The Emotional Lives of Buddhist Monks
in Modern Thai Film

By Justin McDaniel


1. Jeffrey Samuels, Attracting the Heart: Social Relations and the Aesthetics of Emotion in Sri Lankan Monastic Culture (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, forthcoming, 2010). I thank the author for letting me read an advanced copy of this book.

2. Charles Hallisey, “Ethical Particularism in Theravaada Buddhism,” Journal of Buddhist Ethics 3 (1996): 32-43.

3. Justin McDaniel, Gathering Leaves and Lifting Words: Histories of Buddhist Monastic Education in Laos and Thailand (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2008) see especially chapter 4.
4. Martha Nussbaum, Narrative Emotions: Beckett’s Geneology of Love,” Ethics 98 (1988): 226.

5. Ibid., 230.

6. Margaret Urban Walker, Moral Understanding: Moral Understandings: A Feminist Study in Ethics (London: Routledge, 1997): 167.

7. Jil Larson, Ethics and Narrative in the English Novel, 1880-1914 (Cambridge University Press, 2001).

8. See particularly Charles Hallisey and Anne Hansen, “Narrative, Sub-Ethics, and the Moral Life”, Journal of Religious Ethics 24.2 (1996): 305-325. Much of this work has been inspired by the work of Stanley Hauerwas and Martha Nussbaum. See especially the former’s “Introduction” Why Narrative?” (with Gregory Jones) and “From System to Story: An Alternative Pattern for Rationality in Ethics” (with David Burrell), both in Why Narrative: Readings in Narrative Theology, edited by Stanley Hauerwas and Gregory Jones (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 1997): 1-20 and 158-190. See also Nussbaum’s The Upheavals of Thought: The Intelligence of Emotions (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003): 472-477, and Love’s Knowledge: Essays on Philosophy and Literature (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988).

9. Although the location of the small town is not discussed, it was filmed in the province of Kanchanaburi, about two hours from Bangkok, and anyone who has spent time in Thailand will recognize that the backdrops are of Wat Tham Seua, a somewhat famous local monastery in that region near the Burmese border. Other backdrops in the film include Wat Wang Wiwek and other small monasteries dotted along the road from Amphoe Muang, Kanchanaburi and the town of Sangkhlaburi.

10. This reflects the ways in which the modern “school calendar” in Thailand has changed the ways in which children ordain. In the past, children would begin their ordination period at the beginning of pansa (Pali: vassa), the traditional three month rains retreat observed though out the Southeast Asian Buddhist world (following the lunar calendar, this retreat usually lasts between July and October) This is a time for novices, nuns, and monks to reside in their monasteries and spend their time dedicated less to public service and pilgrimage and more to meditating and studying. However, in modern Thailand, the public school break doesn’t overlap with the rains retreat. Therefore, students often ordain on their school’s summer break (often in April and May).

11. In the sequel, Luang Phi Teng II, the protagonist is played by the famous Thai hip hop artist,  Joey Boy (original name: Apisit Opsasaimlikit). In this film, Luang Phi Teng uses his rhyming skills to teach the village and to get out of trouble.

12. Other films in which the power of Buddhist chanting and yantras are prominently displayed include Ahimsa, directed by Leo Kittikorn in 2005 and one of the highest grossing films in Thai history, Ong Bak. The latter contains a scene where a head of a giant Buddha statue falls and crushes the films arch villain!

13. I thank Adam Knee for a number of fruitful conversations about various versions of the film. I thank him, Pimpaka Towira, and Arnika Fuhrman for agreeing to speak at the film festival and colloquium “The Supernatural in Southeast Asia” held at the University of California (Riverside) on Halloween Weekend, 2008. The festival and colloquium were organized by Tamara Ho, Lan Duong, and myself.

14. Other films that depict the use of magic have been quite popular. I am working on a separate study of these films mostly released between 2001 and 2009 including Arahant Summer, Maha-Ut, Ong Bak, Ahimsa, and Chom Khamang Wet.  

15. See especially Robert DeCaroli, Haunting the Buddha: Indian Popular Religions and the Formation of Buddhism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004) for a study of ghosts and “spirit-deities” in early Buddhism. See Baas J. Terwiel, Monks and Magic: an Analysis of Religious Ceremonies in Thailand. London: Curzon Press., 1975 [also published in Lund by Studentlitteratur in 1975] for a description of ghost worship in Thailand.

16. Recently the city district borders were redrawn. The area Mak and Mae Nak was from used to be in the Phrakanong district, but now is officially in a neighboring district.

17. While there were small skirmishes between the Siamese and the Burmese in 1868 in Northwestern Thailand, the main battles between the Burmese and Siamese had long ended.  The Burmese were embroiled in a decades long war with the British during this period which ended in 1885 with a British victory.

18. Alternatively she is called “I Nak” (“I” is a familiar term used to address a young woman), “Nang” (young woman) Nak, “Mae” (mother of middle-aged woman) Nak, and “Ya” (grandmother) Nak.

19. See Prince Anuman Rajadhon, Popular Buddhism in Siam (Bangkok: Sathirakoses Nagapradipa Foundation, 1986): 99-124.  According to Anuman, women who die in childbirth are known as “phi phrai.” This is an extremely feared type of ghost in Thailand as they are known to feed on the entrails of the living. However, she is also feared, like Mae Nak Phrakhanong, because she can appear as a beautiful woman and seduce young men. A monk or lay ritualist can neutralize her powers by sealing her corpse with wax and string and submerging them in a river. Sometimes, this type of burial is reserved for the unborn ghost baby. These types of ghosts are also alternatively called “phi tai thang klom” (literally: “ghosts of women who died during childbirth). This type of ghost suffers because of her longing to be with her husband and child.  This is a long held belief of many Thai people and a story of this type of ghost also appears in the Ayutthayan era epic romance, Khun Chang Khun Paen. The version of the poem that most Thais are familiar with was composed by King Rama II in the early 1800s. Although, Mae Nak Phrakhanong is clearly a type of “phi prai,” many of the people I interviewed stated that she was in a class of her own.

20. For the common use of “ma, a, u” in protective rituals in Cambodia, Laos, and Thailand see particularly François Bizot, Le bouddhisme des Thaïs (Bangkok: Éditions des Cahiers de France, 1993): 59.


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