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 Home > About Thailand > Religions > Buddhism

Buddhism in Thailand

Buddhism, the great eastern religion founded by the Indian Prince Siddhartha Gautama 600 years before the birth of Christ, first appeared in Thailand during the 3rd century B.C. in the area of the present day provincial capital Nakhon Pathom. Once established, it proved such a durable and pervasive force that some ethnic groups who migrated into that area during the Dvaravati period readily adopted it as their state religion.

At its inception, Buddhism had been a reaction against Brahmanism, eschewing Brahmanism's emphasis on caste and dogma regarding sacrifice and ritual. At the same time, it modified Brahmanic concepts of karma and rebirth.

Briefly, Buddhism teaches that one's life does not begin with birth and end with death but is a link in a chain of lives, each conditioned by volitional acts [karma] committed in previous existences. The concept of karma, the law of cause and effect, suggests that selfishness and craving result in suffering. Conversely, compassion and love bring happiness and well-bring. Therefore, only by eliminating desire can one find peace of mind.The ideal Buddhist aspiration is to attain perfection through Nirvana [Nibbhana], an indescribable, immutable state unconditioned by desire, suffering, or further rebirth, in which a person simply is, yet is completely at one with his surroundings. After its introduction into Thailand,Buddhism gained wide acceptance because its emphasis on tolerance and individual initiative complemented the Thais' cherished sense of inner freedom. Fundamentally,Buddhism is an empirical way of life. Free of dogma, it is a flexible moral, ethical,and philosophical framework within which people find room to fashion their own salvation.

Sukhothai's King Ramkhamhaeng [1275-1317 A.D.] established Theravada Buddhism as Thailand's dominant religion. It reached its height under the reign of King Ramkhamhaeng's grandson, King Li Thai [1347-1368 A.D.], when about 30 volumes of the Buddhist scriptures were studied and rewritten by the king into one volume, the Tribhumikatha, a treatise on Buddhist cosmology and the three planes of existence-Sensuous, Corporeal, and Incorporeal. Not only was this the first Buddhist treatise by a Thai, but it was also the first known Thai Buddhist and didactic literary work.The Tribhumikatha's impact on religious arts such as mural paintings can be seen today in many monasteries in various provinces. Through the centuries Buddhism has been the main driving force in Thai cultural development. Much of classical Thai art, particularly architecture, sculpture, painting, and early literature is really Buddhist art. Then, as now, Buddhism coloured everyday Thai life.

Although Buddhism became the primary and state religion, Thais always subscribed to the ideal of religious freedom. Thai constitutions have stipulated that Thai kings must be Buddhists, but monarchs are invariably entitled "Upholder of All Religions". Consequently,the government, through the Religious Affairs Department -t; annually allocates funds to finance religious education and to construct, maintain, and restore monasteries, mosques, and churches.

At present Thailand is the location of the headquaters of the World Fellowship of Buddhists (WFB),an international Buddhist organization consisting of 98 regional centers in 37 countries which promotes coordination and cooperation to enhance Buddhism throughout the world. H.E.Professor Sanya Dhamasakti, former Prime Minister and present President of the Privy Council of H.M. the king has been unanimously elected President of the WFB twice consecutively.

The temple and the village

The majority of Thailnad's 27,000 Buddhist temples are in the countryside.

Usually located on the village outskirts, walled compound enclosing a cluster of simple, steeply sloping, multi-roofed buildings. Although the temple's prime function is to aid aspirants in their search for Nirvana, it has traditionally served as the village hotel, a village news, employment and information agency, a school, hospital, dispensary or community centre, and a recreation centre, place of safe deposit and refuge for the mentally disturbed and the ages.

In large towns, the temple offers hostel accommodation for students from the outlying villages. In others, orphans and children from poor families are admitted for free board, lodging and basic education and, occasionally, juvenile delinquents are sent to live in monasteries to be reformed under the benevolent influence of elderly monks.

As in medieval Europe, most early Thai scholars were clerics whose major monastic activity was to teach the unlettered. Behind the quiet facade of monastic life, many village boys learned the rudiments of reading and writing Thai and Pali, simple arithmetic and the Buddhist precepts. Education was primarily concerned with ethical and religious instruction. Because most early Thai literature concerned religion, literacy allowed greater participation in religious life.

Although the Department (later Ministry) of Education was founded in 1887, monasteries remained centres of basic education until nationwide primary education became compulsory in 1921. In many remote areas today, monks conduct daily classed for village children.

Besides being teachers, many of the orange-robed, tonsured Buddhist monks are experts in the use of herbal medicines. They distribute Buddhist amulets and perform exorcisms in a role that survives from the antique animist period. Amulets and exorcism represent an accretion of pre-Buddhistic animistic beliefs on the main body of Buddhist thought. The amulets are tiny Buddha images worn around the neck to ensure good fortune, provide protection and enhance wealth. Although almost universally revered in Thailand, Buddha amulets are nowhere mentioned in Buddhist scriptures.

Another vital village 'monastic service' is counselling. Abbots and senior monks are often requested to arbitrate local disputes. Their monastic prestige is considered sufficient guarantee that equitable resolutions will be forwarded and accepted. Before ordination, many senior monks have led active secular lives raising their own families and farming. Thus, familiar with temporal problems and able to empathize, they are uniquely qualified to fashion and maintain social harmony, employing their considerable moral authority, if necessary, to gently admonish miscreants before minor disputes escalate.

The monkhood

Buddhist monks have always been accorded great respect for renouncing worldly pleasures and seriously undertaking study of the Buddha's teaching to attain 'perfect manhood'.

Thai Buddhist monkhood differs from that of other religions in severals ways. In Thailand's tropical climate, the monk's austere life is never unduly severe. Though a monk is celibate and may not be touched by a woman, even his mother, his life is not totally cloistered. Meditating monks excepted, daily contact with the laity is commonplace, mostly during morning collections of alms beyond the monastery precincts, and at various ceremonies and festivals.

Monks abide by strict monastic discipline, observing 227 rules governing their behaviour. The breaking of the four principal rules - theft, homicide of inciting another to suicide, sexual relations or climing magical powers - will result in immediate expulsion from the monastic order.

Unlike other monastic regimens, Buddhist monkhood does not demand manual labour of its monks. Physical work is recognized as having value in allaying destructive thoughts and desires. However, the Buddhist monk, preferring annihilation of temptation and craving to suppress them, elects to seek and destroy them through meditation.

Freedom of discussion is allowed. A Buddhist monk may question and part of the Buddha's teaching - He may study parts of the doctrine he feels important to his advancement and choose his own time to meditate. Except fot the three months of the annual Rains Retreat, he is free to travel, a legacy from Buddhism's earliest days when the Buddha and his disciples led itlinerant lives.

A monk may leave the monkhood andy time he wishes. The Thai ordination is a public notice of a man's intention to follow the Buddha's teaching. He is not obliged to remain a monk for life, nor does any stigma attach should he decide to return to secular life.

Although Buddhism flourished during the Ayutthayan period, historically little is known of Ayutthayan Buddhism because of the near total destruction of the Kingdom's records. The year following 1767 found Buddhism in disarray. The situation improved when the first Chakri king, Rama I, re-established religious as well as social order.

A later Chakri king, Mongkut (Rama IV), founded a new Buddhist sect during his monastic years. The Dhammayutika sect, a basic reform of the existing Mahanikai sect, stressed stricter interpretation of monastic discipline, stipulated changes in ordination procedures, and emphasized studying the original Theravada scriptures in the ecclesiastic language of Pali.

Today, Theravada Buddhism is the professed religion of over 90% of the Thai people, and profoundly influences everyday life. It finds expression in the Thais' tolerance and kindness towards their fellow men, regardless of race, creed or nationality. It is visibly strengthened by the close daily contact the laity enjoys with Buddhist monks during morning food collections and casual meetings. People acquire 'merit' by donating food to the monks; by building and renovating temples; by constructing and renovating temples; by constructing hospitals; and by showing kindness and compassion to all living creatures. Such merit favourably affects one's present as well as future incarnations.

All major Buddhist holy days are national holidays. These include Magha Puja (commemorating the miraculous occasion when 1250 disciples gathered spontaneously to hear the Buddha preach); Visakha Puja (commemorating the Buddha's birth, enlightenment and final passing away); and Khoa Phansa (the commencement of the annual three-month Rains Retreat when all monks stay inside their monasteries to study and meditate).

Buddhist monks chant auspicious stanzas blessing the openings of new businesses. They officiate at housewarmings. They chant and annoint new ships, airplanes and even cars. Brides and grooms make meritorious offerings of food on their wedding days and are blessed and sprinkled with holy water. Monks also chant prayers during nightly rites preceding cremations.

One fundamental reason for the Thai laity'a generous support of the Sangha (the Buddhist monastic order) is that there are few Buddhist families in which at least one member has not studied the Buddha's teaching within monastic surroundings. Not uncommonly, a man, after discharging his worldly duties and family obligations, will spend his remaining years as a Buddhist monk.

It has likewise long been a Thai custom for Buddhist males over twenty to be temporarily ordained as Buddhist monks, generally during the annual Rains Retreat. Government offices, certain sections of the armed forces and larger private companies make temporary ordinations easier by granting their employees three months' leave with full salary.

Tamporary ordination, ranging from five days to three months, is not the exclusive privilege of any one class. Everyone from a farmer's son to royalty may take this unique change for self-improvement. Both H.M. King Bhumipol and his son, Thailand's Crown Prince, H.R.H Prince Vajiralongkorn, have been monks for short periods. Their acts continue a tradition in which Buddhism unites all Buddhist members of society.


Mahayana Buddhists are found primarily among Thailand's ethnic Chinese and Vietnamese. There are some 21 major Chinese monasteries and 25 meeting halls. Mahayana monks are easily distinguished from Theravada monks by their orange jackets and trousers. Strict vegetarians, they eat only food prepared by their monasteries and are not required to be celibate. Their daily routine is concerned with elaborate rituals and with preparation for the funerals and burials over which they preside.

Vietnamese monks are found in 13 major monasteries. Though dressed like the Chinese monks, they are not subject to special dietary regulations and make daily morning food collections.

See also..
| Animism |

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