idols from his house. He said he was ready to follow in the way of his wife. Later he was baptized and became the man that we trained up to lead the believers.
The movement must go on. In order for the movement to succeed, it must be indigenous. The power must come from within the culture. The initial pattern must be multipliable by those within their culture. No part of the movement can depend on those from outside. Therefore we must void ourselves of as much outside source as possible. The price of the materials used to propagate the movement must be within the budget that a national could afford. They must learn to sacrifice, paying from their own resources for the cause. All materials must be purchased within the price that they can purchase themselves. They then must purchase these materials themselves to multiply the movement. The time involved for planting each group must be in their context. Even the simplicity of the meetings must not be beyond that which a new convert can duplicate. The equipment used must be that which they can both afford and duplicate. They must be the ones to continue the movement with only those who originally had direct contact with us continuing that relationship with us. They must train their own leaders for the movement. They must develop their own forms. It must become their movement.
In Bangbua Thong we began such a movement. We used lessons developed by George Patterson that were photocopied for $.04 each, $.32 for a complete set of eight lessons. These were paid for out of our own pockets. In recruiting students we used public transportation or walked. Then the students were asked to teach those lessons to their friends for the first day. The lessons were simple stories that the students could remember and teach to their friends and relatives. As a group of believers formed, we began to meet together regularly for mutual support. The meetings were planned to be very simple. Communion was the center of worship. Music was played using an instrument indigenous to their culture. We sat on the floor in a circle. The elements for communion were things that the hosts found around their house and prepared in advance. From the earliest stages, seven weeks after baptism when finishing the follow-up course, we began training potential leaders. Because the believers were continually reminded of their debt to Christ for his suffering and death to purchase their salvation, they desired to obey his commands. They were taught to repent and believe; be baptized; pray and feed on His Word; love God and love their neighbors; give; take part in the Lord’s supper; and to evangelize and make disciples.
Our definition of church is “a group of believers who come together to obey Christ’s commands.” George Patterson also developed the material used for the potential leader training. Each week we would meet with the student worker and review his assignments, give counsel, help him develop his new assignment, and provide him materials to prepare him to teach in his next group. The materials were in small booklet form and Thai comics were put into the material. The lessons were arranged according to activities. We presented them according to the activity that the student worker felt he needed for his group. The student worker purchased the materials at the price used to duplicate. It cost $.40 per book, which he paid himself. He was to keep this material for future use.
The first man we trained in this way did lead three others to Christ and baptized them. We continued to give them oversight, but he was able to do this without our intervention. The movement was still in this stage after two years of work in Bangbua Thong. We had 20 persons baptized. Form these, six moved away, five reverted to earlier beliefs, and nine were still meeting together when we left. We left them with another missionary who was planning to continue where we left off. The goal was that the student workers would eventually become the leaders and the trainers of this movement following this pattern. The movement will thus become their movement.
Kang, CH and Ethel R. Nelson, The Discovery of Genesis.
Kraft, Charles H., Christianity in Culture.
Liampeethrat, Samroum, Jesus Christ is the One Who Brings Mercy (translated from Thai language)
Patterson, George. Planting Churches Through Obedience Oriented Education.