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Toward a Theory of the Spirituality of Thailand's Muay Thai


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A question that sometimes is raised is: What is the religion of Muay Thai? Or probably better put: Is there religious meaning in Muay Thai? Sometimes behind this question are the pictures of spirituality within traditional martial arts like Kung Fu or Karate, an idea of self-perfection which is grounded in a deeper spiritual belief. The martial artist is perfecting themselves both physically and spiritually at the highest levels. Many answer this question in the negative, in a way that seems quite accurate at first. "There is no spiritual meaning to Thailand's Muay Thai." It is a fighting art, a sport, its meaning is in its efficacy. Looking for religious or spiritual beliefs in it would be like looking for them in Western Boxing. Yes, there are important cultural rites & practices which derive from Buddhism and the older form of Brahminism, and even the animism before that, but one does not have to be a Buddhist, let's say, to practice Muay Thai - and often these rites & practices are treated as cultural trappings by observers, a kind of respect paid to the past that could easily be shed without missing a beat. They aren't necessarily active religious practices, some say, while for others within the sport & art they treat these as highly meaningful, without which Muay Thai would lose its footing.

If one had to give a single religion to Muay Thai it would be its Buddhism, in the sense that it grew out of a culture of Buddhism for the last 800 years, and in many respects has the qualities that it has because of Siam & then Thailand's Buddhism. It's traditional treatment of aggression, the way in which its scoring and overall style of fighting is classically handled with emphasis on ruup (posture), balance & self control, its treatment of the affects of anger and fear are quite Buddhistic. And notably within the culture there have been cultural parallels between between novice monkhood and the path of the young nak muay. You can read about some of those here: Thai Masculinity: Postioning Nak Muay Between Monkhood and Nak Leng – Peter Vail. When we see Thailand's Muay Thai through the lens of Buddhism not only do certain aspects of its scoring and presentation make more sense to foreign eyes, also questions as to how could such a violent sport be religious at all finds some resolution. There is an undeniable fabric to Thailand's Muay Thai which seems quite Buddhist, as it has been the dominant religion in the region within which it grew. And this is not to minimize that Muay Thai was also fed, perhaps for centuries, by the very high level Muay Thai of the South which has a significant Muslim population. Muay Thai is actually much more of a tapestry than many assume. There are threads in the fabric.

We are left somehow with an unsatisfying answer. Yes, Thailand's Muay Thai expresses and comes out of a (largely) Buddhistic culture and holds several rites and practices which are religious in nature - the treatment of the mongkol, the pre-fight Wai Kru/Ram Muay are the most obvious ones - and even we might grant that in the cultural maturation of boys the kaimuay (boxing camp) has stood as an alternative to the maturation in the wat (temple). Or, we might even imaginatively acknowledge that in its history temples were likely houses that kept Muay Thai and transmitted its form, for centuries (perhaps even in some modest Shaolin, temple-kept, non-government sense), a magic-imbued Muay Thai that is likely lost to today (practices outlawed in 1902). But still, what is its religion? Are Muay Thai fighters doing anything religious that is intimately connected to their performance? Is the arduous and obedient training in Muay Thai in any sense a spiritual practice? I believe they are, and there is.

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"Soul Stuff" and Muay Thai

Anthropologists and historians who have studied the history of Siam (Thailand), and Southeast Asian culture in general, have wrestled with thinking about the fundamental nature of its social organization, as it is has appeared throughout the centuries. Mainland Southeast Asia from about the 1st century AD went from small settlements and polities to eventual powerful trade centers and then empires, a transformation likely fueled by a connection to India. The great temples of the Khmer, the religious cults to Shiva, the establishment of potent royal figures has largely been credited to what is called "Indianization". The culture of India pervaded Southeast Asia in a manner some compare to how Roman culture passed over Europe. The presence of statues to Ganesh, the identification of Thai royalty with Vishnu, even the invocation of the Ramayana in the Muay Thai Ram Muay are all expression of this period of "Indianization" begun nearly 1,700 years ago. This is a very long lineage. Atop this layer of pronounced Hindu/Brahminist influence sits Buddhism itself, which transformed the politically Indianized culture further. It's important to realize that these two very strong influences are not (fundamentally) in conflict. The spiritualities expressed in Hindu form, especially in political contexts, were even furthered in Buddhist devotion. The forms of its expression are different, but the fundamentals of power and spirituality remained the same. And this is important to understand. Power and spirituality are bound together. We can see that even at a basic level questions about identifiable religion likely have braided answers. 

For historians the answer to why Hinduism, and then Buddhism, were able to powerfully graft onto Southeast Asian culture lies within the supposition of an older belief, something that lies below these historical sedimentations - why the receipt of salvation religions which gave voice and form to this older belief. It is this older belief (some have called it a "cultural matrix") which in a sense glues together the practices, and informs sociability itself, even the secular sociability of today. And this is the belief of "soul stuff". This belief interpretation was first put forward by the preeminent historian of Southeast Asia O. W. Wolters (link at the bottom of this post), but for our purposes this summation of it by Michael Charney in his book Southeast Asian Warfare: 1300-1900 (2004) is a very good entry point
 

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Everything in the world has a certain amount of stuff. A potency. And they do not have it in equal portions. Rocks have it, but a particular rock might have a great deal of it. Humans have it, but particular humans may have much more of it than others. Importantly, this is something you can acquire. You can have more soul stuff than you were born with, and it is something that can be transmitted between persons & objects. This can happen through association, physical touch, and a host of magical-religious practices. You can read into Wolter's original discussion of soul stuff here. Because he is investigating the origins of the Indianization of mainland Southeast Asia he is looking at the role of kings, and rulers of polities. For him it was the de-emphasis on lineage, the generational demand for personal performance, proving and acquiring "soul stuff", which kept Southeast Asia from adopting some of the more rigid social forms of Indian culture. Instead, because of the very nature of soul stuff in Southeast Asia political power had a fundamental agonistic quality to it, generation to generation, locality to locality, and (very importantly for our purposes), martial power and spiritual power were expressive of a single thing...soul stuff.

He accounts how early kings were defined by their "prowess" and this prowess was expressed into only in terms of martial force, but through religious, aesthetic devotion. Within this under-fabric of Southeast Asian culture was a strong, bonded identity between physical prowess and spiritual prowess...and, the braiding of these two was expressed through "charisma". As Wolters writes:

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In the beliefs, the under-beliefs of Siam, the "priest" and the "warrior" were not separate. They were brought together in single personage, and this personage could be recognized by their charisma, their aura, which drew people to them. I think its important to realize that this isn't just a description of the rulers of polities. It actually describes how power ("soul stuff") is distributed throughout the entire lived world. Kings are said by historians to have mandala power, which is to say a certain sphere of influence which flowed out like candle-light in a circle. The further away from the center of this mandala power, the less it exerted itself. But lessor nobles, lessor polities also had spheres of power, a function of their charisma. In fact arguably, everything with soul stuff had circles of charismatic power. Some with very little, some with much more. The religious development of Siam can be thought of as expressing this much deeper, older sensibility toward the world and others, something that still persists (quite strongly) even today. It, in a sense, may animate present day Hinduistic and Buddhist beliefs with a particular logic of personal potency. 

Conquerous kings were also ascetic spiritual achievers who used the charisma of their personal achievement - the sign of their "soul stuff" - to glue kingdoms together. Here Wolters outlines how the much more ancient belief of soul stuff expressed itself in Buddhism through the personal spiritual achievement of Kings. The transmittability of soul stuff found firm expression in the Buddhist principle of merit (edit in: in later posts to this thread hpon, punna and merit are shown in the Thai concept of barami).

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Did the appearance of Theraveda Buddhism on mainland Southeast Asia  make a difference? Historians and anthropologists with special knowledge must address this question. I shall content myself with noting a piece of evidence brought to my attention by U Tun Aung Chain which refers to the Buddhist concept of "merit". The Burman rulers Alaungmintaya of the second half of the eighteenth century is recorded as having said to the Ayudhya ruler: "My hpon (derived from punna, or "merit") is clearly not on the same level as yours. It would be like comparing a garuda with a dragon-fly, a naga with an earthworm, or the Sun with a fire-fly." Addressing local chiefs he said: "When a man of hpon comes, the man without hpon disappears." [my bold] Here is Buddhist rendering of superior performance in terms of merit-earning in previous lives and the present one, and we are again dealing with the tradition of inequality of spiritual prowess and political status. Are we far removed from other instances of spiritual inequality noted above? The king's accumulated merit had been earned by ascetic performance; the self had to be mastered by steadfastness, mindfulness, and right effort, and only persons of unusual capacity were believed to be able to follow the Path consistently and successfully during their past and present lives. Such a person in Thailand would be hailed for his parami, or possession of the ten transcendent virtues of Buddhism. A Thai friend tells me that parami evokes bhakti ("devotion"), and the linguistic association suggests a rapport comparable with what is indicated in the seventh-century Cambodia and Vietnamese folklore about the tutelary spirits.

- "Miscellaneous Notes On 'Soul Stuff' and 'Prowess'", Wolters

I'm now going to race ahead to the subject of Muay Thai and religiosity, in this context, and work backwards from there. When one is training in Muay Thai in Thailand one is training in soul stuff. If you are not from the culture you might not realize or recognized why you are being trained a certain way, or even what qualities are being instilled in you, but if you undergo the process you are training in the acquisition and signification of soul stuff. And this is to some degree a spiritual ascetic practice, even if you approach it from a completely secularized place, and even if your trainers are not consciously expressing religious beliefs. This is the older form of the marriage of the martial and the spiritual, as it has been inherited, and to some degree sublimated, by the culture. And Thais who train in Muay Thai, who are part of the culture, are training in "soul stuff". The art of Muay Thai is developing the "prowess" which will eventually be expressed as a charisma (as it is culturally defined). One of the most subtly cutting criticisms of contemporary Muay Thai that we've heard was in a casual conversation between the legend Karuhat Sor. Supawan and WBC World Boxing Champion Chatchai Sasakul, both prolific fighters in Thailand Muay Thai's Golden Age. "Fighters no longer have charisma (sanae) today" they mourned. This wasn't a complaint about marketing, it was about the nature of the fighting itself. Fighting does not express the charisma that it once did. The reason why this criticism silently cut so deep is that the development of charisma was actually the point of Muay Thai fighting itself. Charisma is the aura one has, the capacity somehow (magically) draw people to you. It is a certain kind of personal gravity, which directly exudes your "soul stuff". It is your ittiphon, your power to influence. And it can be shown or lies in parallel to your ittirüt, which is your invulnerability.

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The connection between charisma and invulnerability is what lies beneath classic Muay Thai forms. The emphasis on ruup (posture, visible form), balance, freedom, control, and the fighterly aim of not necessarily "damaging" your opponent, as so much as dominating your opponent in a great variety of ways, including physical damage, is about the cultivation of charisma. This literally is the same kind of charisma of ancient kings, within the same scope of connective beliefs, trained for performance in the ring. Because Thailand is predominantly a Buddhist culture - and has been for much more than 1,000 years, the cultural form of that charisma has Buddhistic expression. In the same way that Buddhist novice monks seek to discipline their bodies, temper the hotter emotions, cultivate a kind of stoicism under travail, the young nak muay seeks to do the same. And great monks, through their ascetic practices, acquire great charisma revealing their "soul stuff". In some sense Thailand's Muay Thai has split off from many of the religious forms of charismatic development, but still expresses the same spiritual reality, even if in practice if falls into a broken, or and much less unreadable state. The ascetic practice, and the hierarchies of respect and rite in the gym are cultural pathways of "soul stuff" development. And arguably, anything you are learning in a Thai gym, whether it's the ability to endless do knees on the bag, or how to stay calm under sparring pressure, or how to properly block, or how to compose yourself under the exhaustion of padwork, are all actually about charisma, a projected invulnerability and magnetic aura, each fighter of which would have their own version. As Wolters emphasized, it is both a physical prowess and a spiritual prowess.

Soul Stuff and the Magical Policeman

The role of magical beliefs in the history of Muay Thai development is likely quite pronounced. If you would like to read an account which exemplifies the parallels between combat prowess and magical capacities, read the biography of the southern Thai policeman, Khun Phantharakratchadet (1898–2006) whose prowess occurred in the decades of Muay Thai modernization, and Thailand's rise as a modern Nation.

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It is important to understand that the development of fighting techniques (the knowledge of them, wicha) were historically not divorced from the development of magical techniques (that protected or aided you). Wats, traditionally, were likely a home for both. The tale of Khun Phan, a legendary real figure of Thai early modern 20th century history, recounts his advance as a physically small man who was a fierce fighter, taking on the nakleng gangs of the Sangkla area, and eventually other regions of Thailand, armed with his knowledge of the fighting arts, as well as study of the magical arts at the foot of the famed monks of Wat Khao Aor Or. in Phattalung. He even became proficient in Western Boxing (& perhaps Judo) studying at a wat in Bangkok, as part of his advancement as a policemen. He was a man of a remarkable amount of "soul stuff", much of it acquired through rigorous study and practice. The magical arts of Amulet protection, and sak yant are expressive of this spiritual under-logic of soul stuff. Everything has soul stuff, but pieces of material can be imbued with soul stuff, and because soul stuff is transmittable, it can be conferred to you through proximity or practice. Holy men, through rite and ritual can transfer soul stuff to you, and through spiritual practice you can hold it. Sak yant (sacred tattooing) are often devices of "soul stuff" transmission. They are thought to express/transfer the soul stuff of animals (tigers for instance) or gods, or heroic figures. They are thought to bring powerful energies, and often sak yant specifically bestow powers of charm or charisma (the ability to influence), or the power to command (amnat). In some cases creating invulnerability. Today, in their more commercial form they may be more thought of as one-way transmissions, but originally they involved spiritual devotion and self-transformation through practice. You achieved their powers through a growth in personal "prowess".

It's enough to say that in the body of magical beliefs in Thailand we can see the nexus between martial prowess, spiritual power and charisma. These beliefs and practices, based in the logic of soul stuff, developed in parallel to the fighting arts of Thailand. Khun Phan at the age of 90 commissioned a Jatukam Rammathep amulet, believing that the spirit of Jatukam Rammathep had helped him solve a difficult murder case. The creation of this amulet by such an auspicious person, under the blessings of the Holy Pillar of Nakhon Si Thammarat, thought to be invoking spirits of great personage and Buddhistic merit created incredible demand. The substance of the Holy Pillar, the legendary policeman Khun Phan, and the proposed spirits Jatukam Rammathep, were put into physical objects, which then could transmit soul stuff to you. This is a logic of soul stuff.

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My brief detour into the magical arts is not to ascribe them or their complex beliefs to the spirituality of Muay Thai in particular. One is not to exclude them either, as still there are amulet practices of blessing and transmitted soul stuff, including those of the mongkol and prajet, or the invocation of dieties in the Ram Muay to begin every fight. More important is not to locate any set of beliefs and practices as necessarily religious, but rather to look at these beliefs and practices to understand how the logic of soul stuff transmittability expresses itself in Thai culture...and in Muay Thai itself. Magic is part of its heritage, but that heritage is founded on much deeper, metaphysical ideas on how power works in the world, and between humans. And this belief, I would suggest, is embedded to this day in even the most secular-seeming aspects of Thai life. There is a Buddhist perspective which may say that because of karma and reincarnation everything we do is spiritual practice. Everything we do is an attempt to alleviate or ease the suffering of existence. In this spiritualization of the world and culture, the belief in the transmittability of "soul stuff", of unequal souls, also can be seen as universal and pervading every practice. Much as a Western philosopher like Foucault may see all our interactions transpierced with discourses of power, all sociability in Thai culture can be seen as practices of soul stuff. It's development, its preservation, its signification, and the ways in which everyone takes position in society in relationship to powerful personages (whether they be local persons of aura, or National) who exhibit soul stuff. It is a kind of religion of existence.

Soul Stuff and Muay Thai

We can leave aside magical practices for now, and think about how soul stuff and Muay Thai relate. The first and obvious way is that because Muay Thai is a public performance the job of the fighter is to express "soul stuff". That means knowing the cultural signatures of "soul stuff", being practiced in displaying them, including aspects of command and control, invulnerability and of course charisma. Perhaps no fighter in history displayed soul stuff more than Samart, who expressed a very Rama/Vishnu quality, a potent equipoise.

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You cannot thoroughly understand Samart's greatness without seeing just how much (read here:) he signified "soul stuff" within the culture. This photo of him with the vanquished and bloody (aggressive, Muay Khao great) Namphon, gives some sense of it. But the signatures of soul stuff in Thailand's Muay Thai, and even kinds of personal charisma are not only of one kind. A great, unrelenting knee fighter like Dieselnoi will have tremendous soul stuff. A great pressure fighter like Samson, or a complex style fighter like Chamuakpet (naming legends of the Golden Age). There are various expressions of soul stuff. And, unlike in Western conceptions of "great fighters", soul stuff includes many things beyond the fighter. Samart for instance did not fight up very much in his career. In a Western mind this may be something of a demerit when compared to other great fighters who did. But because soul stuff is transmittable, and governed by association, the fact that Sityodtong gym was so powerful to be able to dictate favorable matchups (or at least avoid unfavorable ones) actually goes to Samart's soul stuff. He is part of a local nexus of power. Sityodtong has soul stuff. Master Tui has lots of soul stuff. Samart has soul stuff. As much as we want to think about fights as being between two isolated fighters in the ring, the truth is that there is much more in the ring than that. All the soul stuff that brought these fighters into being, that is poured into these fighters, is in combat. (This is a big reason why many Westerners do not fully grasp the role of gambling in Muay Thai. It seems to them to be just a corrupt interference in "pure sport". But in fact it is a layering of the contest of competing powers, men with soul stuff outside the ring...for better or worse. Under the spiritual logic of soul stuff fighters are never just "them". They literally invoke deities with their Ram Muay. In their Wai Kru they evoke their teachers. All of their skills and ascetic practice in training is summoned, publicly, into the ring. Fighters represent and embody.) This is not fundamentally different than the spirit-logic of cosmic battle that governed warfare in the great Ayutthayian Empire 500 years ago. What has changed is "who" is seen to have soul stuff, fundamentally a question of changing culture and values.

As to the practice of Muay Thai itself, in the training kaimuay, and in the ring, one has to grasp that the fighting art and the fighting sport cannot be completely separated. Traditional kaimuay are technical houses of the inculcation in soul stuff. One is learning the practices which will give you power in a physical contest, but a contest which ultimately is also a spiritual contest. The techniques of a particular kru, the styles of a particular gym name, are a practical knowledge of Thai combat power. And the conditions of its practice are necessarily those of discipline and ascetic self control. The fundamentals of posture (ruup), timing and balance are meant to create liberty in the fighter, and its presentation to the judges and audience. Specific techniques, ways of blocking, attacking, avoiding, punishing or damaging, controlling, frustrating, overwhelming, are a kind of complex grammar of soul stuff. You display that you have more, and in defeating your opponent, in some sense you take some of their soul stuff as your own. And, as fighters share the ring with you, they too can gain soul stuff through proximate association (if you have a great deal).

For deeper dives into this here I write in some detail about the social conditions of Thai training practices through the thinking of the sociologist Bourdieu: Trans-Freedoms Through Authentic Muay Thai Training in Thailand Understood Through Bourdieu's Habitus, Doxa and Hexis, and here I write about how the philosopher Agamben's study of 13th century Franciscan monastic practices help explain the rule-following power of Thai gym training for Westerners: Thailand's Muay Thai Gym, Authenticity and the Escape from Capitalism | Agamben on The Highest Poverty

The importance of this insight into soul stuff and its transmittability is I believe that it unlocks much of the question about the religiosity (or spirituality) behind Thailand's Muay Thai. Often it is simply dismissed altogether because it does not seem reducible to the few obvious, formal rites that surround Muay Thai fighting. And, the magical practices of its past do not seem to embody most, or even much of any of Thailand's Muay Thai as non-Thais experience it. I suggest that the logic of soul stuff is so prevalent, so shoots-through Thailand's Muay Thai, even in its most secular and commercialized expressions, its so omnipresent it is almost impossible to see by Westerners (and others) who can carry a different cultural view of power. It though is something that is much closer to a Chinese metaphysical concept of Yin and Yang, a base assumption which explains many diverse practices, whether they be spiritual or quite secular, woven into the perspective of a culture and how it bonds together. And, as the historian O. W. Wolters argued, these beliefs lay at root beneath very diverse cultures all across Southeast Asia, spilling well over any particular country's barriers. And...if you kept the logic of "soul stuff" in mind you would get a better sense of what the difficult training in Muay Thai is truly focused on...the melding of the spiritual and the martial going back perhaps 2,000 years, as it is expressed and conceived in today's contemporary culture, and as the art of Muay Thai itself has come to embody it over the past 100 years or so.

 

For a the primary source on O. W. Wolter's concept of "soul stuff" read here:

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The above is a far-ranging, quite theoretical take on the spiritual foundations of not only Thai culture, but also Muay Thai, and its claims to a kind of underlying metaphysics of power, and a practice of power to some degree remain opaque. The thinking is imagined to be continuous in mainland Southeast Asia from long before the rise of Khmer power in the 9th century, covering belief systems sometimes called Animism. Let me bring things back to earth with a very mundane example.

When we first visited Thailand we found ourselves living along a market street near the Chiang Mai university, near Lanna Muay Thai camp where Sylvie trained morning and afternoon. We lived in a kind of inexpensive hotel with floors dedicated to foreigners and other floors to University students, and we were but a 5 minutes walk to the camp. Every morning we would walk to the camp and pass a fruit truck which had parked at the mouth of the market row, where other various businesses sold fruit, flowers, meat, prepared snacks and desserts. The street was a kind of cornucopia of things to buy and sample. Every morning we would pass the fruit truck and the kind older lady in the back of the pick up, where she did business, would cheerfully smile at as as went. And when training was done each morning, on the way home we would load up on delicious cold pineapple (and watermelon), neatly sliced into bags. It was so nice to see her smile on the way to the gym, and to get that fruit on the way home.

After several days of the habit we decided to be more adventurous and try a few other things on the market row. It seemed so full of life, and there appeared such a sense of community among everyone. I'm not sure what we got to snack on, but we ate in on the way the hotel and didn't think much of it. It was just more of bountiful Thailand. When we got up the next morning and began our walk to the gym we passed our cheerful older lady in the back of her fruit truck and she completely iced us out with the coldest of shoulders. We had, accidentally, broken our alliance. This is soul stuff. Our patronage, our community of commerce, our money, her preparation, all of it increased her soul stuff, the soul stuff of her family...however slightly. When we took our business, however mindlessly, to another fruit vendor deeper into the market row we gave soul stuff to them, and not her.

This is part of what I mean when I talk about the essential logic of soul stuff pervading Thai culture. As Westerners who are accustomed to thinking of ourselves as consumers with the power of choice we view our choices outside of consequence to a large degree. We pay for services or products and we consider the relationship "even" to a large degree. If something more appealing comes along the next day, or the next month, we make a different purchase. In the conception of soul stuff, soul stuff is always being portioned and passed around, and soul stuff is also always under contest. It is agonistic.

When historians describe the orbs of power that defined great empires of mainland Southeast Asia they specifically do not speak of territories. Rather kings exerted influence over others through charismatic (& sometimes martial) power, expressed through networks of alliance. Very large palace structures, solemn religious rites and royal displays would anchor the charisma of a king, giving them aura to stabilize those networks (which historians call mandalas), but a king's sphere of influence was made up of other smaller spheres of influence (mandalas of other smaller polities and their rulers), many of which would overlap. There were zones of overlapping sovereignty, as shown in this graphic:

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What I suggest is that this concept of overlapping of zones of sovereignty, mandalas made up of other smaller mandalas, which are made up of the same, is the fundamental struggle of contested, agonistic "soul stuff" that makes up the social world. It describes how Kingdom power operated in the 16th century Siam, and it describes how street vendor power operates in Chiang Mai in 2010. It is the ability to exercise  influence and grow alliances, and to do so in ways that you signify your sphere of power to others. And, those within your sphere of influence are themselves seeking to grow their own networks of alliances, express their own acquired soul stuff, so the fabric of alliance is always tensioned.

This is something that Westerners who stay some time in Thailand within a Muay Thai community in a city, or even a district will come to realize. Like politics of the fruit truck, each commercial Muay Thai gym exists within a sphere of influence which is larger than itself. It's part of a series of alliances with promoters, its own fighters, with other gyms, and at the same time is in struggle against other gyms who also have spheres of power. It's not that it is one gym vs another gym. It's that there is an entire fabric of power relations, networks and alliances, that is always in tension. And any one move or shift in alliance in that network has an invisible domino effect. Fighting at one promotion, training at one gym, these are "soul stuff" alliances. Western fighters who have chosen to move to another gym within the mandala sphere of the influence of their own gym may very soon discover that they are caught within a power-web. You are affecting the "soul stuff" of the gym you are attempting to leave, you could be changing very delicate balances of power, however innocently or blindly. This is because power is a function of "unequal souls", and each person is continually acquiring the signatures of "soul stuff", the ability influence, the capacity to charismatically attract others into their network, and gaining "soul stuff" through the alliance with more powerful figures beyond their own sphere.

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This interwoven, overlapping, sphere upon smaller sphere fabric is how much of Thai cultural social power expresses itself, and that is arguably due to the deep spiritual conception of soul stuff itself, something at least 2,000 years old. I suspect that this fundamental agonism between spheres of influence is what gives Muay Thai its special societal relevance as an art and sport. It acts out in a bold, theatrical way the more widespread agonisms of authority and influence, and it taps back down into the original union of spiritual and martial power, as it was expressed in political charisma. When fighters are fighting they are assembling and putting at risk the "soul stuff" of themselves, their families, their gym, and in some cases their community, in a wager hopeful of increasing that soul stuff through not only victory, but also through their physical display of that shine in the ring, through the language of muay.

 

 

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One of the first things to appreciate when thinking about how Thailand's Muay Thai fighting itself expresses, or involves spiritual values is that in the history of Southeast Asian warfare war was seen as a cosmic battle. And the King in battle was regarded as possessing not only physical prowess, but also spiritual prowess. Cosmic forces, "soul stuff" was in conflict on the battle field, and the King, or which ever champion of a martial force was the acme of that side's soul-power.

Historians Michael Charney and Anthony Reid tell it that the fall of the leader could end the conflict altogether. First Charney on Southeast Asian warfare:

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And Reid in his study of Southeast Asia in the Age of Commerce:

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Just as the kings of mainland southeast Asia held "soul power" charisma due their martial prowess and their earned spiritual prowess, and used that charisma to create far reaching alliances, strengthening his mandala of power, battle itself was lead by the charismatic leader who melded physical prowess and spiritual prowess together, and brought them to what was a battle of cosmic (read "soul stuff") forces. This singular champion logic of charisma is not only found in Southeast Asia, for instance we see it in Homer's Iliad in various figures, but especially in Achilles, who was not only a formidable martial force, but also was a poet, musician and elegant speaker, not to mention spiritually half divine due to his mother. citation for previous comparison photo

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Above King Narsuan's famous elephant duel and Achilles' duel vs Hector. (As a note, these were both trade-oriented maritime cultures whose wealth was depended on a slave economy. There may be a socio-economic relationship.)

In any case, because battle was seen as expressive of spiritual prowess it is simply wrong to put fighting in the category of physical prowess, in some kind of antithesis to the spiritual. It can be argued to be fundamentally the meeting of charimatically imbued champions, who posses both physical and spiritual prowess, the results of which lie with forces beyond the ring (battle field) itself. And, these charismatic figures represent and express the "soul stuff" of their affiliations and attachments. When they win, something much larger wins. When Karuhat tells us that 2 busloads of fans and supporters would drive down from his hometown Khon Kaen in Isaan for each fight of his, loaded with gambling interests, monies pulled together from communities, he in a certain sense spiritually (at least in terms of "soul stuff") represented them in the ring. His soul stuff was added to by their presence, and his victories flowed down threw and into them.

We can see this very same logic of representation in the West, for instance in Nationalism in combat sports, or in terms of race or ethnicity, or other subset groups, but in Thailand it becomes much more sharpened, and pervasive, because of how they regard power relations themselves, in a world of "unequal souls" and of transmittable "soul stuff".

We start though with the notion in Thailand that fighting is necessarily to some degree spiritual. And thus, training for fighting involves spiritual training. Not only are there magico-religious practices that surround and structure training (& fighting), the training itself focuses on the disciplining of many affects & dispositions which have qualities which are in concert with more overt traditional spiritual training by monks & holy men in the culture.

1287763192_MonkhoodparallelstoMuayThai.png.5b289119dfde69ada4d4dd391af6d742.png

However small a fight may be in Thailand, one's training consists of rigorously learning how to properly take that place of spiritual (soul stuff) champion. What differs from similar imperatives in other fight cultures elsewhere in the world is the degree to watch this still is thought of in spiritual (even if unconsciously spiritual) terms. 

 

 

 

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  • Kevin von Duuglas-Ittu changed the title to Toward a Theory of the Spirituality of Thailand's Muay Thai
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Wow, what an amazing post. I knew of the generalized concepts of these things just through watching Sylvies patreon as she does peer into deeper concepts of some things during her voice overs, but as I venture deeper into the ties of Buddhism and Mauy Thai as I'm interested in both. I'm now so grateful that most of what I've learned for my one year and a half experience of Muay Thai is through the Muay Thai Library. A couple of greats that come to mind in this topic is Lahkin and Veeraphol, and really almost all of the golden Era Muay Thai legends. There is a silhouette of the mind that is presented through the fighter not only through expression of the body, posture, attitude, but also their style. Whether it's the swagger of Karuhat pointing at the cut he just made on you, or the stoic like expression on Veeraphol's face after you've been knocked down to your knees, the silhouette of the Charisma is expressed in different ways, and I would agree that it seems to have played a much larger role in Muay Thai of the Golden Era just through watching the fights. Thank you for this post :)

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btw, I ran into this very good podcast on the Khmer Empire which had a significant influence on the Siam Kingdoms that followed, and Thai practices to this day. Highly recommended for giving background on what is discussed by me above.

 

And, for those interested in a deeper analysis of the possible reasons for post-Khmer change in the region, this is a very good blog post summation of a hard to find article by Richard A. O'Conner arguing that it was the wet-rice irrigation cultural complex, coming upland from the valleys, that supplanted the farming garden and flood management society of the lowlands, somewhat in line with the podcast's account of the drought and flood patternings that may have brought the Khmer Empire down. Arguments go that wet-rice irrigation creates more communal, shared-space social bonds, which may have bearing on discussions of any fundamental social/spiritual logic of Siam/Thailand. 

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An important historical context to discussions of a possible spirituality of Thailand's Muay Thai is the way in which warfare likely developed in the region, and the principles of fighting that came out of that. This article thread on why Thailand's Muay Thai expresses emphasis on defensive fighting excellence gives some of that context. This context involves very important differences with many Western martial concepts, such as the preference of domination and control over outright defeat and killing (related to the relative scarcity of land or labor), notions of representative (King) charisma in battle, and an overall difference in the use of violence.

 

 

 

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In interested in the principle of Soul Stuff, as expressed in religious/spiritual/political terms, this article on Barami, and the reforms that the first monarchs of Bangkok Siam made is an excellent, detailed capture, if you wade through the historical details. The King viewed as embodying, or pursuing the Ten Perfections:

THE VESSANTARA JATAKA, BARAMI, AND THE BODHISATTA-KINGS: The Origin and Spread of a Thai Concept of Power << JSTOR

This royal, rarefied bodhisattva Buddhistic Barami is, I believe, connected to the much older martial Barami of Kings and chieftains, which finds itself expressed in culturally still through the values of charisma, and in Muay Thai still.

From the introductory paragraphs:

Barami1.thumb.PNG.c857c69da2786d9b131a86eece1c888c.PNGBarami2.thumb.PNG.1091bf31e3dfd4e2ca439fecdbb0548b.PNG

 

 

And from the conclusion:

Barami1.thumb.PNG.f616db67ae9ba82b884312a4debe7f61.PNG

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