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