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Thai Culture – Heart Culture

Kasma Loha-unchit, February 4th, 2011

The language of a people reveals a lot about their culture. I was reminded of this when a tour member on one of my trips asked me one day what the word jai meant. He had been hearing it repeatedly in the lyrics of Thai contemporary and folk music.

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Flower offering

Jai means “heart.” The word appears prevalently in the Thai language, not only by itself but more so as part of numerous compound words and phrases. In Thailand the heart and states of emotions—rather than the mind and reason—are foremost in the way we relate with the world. In fact, heart and mind are inseparable in our language, as shown in the word jit-jai, which means both heart and mind, soul and spirit. The state of the mind reflects the condition of the heart, and vice versa. The two are not split and do not function in isolation.

While cultures in the West subscribe to the philosophy “I think, therefore, I am,” Thai people are more aptly characterized by the statement “we feel, therefore, we are.” We are concerned about our own feelings, and we are even more concerned about the feelings of others, for we acknowledge that we do not exist in isolation but in relationship to all those around us. Each individual is an integral part of his or her environment and not separate from it. Therefore, maintaining social harmony and a heartfelt state of peaceful coexistence are very important values in our society.

Temple Offering

Temple offering

The following commonly used compound words and phrases exemplify how Thai people comprehend the world with their hearts. To “understand” someone or something is expressed by kao-jai, which means to “enter the heart,” and when we misunderstand, we kao-jai-pit, or “enter the heart wrongly.” These terms apply whether the understanding pertains to a human relationship and an emotional expression or to the intellect, such as understanding technical information and business instructions.

When we make a decision to take a certain course of action, we “fall into our heart” (dtoklohng-jai), and when we change our mind, we “change our heart” (bplien-jai). When we approach our work with interest, we “take our heart and put it into” that work (ow-jai-sai), but when we can’t concentrate and get distracted, we are “not putting our heart where it should be” (mai-ow-jai-sai). When we see eye-to-eye with a friend, we share the “same heart” (jai-diow-gkan), and when we trust someone, we can “place our heart” with that person (wahng-jai). When we try to uplift and give encouragement, we give “strength and energy to the heart” (gkamlang-jai), and when we allow our children to make their own choices, we say to them “Dtahm-jai,” or “Follow your heart.” When we are generous and kind to others, we have a “good heart” (jai-dee), but when we are selfish, our heart is “narrow” (jai-kaep). When we feel let down or disappointed, our heart is “heavy” (nak-jai), but when we are joyful, our heart feels “cheerful and refreshing” (cheun-jai).

There are hundreds of other heart expressions in common usage and new combinations continually emerge as people spontaneously attempt to express their inner states and processes. Jai is tangible; it can be felt. The heart that beats in our chest is none other than hua-jai (“head of the heart”). It keeps us alive and is the place where our soul and spirit reside.

See also: Kasma’s article on Heart Values in Thailand.

Written by Kasma Loha-unchit, February, 2011

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