28 September, 2015

How Ronald McDonald is the Buddha of the Fast-Food World

Tram Kieu is a native Cornhusker hailing from Lincoln, Nebraska. She is a graduate of Nebraska Wesleyan University and earned a BA in Global Studies and a minor in Spanish. Tram is a 2014-2015 ETA Fulbrighter in Kalasin province in northeastern Isaan Thailand. When she is not learning how to sing Isaan songs, Tram enjoys trying new foods with the exception of the voluntary or involuntary ingestion of insects. After her time as a Fulbright ETA, Tram plans to continue dedicating her time to teaching English wherever she is in the world 
and working towards empowering women 
and girls through education.

Ronald Mcdonald and Buddha

If you think about it, monasteries in Thailand are a lot like McDonald’s.

Thai monasteries are ubiquitous throughout Thailand as are McDonald’s restaurants around the globe. Located in almost every nook and cranny, small or big, there are approximately 45,000 monasteries in Thailand. While there are about 36,000 McDonald’s locations in the world, numbers don’t matter as much as the cross-cultural lessons between these two iconic representations of Thai and American cultures.

The cliché selfie with Thai-Ronald McDonald.

First off, when you step into a McDonald’s in Thailand you are greeted by Ronald McDonald in typical Thai fashion: with a smile and hands clasped together to greet you in a wai position.

In Buddhism, the framework of Buddhist practice consists of the Buddha, the Dharma (Buddha’s teachings), and the Sangha (the monastic community). When examining the significance of the Three Jewels from a Big Mac point of view, you could say that Ronald McDonald is a representation of Buddha, the menu would be the Dharma, and the employees the Sangha. Although Ronald McDonald is not as highly revered as Buddha, their images are easily recognizable throughout Thailand and the world.

A handmade clay hagiography of Buddha on a monastery pillar in Chiang Mai.

Buddha images and statues are strewn on almost every conceivable surface in Thailand: on walls, car dashboards, bus windows, or tree trunks usually depicting Buddha wearing a yellow, orange, or saffron-colored robe. Likewise, Ronald McDonald also dons a somewhat similar universal yellow “robe.” He, however, also wears big, red clown shoes and has a head of bright red hair.

 Buddha statues on the roots of a bodhi tree.

When in a foreign country, and especially in Thailand where there are only three seasons: hot, hotter, and very hot, air conditioning in a McDonald’s feels like heaven. Similarly, while some go to McDonald’s to bask in the air conditioning and free wi-fi, others go to monasteries to receive “free spiritual wi-fi.”

But all things considered and humor aside, I chose to write about the topic of Thai Buddhism because religion and daily life go hand in hand in Thailand. More specifically, I chose the topic of funerals because of the importance of Buddhist concepts to understanding life and equally important, death.

Having lived in Thailand as an ETA, I have attended more funerals than I have ever in my life; in fact, I have never once in my life attended a funeral in its entirety. This past year, however, I attended seven funerals in total, two of which were from my own family in Vietnam. These past twelve months have taught me that community and family are synonymous. I have been invited to a plethora of events such as weddings, parades, beauty pageants, monk ordinations, funerals, and even death anniversaries. Whether it is a celebration of life or death, maintaining relationships is the cornerstone of Thai and Vietnamese cultures.

Death is a very somber and often times avoided topic. No one really enjoys talking about death or the feelings associated with the passing of a loved one. When intertwined with Buddhist beliefs, customs, superstitions, and interpretations, it is difficult to decipher what Buddhism is and to what degree it plays a part in Thai culture. I had so many questions and at times, it was difficult for my colleagues and family members to explain the significance behind the Buddhist rituals. Therefore, I took it upon myself to share some key aspects of Buddhist funerals here, specifically, Thai Isaan funerals, compiled from the personal experiences of my Thai colleagues and my own observations, so that others can understand the beautiful metaphors about life.


To begin, wai-ing is a Thai custom of showing respect when greeting, saying goodbye, showing appreciation, and praying. A wai is said to resemble the shape of a lotus bud formed when two hands are clasped together. The lotus flower is an important symbol in Buddhism as it represents a Buddhist’s journey in life. Because the lotus grows in murky swamps and is still able to blossom into a beautiful, untainted flower, it represents a  person’s growth within society.

Wai-ing will most likely be the first aspect of Thai culture you will learn because greetings and seniority are important in Thai culture. As a result, there are various different wais for different groups of people in terms of age. For instance, a typical greeting from a peer or younger person to an older person would consist of a wai positioned near the chest with a slight bow. To greet a monk, or show respect to an image of the King or Buddha, you would place your wai with the tips of your fingers between your eyebrows. Interestingly, the King does not wai to anyone except to monks, and monks do not wai to anyone unless to show respect to an older monk or to Buddha.

Molly, a Chinese teacher from Kamalasai School, making a blessing after a prayer session.

Ajaan Chinadarat, an English teacher from Kamalasai School, wai-ing during a funeral service.

Water and the belief in reincarnation

Prayer sessions are the focus of every Buddhist funeral in Thailand. During the entirety of a funeral ceremony, merit is created for the deceased through prayers. Each day, prayers are led by four monks chanting in Pali Sanskrit. This merit, or good deeds, will aid in the deceased’s reincarnation for the next life. After the prayer sessions, guests and family will make a blessing and pour water either next to a tree or on the ground as “to return all the goodness and natural elements” back to the earth.

Monks creating merit and chanting during a prayer session.

The number 3

The number three is an auspicious number in Buddhism. It symbolizes the Three Jewels: the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha. When Thais wai to a Buddha image or make a procession around a pagoda, it is typically done three times as to pay homage to the Three Jewels.

Moreover, it is common for funerals to take place three days after the person has passed and last a minimum of three days. Generally, funerals last a total of seven days, however depending on when the person died, the cause of death, the auspicious day for burial, and the deceased family’s monetary situation, funerals can last between three to 100 days.

Additionally, before the cremation ceremony, the last rites of passage will take place and everyone will take part in creating merit one last time for the deceased. A procession of family and friends will walk counterclockwise circling the monastery three times. This procession represents the journey to heaven and family, friends, and monks are escorting the decreased to the next life.

A funeral procession to honor the passing of the former vice-principal at Kamalasai School.

Buddhism is a fundamental aspect of Thai culture and life. To understand Thai cultural values, you must first understand Buddhism. Although Buddhism is not the official religion of Thailand, Buddhist beliefs are very much an integral part of Thailand’s political, cultural, and social fabric--over 94% of Thailand’s population self-identifies as Buddhist. This number is proof that Buddhist teachings are deeply ingrained in daily life, and the reason why there are more Buddhist monasteries in Thailand than there are McDonalds in the entire world.

This past year, I have learned that perhaps the sabai sabai, or the nonchalant approach towards life in Thailand, comes from Thais’ view on death. First, funerals are metaphors of how Thais view their role in life and the afterlife. While the passing of a loved one is always a great loss, life and death should both be celebrated. Second, although death is the last rite of passage, it is also viewed as a passage to the next life. As a result, death is in a way celebrated rather than mourned because of its inevitability and impermanence.

Lastly, relationships are important in Buddhist practices because we experience the same life passages and we are interwoven in the way we conduct ourselves. More importantly, we coexist and live on the same earth. Natural elements such as water and the earth play prominent roles in funeral ceremonies because water represents the continuous momentum of life and the earth represents all the merit that we have accumulated throughout our lives. When guests pour water onto the ground, it is an act of solidarity. It is about renewing life and transferring merit to which we all work to accumulate in our everyday actions, speech, and thoughts.

Whether you are Buddhist, or not, or enjoy eating a Big Mac once in a while, remember that cross-cultural lessons can be learned anywhere in the world, even at a funeral or a McDonald’s.


Reference for a description of a Thai Isaan funeral

Day 1 – Bathing rite and San Sai Ceremony: Approximately 30 minutes after the person has passed away, family members will prepare the body to be placed in the coffin. The body will be cleansed and dressed in new clothes, and turmeric powder will be applied. Next, the ceremonial san sai, or blessed unspun white cotton thread, will be tied around the neck, wrists, then feet by the oldest member of the community or the eldest child. Lastly, a coin will be placed in the mouth as to signify the money to be used in the next life.

Day 1-6 – Prayer: Prayer sessions will begin around 7 P.M. each day and will last from 30 minutes to an hour with intervals in between. It is customary for family and guests to dress in black or white attire. During prayer each day, four monks will lead Buddhist incantations in Pali Sanskrit. Each of the four monks represents a superstitious Thai belief about death: 1) sleeping and not waking up; 2) going and not coming back; 3) old friends that could not attend; and 4) illness and not being able to regain back health. After the prayer session, guests will be offered a meal. Food is provided as a way to give thanks to guests for their time, gifts, money donations, and participation in prayer and creating merit for the deceased.

Day 6 – Funeral Service: On the sixth day of the funeral, the last rites of passage will commence and everyone will take part in creating merit one last time for the deceased. Following the procession, a funeral service will be held consisting of prayer, sermons, offering of cloth or robes on behalf of the deceased, and perhaps a traditional Thai dance performance. During prayer, a ribbon or san sai attached to the coffin will be passed among the monks to transfer merit directly to the deceased. Cremation or burial is a personal choice, however in Isaan, cremation is more common.

Depending on the family, the number of monks invited during the funeral service is equivalent to the deceased’s age. A younger male member of the immediate family will usually ordain as a novice monk, the highest form of merit-making.

Soon after, flowers made from sandalwood shavings attached with a candle and incense will be passed out to the guests and to be burned during cremation. The sandalwood flowers are placed under the coffin as to symbolize the communal lighting of the cremation fire. Following, a small booklet is given out with pictures, past accomplishments, and other writing as to share all the good deeds that were done during the deceased’s lifetime.

In addition to the sandalwood flowers, hand folded ribbon flowers with a one baht satang inside are given to guests.

Before the cremation process begins, coconut water is poured over the body and the cremation will take place in the late afternoon after guests have left. The ashes will then be collected in the morning and read for auspicious signs.

The ashes are collected in a white cloth, which symbolizes purity.

Last Day – Last Rites: On the morning of the last day, alms in the form of food will be given to create merit and prayer sessions will continue. Guests will be invited to eat breakfast and then head to the monastery. The next and last ceremony is a prayer ceremony where monks are offered food on the behalf of the deceased. In the final steps, family and friends will pour perfumed oil and sprinkle fragrant flower petals over the ashes. What happens next can vary. Families can keep the ashes at home on an altar or at a monastery to continue merit-making ceremonies until the 50th and 100th day, or scatter the ashes over a body of water.

I would like to thank Ajaan Sompon Chungchaiya, Ajaan Chindarat Photisai, Ajaan Waraporn Suwannasri, and Mali Chongwarin for answering my numerous questions and helping me compile information for this narrative, I could not have done it without you all.