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Ascher has inherited my youthful habit of mispronouncing words he’s read, understands, but has never heard spoken (for example, my eight-year-old self would scornfully tell my little sister that she was being “jun-eh-vile.”)  Deeply immersed in the exotic adventures of Tin Tin, Ascher has started to call the little sacred Buddha images he sees worn around him “omelets.”

Although I regret that omelets are not spiritually powerful, Buddhist amulets are very much so.  And they are everywhere.  Often created at temples and infused with the spiritual purity of the resident monks, amulets protect their wearer from evil spirits and accidents, restore their health, and provide better sex and more money.  Drivers and men in other high-risk or underworld professions will wear several of them roped around their necks.  Many mothers wouldn’t dream of letting their babies out without an amulet pinned on them somewhere.  I think it’s a fine idea; it’s only my Jewish squeamishness about graven images that keeps me from tying a few to my kids.

At any ordinary market, there will be a stall selling small images of the Buddha, famous monks, Hindu deities, and Thai kings (who are divine).  Major cities and towns have markets, sometimes occasional, sometimes daily, devoted to nothing but amulets.  Table after table of vendors sell and trade amulets: little ones, big ones, ones protected by cases of plastic or rock crystal, ones studded with rubies, elegant gold Buddhas in gold cases to wear on gold chains by society ladies, little ones in tin for children, big ones to tie to your rear-view mirror, antique ones, factory-made ones, cheap ones, rare ones.  Men sit with jeweler’s loupes and examine the merchandise, distinguishing counterfeits from genuine articles.  Glossy monthly magazines exist for this specialized trade, discussing the history of various amulets and the monks who invested their holiness into them (physically transferred by sai sin, or sacred thread), showcasing unusual specimens, and advertising amulets for sale.  And of course, amulets are available for purchase at most major temples and pilgrimage sites, or in exchange for the making of much merit there.

This Chiang Mai tuk-tuk driver was a true amulet aficionado, with several hundred more at his house.  The one he’s holding up displayed a famous monk, which works something like a medal of St. Christopher, protecting one from danger in transportation or voyages.

Not at all amulets are of faces.  The Hindu cult of Shiva thrives mightily here in Thailand, and the cult of Shiva is represented most often by a lingam, a phallus of wood or stone.  Although the power of a lingam is obviously male, linga are not Hindu Viagra.  They represent the creative force of the universe, as well as Shiva’s capacity for destruction. In Chiang Mai, we see little wooden linga on keychains (in the first photograph, look at the ignition key of the tuk-tuk, on the far left), tied around necks, and once, memorably, in a life-scaled version complete with testicles, on a leather strap around the waist of a porter at Warorot Market.

Linga are found in the foundations of ancient Thai cities—they are, in fact, the pillar of the community—and the proper honoring of them preserves the strength and independence of that city.  At Sukhothai, the ancient lingam is honored on a daily basis by visitors.

Whenever Ken and I encountered a particularly beautiful Buddha image for sale, we would consider buying it, but I generally balked in the end.  How does one display a holy object in one’s house?  Would we be obliged to never turn our backs to the wall where we might display it?  But perhaps because a lingam is a graven image that represents merely another graven image representing someone else’s deity—three theological steps removed from violating the Second Commandment–I was fine with a lingam.  After all, who wouldn’t want to honor the creative force moving through the universe?  At least, that’s what we told ourselves when we saw this glowing, burnished lingam for sale at an amulet market in Sukhothai, inscribed in khom, the ancient Khmer language used only for incantations and spells (ordinary Thai not being suitable for such magical purposes), and adorned with squares of gold leaf applied to it by worshipers.

Ascher and Camilla asked, “What did you buy?”  “A giant pee-pee,” we told them.  They exchanged glances.  This sounded like the kind of tall tale we like to tell them occasionally, just to keep them on their toes.  “Really?” asked a skeptical Ascher.  “Yes,” I said, “It’s a very special omelet.  It’s a giant pee-pee.”  And, sure enough, out of the newspaper wrapping emerged a giant pee-pee.  If nothing else, we’ve become the sort of parents who bring home exotic objects to embarrass our children for years to come.

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