National Geographic : 1967 Jul
hydrogen peroxide. Whoosh, crackle, tickle, ouch! I thought my eardrum had been shredded. Then the spoon crashed into the other ear. "Don't you feel better now?" asked the bar ber. It was a joyous feeling, to have both my ears back. No wonder the Ministry of Health was asking for a new law-that public ear cleaning be done by doctors only. Another tradition, one that seemed here to stay unchanged, was explained to me byPrasit as we entered a salesroom for spirit houses. "Every plot of ground has a spirit," he said. "When you build a house, you mustn't drive the spirit away, or you'll meet misfor tune. So you give the spirit a house to live in, out of doors, in the east corner." I saw a score of miniature stone buildings on pedestals, each a foot or two long and styled exactly like most of the temples in town: white columns all around; several steeply gabled roofs, one atop another, tiled in green and red and gold. The spirit house vendor said business was better than ever. Prasit said: "You don't need one as beauti ful as these. The spirit will stay in any little house, as long as you invite him properly. You put in dolls, as servants, and you offer food and incense. Some people do this once a day. It's a way of assuring protection." Aside from this, of course, one must seek ways of making merit. To make merit is the most deeply honored tradition of all. How much merit one manages to accumulate deter mines how one fares in this life, and in what ever existence might come after that. Merit Earned by Freeing a Bird One makes merit by doing something that is good. By releasing a caged bird, for exam ple. I often saw people buy birds for a baht or two, so they could set them free. Merit at its highest is made by showing devotion to the Three Jewels-to the Lord Buddha; to his teaching, the Dhamma; and to the Sangha, the Brotherhood of Monks. This is done in uncounted ways in Thailand, where 90 percent of the people avow eagerness to live up to the Dhamma. They go to the 23,000 wats, or monasteries-tourists usually call them temples-to bring flowers and incense and candles, and to put gold leaf on a hundred thousand images of the Lord Buddha. Men become bhikkhus, or monks, by the tens of thousands; you see their saffron robes everywhere. A man can easily leave the Sangha, but the enormous merit he has made by having been a monk will stay with him. A Gossamer silk filaments screen a craftsman aligning the warp for a bolt of famous Thai silk. Throughout bustling Bangkok, home mills clatter as artisans spin raw silk, then dye it, and weave spectacular patterns, often agleam with gold and silver. The craftburgeoned after World War II when an American, James Thompson, organized the industry and introduced durable dyes and improved shuttles. Since the 1500's, Thailand has welcomed farangs, as Westerners are called. Engineers have come from the Netherlands, lawyers from France and Belgium, bankers and educators from Britain, and doctors and agronomists from the United States. Best-known farang to Westerners was Mrs. Anna Leonowens, a British governess whose romanticized experiences at the 19th-century court of Rama IV inspired Margaret Landon's novel Anna and the King of Siam and the musical and motion picture "The King and I."