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Empowerment from Within for the Transformation of Self and Society

By Fr. Niphot Thienwiharn

Director of Research and Training Centre for Religio-Cultural Community (RTRC), Chiang Mai, Thailand

                  The world and Thailand are undergoing transformation from liberal capitalism to neoliberalism, modernity and globalization spreading through the process of news and information into structure of all units of society and individuals that they consciously or unconsciously adopt into their daily life. This article focuses on the paradigm of modernity. This paradigm emphasizes unlimited progress and growth of GDP relentlessly, and also focuses on efficient production and intensive use of technologies that is beyond capacity of the environment to absorb. The consequences of this paradigm emerging 4-5 centuries earlier, compels us to seriously question if it would really save the world. In particular, this paradigm current is heading eastward and towards ASEAN (10+3+6+8). Its consequences widen grave disparities further and further. The social gap between the rich and the poor went up from 3 times in 1820 to 30 times in 1960, and even as wide as over 100 times (130 times). Moreover, this paradigm has also caused secularism that religion calls the process of secularization.

                  This secularism process kicks out values, meaning and spirituality from materials, or rejects the sacredness dimension of the world. It perceives everything as just material. It is until people, group of individuals, scientists, sociologists, anthropologists, religious and development workers seriously raise questions on civilization constructed by modern society if what it promises that this world would become heaven, would really happen. They also raise questions if there is no transformation, would the world and human beings survive, when particularly looking at various emerging crises, especially global warming, environmental, social, cultural, economic, and political crises, even crisis of the family.

                  In facing these crises, society does not only raise questions, but also come up with proposed solution with criticisms based on new paradigm from diverse viewpoints, experience and work on new alternatives.  They have come up with conclusion that we are living in an age of transition, under the ever serious pressures of modernism in the process of neoliberalism and the process that many use different terms that are used, such as post-modernism, post-capitalism, post-secularism or post-materialism.

                  This article attempts to summarize experience gained from working closely with the people at the base, and from the world view and religious perspective of the marginalized people, and also propose religio-cultural approach that is dynamic and ever-changing. It is a process of struggle against problems and rediscover values and meaning that the network of people’s organisations construct, recover and redefine their meaning during the past several decades.

The UnLearn and ReLearn Process

                  In the current situation, modern states have permeated into the way of life through a process of information communication technology, so much so that modernism has become a part of life or ideology of the people, while also controls the way of life of the people. This is what Max Weber called the “iron cage”. In this regard, movements and networks of the people and networks have continuously been doing deep contemplation to be conscious and aware, starting with the following process.

  1. Do critical evaluation of the culturally dominant paradigms regularly as a culture in daily life, especially in criticizing the paradigm within ourselves, which leads us to submit as normal.
  2. A process to purify or the process to unlearn on what we’ve learned in the past, which makes us a part of the paradigm in the way of life without being conscious that it is false-self, or illusion of life.
  3. There is time to stop and contemplate deeply for conversion, self-transformation through the process of deep contemplation that would bring us to discover the oneness of teachings, in God and in the supernatural that each one and group believe and respect.
  4. Then, we have started to relearn in the process of working with leaders and organic intellectuals, or OI in short, in the same old network, so that we would be able to rebuild, renew or redefine to form unit and the body of knowledge that is both reason and wisdom originated in experience from within, and formulate vision without the framework of modernity, which became a major cultural foundation for ourselves and group. Therefore, our job is re-enchantment in the current situation. It is the dynamics of the process forming community cultural approach in this critical struggle. When we have arrived at this step, community culture would be rooted in faith, which is the spirituality dimension. It is an experience with the supernatural, God, or with what we find in the definition of various groups of people. For example, Karens (Pgaz K’Nyau) call “Ta Hti Ta Tau”, the Lahus call “Gui Sha”, and the native people call “Taen”, and so on.
  5. Then, a process of constructing local theologies has been developed to explain the transcendence and faith derived from experience within faith communities that is called primal religion. It is a worldview and perception of the world with the sacred in the world which is the origin of relationships between people-the nature-the supernatural. It is a relationship contrary to the world view of modern materialism that disenchant the sacred from human being and the world. This paradigm is called “Cosmic Spirituality’[1].
  6. This situation has led to a reemergence of new social movements, such as a movement of indigenous thinkers and their successors who are grassroots intellectual movement, spiritual leaders movement of Karen, Lahu, Lawa and native people, which then form Northern Social Forum (NSF), which has extended the network from the paradigm that we have and build up, leading to implementation and expression of the system of meaning and values from spirituality in public space and in daily life.
  7. One more step is to formulate the Theology of Hope with a goal to cause transformation of oneself and society in diverse contexts or sectors. When people have living hope in the future, it is a great power deriving from faith that each group and individuals can be a driving force in carrying out the mission towards transformation of oneself and society in the future. It is an empowerment from within, in which more people would be interested in this dimension in the future as Anthony S. Inarinno (2010) says, ‘In the future, knowledge is not power anymore, but wisdom is power’.

Concept and Experience Learned from the Work with the People

                  1. The Inner Power

                  The inner power refers to power generated from synergy of several factors through embodiment, such as contemplation on what we’ve experienced through our own five senses, without hearing others telling stories. This contemplation is called “experiencing meaning” because we have discovered meaning that is truth by our own experience. It is also called “human spirituality”. The first step of this process is to allow our bodies to be in touch (with our five senses) through physically staying, eating and share suffering and happiness. The second step is to do theological reflection, which is to gain experience in meaning that is called ‘entering into meaning and share hope’. This step is very important because it will be related to mission, task and jobs, as Victor E. Frankl (1946), who had experienced being detained in a Nazi’s cell, said ‘inner power of detainees arises from spirituality and hope in the future’.

The inner power would come through motivation resulted from at least 5 factors. The first factor is resulted from external environment or problems we face, which pulls us to resolve the problems, which we call pulling motivation. The second factor is internal that pushes us when we see community or the people in society mutually struggle to resolve their problems. It push us to study and acquire knowledge, identify causes of problems, and learn knowledge and gain understanding global society, which we call pushing motivation. The third factor is when we decide to take part and gain direct experience in the struggle for life, which is a problem of our life, which we call direct motivation. The fourth factor is derived from faith or belief in religion that we adopt and religious teachings that give explanation to the meaning of our life, which we call supportive motivation. And, finally, the fifth factor comes after experiencing the above four factors. We will give time for deep prayer, which is a process of reflection that is called contemplation. This process facilitates exposure to the reality, and what is discovered will be our inner motivation, and it will be inner power that push us to go out once again to share life with community and global society to Transform the world from within as illustrated by the following graphic.

[1] In short, this is a dimension of transcendence. It is the dimension of the highest immanent value in material, such as the mother of land, the spirit ‘Kwan’ of human being, gods of forest and mountain, mother of water. When the modern world uses rational and mechanical sciences as tools, it only turns everything into materials that can be traded for money, and finally ends up into consumerism. In this manner, it results in the process of disenchantment of the world, making beliefs and mystic or the invisible that protect materials and the nature as meaningless, nonsense and inexistent. It gives preference on progress and technologies, and claims that the nature is not sacred but only material goods that can be traded. When the dimension of mystic and sacredness in materials are taken away from the belief of the people, then capitalism creates new belief, i.e. capital or money.2016-09-05 14;59;29

                  This process from step 1 to step 5 towards inner journey brings about self-transformation).

                  All the five elements is a journey inward, and then outward. This inward and outward journeys must be done continuously the whole of our lives.

                  Culture is a source of life, a source of wisdom, a source of knowledge of the people in their struggle which Attajak (2555) calls a ‘backup’ of the struggle of the people. Culture itself might not have enough power. If we give priority to external form of culture that is knowledge and wisdom without spirituality or intuition that is the core holding other dimensions together, which Jojo M. Fung, SJ (2011) used a process to strengthen inner power with five steps called spiral process. This spiral process starts with lived-experience and inner experience, followed by the second step of critical analysis of experience in the struggle for existence in the past or in history. The third step is theological reflection on spirituality or faith dimension of each group and each belief. The fourth step is active contemplation linking the first step of what we have discovered, what voices call us to do what, how we respond, which Christians call ‘vocation’, and decision to search for option. The last step is faith respond by applying faith, teachings, morality and ethics in all aspects of life.

                  2. The Search for Values, Meaning and Expression in the Life of the People

                  Why do people seek to express themselves in the way of life or culture? The way of life and community cultures are the way of hope, not just ideal. It is present in this world and the world to come that is present today (God is present), and lead to transform of self and society.

                  The people has a belief that is always adjusted to the current context, and is passed on through narrative forms of religious stories, political stories, and world creation stories. In the North, for example, in building city or community, the people would choose a location they believed Buddha had once passed by, which is called “Tamnan Phra Chao Liab Muang” (the legend of Buddha walked on the world). They considered the location as the holy land. For example, the people in Chom Thong, Chiangmai Province, mutually help revive and apply religious principles and tradition of ‘Sueb Chata’, or the ritual for renewing destiny of Doi Inthanon Mountain annually with an aim to take care and manage their resources. At the same time, they also offer a ritual of ‘Liang Phi Muang Fai’, or offering to the spirit of check-dam, although the water from check-dam has already been used in lychee or longan orchards. This is a belief or religion that the people live concomitant with the material world. Religion must interweave these components. Although the world is changing, but spirituality remains within to nourish and enhance both material and life growth, so that we will not be trapped by consumption. We see that every village has temple because the people see that it is necessary to have temple in their village, despite the fact that fewer people go to temple. The phenomenon that fewer people go to temple does not imply that people do not have belief or have faith in religion. The people do not judge faith and religiosity only in term of quantity. When they live religion in their daily life, going to meet and pray together in temple is to be physically present and expression of social relationship.

                  3. Religion in the Way of Life

                  For the people, religion is life and their way of life expressed in their way of production. Even in the planting of lychee, tomato, cabbage with modern production methods, the farmers apply religion to explain the value and meaning. They must give thank God or the Sacred. If they fail to thank God or the Sacred, no yield would be left for them to harvest. Because the people need to make a living, but they make a living on a foundation of new meaning system. To bring abundance to their families, they need to give thanks to God or the Sacred. The sacred in religion has become their protection against the nature. Therefore, spirituality is the power requiring the people to offer rituals to show that the Sacred is present there. At present, in whatever situation they live, they must struggle to define meaning, to define new meaning in order to prevent the world of trade to be the sole dominant. It is to live religious values in the world of materialism in their daily life, which will make life meaningful with values because it is the life that witnesses the power of existence inherited from their ancestors who had struggled against the power that had exploited them. As servant of God the creator of the world, how we can collaborate with God in protecting the world and help human beings to be saved. Do we value the sanctity of the work we do, which we call “creating sacred space”. That is to give meaning and create sacred space, such as watershed, ritual forest, umbilical forest, restricted forest, ordained forest, etc., rather than allowing it as space of materialism, mammon, hedonism.

                  4. SelfTransformation

                  Villagers have world view with a sacred dimension in life. It is the worldview of family and community. Approach and contact with a group of villagers or community with some remaining values helps us to be reborn in a world view with religious dimension in explaining religion in a simple manner as grassroots people. This is also known world view with the sacred dimension. This kind of world view is dying, especially in the process of modernization. As this scientific modernity with mechanical that looks at the world mechanically and dichotomy in which they do not see that in forest there is deity and sacred. This sacred is not in the world view of new generation. As a result, natural resources are extracted merely to be just product.

                  What we need to understand is to choose what comes from within ourselves that is religion in the world, which now materialistic giving priority to money, individualism and of hedonism. We can see that these ideologies are creeping to swallow us. The question is how we could struggle to prevent ourselves to be swallowed. What we can do is to be pious and apply religious dimension in all our activities to strike back those unhealthy values.

                  With the worldview of the modernity at present, most children are not interested whether there is ‘Kwan’ (conscious spirit) in the nature, soil, water or in human being. It is competition to give meaning between the world with spirit in matters and the world that is all materialistic where its products are destroying the world, which we call the “Culture of Death”. We need to build the “Culture of Life” so that we can explain what would directly lead to the birth of these lives.

                  People in the old days saw spirit behind or inside all matters. Christianity believes that everything has spirit, or the Spirit of God is everywhere that is called “Wisdom”. Those who would save the world will be “those who live outside the framework of modernity”. It is a call for revival of the faith in the dimension of the sacred, because it is the world view contrary to the worldview of materialism, or mechanical scientific technologies that explain fact only on one aspect. The world view with the sacred explains life in a holistic manner.

                  Our identity is acquired from our own root. If we are formed, both properties will be the driving force in our lives in order to get involved with community and society so that we may face situation of the current changing world, because the current crises in values and meaning are worsening ever.

                  Helping people to realize their cultures, wisdom, belief that are their roots and would lead them to have a sense of pride and self0esteem, should go through a process of meditation, contemplation and prayer so that one would have time to think and reflect. On the contrary, if we continue to implement activities without having time for reflection and contemplation on what we are is doing, then, we would not be able to journey deep into our sub-consciousness. Results of our work will also not be our power. When we pause our activities to reflect and contemplate regularly, we will then cause our self-transformation, causing transformation from within ourselves and lead to transformation in society and other aspects as well.

                  5. The Process of Finding Power from Within

                  The process that will help us to discover power from within is Self-Immersion. It is a conscious, sincere encounter with the reality by ourselves, or allow ourselves to willingly and consciously be in difficult situation in order to learn. This self-immersion helps us to discover what we have earlier overlooked. It helps us to discover the hidden wonders, mystics and values. When we reflect and contemplate on what we have discovered, we will feel that they are powers and will be our motivation, which we call discovery of values hidden within. Ordinary visit is made by eyes that do not have values. These eyes would just be fleshly eyes. We need to have eyes with values to search for the supernatural above or in meaning. When we are in touch with and discovered these things, we will gradually apply in our life. We will later call it Action.

                  After approaching to be and learn, and after discovery we reflection on it, this is the process of strengthening and fulfilling our spirituality, the spirit within us. It is to be immersed and discover followed by reflection and departure to push ourselves in action with spirituality for transformation. This is the process called Spiritualization. Therefore, contemplation, prayer and deep contemplation on the power of the Holy Spirit guided by the light of religious teachings, is the essential foundation of the process of search for salvation movement. It is the important foundation in moving towards a life in solidarity and unity with the people (Self-Incarnation).

                  6. Constructing Cultural Meaning

                  Revival and construction of values, beliefs and culture of the local people to show that it is necessary to be reinforced by spirituality from the foundation of Primal Religion, or grassroots theology as Hardawiryana Rober says ‘the foundation of reality in Asia is diversity in beliefs and cultures, each of which has its own value and identity” (1995:37). Poor people in Asia are dehumanized by the concept and ideologies of mainstream worldview of capitalist world. As a result, theology has been constructed based on their own context, which is called Contextualized Primal Religion, like Minjung theology (people’s theology) in South Korea, Dalit theology of India. Most of these theologies are mainly focused on the struggles and construction of self-identity in the situation where they are viewed as marginalized, who are poor, lazy and dirty, with no dignity.

                  The first step to start is to deconstruct explanation on values and meaning based on the concept of capitalism and consumerism influenced by concepts derived from western context. In the past, there was understanding that villagers or local people who believe in supernatural which they call “Phi” (ghost) as superstitious and obstruction to development.

                  In working with the people to implement development activities for nearly 40 years, we have discovered the power of Cosmic Spirituality. It the worldview of beliefs and the creation of sacred space of local people in the North, both on high and lowland. We have discovered that there is belief and worldview that give the importance on sacredness in all aspects of life, which we call Cosmic Spirituality. There are still groups of people who try to sustain, revive and renew communal sacred spaces as power in addressing new problems in their current living. They also want to transmit these beliefs and worldviews to their younger generations in the midst of the society today where human beings are dehumanized and reduced to merely secular or material aspect, as shown in the following example.

Example of a Ritual of Offering to the Tap Water Spirit at Baan Dok Daeng , in Hod District, Chiang Mai Province

                  The offering to ‘Phi Nam or Phi Muang Fai’ (water spirit or check dam spirit) is the belief practiced by ancestors of both lowland people and Karens since long time ago. This example clearly shows that villagers of Baan Dok Daeng, which is a Karen community in Hod District, Chiangmai Province, had performed a ritual of offering to the spirit of tap water, which has never been done before in the past. The spiritual leader who led the ritual gave explanation that they had to ask for forgiveness and give thanks to the water by performing a ritual. They had to ask for forgiveness from the water because water has the nature of flowing from higher to lower area, and it is impossible to force water to run higher. “We cannot force water to run higher. It is against the nature of the water”. Therefore, the villagers said they had to perform a ritual asking for forgiveness from the water that they forced the water into plastic tube, and force it to run higher. As a result, water has lost its freedom to flow on the soil and moisten trees and grass grown where the water flows. In addition, before flowing to their village the water has to cross from one creek to another, and the villagers believe there is ‘Phi’ (spirit) protecting each creek.

                  This issue was discussed by younger and elder members of the project committee. At the end, the young members had to submit to the belief of the elder members. They had to perform a ritual to ask for forgiveness from water. This case helps us to realize that their daily activity in life is the use of water, soil, forest, all in conformity with the system of their faith in religion and culture. When the water comes to their village, the leaders started to offer a ritual to ask for forgiveness and give thanks to water, and thanks to Ta Hti Ta Tau, their Absolute who gives them water enabling everyone in the community, regardless of small children, widows, the rich, the poor, all have water to drink and use. All have life and are in unity. It also gives new life to the soil, trees, and all animals. The leaders performed the ritual by themselves. Our role was just to provide necessary fund to purchase equipment. When the people have water to drink and use, we considered the project completed. Yet, the people had to perform a ritual of offering to ‘Phi Nam’ before this activity would be complete. We have learned the lesson that actually the people have never separated their life from religion, and they have always shown this to us.

                  The example of water mentioned earlier shows that we have not seen the presence of God in His creation. We cannot see ‘the sacred in all materials, of spirituality in the cosmos. When we cannot see the presence of God (Immanence), materialism emerges. This is the dimension the people taught us. In their belief, there is sacred in water. This is opposite to us. Although we are talking about religion and life, we try to apply religion to unite the people, but when we implement an activity on water, it was us who completed the water matter, then, our job was done. It showed that for us religion and life are not converged. On the contrary, the people went further. It is similar to what someone used to say ‘we give the Bible to the people, then, they read it to us’. Therefore, we came to a conclusion that we have not truly approach God or teachings as the people have had.

                  We could easily compare that development activity is something from outside coming inside, such as the tab water project as earlier mentioned that people initially wanted to acquire drinking water, which was outside material. From outside they bring it into inside. It is ‘the value of water’. It has the aspect of belief, which is expressed by talking about values, and they will discover both inside and outside values.   This is not just about the water supply project, but includes the value expressed in daily life that we have learned the lessons from the people that after the water project started from outside, and the people brought it inside, the spirituality, offering ritual to give thanks to God or the sacred, but they did not stop at that point. They continued to give thanks to God of the sacred in their real life. For example, when their community has problem, they would come to help to solve it. When they do not have enough rice to eat, all families will pool in rice, a bucket or more, and donate it to the family in short of rice. Before going to handover the rice, they would visit and prepare that family. They had received this help in the past, and now they give to others. This is an external (outside) coming into inside like a circle. This does not only imply for within their community, but also other villages. It is the true expression of the value of sharing in real life. In our development work, we have applied these lessons to solve other problems together with the people. For example, rice merit making is the concept inherent in the culture of the community.

An Example of Kong Boon Khao’ (Rice Merit Making) or Pha Pa Khao (Rice Donation) Activity

Kong Boon Khao has evolved from rice bank activity, which has been started since 1978, and has developed into a network since 1989 until now. At the beginning, when people run short of rice for domestic consumption, our development work started with our efforts struggling to give meaning in the development process, starting with the term ‘rice bank’ that state and private actors commonly used. This term implied the meaning of a bank that people go to deposit their money, seek loan and repay with interest, which is the same meaning of capitalism, and also adopting the concept of shares or cooperates where only members benefited and earned profit from the fund. Later, we worked with the villagers in an effort to give new meaning that is different from capitalism by calling themselves the ‘rice group’, which was different from ‘rice bank’. It is a gathering of people based on the ideology of mutual aid, or reciprocity that is the existing value in the culture of the community, and everyone with difficulties should benefit from this rice group. When they organized a network of ‘Kong Boon Khao’, they have given the meaning of this rice merit making network as a collective merit making to support society.

The concept of the network of Kong Boon Khao is an attempt of the first group of village leaders who got together to address the problem of shortage of rice in 1975. From the experience participating in ‘Pha Pa Khao’ (rice donation), which is a traditional Buddhist activity, that was organized by Payao field office of Diocesan Social Action Center (DISAC) of Chiang Mai, which has applied religious ritual of Pha Pa Khao to donate rice to the poor, the village leaders then applied this Buddhist tradition that conforms with Karen’s concept on rice and merit-making in helping widows, orphans, and following the Lenten spirit (when Christians are required to sacrifice, reduce, avoid, stop all desires for new life, or be reborn on Easter when Jesus humbled to death for the sins of mankind and resurrected with a new life. If Christians want new life, they should be dead from sin and selfishness by sharing and helping others, as well as giving donation and making merits during the Lenten period of 40 days, and donating material goods that each one has to help those in need).

Villager leaders understand the meaning of Kong Boon Khao as a merit-making to help people who lack the rice according to the existing concept in community, and integrated with a development concept that focuses on self-supporting of community, and transmit the meaning to Christian villagers through Lenten spirit campaign, which is a Christian tradition and their communal tradition that hold that it is the responsibility of all community members to take care of and share to widows and orphans. If they make merit by donating rice, they will be blessed by the Absolute with enough yield for consumption. Therefore, the people would bring their rice together to give to those in need, which is the starting point of ‘Kong Boon Khao’, and later extended to be a network of Kong Boon Khao since 1989. At present, this networks covers over 300 villages in Chiang Mai and Mae Hong Sorn Provinces (Ariya, 1999)[i]

  1. The Thai Baht coin symbol placed on the body of the dead outside of the bamboo tray has the following meaning.
    • A Thai Baht coin placed on the chest of the dead refers to the heart that always desires for property and money.
    • Coins attached to the ears mean the ears that hear only about money, trying to check who has money and property, etc.
    • Coins placed on the eyes mean our eyes are wide open when seeing money, and immediately has the desire.
    • Coins placed at the feet mean that the feet are bringing us to money, by any means depending on each one.
    • Coins placed on the palms means the hands are reaching out to hold and take money.

In conclusion, these symbols means when our hearts are desiring money, and hear other people talking about it, our feet will take us there. When we find money, our hands will take it. If we fairly get it, it is alright. But if we take it unjustly, ultimately it will lead us to death because those who hold on money as the aim, will compete against other people, and the competition will lead to death.


                  Kong Boon Khao campaign reaffirms the words of ancestors that “one hand must hold straw, another must hold candle”. This means that in our lives what we need to firmly hold is rice cultivation as our staple food, especially for us the poor. If we have enough rice, other foods can be acquired easily. The candle represents light, religion, virtues, good values that we have to hold in life. Both must be side by side. Lacking one of it, life cannot exi                 

                  For lowland people also, there is always creation and competition to give meaning. For example, the women’s groups in Payao Province, they used rice grain to cover a Thai Baht coin, giving the meaning that at present money is something we cannot deny, but we will not let it dominate our lives. We will use money as a tool leading to growth, both physically and spiritually, as shown below.


                  7. Organizing Spiritual Movement and the Revival and Transmission of Cultural Heritage

                  At present, traditional spiritual leaders of various ethnic groups are faced with challenges of the today society, especially the lifestyle of new generations that are contradictory to ethnic culture. At the same time, development from outside creeps in without respecting religions, beliefs and cultures of ethnic communities. The community spiritual leaders of various ethnic groups, such as Lahu, Karen and lowland people who try to maintain and transmit cultural heritage and beliefs based on worldview of their communities, have come together to analyze the situation, sharing and brainstorming ideas on possible solution, which has then led to creation of a network based on community beliefs and cultures.

                  These spiritual leaders are representatives of spiritual leaders, like Lahu ethnic spiritual leaders called “Tobo”, whose roles are to perform ritual and act as mediators between the people and the Absolute who is the Creator called “Gui Sha”. In offering to worship “Gui Sha” in a worship hall called “Hor Yeh” of the village. Activities of the network include restoration of the sacred to the communities and encouraging the community to restore the sacred to human being. The network has set up groups and extend the network by reviving beliefs in different villages. It also sends representatives to meet and talk, perform rituals and build ‘Hor Yeh’ in villages. The network of Lahu spiritual leaders include both women and men, mutually empower their network based on the worldview of the people, and mutually search for direction to solve community problems and transmit cultural heritage to the younger generations.

                  In addition, there are also traditional leaders of Karen ethnic group called ’Hih Kho’ who are responsible for performing rituals at community level. They have close relationship with human beings and the nature, such as soil, water, etc. They also share roles and responsibility with the council of the elders in maintaining customs and traditions of their communities, such as taboos and regulations regarding behaviors and practices that need to be transmitted to the next generations

                  At present, the community leadership role of Hih Kho in administration and politics is not present anymore. However, some Hih Khos continue to live religious and cultural values to sustain their communities and live simplistic life based on religious and cultural values of the community. They join the network with an aim to revive and strengthen the role of spiritual leaders in family and the community, particularly in transmitting cultural heritage to younger generations.

                  In the northern plains where lowland indigenous people live, there are traditional ‘Muang Fai’ (check dam) leaders, or traditional irrigation system that has long history of over thousands years with Muang Fai leaders as the key persons in managing water. At present, these traditional irrigation systems gradually disappeared when state actors came in to organize irrigation system. As a result, these traditional leaders and Muang Fai people’s organization who used to play leadership role in farming-based community, have also lost their role in their community as well. However, some Muang Fai systems continue to survive until today through self-government and development of the nature and environment on the basis of shared beliefs on spiritual taking care of the water. Every year before rice cultivation season begins, they will perform a ritual offering to the Phi Muang Fai to ask for forgiveness in using the water, and also for blessings of abundant water and seasonal rainfall with good yield. It is a ritual that is based on the belief that there is Phi Nam (spirit in the water), and there is Phi Muang Fai in the check dam protecting the water and bringing abundance to community. Furthermore, some groups also play a role in conserving and restoring ecosystem of watershed and natural resources.[i]

                  Representatives of the spiritual leaders have mutually analyzed the current situation that is affecting agricultural sector, resources and environment and cultures, such as the opening of free trade area, and also brainstormed ideas and reviewed the role of the spiritual leaders in restoring the sacred to the resources and the world. They have also planned and built network to work together regularly in the future. These spiritual leaders were of the opinion that in the present situation, it is necessary to seriously revive faith and morality, otherwise human life would have risks because the world Changes very fast and creeps into human life and affects everyone. Therefore, they agreed to work together on activities to screen the way of life, formulate plan and activities that they will implement together continuously.

                  From experience in working with these spiritual leaders, we recognize the mystical power when they turn to the Absolute to be power in their living. We realize that there is a need to restore this power in order to face the crisis in the midst of the changing society, so that the people would be able to create sacred space, and get this power from within through relationship with the Absolute. This will make the power they received from within, spirituality in the cosmos, their hope in defining meaning and their identity amidst various crises in their life, such as environment, social and family, and so on.

                  If the people continue to hold on their beliefs, they will continue to be strong. If they are not strong, then their group will collapse. Now, their children have to go to larger society outside their communities. Some are working in cities, some go out to study. As a result, young people are far away from their relatives and communities, gradually be away from faith, from their own cultures. One spiritual leader said he was concerned that the spirit of their children, when leaving this world, may not be able to return to the Absolute, because they were distanced from God, from the faith and the teachings that God has given to their ancestors.

                  These spiritual leaders think of their role and think that they might lack good knowledge and understanding on society and current situation, and also lack preparation on traditions for their children to face to the outside world. The opening of space for these leaders to exchange ideas, build network and implement common activities is, therefore, an opportunity for strengthening revival from their spirituality.

                  Another experience that taught us a lesson on faith of the ethnic spiritual leaders is that every time we had seminar, we would begin with an opening ceremony and discussion. For Lahu spiritual leaders, they started with rituals and beliefs by prayer to the sacred to come down and be present in the seminar, which they spent half a day (at first I felt it was a waste of time). It was the first time that we came into contact with the worldview that does not separate the sacred from the profane. And it is not a rational analysis, but analysis cannot be separated from faith. During deliberation, the discussion points cannot be separated from faith or the immanence, or the presence of God, and social relationship cannot be separated from one another. Everything is related as interconnectedness. Therefore, the seminar process is not merely a search for knowledge, but it is a ritual asking for the presence of the sacred. This is another lesson that we learned from the people.


                  In the current society where people reduce everything to merely profane or material (materialism/secularism). Growth and development of the world are turning everything into objects, profane. Secularization is killing the world. It is rotten in all aspects. Therefore, the religio-cultural community approach must make the world sacred. Actually, the sacred is there, but how we could do to prevent material and sacred world to be separated from one another. The religio-cultural community approach is, therefore, a struggle on values, between the concept and way of life based on values ​​of the community, against capitalistic, materialistic and consumeristic mode of production and way of living. It is a process in giving new meaning by reintroducing values into all dimensions of society. It is a meaning in spirituality and materials by looking at meaning over materials (Transcendence). It is a discovery of supernatural in life that is in the cosmic creation. It helps human being to go deeper into the core meaning of life, and then allow the values to push our life starting from transformation of ourselves from within. Such a process can be taken up anywhere, which is a struggle in daily life. It is a new social movement in facing the current of materialism of today. It is a new social group, new society that explain everything from the worldview of faith and experience of spirituality in meeting with the sacred dimension or cosmic spirituality.

                  Our role as religious or religious organization รs to make the world taking up religious dimension, has the dimension of sacred, with spirituality. When looking back at our experiences, at first we tried to adjust religion to cope with the living of the people, which is along the line of the Second Vatican Council. However, when we started to take action, we were surprised that they do have religious and cultural values in their living. It was only that we have not been able to approach the people, we were not able to approach God. We have to criticize ourselves. We must transform ourselves. The theology that we got from outside, although giving us good foundation, is not perfect. We need to be related with the real life of the people, or their worldview on faith and experience of spirituality in creating sacred space of the people.

[i] Other References:

[1] See more in:

  • Ariya Sawatarm, (2542-1999), Pha Pa Khao: A Reflection on Perception of Community, Bangkok, Office of Research Support Fund (ORSF)
  • Ariya Sawatarm, Sunthorn Wongjomporn, Naiyana Vijitporn (2547-2004), Research Report on the Project on Communicating Development Meaning among the People: A Case of Community Fund ‘Network of Kong Boon Khao’, supported by Office of Research Support Fund (ORSF)
  • Religio-Cultural Heritage in Asia and Human Development (BISA VII), Catholic Council of Thailand for Development (CCTD), (2528-1985)
  • [1] Other References:
  1. Attajak Sattayanurak: Community Culture that is not Static in the ‘Uncertain’ Future, Krungthep Turakij Online (November 16, 2555-2012)
  2. Ariya Sawatarm, (2542-1999), Pha Pa Khao: A Reflection on Perception of Community, Bangkok, Office of Research Support Fund (ORSF)
  3. Robert J. Schreiter, Constructing Local Theologies (Maryknoll,N.Y.: Orbis Books, 1985).
  4. S. Anthony Inarinno. Knowledge Is Not Power—Wisdom Is Power. (2010)
  5. Hardawiryana, Robert. “Theological Perspectives on Mission in Asia” verbum, SVD 36/1-2 (1995): 51-89; 115-156.
  6. Jojo M. Fung, SJ. “BIBLE Seminar & Theology of Sacred Sustainability” at Research and Training center for Religio-Cultural Community (RTRC) 2011.

Victor E. Frankl. Man’s Search for Meaning (The classic tribute to Hope from the Holocaust : (1946)