Pact-Making Within a Material Nodal Network: Ethnographic Findings on Accessing Buddhist Potency

Kelly N. Meister





According to the chronicles of Nakhon Si Thammarat, stormy seas and Buddhist fate auspiciously marooned the bearers of the Buddha’s left eyetooth on the shores of Siam. Eventually, the relic would become the treasure of Wat Phra Mahathat Woramahawihan (hereafter: Wat Phra That), a Buddhist monastery beloved by locals of the bustling city in Thailand’s upper south, and renown throughout the country and beyond. This article argues that the Buddha relic functions as a nexus, infusing nearby objects and people with its potency, to create a material nodal network. Importantly, while the relic is enclosed in the principal chedi, and is the figurative and literal center of the monastery, the relic is but one component in a complex space and does not necessarily function as the focal point of devotion. Therefore, we must also look to supplemental, material nodes of this potency and potentiality. To do so, we move outward from the relic in all directions – to the diverse structures, statues of local historical and legendary figures, and countless objects and images – which make Wat Phra That an ideal site for the study of how material culture shapes and is shaped by the practices of its visitors. 


It is further argued that as the nexus and nodes mutually reinforce each other, an expansive network is created, sustained and then utilized; not all components of this network contribute equally, but they all actively participate in and reinforce the nodal complex. While the relic has innate power because it was at one point physically connected to the Buddha, people who practice dhamma within the space sustain the network itself. Based on ethnographic findings, how practitioners variously conceive of this Buddhist power is explored – manifest through the nodal material complex – as multifaceted (e.g., understood through the dynamic concepts of amnat, itiphon nai chai, saksit and sirimongkhon) and accessible for personal use.


For example, one’s proximity to the relic or a node, and the more effortful a relationship one has with a material object, the greater the potential for them to reap personal benefits. As such, devotees may form long-lasting, personal relationships with various images and enter into what can be called pacts (kho bon kae bon). Thus, through exploring lived practices that are situated within the nodal network of materiality, we can see how contemporary practitioners conceive of and utilize this monastic space.


Keywords: the chronicles of Nakhon Si Thammarat, Buddhist potency, a material nodal network


(Published in Rian Thai: International Journal of Thai Studies, Volume 12/2019 (Number 1), Page 65-84)