The legend of the compassionate monk, Phra Malai, and his visits to heaven and hell is one of the most pervasive themes in Thai Buddhism. While the tale is known throughout Southeast Asia, it has been especially popular in Thailand, where its teachings have for centuries influenced the content of sermons and the practice of different rituals.
Although Western scholars sometimes refer to the Phra Malai legend as if it were a standard text, the tale actually exists in numerous versions. In the course of Breretons research, she collected and examined more than a dozen different versions of the story. Her analysis suggests that the message conveyed through these variant forms of the legend is not always the same.
In other words, the meaning of the text derives not only from its content, but also from its function. With this in mind, Brereton explores the Phra Malai theme in light of the relationship between text, context and meaning by comparing three versions of Phra Malai. Her book provides a thorough overview of the Phra Malai tale, and offers an explanation for its longevity and continued significance in Thailand.