Fa, an energetic teacher in her 30s, has held on to many hopes for her life’s varied aspirations: getting into university, landing a good job, and even winning the lottery. For all these desired experiences, Fa has tried her hand at the Buddhist ritual of wish-making.

“When I make a wish, I have to consider how much merit I have and how strong my observance of Buddhist morality is. I have to say my name and what I will offer to the sacred statue—the terms have to be very clear and the rules [clearly established]. I have to think carefully about what I will offer in exchange if I get my wish, because this matters for the results.” 

Previously, Fa had unsuccessfully made an offer of 900 garlands of flowers to a sacred Buddha statue in hopes of winning the lottery. Undeterred by her unrealized fortune, Fa decided to wait longer before making any further wishes, hoping that her luck might be better if she timed it just right. Fa said that she believes that “if you have good karma, then good things will come, and if you do bad deeds, then bad things will come. But we don’t know our karma, so we have to ask sacred things for help.”  

For Thai Buddhists, the ritual of making a wish (Thai: kho phon), or asking for a blessing, is used to create good luck for oneself. If someone has a specific aspiration, like passing an exam or closing a business deal, they can state their desired outcome as well as their intention to offer a sacred being something in return if their wish is granted. This second part is called resolving the vow (Thai: kae bon). 

If the wish does not come true, then there is no need to offer anything to the sacred statue or shrine. But if the wish does come true, the wish-maker must return to the place of the sacred being and offer what was promised. Different deities and spirits prefer different objects, so in order for a wish to come true, the wish-maker must think carefully about what they will offer in exchange.

“Making a wish is something in the heart, like an emotional refuge.”

One of the most famous statues for wish-granting is Luang Por Tan Jai, a gold statue of the Buddha at Wat Phra That Doi Kham, a temple atop Kham Mountain in Chiang Mai, northern Thailand. This statue, which is over five hundred years old, is known to grant wishes in exchange for garlands of jasmine flowers. 

Luang Por Tan Jai can be translated as “instant god” or “the revered one that is just in time.” The immediacy refers to both the completion of this Buddha statue in just one day and the statue’s perceived ability to bring fortune instantaneously. A Buddha statue being sculpted in one day is believed to be something akin to a miracle, indicating that a god from one of the Buddhist heaven realms must have been present during its creation. 

In 2014, a Thai Buddhist named Khankaew Intamul offered 10,000 garlands to this statue after winning four million baht (about USD $120,000) in the lottery. She attributed her win to Luang Por Tan Jai. In 2023, a businesswoman from Bangkok offered 500,000 jasmine garlands, costing about three million baht (approximately USD $100,000). 

Whenever lottery winners credit their luck to Luang Por Tan Jai, visitors can expect long traffic delays anywhere near Wat Phra That Doi Kham. Thai tourists from provinces near and far visit this Buddha statue to make wishes for their winning numbers to be called. While lottery salespeople find an increased appetite for their product here, the demand for jasmine garland sellers is made even greater by tales of this statue. More than forty jasmine shops line the road up to Wat Phra That Doi Kham, each one with an eager vendor beckoning passersby to choose their garlands.

Why is wish-making so important and prevalent? How does this practice relate to the Buddhist doctrine of karma? How do practitioners resolve the possible contradictions between asking a statue for a wish and the Buddhist ideal of ridding the mind of desire? I asked fifteen Thai Buddhist friends and colleagues to share their stories of making offerings and to reflect on their understanding of the role of karma in attaining their wishes. 

Thai wish making 2
Wat Phra That Doi Kham. Photo by Gerard Vonk. | https://flic.kr/p/2iN9FPz

A Feeling of Encouragement

Noon, a 28-year-old with a bachelor’s degree, stated that she made only one vow in her life because she really wanted to get a job and live in another province, called Phrae. In an effort to make her wish come true, she visited a pagoda, which contained a relic of the Buddha. The pagoda is sacred to the people of Phrae, and Noon vowed to return with boiled eggs and fruit as offerings to the relic if she got the job. 

“I felt moved when I made this vow. My parents don’t really believe in vows, and I don’t really either, but it was comforting. I believe that making a wish does not relate to karma but probably more to make us feel comfortable.”

While Noon did this only once, her friend Kae, a 28-year-old college graduate, usually makes around five wishes per year. She has made myriad requests of these sacred objects: to pass the civil service exam; to secure a job in her hometown; to find lost items; and to have a child. Some of these wishes have been fulfilled, while others have not. 

She mostly visits shrines within Buddhist temples—including royal shrines, shrines for the Hindu god Brahma, and shrines for ancestors—making offerings as an exchange for her wishes that came true.

“I give what is required, like boiled eggs, flowers, [and] garlands. One time I strung thirty garlands of jasmine flowers myself, and it took about a week. I did it until my hands [felt like they] were falling off. Sometimes I am successful, sometimes I am not, but I feel happy when my hopes are fulfilled. It gives me encouragement, like to look for a job or [to] study for [an] exam. I don’t think making a wish is related to karma, it’s about happiness of the mind. It’s like we have something to rely on. These sacred things, they may not be true at all. But they give encouragement and more hope.” 

Lek, a 30-year-old professional with a college degree, made a single vow: she asked the Buddha statue in her hometown to help her to be able to study abroad, and she was successful. 

“I don’t think the Buddha statue did anything to help, I just had to wait. Actually, I feel that [making] a wish and resolving the vow does not relate to Buddhism at all. It’s just about [wanting] things and [needing] encouragement sometimes from outside, which is more effective than encouragement from ourselves. I think making a vow just gives you help to do something hard in your life. I am sure that Thai people know that only making a vow won’t give you all you wish for. That’s why we believe in karma. If you are a good person, you will have good luck.” 

A Buddhist Practice

Tuktaa, a 31-year-old with a bachelor’s degree, made a vow when visiting her friend in the Chachoengsao province at a Buddha statue called Luang Por Sothorn, well-known in the area and considered sacred. When she got her new job, she went back and offered ninety-nine boiled eggs, as promised. She believes that making a wish “is about the trust and belief Buddhists have in Buddhism.” 

Tuktaa’s mother, who is in her 50s, said that she makes wishes to keep her family safe when they are traveling. She normally makes her wish to a home statue of a former king. When her family members return safely, she makes sure to offer coconut water, snacks, baked goods, and pink roses. So far, all her wishes have come true. She makes this wish because she believes it is related to karma. When she wishes for the safety of her family, she is creating good karma, and she believes that when she makes offerings to the statue, she is generating good karma.

Beau is a 40-year-old administrator who has made many a vow when he needed something good to happen in his life—getting a new job or making more money. However, he believes that his fate lies outside these offerings: 

“Everything you get is caused [by] what you did. It’s like you need to pass the test but you [didn’t] read [the] books. No matter how many vows you [make], you won’t get any success. This is why it’s related to karma, what goes around comes around. You do the right thing, you get the right thing.”

Mali, a 27-year-old with a master’s degree, has made three vows: 

“The first one, I asked to pass an exam in order to get a chance to go abroad. This was when I was in high school. The second one was when I wanted to be accepted into university. The last one was just less than a year ago. After a few months of trying, my husband and I asked to get a baby… That’s what my parents did to get me too!”

For this wish, Mali and her husband went to Wat Phra Borommathat, known for its Luang Por Tan Jai statue, in Mae Sot, Tak province. After her baby was born, the couple offered five types of fruit and fifty boiled eggs in return. 

Mali thinks that Buddhism doesn’t teach you to make vows to gods and spirits. It only teaches people to practice the dharma and create good karma. But she believes that this practice is related to Buddhism because only those with good karma already can succeed in their wish-making. 

Confidence in Oneself

Nong, a 27-year-old master’s student, stated that she did not believe in making wishes and resolving vows, but does not disparage people who do. She just believes in herself. If she wants to be successful, she will try hard for it no matter what.

Tip, a 45-year-old teacher with a Master of Education degree, never makes a vow because she doesn’t believe that sacred objects have the power to help you. Her family is Chinese, and they don’t have the tradition of going somewhere to ask for something. “I am too lazy to pay it back anyway!” she admits.

Kaew, a 35-year-old businessman, has made a vow on ten different occasions, which he believes is a small number. 

“I think that I can do most things by myself, but some things you can’t control, like if you want a baby or a daughter; it can help you if you think it can happen, but it’s just belief. I went to the Erawan Shrine, in Bangkok, to request not to go to [the] military. I wound up not having to go into military service because I am too short, but I gave flowers in exchange according to my vow anyway, because it worked.”

Nan, a teacher in her 20s, also felt that making a wish was a good idea, but not because she believes in the power of auspicious statues:

“I [felt] OK when I made the wish and resolved the vow, because really making a wish is something in the heart, like an emotional refuge. After I make [a] wish, I feel better, but I still have to practice and try on my own and not put all my hopes on the wish only. Making a wish and resolving the vow is like a good trick or strategy to make people responsible for their words and continue in their effort and intention.”

Popular Buddhist Rituals

Rituals help people to feel secure in their ambitions and to feel as though they gain some control over their life’s outcomes and achievements. Making a wish and fulfilling a vow creates a sense of reassurance within a short period. This is in contrast to other Buddhist practices, like meditation, which is meant to generate lasting happiness and security in the long term. Although Thai Buddhist practitioners believe in the truth of the dhamma being found through meditation, based on my observations of Thai culture at large over the last fifteen years, reverence for sacred objects, places, and rituals, like wish-making, seem to be more commonplace among the average Thai citizen. A recent poll conducted by the National Institute of Development Administration (NIDA) on a sample group of 1,310 Thai Buddhists aged 18 and above found that 45 percent of participants were “quite confident” that their wishes were going to be fulfilled.

Wish-making will always be popular because it is relatively easy to enact and speaks to the desire most people have to exert some control over their lives. Certain rituals are flexible, with a basic structure into which individuals insert their own beliefs. Instead of a wish to enter nirvana, these rituals address practical, worldly concerns. In the same poll, 51 percent—or the majority of Thai participants—admitted to praying for “good health/recovery from illness” as their main wish when visiting temples.

Religious practices, like wish-making rituals, are not simply additions or misunderstandings of doctrinal beliefs. These rituals are ways to convey Buddhist teachings and benefits to people who may not have the experience, time, interest, or ability to study the dhamma and meditate. For Buddhists, popular rituals are typically not concerned with realizing the four noble truths or a deep understanding of nonself, but are part of a fluid and dynamic religious culture, where Buddhist doctrines provide the framework for any and everyone to realize their life’s greatest aspirations. 

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