Thailand - Religion

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About 95% of the Thai citizenry are Theravada Buddhists. The Thais themselves frequently call their religion Lankavamsa (Singhalese lineage) Buddhism because Siam originally received Buddhism during the Sukhothai Period from Sri Lanka. Strictly speaking, Theravada refers to only the earliest forms of Buddhism practised during the Ashokan and immediate post-Ashokan periods in South Asia. The early Dvaravati and pre-Dvaravati forms of Buddhism are not the same as that which has existed in Siamese territories since the 13th century.

Since the Sukhothai Period Thailand has maintained an unbroken canonical tradition and 'pure' ordination lineage, the only country among the Theravadin (using Theravada in its doctrinal sense) countries to do so. Ironically, when the ordination lineage in Sri Lanka broke down during the 18th century under Dutch persecution, it was Siam that restored the Sangha (Buddhist brotherhood) there. To this day the major sect in Sri Lanka is called Siamopalivamsa (Siam-Upali lineage, Upali being the name of the Siamese monk who led the expedition to Ceylon), or simply Siam Nikaya (the Siamese sect).

Basically, the Theravada school of Buddhism is an earlier and, according to its followers, less corrupted form of Buddhism than the Mahayana schools found in East Asia or in the Himalayan lands. The Theravada (teaching of the elders) school is also called the 'southern' school since it took the southern route from India, its place of origin, through South-East Asia (Burma, Thailand, Laos and Cambodia in this case), while the 'northern' school proceeded north into Nepal, Tibet, China, Korea, Mongolia, Vietnam and Japan. Because the Theravada school tried to preserve or limit the Buddhist doctrines to only those canons codified in the early Buddhist era, the Mahayana school gave Theravada Buddhism the name Hinayana, or the 'lesser vehicle'. They considered themselves Mahayana, the 'great vehicle', because they built upon the earlier teachings, 'expanding' the doctrine in such a way as to respond more to the needs of lay people, or so it is claimed.

Theravada or Hinayana doctrine stresses the three principal aspects of existence:

  1. Dukkha (suffering, un-satisfactoriness, disease)
  2. Anicca (impermanence, transience of all things)
  3. Anatta (non-substantiality or non-essentiality of reality - no permanent 'soul')

These concepts, when 'discovered' by Siddhartha Gautama in the 6th century B.C., were in direct contrast to the Hindu belief in an eternal, blissful Self or Paramatman, hence Buddhism was originally a 'heresy' against India's Brahmanic religion.

Gautama, an Indian prince-turned-ascetic, subjected himself to many years of severe austerities to arrive at this vision of the world and was given the title Buddha, 'the enlightened' or 'the awakened'. Gautama Buddha spoke of four noble truths that had the power to liberate any human being who could realize them. These four noble truths are:

  1. The truth of suffering - 'Existence is suffering'.
  2. The truth of the cause of suffering - 'Suffering is caused by desire'.
  3. The truth of the cessation of suffering - 'Eliminate the cause of suffering (desire) and suffering will cease to arise'.
  4. The truth of the path - 'The eight-fold path is the way to eliminate desire/extinguish suffering'.

The Eightfold Path (atthangika-magga), which if followed will put an end to suffering, consists of:

  1. Right understanding.
  2. Right mindedness (or 'right thought').
  3. Right speech.
  4. Right bodily conduct.
  5. Right livelihood.
  6. Right effort.
  7. Right attentiveness.
  8. Right concentration.

These eight limbs belong to three different 'pillars' of practice: morality or sila (3 to 5); concentration or samadhi (7 and 8); and wisdom or panna (1 and 2). Some Buddhists believe the path - called the Middle Way, since ideally it avoids both extreme austerity and extreme sensuality - is to be taken in successive stages, while others say the pillars and/or limbs are interdependent.

The ultimate end of Theravada Buddhism is nibbana (Sanskrit: nirvana), which literally means the extinction of all desire and thus of all suffering (dukkha). Effectively it is an end, not only to suffering and action (karma), but also to the cycle of rebirths that is existence. In reality, most Thai Buddhists aim for rebirth in a 'better' existence rather than the supramundane goal of nibbana, which is highly misunderstood by Asians as well as westerners.

Many Thais express the feeling that they are somehow unworthy of nibbana. By feeding monks, giving donations to temples and performing regular worship at the local wat (temple) they hope to improve their lot, acquiring enough merit (Pali pufina; Thai bun) to prevent or at least lessen the number of rebirths. The making of merit (tham bun) is an important social and religious activity in Thailand. The concept of reincarnation is almost universally accepted in Thailand, even by non-Buddhists, and the Buddhist theory of karma is well-expressed in the Thai proverb tham dii, dai dii; tham chua, dai chua - 'do good and receive good; do evil and receive evil'.

The Triratna, or Triple Gems, highly respected by Thai Buddhists, include the Buddha, the Dhamma (the teachings) and the Sangha (the Buddhist brotherhood). Each is quite visible in Thailand. The Buddha, in his myriad and omnipresent sculptural forms, is found on a high shelf in the lowliest roadside restaurants as well as in the lounges of expensive Bangkok hotels. The Dhamma is chanted morning and evening in every wat and taught to every Thai citizen in primary school. The Sangha is seen everywhere in the presence of orange-robed monks, especially in the early morning hours when they perform their alms-rounds, in what has almost become a travel-guide cliché in motion. Socially, every Thai male is expected to become a monk for a short period in his life, optimally between the time he finishes school and the time he starts a career or marries. Men or boys under 20 years of age may enter the Sangha as novices - this is not unusual since a family earns great merit when one of its sons takes robe and bowl. Traditionally the length of time spent in the wat is three months, during the Buddhist lent (phansaa) which begins in July and coincides with the rainy season. However, nowadays men may spend as little as a week or 15 days to accrue merit as monks. There are about 32,000 monasteries in Thailand and 200,000 monks, many of these monks ordain for a lifetime. Of these a large percentage become scholars and teachers, while some specialize in healing and/or folk magic.

The Sangha is divided into two sects, the Mahanikai and the Thammayut. The latter is a minority sect (one Tharnmayut to 35 Mahanikai) begun by King Mongkut and patterned after an early Mon form of monastic discipline that he had practised as a monk (bhikkhu). Generally, discipline for Thammayut monks is stricter. For example, they eat only once a day, before midday and must eat only what is in their alms-bowls, whereas Mahanikais eat twice before noon and may accept side dishes. Thammayut monks are expected to attain proficiency in meditation as well as Buddhist scholarship or scripture study; the Mahanikai monks typically 'specialize' in one or the other.

An increasing number of foreigners come to Thailand to be ordained as Buddhist monks, especially to study with the famed meditation masters of the forest wats in northeast Thailand (see Meditation Study).

There is a Buddhist bookshop selling English-language books across the street from the north entrance to Wat Bovornives in Bangkok.

If you wish to find out more about Buddhism you can contact the World Fellowship of Buddhists (tel. 0 2251 1188), 33 Sukhumvit Road (between Soi 1 and Soi 3). There's an English meditation class on Wednesday evenings; all are welcome.

Recommended books about Buddhism in Thailand include the following titles:

General books about Buddhism include:

National Religion

The national religion of Thailand is Buddhism. The primitive religious belief of the Thais since ancient history more then 3,000 years ago when the Thais lived in Yunnan, and still later on when they moved into the present Thailand was Animism and Ancestor-worship. Later on came Buddhism and the Thais adopted it as their national religion.

Unlike Burma, Thailand inherited Buddhism through the influence of the Khmers a fair proportion of Hinduism. Today Thailand's population is predominantly Buddhist, but many Brahmin rites and remnants of animistic beliefs have come to stay in the popular customs of her people, especially Brahmanism or Hinduism is still quite a force among the rich minority because of its pompous ritual value. The Thais take their Buddhist religion soberly and seriously. It is vital to them and forms an actual part of their everyday life.

What is Buddhism?

Buddhism literally means the teaching of Buddha derived from his enlightenment. The teachings are a collection of natural truths discovered by Buddha but not created or invented by him. They had always existed by themselves even if Buddha was not born to discover them. All the teachings of the Buddha are based upon the facts of life, of actuality, and strictly rational deduction drawn these facts.

Buddhism includes the most exalted philosophy yet achieved by man. In other words, it is a Middle Way of self-development to self-enlightenment. It is a religion, a philosophy, a spiritual science and mysticism all in one.

See What is Buddhism? for more information.

Major Buddhist Beliefs

Buddha believed in reincarnation. He himself conceived of birth and death as incidents, comparable to the growth from infancy to childhood, or from childhood to adolescence. All living things, he believed - not only men, but animals, flowers, insects, plants, etc, - were going through this same process of dying to be re-born instantly in another form or in another person.

Buddha believed that the condition of a soul at each re-birth was shaped by the thoughts, words, and deeds of the previous existence. A wrong-doer would not find himself in hell nor a saint in heaven; rather, each would be re-born according to his previous behaviour, a wrong-doer as a lower form of life, forced to struggle through many more re-births, the saint perhaps as a god, or at lest as a higher form of life, Thus, there was a profound sense of individual responsibility in Buddhism from the beginning, By a man's own acts, he shaped his future; or, as Buddha himself put it; "By oneself, indeed, is evil done; by oneself, indeed, is one purified. Purity and impurity depend on oneself. No one purifies another."

Yet Buddha did not present his belief as mandatory to each man; rather, he encouraged his followers to question and verify, and not to follow blindly any principles, even his own, saying: "Each one has to struggle for himself; the Perfect Ones (teachers and saints) have only pointed the way."

Karma and Nirvana

Buddha also laid down five ethical principles (pancha sila) to be followed by all: Not to kill any living being, not to take what is not given to one, not to lie, not to take intoxicating drinks and not to be unchaste. The Buddha accepted the doctrine of Karma and rebirth. According to the theory of Karma, one's actions in the previous births determine one's condition in the present existence. The Buddha believed that the highest good was deliverance from the cycle of rebirth. The Enlightened One ignored the question of the existence of god.

Buddha discovered that there is no "soul" and only Karma survives after death. Karma can be described as the force, which determines our circumstances in this life and fashions our conditions in the future. It is the energy that survives man at death and links this life with the next. If there is no Karma, then there can be no re-birth. Neither the mind or body is reborn, only the powerful energy of Karma.

This condition of being free from Karma is called Nirvana. Since all living beings must die, and all that are finite must change; then the only thing immortal, infinite and unchanging, is uncreative and is not compounded. This is Nirvana, the attainment of which is sought by all devout Buddhists.

At the same time, Buddha did not believe in an intercessor - either priest or saint - capable of softening or changing men's punishment for failing to follow the universal laws. He stressed the need for man's awareness of his own behaviour, saying: "We come out of the things we have done before, out of past vices and virtues, out of labour unfinished, out of darkness of our ignorance, out of our own desires. Each act of our life must be accounted for, to strengthen or to weaken us in our next life on earth."

The Noble Eight-fold Path

In his youth, Buddha had lived in the utmost freedom from responsibility, in the utmost luxury and comfort. In his mid-years, he had tested the extremes of self-denial in search of revelation. In the end, he had rejected both, favouring what he called the "Middle Way," or the Noble Eight-fold path, which would give man precepts to live by, this path will, according to Buddha, lead to the end of suffering, sorrow and despair and the attainment of the Perfect Peace or Nirvana. The Noble Eight-fold path refers to the following:

  1. Right understanding - of the cause for man's ills.
  2. Right thoughts - free from lust, ill-will, and cruelty.
  3. Right speech - that abstains from lying, tale-bearing, harsh or indecent language, and vain talk.
  4. Right action - that abstains from killing, stealing, unlawful sexual intercourse.
  5. Right livelihood - earning a living in a way that causes no harm to any living thing.
  6. Right effort - to avoid, overcome, develop and discipline the impulses derived from the senses of smell, taste, hearing, sight, etc.
  7. Right mindfulness - contemplation, to know oneself and the world one lives in, restraining the dejection in the world that arises from coveting.
  8. Right concentration - being aloof from sensuality and evil states.

The Noble Eight-fold Path is not merely a combination of eight different paths but is one integral path, the path of insight leading toward self-enlightenment and perfection. Awaiting one at the other end of the path is Arahat. An Arahat is one who has attained higher insight and is ready for Nirvana. In short, the path leads to individual salvation.

Buddhism is a religion for the "tough-minded," to use the terminology of William James, its approach is logical; the message is given without the usual emotional fervour, although this creates a feeling of pathos among the "tender-minded." It is perhaps significant that Buddhism found a more durable home outside of its birthplace, India, and was well-assimilated into the congenial cultural environments of China, Japan, and some countries in Southeast Asia.

Because of its sober, analytical approach, Buddhism has a particular appeal for the contemporary man. It undoubtedly will play a large part in the forth-coming emergence of a worldwide faith, which must arise inevitably in response to the current spiritual ferment.

Story of the Buddha

In the heart of Ganges in India, between Benares and Patna, about six centuries before Christ, there spread out a country called Magadha, a Hindu kingdom in the Ganges Valley with its capital at Pataliputra (Patna). There Brahmanism was the national cult; but restless spirits of both young and old men, by hundreds and by thousands, left their families or abandoned their hearth-stones in search of a state of immortality which was not given them in their traditional organizations. Then was born a wish man, who founded a new Doctrine - Buddhism.

In the plains southwest of Nepal, south of the first foothills of the Himalayas or Churia ranges lies Lumbini, birth place of the Lord Buddha. It is thought that the Buddha was born in 623 B.C. His mother Queen Maya Devi, while traveling to her parent's house to give birth, stopped in the beautiful Lumbini garden to rest. Here she was overcome by birth pangs and gave birth to a son under a sal tree on the full-moon night of Visakha. The child was called Siddhartha, the family name being Gautama. The Lord Buddha's father, King Suddhodhana, was a ruler of the tiny Sakya Kingdom the capital of which was Kapilavatthu.

Kapilavatthu was a very prosperous city known for its art, architecture, tradition and culture. It was here that Siddhartha grew into manhood and married a princess. He was blessed with a son, and lived sheltered from all that was ugly and unhappy. He had all the comforts and luxuries of life, but was distressed by the misery of mankind and the inadequacy of Hinduism for its radical relief. He decided to probe into the secret of suffering and to pioneer a path leading to the surcease of pain and misery.

Four strange encounters started the great change in his life. He went out of the place one day and meet an old man, ugly and decrepit with age. On the second occasion he met a sick man, his body tortured with pain. The third time a funeral procession passed in front of Siddhartha's chariot and he was confronted with the inevitability of death. These experiences affected him profoundly. Finally, an encounter with an ascetic, whose serene countenance bespoke inner peace, moved Siddhartha to renounce the world and go forth into the wilderness in search of supreme knowledge, truth and peace. For six long years he studied the doctrines of religion and suffered the severest austerities in the hope that, by mortifying the flesh, he could attain knowledge of the truth. But he only came very near death without achieving the wisdom that he sought.

He gave up ascetic practices, refreshed himself in the waters of the Neranjara, and accepted the milk dish offered by Sujata and for seven weeks sat under the shade of the Bodhi tree in deep meditation. One early morning, he awakened from a trance and found that he had attained Enlightenment.

The Buddha travelled everywhere, touched the lives of hundreds and taught for forty-five years the beauty of charity, the joy of renunciation, the need for simplicity and equality of appealing to blind faith, the Buddha appealed for reason, logic, experience and ethics. He avoided the extremes of self-mortification and self-indulgence and showed the "middle path." He said that there was sorrow in life and that desire was the cause of sorrow and he prescribed the "Eight-fold Path" to remove this cause.

At the age of eighty, in the town of Kushinagar Buddha passed into "Parinirvana" as he lay on bed prepared for him between two sal trees on the banks of the Hiranyavati, his spirit sank into the depths of mystic absorption and when he had attained to that degree where all thought all conception disappears, when the consciousness of individuality ceases, he entered into the supreme and final Nirvana - the extinction of individuality by its absorption into the One Universal Supreme Spirit - and felt convinced that he was now beyond suffering, beyond the transmigration of souls. In other words, he was now the Buddha, the Enlightened One.

A group of disciples gradually gathered about him, and a religious order known as the Sangha was founded. Followers of the Buddha, lay or ordained, destroy no life, tell no untruth, take no intoxicating drinks, and do nothing to excite their own or others people's carnal desires. Those who are ordained as monks or nuns must renounce both the world and their homes, and take "refuge" in the Buddha, in the Dhamma (gospels or teachings), and in the Sangha. They claim personal ownership of nothing except what is given them. Buddha told his disciples, "Go unto all lands and preach this gospel. Tell them that the poor and lowly, the rich and the high, are all one and that all castes unite in this region as do the rivers in the sea". The teachings of Buddha spread from land to land and country to country and united the broken communities.

Spread of Buddhism

By the fourth century B.C., a big and powerful kingdom had arisen in Magadha. About this time, Alexander the Great of Greece invaded the northwestern region of India. He was stoutly resisted by King Porus, the ruler of one of the States in the Punjab. King Porus was taken prisoner after he had received nine wounds on his body in the fierce, but unequal encounter. Alexander wanted to advance further into India, but his homesick soldiers refused. On his way back, Alexander died at Babylon.

Soon after Alexander's death Chandragupta Maurya raised the banner of nationalism and recaptured the occupied Indian territory from the Greeks. He then marched on to Magadha and overthrew the Nanda dynasty. When Seleucus, one of the generals of Alexander, tried to recapture the lost territory, he met with a sound defeat at the hands of Chandragupta. Seleucus had to cede territory, and also gave his daughter in marriage to Chandragupta. Chandragupta Maurya conquered many more territories and established the first big empire in India. The Maurya Empire, at its peak, covered the whole country except the southern tip.

Asoka (272-231 B.C.), the grandson of Chandragupta, was a great emperor, unique in many ways. He waged only one war and that came to be the turning point in his career. He won that war against Kalinga (modern Orissa), but the terrible slaughter of men filled him with remorse. Asoka, therefore, abandoned war forever and turned to nobler conquests. He became a Buddhist and spread the Buddha's message in India and the whole of East Asia, and actively inculcated Buddhism throughout his territories and encouraged the foundation of Buddhist monasteries. Missionaries were sent to Sri Lanka as well as to tributary states on his frontiers and to the various Greek kingdoms.

The Maurya Empire gradually disintegrated after Ashoka. A Hindu dynasty came to power in Magadha. About this time, the northwestern region of India was again captured by the Greeks. Menander, one of the Greek kings embraced Buddhism; he was the beloved of the people.

By the first century A.D. many nomadic tribes had entered India through the mountain-passes in the northwest. Kanishka, the chief of one of these tribes built up an empire with Peshawar as the capital. He became a patron of Buddhism and convened a Buddhist Council to discuss grave religious problems. At this time, a big schism had arisen and the the Buddhists were divided into two sects the Hinayana and the Mahayana. The Hinayanists believed in the traditional intellectual doctrine, whereas the Mahayanists adopted new interpretations. The Mahayanists stared worshipping the Buddha as a living saviour and their ritualism had a strong appeal to the ordinary. It was Mahayana Buddhism which spread to Tibet, China, South Mongolia, Korea, Japan and Vietnam.

However, while the Sanscritized monks were conquering Greater Asia, a Buddhism of a Pali language, known as Hinayana Buddhism passed through from Sri Lanka and continental India, into Burma, to Kampuchea, to Laos, into the Malayan peninsula, and into the Thai countries in the basin of the Chao Phraya and the Mekong.

Even in India Buddhism flourished until the end of the sixth century after Christ; but from that date, for cause "more internal than external", the Doctrine gave ground to other theories and from the time of the eighth century "faded into gradual disappearance", its refuge in the country which saw it born was and still remains only Sri Lanka.

Buddhism in Thailand

Buddhism was first introduced into Thailand as Theravada Buddhism to Nakhon Pathom in B.E. 303 by missionaries sent out by King Asoka of India, by Thera Sona and Thera Uttara. These Buddhist missionaries were northern Indians who came from Kasmira (Kashmir) and were Mahayana monks.

For the second time, Buddhism came as Mahayana Buddhism under King Sri Vijaya from Palembang (Sumatra) in B.E. 1300 (A.D. 757). The third influx was Theravada Buddhism from the Northwest in B.E. 1600 (A.D.1057) being re-introduced under the influence of King Anawratha (A.D. 1044-1077) of Pagan.

For the fourth time, in B.E. 1800 (A.D. 1257) Buddhism was revived in Thailand by Thai Buddhist monks who went to Sri Lanka and brought back with them the Holy Pali Scriptures. They also invited Singhalese monks to come to stay at Nakhon Srithammarat. Ramakhamhaeng, the King of Thailand and a great supporter of Buddhism, invited some of the Singhalese monks to come and stay at his Capital of Sukhothai. Since then all kings of Thailand have been Theravada Buddhists and this system has become Thailand's National Religion.

Since Thailand's earliest days the Buddhist tradition has been kept alive by the monks, who collectively form the Sangha. The Sangha itself has always needed material and financial support, because monks cannot earn money directly by their labour. It has long been a Thai tradition for the reigning king, who in the past had the greatest resources, to assume the heaviest obligations in supporting the monk hood. While the people as a whole, including even the poorest, have always contributed their share, it was Royalty that provided the major support for Buddhism.

In giving generously to the monk hood and all that it represents for the Thai people, in building and restoring and providing beautiful memorials, the Thai kings have followed a very ancient tradition. It is written in the Buddhist Scriptures that as far back as the Lord Buddha's time several Indian kings presented temples to the Buddha and his followers. Some kings even turned their own pleasure-gardens into temples and equipped them with the necessary buildings.

The Indian Emperor Asoka, who reigned in the third century B.C., was a great builder of temples and the conical towers known as chedi or stupa containing relics of Buddha. It is not known when the first Buddhist temples were built in Thailand, but traditional belief has it that Asoka sent Buddhist missionaries to this country. It therefore seems probable that simple wooden temples were built in Thailand even at that early date, although no trace of them can be found today.

As already stated that Buddhism in Thailand is founded on the existence of a clergy, or rather a brotherhood of monks made up of men who have forsaken the world and have taken to the yellow robe for a more or less lengthy period of time. The Kings of Ayutthaya granted freedom of religious profession to his subjects. The fact Hinayana Buddhism was declared the official religion of the country was because it was the choice of the people as the religion harmonized with their temperament.

Travellers in Thailand have been impressed by large numbers of Buddhist wat or monasteries distributed all over the country in cities, towns and villages. These institutions are the dwelling-places of the numerous yellow-robed bhikkhu or monks who devote their lives to the studies and practice of the teaching of Gautama Buddha. Hence Thailand has rightly been called "The Land of the Yellow Robe".

The wat are more numerous and more elaborately built in the cities and suburban areas than out in the country, but the fundamental structures are the same. A wat is usually situated in a secluded spot, yet conveniently accessible to the village or the lay community. Most wat have their monastery grounds in quiet and contemplative settings, usually under the cool shade of big trees. There is often at least one Bodhi tree planted and held as sacred in remembrance of the enlightenment of Buddha. The simplest monastery, such as those in the country far away from the big cities, consists of only a shrine or assembly hall and the monks' living and meditating quarters.

Since a village is the fundamental Thai ruled community, a description of a small village and its only monastery will give our readers the basic under standing. The first point is that a village monastery usually comes into existence and is supported almost wholly by the resources of the village. In starting a village, men clear the forest or waste land, plough the soil, start cultivation, draw more of their relatives and friends to the same area and start building houses in clusters for solidarity and protection against beasts and nature. A village headman is then elected. The next question is to build a monastery and invite a number of monks to come and stay, if there happens to be rich family in to the village, the family may offer to finance the building of the whole monastery, usually without any inducement. Almost all families will participate according to their resources, which may be in the form of donation, building materials, craftsmanship, labour, etc. This is the general pattern throughout the country. In a poor village this means that some of the villagers will have to give away a portion of their subsistence for the purpose. They do this, however, willingly, with gladness, and this is their happiness.

As for the rich man, except in a few rare cases, he does not give so that his name will be engraved somewhere in the monastery or used to name the monastery. The aspiration for immortality though such kinds of philanthropic action is observed only occasionally. A devout Buddhist knows that all that he has, including his own life, has to be given away, to destruction or death. To give now so that the teaching of the Buddha may reach ears and bring wisdom to more lives is thus his gladness and his happiness. The monastery therefore stands as a symbol of the conviction of the people that material abundance and success are not the sole aim of life, but man must seek and help to propagate the wisdom that will deliver him from the ignorance and suffering which have plagued him from time immemorial.

The four necessities of life, i.e. food clothing, housing and medicine are provided for the monks by the villagers. They therefore land an apparently easy life when compared to the toil and sweat of those support them. Foreign writers have criticized these monks on the grounds that they are a lazy group of men living on the work of others. As a matter of fact monks lead an arduous useful life, and their existence greatly benefits the communities which have the wisdom to support them.

It has been a well-observed custom in Thailand for a man to enter the Sangha order for a brief period, usually three months during the rainy season, after he has attained manhood. When he comes back to lead householder's life the traditional Thai society will accept his "maturity" and regard him as "fully grown up". The monastery, therefore, performs the functions of a "cultural institute" for the populace. This tradition has a great influence on the culture, ethical life, and the world and life view of the nation as a whole.

Naturally he could, according to his vocation, prolong his sojourn in the monastery for several year, or even in certain cases, for all life; otherwise he had the option of re-entering the Sangha Order for a time more or less protracted; and also, when tired of life, or in consequence of bitter delusions and misfortunes that had upon him, he could forsake the world and peacefully end his days in the monastery.

Before entering the Sangha Order, a man must qualify himself as: not having committed theft or murder, as having the permission of his family (his parents, his wife if he is married); as being 20 years of age; as being in good health (skin disease or any sores disqualify him); as being without debts; and as being without any unfulfilled obligation to the king (this dating back to the day when each man was required to do a certain amount of public works and army service for the king). These are only a few of the searching questions asked of an applicant. Most persons enter the monk hood during Buddhist Lent, around June or July.

The monks live a celibate life while observing the 227 rules of ethical conduct described in the Vinaya section of the Tripitaka, the basic Buddhist scripture. Boys who wish to lead the holy life and join as Samanera (novices or student monks) with only ten precepts to observe. They, too live a celibate life.

The three basic requirements of their life are: poverty, celibacy, and loss of identity (they cannot continue family ties and family duties). Since their task is to try to be a living symbol of Buddha, the people have infinite respect for them, and compassion for the hardships they have chosen to accept.

Externally, the monks are distinguished from the rest of the male population by their shaven heads and by their dress, which consists of three main pieces, a skirt, a scarf and a voluminous robe, all three yellow in colour. Beards, eye brows and heads are shaved to destroy personal beauty and to relieve them of the evil of vanity and for cleanliness. They usually must carry an umbrella, yellow or white, to prevent sunburn. They may either go barefoot or wear a prescribed type of sandal.

Besides the great prohibitions relating to the murder of living creatures, theft, adultery, untruthfulness and drunkenness, the monks should observe absolute chastity, live exclusively from alms, should not take food after midday, should flee from worldly distractions, renounce perfumes and finery, refrain from using any kind of seat or bed a certain height, abstain from receiving gold or silver, without reckoning a host of other prohibitions relating to the life in the monasteries, the non-observance of which constitute more or less serious sins which involve more or less severe sentences. Such is the theory, at least, but it is certain that the exigencies or modern life have caused the code of monastic discipline to be stretched a few points.

Besides study and meditation, the chief occupation of the Thai Buddhist monks are the simultaneous recitation of texts taken from the Pali scriptures, the exposition of the law to the faithful four times a month (on the 8th and 15th days of the waxing, and on the 8th and 15th days of the waning moon), the observance of certain religious and domestic feasts. Twice a month, at new moon and full moon, they gather together in chapter for public confession, when the Patimokha (the disciplinary code of offences against the sacred 227 rules), is recited.

Monks have nothing to do with politics according to their rules; in most countries they are not even permitted to discuss politics with outsiders. They cannot appear in court, cannot testify, cannot bring complaints even if they are offended or beaten. They may do physical labour in the monastery, but not outside, customarily. In the village, the tax and census record are often kept in the monastery; but the villagers officials must be the actual custodians and users of this material.

The monks rise at five o'clock spending some time in meditation and preparation for the day. The student monks who study the Pali scriptural language find the quietness of the early morning favourable to their memorizing. Those who practise concentration and insight wake up even earlier to strive towards enlightenment. All of them will be ready, before sunrise, to go into the village with their steel alms-bowl, lidded with brass, for their daily food (an accommodation to the community, since it gives merit to the donor).

The villagers, in preparing their daily food in the morning, keep some for the monks. A householder will wait at the entrance of his dwelling with rice and other food in his best containers. When a monk arrives, he will pay respect and put the food in the bowl with great reverence, again paying respect before the monk passes on his way. Sometimes a lotus flower, or a bunch of flowers, with candles and joss-sticks may also be presented so that the monk can use them to pay respect to the Buddha at the monastery.

Back at the monastery, a monk divides the mixed content of his bowl into two parts for his morning and pre-noon meals. In his round of alms-receiving, he accepts all and rejects none. He takes whatever is given, without discrimination. For him, food is a kind of medicine to relieve the body from its perpetual hunger and to keep it in such condition that he can practice the Doctrine without distractions. No solid food is taken between midday and the next dawn. There is usually a monastery bell, drum or gong to sound the time of eleven o'clock in the morning when the monks start their pre-noon meals.

After the last meal at noon, the monks go about their daily occupation: some are instructors and teachers of the novices or in the wat school; some study sacred texts and meditate; some work on necessary repairs and maintenance of the wat. They must learn the 227 rules of Buddhist conduct (Vinaya); novices observe the first ten, monks must observe all of them.

The monks are permitted to drink tea, fruit, soft drinks or chew sugar-cane during the day but they cannot eat any food until the following morning. This rule holds good even the very young novices.

Most monasteries hold their period of daily communal chanting after the morning meal. They assemble in the shrine-hall and intone a number of the well-known sermons of the Buddha as recorded in the scriptures. The time left between this service and the pre-noon meal may be engaged for scriptural studies, meditation practices, or other routine work around the wat.

Besides these ceremonies which take place in the monastery, the monks, following a custom dating back to the time of the Buddha, can accept invitations to go to the homes of laymen to partake of their meals and to preach there, or to sanctify some domestic feast with Pali recitations. The cutting of the hair after puberty, and also marriage commence regularly with a "suad monh", that is a recitation of mantras or formulae of good omen, by a small group of monks. The latter also play an important part in funeral ceremonies.

According to Thailand's recent population survey, there were 25,733 wat or temples throughout the country, of the 25,733 Buddhists wat, 25,702 belong to Thai nationals while out of the remaining 31, belong to Chinese and Vietnamese respectively.

The 43 million population of Thailand is broken down into 41.23 million Buddhists with more then 213,175 bhikkhu or monks, 114,792 samanera or novice and 10,529 mae-shi or nuns throughout the country. It is an undeniable fact that this country is a most peaceful and stable country in Southeast Asia. This, to a large measure, is attributable to the Thai way of life which has been instilled in their minds by the teaching of Buddhism. Everything finds its meaning in and from this faith.

Within the Buddhist world, Thailand has been, for a long period of time, a site where monks flourished together with the pagodas and other temples which have leant it the charm of picturesque revealed through its tradition, folklore, countless festivals and yearly ceremonies where people venerate the "Enlightened One." The Lord Buddha and his representations can be found all over the country, from the little family to dark caves where Buddha is to be discovered, peaceful, meditating, radiant and with his everlasting mystical smile.

The Faces of Buddha

Although Indian voyagers brought Buddhism to Southeast Asia at the beginning of the Christian era, there are few remains of ancient kingdoms, such as Langkasuka, in the Malay Peninsula. Yet throughout Asia, from India, through Indonesia and Thailand to China and Japan, the face of Buddha shines clear.

With no other founder of any religion is the representation of the Buddha's physical appearance so compellingly bound up with his unforgettable and unique countenance. Be it the Gandhara statues, with their recollection of the ideal figures of Ancient Greece; or the figures of the Gupta period which incarnate the Indo-Aryan type at its most perfect; be it the Khmer heads, or the narrow Thai heads, or the statues of the Chinese or Japanese Saints, with their Mongolian features - in this round face with its serene expression with the aristocratic almond eyes and the clearly-marked, strongly-winged nose, the full lips and long ears, we recognize only the One they call Buddha.

That is all the more amazing, in that it was only centuries after he trod the earth then began to attempt any portrait of the Enlighten One - in much the same way as the likenesses of Jesus Christ did not appear till long after his death. The story is a long and not altogether clear one - of how certain formulas of representation were translated in India, till they finally arrive (via China) in Japan. What is decisive is that, in the thorough penetration of the original teaching with the ever more richly-embroidered myth of the Buddha image, the essence of the experience of the lonely thinker sitting under the Bodhi tree centuries ago, came through in today's Buddhism.

It is fitting that the features of the Buddha - whose teaching is far removed from any kind of Deism - should only about the time of the birth of Christ take on divine, yet recognizably-human features and that he should be glorified as the Lord of Compassion. Not till the development of Mahayana Buddhism did the cult image tend to lend more and more significance to the interpreters of the Buddha who stressed compassion - the Bodhisat (deities renouncing Buddha hood to aid mankind), and in the Bodhisat Amitabha it reveres a kind of Lord over the Spiritual Paradise. But the face of the Buddha always shows that relaxed greatness and noble mildness revealed in the conversations of the sublime one, according to the earliest Pali texts.

In a temple in Bangkok there is - among many other representations of the Buddha - a famous image that shows him worn away to an ascetic skeleton Gautama (The Master) still searching for truth. Not until then did Gautama who had renounced exaggerated mortification of the flesh, and desired to regain the physical beauty bestowed on him by Nature - show the highest degree of insight: and thus the Indian preacher of Renunciation of the World looks to his followers of many races, the most precious being of all time revealed in perfect human beauty.

Other Religions

Although Buddhism is the State Religion, and the great majority of the Thai people are Buddhists, there are never been any restrictions upon religious freedom. Several religions and doctrines prevailing in Thailand are: Islam, Christianity, Brahmanism, Hinduism, Sikhism, Confucianism, Taoism, Shintoism, and Animism.

The constitution of Thailand stipulates that the King must be a Buddhist, but he protects, and defends all religions professed by Thais. Accordingly the Government does not discriminate against religions but protects and fosters Buddhism while assuring freedom of and worship to all religions.

Foreign writers are apt to misunderstand the position of the Thai King vis-à-vis the Thai Buddhist Church; to the extent of stating that he is the High Priest who rules over the Church. The sovereign is in fact nothing more than the "Upholder of Religion," which includes any faith professed by his subjects whether it be Islam, Hinduism or Christianity or any religions whatsoever. The title is, of course, broader then the western "Defender of the Faith," for a Buddhist monarch must be tolerant like every good Buddhist and as the theoretical King of Righteousness, was expected to see to it that his subjects of whatever creed should behave morally. Hence, the Thai monarch not only tolerates but also gives material support to all religions in his kingdom to the extend of building Christian churches, mosques and Hindu temples.


The religion of the Mohammedans or Moslems is known as Islam. It was founded by Mohammed in the early part of the seventh century. The people of Arabia were given to paganism and idolatry, and Islam religion spread from remote and poverty-stricken Arabia with astonishing rapidity. Within 25 years of the death of its founder, Islam had been carried by the sword to the borders of India, the shores of the Caspian and over most of Northern Africa.

By the beginning of the eight century the Moslems had crossed the straits of Gibraltar. After conquering Spain, they invaded France. It seemed that Christianity itself might be completely overthrown, but the great victory at Tours in 703 of Charles Martel, King of Franks, drove the Moslems back over the Pyrenees.

For the next two centuries the Moslems absorbed and vivified the civilization of the countries which they had conquered. In centres as far apart as Cordova, Cairo and Baghdad, they gradually developed a new culture, which flourished while Christians in Europe were going through the period known as the Dark Ages.

Then began the second wave of conquest. The Turks from Central Asia were converted to Islam and, like the Arabs four centuries earlier, swept everything before them. They carried their new faith through Turkestan to Mongolia, and later across Syria to Constantinople, which fell to them in 1453. It was not until the 17th century that the Turkish conquests in Europe were halted at the very gates of Vienna. Since then the progress of Islam has been achieved by the trader rather then the soldier. Arab merchants have spread their religion through Negro Africa, Malaya and right into Indonesia and Thailand.

Mohammed was an Arab camel driver of a mystical turn of mine. He married a rich widow named Kadijah, who later became his first convert. At this time the Arab were all heathens, worshipping various local gods, but all believing in the particular sanctity of a spot in Mecca known as the Kaaba.

But both Jews and Christians were spreading their religion in Arabia, and from them Mohammed must have got some ideas of the Old and New Testaments. They impressed him greatly, and he gradually came to believe that he was being inspired by God. He claimed that the angel Gabriel, sent from Allah, the one true God, had dictated to him a new "bible" sentence by sentence. This was the Koran.

At first few were prepared to accept Mohammed as a great prophet, but towards the end of his life his new religion suddenly seized the imagination of the Arabs. After his death there were quarrels among his successors, since he did not leave a son.

But such of Mohammed's friends as Bakr and Omar believed passionately in his teaching, and they directed the driving power of Moslem Arab expansion. Arabia became one vast breeding ground of efficient soldiers, and there seemed no limit to the success of their great armies, which ranged almost without check over Asia and the Mediterranean countries. The warriors set out to conquer the world for Allah all believed that they were certain of a future life of fleshly delights. Death had no real terrors for them. They offered their conquered enemies either the Koran or the sword.

The essence of Mohammed's prophetic message can be discerned in his insistence on the oneness of God (Allah), on the wickedness of idolatry and on the imminence of divine judgment. He sought to bring to the Arabs an Arabic revelation such as peoples had been granted earlier in their own languages. He came with scripture and guidance to his people, and gave to them the Koran and a new way of life, thereby awakening and redirecting the hidden forces of an Arab "national" revival and expansion.

The essence of Islam can be divided into two parts: Faith and practice. Faith consists of the six articles of beliefs.

  1. The Unity of God
  2. The Angels
  3. The Inspired Books
  4. The Inspired Prophets
  5. The Day of Judgment
  6. The Decrees of God

It is however, true to say that the simplest and universally accepted formula of Islam is that "There is no god but God (Allah), and Mohammed is the Prophet of God." Practical religion consists in the observation of the five practical duties:

  1. The recital of the Creed. (There is no God, and Mohammed is the Prophet of God).
  2. The five stated periods of prayer. (From dawn to sunrise, on the decline of the sun, between the decline of the sun and sunset, a few minutes after sunset, and when the night has closed in).
  3. The payment of the legal alms. (This payment is a religious tax mentioned in the Koran).
  4. The thirty days of fast in the month of Ramadan. (Ramadan is the ninth month in the year, observed as a month of fast from dawn to sunset on each day).
  5. The pilgrimage to Mecca. (The pilgrimage to Mecca in the twelfth month of the Mohammedan year is a religious duty of every Muslim, and constitutes one of the pillars of Islam).

The sacred book of Islam, The Koran, is written in the Arabic language and divided into 114 suras. The Prophet himself, through the revelation of Allah, divided the book into the suras and gave them their present titles.

Islam was first introduced to Thailand by the end of region of King Ekathosarot in the Ayutthaya period (1350-1767) by the Arab traders from the Persian Gulf through the Indian sea to Malaysia and the thence to Bangkok. In the reign of King Narai the Great (1656-1688), the people who profess Islam increased in number. However, the great majority of the modern Thai Muslims descended from their ancestors, both in some southern provinces of Thailand itself and in West Malaysia which during long historical connections had a common frontier and a common culture and religion and from some of those ancestors who migrated to other parts of Thailand where they established their own communities.

The southern provinces of Thailand having more then 320,000 Muslims are Pattani and Narathiwat, while those with approximately 150,000 Muslims are Yala, Satul and Songkhla. Even before the Indian influence, the natives of the South long had their own culture of God, spirit and ancestor worship. God worshipping is, however the same belief as that of Hinduism.


Christianity was first preached in this country in the 16th century by Portuguese missionaries who, at a very early date, came probably the first in the Kingdom of Thailand. There are records showing that they established churches at the end of the 16th century but eventually superseded by the French missionaries in 1662.

The Protestants, however, did not start their activities here until early in the 19th century with the arrival of the American Presbyterian Missionary Society. Both the Roman Catholics and the Protestant churches were fairly well received by the Thai people and have continued their missionary work ever since. They both receive support form the Thai Government and have their own organizations in this country. Christianity in Thailand today has moved up and deeper into the interior. Catholic and Protestant missionary effort in this continues.


The place of the Brahman religion was the sacred of the Yajurveda, the country of the Kurus or Kurukshetra called Brahmavarta (i.e. modern Thanesar) in India about 500 years before the birth of Prince Siddhartha, the Buddha. From here the adherents of the Yajurveda broke up into several schools which gradually extended over other parts of India. Buddhism arose in Magadha which remained Buddhist to the Mohammedan conquest. Elsewhere Brahmanism gradually ousted Buddhism which eventually ceased to be the religion of the country of its origin.

Brahmanism was first brought to this country by the Brahmans who came from Northern India and accompanied King Asoka's Buddhist missionary headed by the Arahat (Saints), Sona and Uttara, coming to Thailand. Although Buddhism has been the State Religion of Thailand, Brahmanism has also long had a good deal of influence over Thai culture, especially over its arts, rites and ceremonies.

Originally, apart from Court Brahman in Bangkok, approximately 4,000 Brahman families came from India to settle in Patthalung in the South of Thailand. They married Thai families. Their descendants have now become Thai professing the Brahman faith as Buddhism.

From the Sukhothai period up to the present day most of the State ceremonies have been a combination of the two religions, Buddhism and Brahmanism. The ancient traditions require the service of court Brahmans for the performance of certain rites in such ceremonies. Even at the present day the Brahmanic faith and rites are practiced by some Thai people.


Hindu culture, as it existed about 500 years before the Christian era, had grown up in Northern India, in the plains of the Indus and the Ganges. Hinduism is not a religion established by a single person. It is a growth of ideas, rituals and beliefs, so comprehensive as to include anything between atheism and pantheism. It was itself a blend of the culture of Indo-Aryans, who had come in from Central Asia about a thousand years earlier. This culture had developed a system of religious ritual and law, and forms of large-scale administrative organization closely connected with religion.

Hinduism are Sanatandharma which means the eternal religion, and Vaidikadharma the religion of the Vedas. The world Vedas means knowledge or science about God. Hinduism claims no single founder but believes that the knowledge about God was revealed to the numerous ascetics of ancient India and compiled and transmitted down through the ages. The main characteristics of Hindu philosophy are firstly, the belief in life after death, secondly, the belief in God in both impersonal form as all-pervading Brahman and in the personified form as Isvara, Siva or Vishnu, and thirdly, the authority of the Vedas.

The basic belief of Hinduism is that there is one all-pervading and all transcending Spirit which is the source and ground of all beings. This is the basic reality, personified as God (Isvara) by the faithful and known by the wise as Brahman the impersonal Absolute. Brahman creates the universe out of his own substance and manifests himself as the myriad individual souls or Atman which dwell in the innermost cores of all beings. Thus Hinduism proclaims that man is God but he does not know the truth of his ignorance and attachment to the unreal world of the senses. To return t the source is therefore the supermen purpose of life. Man can do this by following the various paths in the Vedas.

The Hindu view of life is that a person has been and will be reborn again and again in innumerable lives in various planes of existence until he realizes that his innermost self is the same as Atman or Brahman. Then he becomes one with God in immortality. The cycle of birth and death is called Samsara and the deliverance from it is Mukti, Mokaha or Nirvana. This is the complete identification of the separate self with God. In Samsara, the law of Karma or cause and effect prevails. A man reaps what he has sown. He therefore gathers the fruits of his actions in the innumerable past existences and at the same time sown the seeds that will affect his future lives. This happens in the world which, according to the Vedanta, is an illusion. If a man turns his face towards Brahman and arrives at complete realization of the oneness of his Atman with Brahman, he will attain Moksha, and suffers no more in the cycles of Samsara. Yoga offers the techniques by which a person may arrive at such a lofty goal.

From about 500 years before the Christian era Hinduism had penetrated and transformed South India, and while local Dravidian languages such as Tamil and Telegu had persisted to this day, Sanskrit had become the language of religion and learning, and the religious cults and myths of the North had been transplanted to the South.

From the long coastlines of South India a great development of trade took place both eastwards and westwards. But in the West, Iran, Babylonia, Arabia and Egypt had been strongholds of civilization and commercial enterprise from very early times, and it was in the east where cultures were more primitive though strongly individual - that Indian influence had the greatest scope.

Merchants, priests (including both Brahmin and Buddhist monks) and soldiers of fortune all played a part in spreading Indian influence. Indian merchants began to get into their hands much of the trade in spices and pearls, tortoise shells, silk and other valued products which passed on sea routes stretching from China in the east to the Roman Empire in west. Their preference for an overland crossing of the neck of the Malay Peninsula appeared to account for the fact that region which is now Kampuchea and Vietnam was the earliest seat of Hindu culture in Southeast Asia. It was in this area that according to legend the ruling dynasty was founded in the first century of the Christian era by a Brahmin from India called Kandinya who married a local tutelary goddess.

But the total number of Indian settlers seemed to have been very small, and the concentration of India culture in a small upper class made it vulnerable. In the thousand years of its flowering in Southeast Asia - roughly from 400 to 1400 of the Christian era - both Hinduism and Buddhism were prominent. In Burma, Thailand and Kampuchea, Buddhism absorbed Hinduism while Sumatra and Java fell by stages under the sway of Moslem rulers. Hinduism survived only in the island of Bali to the east of Java. There in isolation for more then five cultures, history has preserved a small world apart in which the amalgamation of Indian and native elements can still be observed in local religion, custom and art.

The impact of Hinduism on India, Burma, Thailand, Indochina and Indonesia must have been extraordinarily powerful, comparable to the Greco Roman impact on the Mediterranean cultures. It left behind an indelible imprint on the civilizations of those two peninsulas of Asia stretching deep into the Indian Ocean. The marks of Hindu art, architecture and religion are still to be found in these Buddhist and Muslim countries. Like Greek culture, that of India suffered from the inability to maintain its organization and so Hindu influence declined, leaving here and there remnants of its culture, its artifacts and its religions: Hinduism and Buddhism.

Although modern Hinduism developed from Brahmanism which is practiced in Thailand, the Thai people have never become Hindus. Hinduism is, however, widely professed among the Indians in Thailand. These Indians belong to the Vaishnavas and Shiva, the religious of Hinduism.


The impact of Islam on Hinduism in India gave rise to several new movements which represented a synthesis of the two. Guru Nanak of Punjab (1469-1539) was the founder of one such movement. He rejected caste distinctions and idol-worship of the traditional Hinduism, and preached the equality of all men in the eyes of God. Many became his "Sikhs" (disciples).

This religion was introduced into Thailand at the close of the 19th century by Indian settlers and merchants. Now only a group of Indians in Thailand, approximately 10,000 in numbers, professes this faith. They belong to the Namdhari and Akali sects.

Meditation Study In Thailand

Thailand has long been a popular place for Western students of Buddhism, particularly those interested in a system of meditation known as vipassana (wi-pat-sa-naa), a Pali word which roughly translated means 'insight'. Foreigners who come to Thailand to study vipassana can choose among dozens of temples and study centres which specialize in these teachings. Teaching methods vary from place to place but the general emphasis is on learning to observe mind-body processes from moment-to-moment. Thai language is usually the medium of instruction but several places also provide instruction in English.

Information on some of the more popular meditation-oriented temples and centres is given in the relevant sections. Instruction and accommodation are free of charge at temples, though donations are expected. Short-term students will find that two-month tourist visas are ample for most courses of study. Long-term students may want to consider a three or six-month non-immigrant visa. A few westerners are ordained as monks in order to take full advantage of the monastic environment. Monks are generally (but not always) allowed to stay in Thailand as long as they remain in robes. For a detailed look at vipassana study in Thailand, including visa and ordination procedures, read Guide to the Meditation Temples of Thailand (Wayfarer Books, P0 Box 5927, Concord, California 94524, USA).

Minority Religions

A small percentage of Thais and most of the Malays in the south, amounting to about 4% of the total population, are followers of Islam. Confucianists, Taoists, Mahayana Buddhists, Christians and Hindus make up approximately 1% of the population. Muslim mosques (in the south) and Chinese temples are both common enough that you will probably come across some in your travels in Thailand. Before entering any temple, sanctuary or mosque you must remove your shoes, and in a mosque your head must be covered.

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