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Kevin von Duuglas-Ittu

The god of Muay Thai - Phra Pirap: Where the Real and the Unreal Come Together

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I've written before about my theory that Phra Pirap arguably is the god of Muay Thai. There is no such officially designated god, but there is no doubt to me that this deity figure powerfully combines the elements that distinguish Muay Thai from many contemporary forms of combat sport fighting, and is in that way a protector for a call to preserve those precious elements that may very well be lost to globalizing modernity. What I wrote a few years ago:

"There is a small holy statuette that sits on a mantel in our apartment. It is a bronze-looking figure of a man, a warrior, posed with a spear pointed upward at a diagonal across his body, and with the other hand near the spearpoint he holds a bouquet of green. His face is that of a demon. His body that of an athlete. He is a little known god, much debated in niche circles, Phra Pirap. He as I understand it is a kind of god of war and battle, but mostly is known as the god of dance, the one that leads the arts. At his left hand come together both the spear point and the bouquet. This the unfathomable combination of what makes up Muay Thai in Thailand. For us in the west there is a fundamental division in how we parse the world. There is the "real" and the "unreal". In Thailand these two things come together to braid into something else. People looking at fights want to say "that's a fake fight!" or "that's a 'real' fight!". What makes them real or unreal are supposedly the intention of the actors. But because Muay Thai is an art, and not only a sport, these things come together. It is ultimately both dance and violence. The reason for this is timing. Phra Pirap happens also to be the god of timing. Of finding the perfect moment. Nietzche made a big deal of this in Beyond Good and Evil. In Greek there are two important fundamental kinds of Time. Chronos is circular time, the time of the seasons. Kairos is the time of the moment, the perfect moment to act. Kairos makes an incision in Chronos. Phra Pirap is the god of Kairos. This is why he is god of the dance. This is why the Muay Thai of Thailand is both real and unreal. It carries the power of artifice into the world of the "real" of violence, to steer it. It recognizes the moment of change, and therefore may spend much of its time in the realm of the fake, the performed. It is steering the cooling schedule of the steel, when all the molecules are afloat and changing their positions. In the west we only think of linear time. For us the "real" of fighting is merely the degree of "heat" in a fight, and the application of force of one body against other bodies. In Muay Thai, for Phra Pirap, it is the point in the circle when real change can happen, it is the art of taking hold of that change and shaping it to a valued outcome. It is where the spearpoint and the bouquet come together." - original context here

Some years on I reflect back upon how much I've come to believe this. It's why Muay Thai krus will urge you over and over "timing", "timing", "timing". Or, why legends will praise Samart's genius as found in his "eyes". The god itself appears to be a syncretic fusion of two gods, one related to the destructive powers of Shiva (hence the spear, perhaps), an emanation of Shiva, the other is the presiding god of Dance and Music, of performance. One of the conundrums that westerners face when trying to really delve into the intensity of Thai Muay Thai is how much the aesthetics of scoring in face relate to performing postures, senses of timing, playing narrative themes in a round or across rounds. These are the art of the sport. We in the west, especially the era of MMA's demystification of Kung-Fu and Karate bullshido, versions, experience the term "art" much in the vain of artifice. Something unreal. Something just surface. What traditional ring Muay Thai embodied though, I believe, are the affective potentials of performance, the unconscious fathoms of what a fighter can draw out far, far beyond "perfect" technique, or practices patterns. This, I sense, is the power of where Phra Pirap reigns.

 

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I am not versed in BJJ or its history and development, but I am drawn to the debate between Gi and No Gi training. Why train in a Gi, when (in MMA) you will have no Gi? Not to dive into this, invested people have their memorized arguments for one or the other. But what is interesting is the ways in which proponents of the Gi suggest that the Gi forces you to develop techniques and principles (on the broad scale: using less explosive strength, practicing more patience) that one would otherwise have a harder time developing. I suggest that the artifice of Thai Muay Thai, classically, is something like that. It is a kind of scaffolding that encourages the development of skills and tempos that, when they reach the highest levels, become extremely effective, even if the scaffolding is no longer there. It is a composite training. This is the value of performance.

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The challenge to performance is a saying that Jackie Chan once used to describe the "fake" martial arts of some actors in action films. "Brocade leg, flower fist." Your performance is pretty, but there is no power to it, no reality to it, it is just show. In terms of Phra Pirap, too much bouquet, not enough spear. If Samart didn't have stunning power, or tremendously potent timing, his displays of boredom in the ring would have been false, a check written he could not cash. Too much bouquet. What characterizes so much of the beauty of Muay Thai that enthralls westerns is how it is so beautiful, so performed, yet so viscerally powerful, and effective on the whole. Both the bouquet and the spear.

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I've noted recently this combination of finesse and venom in the way the "Top 5" lists are defended by the incredible fighters who are listing them. Samart has such beautiful technique, he has everything, he could fight both Muay Thai and Boxing (interestingly, he had way more KOs in boxing than in Muay Thai). Dieselnoi was powerful, but he also had all the weapons, he had an array of knees. It's the combination that puts them at the top. Others are kind of mentioned as excelling at the art aspect; none are awarded a top slot for power alone. But it's the combination that is what makes the best the best, it seems.

I also maybe don't know how much my own thoughts influence how I hear this, but in the praise of "ning" fighters it's that they LOOK unaffected, not that they ARE unaffected. The "oi" that is called out from the crowd is proof of the power of a fighter, regardless of what the response of the opponent is. We believe it hurts, but if the opponent acts like it doesn't, we believe his supernatural powers.

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I found this all very interesting. 
I really want to learn more about what gods are worshipped in Thailand and how animalism is incorporated. 
Thai Buddhist’s worship Hindi gods? 
I want To understand the magic they speak of and knowing about the different Sak Yants and Amulets. 
it feels so much like a mystery to me, and hidden information.

any suggestions for reading materials or documentaries? 
🙏🏼

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3 hours ago, SHELL28 said:

any suggestions for reading materials or documentaries? 

That's a lot of things you'd like to know about! But good to be hungry. The best overall approach to understanding the context of some of these beliefs is this book:

1777776385_TheLovelornGhostandMagic.jpg.e8318188993f2212991081c03c0fe15b.jpg

The Lovelorn Ghost and the Magical Monk: Practicing Buddhism in Modern Thailand

 

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On 5/7/2020 at 9:34 AM, Kevin von Duuglas-Ittu said:

The challenge to performance is a saying that Jackie Chan once used to describe the "fake" martial arts of some actors in action films. "Brocade leg, flower fist." Your performance is pretty, but there is no power to it, no reality to it, it is just show. In terms of Phra Pirap, too much bouquet, not enough spear. If Samart didn't have stunning power, or tremendously potent timing, his displays of boredom in the ring would have been false, a check written he could not cash. Too much bouquet. What characterizes so much of the beauty of Muay Thai that enthralls westerns is how it is so beautiful, so performed, yet so viscerally powerful, and effective on the whole. Both the bouquet and the spear.

Kevin, there is both poetry and power in the way that you write and explain.  I am captivated by the aesthetics of traditional Muay Thai, and you are the only scholar these days that I have found that expresses this aesthetic.  I have lived in Chiang Mai (part time) now for 10 years and truly love and respect all things Thai and Muay Thai. Presently, I am training to be a Muay Thai official (over 10 years experience as a pro MMA judge) .  One aspect of judging MMA is adherence to the criteria for judging; many judges and the public see judging as subjective, but good judges know and implement the criteria for scoring and evaluating a MMA round. In the same sense, I am interested to see if Muay Thai judging criteria (in the west and in Thailand) maintains the aesthetics and criteria for Femeu style, and for aesthetics and ruup, or if the criteria now focus on aggression and power/damage If I ever do work as a MT judge, I'd be interested to see the fight through the lens of Phra Pirap. I'd like to be a part, and an advocate, for keeping the Golden traditional aesthetics in modern MT judging. 

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On 5/16/2020 at 9:45 PM, buddhasoup said:

Kevin, there is both poetry and power in the way that you write and explain.  I am captivated by the aesthetics of traditional Muay Thai, and you are the only scholar these days that I have found that expresses this aesthetic.  I have lived in Chiang Mai (part time) now for 10 years and truly love and respect all things Thai and Muay Thai. Presently, I am training to be a Muay Thai official (over 10 years experience as a pro MMA judge) .  One aspect of judging MMA is adherence to the criteria for judging; many judges and the public see judging as subjective, but good judges know and implement the criteria for scoring and evaluating a MMA round. In the same sense, I am interested to see if Muay Thai judging criteria (in the west and in Thailand) maintains the aesthetics and criteria for Femeu style, and for aesthetics and ruup, or if the criteria now focus on aggression and power/damage If I ever do work as a MT judge, I'd be interested to see the fight through the lens of Phra Pirap. I'd like to be a part, and an advocate, for keeping the Golden traditional aesthetics in modern MT judging. 

Thanks, that is a very cool response. As much as I often feel that hyper-marketed forms of combat sports like MMA & kickboxing are destructive forces to traditional views of dominance that are still reflected in Thailand's Muay Thai, there are also stories such as yours, where the genuine attempt to weave together the golden threads of authenticity in all of them, even or especially as a judge, is full of a great hope that the Muay Thai of Thailand can help combat sports in general, transcend the lower common denominators that sometimes help fighting sports highly successful in the marketplace. Very cool. The spear and the bouquet.

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Re Protectors of Muay.

I have noticed, in the crowning ceremony of The King, He was clad all in gold.  But He sat on His trone barefooted and with ankle supports on.

I understand, barefooted may be a ritual, but ankle supports?  So what I think, The King had Muay Thai clothes under all these golden robes.

 

Is it correct? WAS  The King clad in Muay Thai outfit? 

  Is The King  seen as a protector of Muay Thai?

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On 12/28/2020 at 6:00 AM, StefanZ said:

Is The King  seen as a protector of Muay Thai?

I do doubt that the King was referencing Muay Thai in any way, from what you describe. But there is a long tradition of Thai Royalty being the protector and developer of Muay Thai. Muay Thai is a very important part of Thai National identity.

You can read up on the history of Thai Nationalism in this excellent article:

https://8limbsus.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/01/Muay-Thai-Inventing-Tradition-for-a-National-Symbol-Peter-Vail.pdf

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For a side path deeper dive into a Philosophy of Kairos, "the perfect moment", read my 2009 thoughts: The Unrare, Assemblage and Implicate Power: Kairos, Complexity and Ethical Greatness which tensions Nietzsche and Spinoza.

 

The concluding paragraphs in that essay, thinking about assemblages and moments that make the difference:

Tyrany of Combination: the Higher Man

It should be noted that Nietzsche, after he proposes his new rare thing – that of the five-hundred hands – he maintains is rhetoric of violence, closing the window of sheer complexity and confluence. Such a creature is said to be one that can “tyranize” the kairos, and seize the time. The image is necessarily for Nietzsche, one of domination. The Typheus he raises is one of transmutation, much as the kairos of Christ, an entrance into a linear history that forces a radical change. But perhaps Nietzsche’s conception of transmutation is too dominated by his necessary values of high and low, rare and common, master and slave, for him to think outside of such binaries for long, like a cosmonaut leaving his space capsule. He may have too much a faith in opposite values, and lack the variability of a calculus of affection, which may be able to track the more sinewous lines of power which operate more along fissure of body compositions, parts put in ratio and assemblage, and less in terms of lower and higher, that nostalgia for power proper. Unlike Spinoza who sees such hands everywhere, transmutation everywhere, avenues for power, pleasure and increase, everywhere, bodies assembling in an infinity of expressions, all of which our nature calls us to become, like Lessing’s Conti, more aware, Nietzsche’s higher man, even if he is forced to let go of for a moment his solitary conception in order to embrace the necessary involution of inside complexity towards outside complexity, can only envision a greater and more monstrous form of himself, ascending. What is in question, afterall, is not whether Nietzsche was wrong, or right in any strict sense; but rather, in his glimpse of the nature of genius as a complexity of relations, and not a rare quality of a person, Is his conception of tyranny and domination are afterall the most potent, the most delinating way to see. For all his rhetoric and examination of power, is Nietzsche’s view of complexity necessarily the most powerful possible?

Outside this Typhean wave of hands, voices and heads, grasping at and holding down the fleet-footed god by the hair, what seems most absent is the living communication between parts, taken in their own affect. There is something amiss when one only sees movement in “greatness,” and does not see change in continual proximity, the awareness that one is always amid five-hundred hands, and that the forelock is always agrasp. Lessing’s bürgerliches Trauerspiel informs us not only of the affective capacities of the rising bourgeois, that they too are capable of suffering enough to bring forth the tragic, but also warns of the nature of tyranny itself, as it seeks to seize the moment. When the Prince, enthralled with love for Emile, grants his chamberlain the right to do anything to prevent her marriage, all is deemed rightful to be done. It is of course a granting that will lead to her own death:

Marinelli: …Will you allow me free reign, Prince? Will you agree to anything I do?

The Prince:  Anything, Marinelli, anything that can avert this blow.

Marinelli:  Then let us lose no time (17, Act One, Scene VI).

The capacity to tryannize, to assemble forces, is but the first of the kind of knowing that brings about power and capacity to act. The painter does not only tyrannize his canvas. It is rather the affective knowing of not only the “what” but the “how” and the “why” that composes that assemblage creating true liberty. The artful moment is one that always lies at hand, and never slips from view. The tyranny of it is grasped rather with the softest of hands, which means not of hands less sure.

What Spinoza’s view of bodies grants to Nietzsche’s conception of kairos is that there is a living, affective line of desire that traces itself out between what we often conceieve of an discontinuous parts. By understanding that bodies are formed ephemerally, by perspective, constituent of all the ratios of speed and communication involved, the world itself becomes animated with force and play. Each of us is understood to be in loop and satellite with others: not only other persons, all other things, the ratio of things becoming real cognitive centers of perception and action. What it does is place the finality of act everywhere, the kairos of a Christological incision everywhere, within an immanent field, and our direction of action always on a line of desire. Our stake fundamentally is in what surrounds us, so that knowing is assemblage.

 

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I returned to these older thoughts on thinking about Sylvie's recent work with Karuhat. She's trained with him for years - the most comprehensive time of that are these 30 days of commentary. Their training has gone slowly away from technical instruction and has become more and more just what you see below. It's "sparring", but it isn't even sparring. Everything for him, in these sessions, I believe is about tempo change...and tempo regularity. You lie or feignt with regularity, you stiffen others with suddenness or the unanticipated. He isn't really creating openings is Space (a visual hole that is undefended) as much as he's creating openings in Time, incisions which will then produce openings in Space, the undefended. What these sessions are, though, are invitations to ride along the changing train of rhythms. To learn to feel the changes in rhythm, the feel for the kairos. Of all the fighters we've studied and been around there is not one more definingly blessed by Phra Pirap than Karuhat.

The short recent video above is just some of that play, the transference of rhythm sensitivity, that makes the art of Muay Thai. It's a very short video, maybe 90 seconds. Just watch him. Look at what matters to him. See what he is watching and how he creates.

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In further, thought to be disconnected reading I came upon this passage discussing the importance of timing, and how it is relates to protective magical practices - in this case, those used by a very famously harsh Thai policeman of the South, who used magical practices to protect himself. The timing (the jangwa, a word used repeated in Muay Thai developmental training) is a focus of magical prognostication. Also in this passage is the mention of "mongkol" (auspicious), which protects the head of the Muay Thai fighter:

2114019135_timingrhythmmongkon.png.191eedb3f3884736d765ce4d0b7db2d8.png

from "Power, Protection and Magic in Thailand: The Cosmos of a Southern Policeman" (2019)

CRAIG J. REYNOLDS

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