The majority of the Thai people (between 90-95%) are Theravada Buddhists and that is the official religion of the nation; according to the Thai constitution, the king must be a Buddhist and is the upholder of the religion. A symbiotic relationship exists between the Buddhist establishment and the government of Thailand; the state provides funding and status for the Buddhist hierarchy, which in turn uses its vast prestige and power to uphold and assist the government. Buddhism pervades all aspects of Thai life and both in the cities and in the countryside, life centers around the local wat (temple). Monks throughout Thailand are highly regarded and treated with great respect; in recent years, this has made them effective agents of development and modernization.
Freedom of religion is allowed in Thailand and a number of minority traditions are flourishing. The largest of these minority religions is Islam, which is followed mainly by the Thais of Malay origin who live in the South, next to the state of Malaysia. Other Muslims, small in number, include Pakistani immigrants in the urban centers and a few Chinese Muslims in the North. A very small number of ethnic Thais have also converted to Islam and they may be found in major urban areas. The Thai government has recognized the importance of the Islamic community by creating the National Council of Muslims which is appointed by royal proclamation to advise the Ministries of Education and the Interior on Islamic matters. In addition, the government has provided financial assistance to Islamic schools, for mosque construction and for funding pilgrimages to Mecca. In recent years, tensions have arisen between the ethnic Malay Muslims in the South of Thailand and the government as these Muslims have mounted a sometimes violent separatist movement. Other religions, such as Christianity, Hinduism, and Sikhism are represented by only a small population.
Buddhism, founded in India in the 6th century B.C. arrived in Thailand in its Theravada form around the 6th century A.D. Other religious systems, including Mahayana Buddhism, and Hinduism flourished as did the local animistic cults. By the time of the establishment of the Thai kingdom of Sukhothai in the 13th century, the Theravada form of Buddhism became the state religion. The king was perceived of as the ideal ruler and many Buddhist texts supported the king as the ethical and just judge and ruler. The king was the patron and supporter of the Buddhist community (the sangha) while the community itself was the basis for the legitimacy of the king’s rule. During the 13th through the 19th centuries, this relationship fluctuated as the various Thai kingdoms rose and fell; at some times the king had great control over his territories and during such times, he also exercised control over the Buddhist sangha. At other times, his power waned, kingdoms contracted, and the Buddhist establishment had more autonomy. However, when the kingdom was weak, the sangha also lost power and without royal financial support and protection, the sangha declined.
The relationship between the sangha and the state became more stable with the establishment of the Chakkri dynasty near the end of the 19th century. With the rule of King Mongkut, who had lived as a monk for 27 years in 1851, ties between the sangha and the state became more centralized and the hierarchy of the Buddhist establishment more institutionalized. King Mongkut was a distinguished scholar of the Buddhist Pali scripture and was influenced by reform movements from Burma. Thus, influenced by Burma and by his studies of the Tripitaka (the Pali Buddhist scriptures), Mongkut established a reform movement. This movement rejected all Buddhist practices that had no authority in scripture, as well as all practices intended to improve an individual’s progress on the road to Nirvana but without social value. In addition, the reform specified that the spirit as well as the letter of rules should be followed. Only a small number of monks and monasteries adopted the new reform, thus creating a split in the Thai Buddhist community. The Dhammayuttika order, founded by this reform, attracted only a minority of Buddhists due to its more rigorous lifestyle. Over 90% of the monks belong to the Mahanikaya order, which was influenced in part by Mongkut’s reforms but which adopted a less rigorous interpretation of them. Mongkut’s increased control of the Buddhist establishment was part of his expansion of central control over the country in general. His reforms were continued by his son who, in 1902 formalized the new sangha hierarchy and made it permanent by passing the Sangha Law of 1902; this remains the foundation of sangha administration in modern Thailand.
When the king became a constitutional monarchy in 1932, this union of the kingdom and the Buddhist hierarchy was formalized into a triad of the king, the religion and the nation. This set of symbols came to define the Thai nation and, during the tumultuous years of revolt and military coups, this triad was never really attacked. In this relationship, the king is viewed as the righteous ruler, a bodhisattva who forgoes salvation to assist others out of his great compassion, and as the protector of the religion. The sangha establishes the legitimacy of the king’s rule and worked for the welfare of the nation. Under the constitution, real power lay in the hands of Thai elites, especially the military; however, none of these members attacked the symbolism of the unity of king, nation and religion. At the same time, the sangha was not supposed to participate in politics or in party, political or ideological conflicts. At times, they have broken this agreement and engaged in political activity or supported direct action, but for the most part, the monks have abstained from direct participation in political affairs.
The Dhammayuttika sect has many fewer member than the Mahanikaya but much closer connections to royalty; in addition ts has a more rigorous discipline and a greater reputation for Buddhist scholarship. Thus it wields greater power especially among intellectuals and the sangha administration. However, both sects are included in the Buddhist hierarchy and are financially supported by the government. As the government extended its power throughout the 20th century, its control over the sangha increased. Prior to the creation of a centralized government, each area of Thailand had supported an independent sangha. During the 20th century these local groups were brought under control by the government; the Sangha Act of 1963 tightened and formalized government control of the sangha. While the monks did not oppose this control, there were disputes between the two sects as to their relative positions in the hierarchy.
The head of the Buddhist establishment is the Supreme Patriarch, who is supported by a Council of Ecclesiastical Ministers. This ministry is headed by an Ecclesiastical Premier, and contains Ministers for Administration, Propagation, Education, and Public Welfare, as well as Ministers without portfolio. Thailand itself is divided into Ecclesiastical area, each headed by a High commissioner. The areas are further subdivided into towns, each with its own commissioner and committee; the towns are further subdivided into districts and sub-districts, each headed by a local administrator. All members of this hierarchy are monks; this organization brings control and uniformity to the practice of Thai Buddhism.
Monks are not directly involved in earning money but are supported both by the government and by private donations. Members of each district and sub-district support their local wats and monks by donations of food, clothing, money, and work in the monasteries. In turn, the local monks provide a range of services to the people, including educational, medical, ceremonial, and religious services. In recent years, the government has encouraged the monks to provide missionary activities and to work in remote hill areas, helping to eradicate the growing of opium poppies, the selling of daughters into prostitution, and engaging in other social and economic development activities. The presence and participation of monks in ceremonies and activities is seen to bring merit to the lay participants.
While monks have a high standing in Thai society, and the opportunity to rise in the hierarchy, the majority of Thai men remain in lay life. However, most of these men become monks for a short period at least once during their lives. This often occurs at puberty but a man can re-enter the monastery for short periods at any time during his life. The government often encourages civil servants to spend several months in a monastery at some point during their career. Not only does this serve to strengthen ties between the monasteries and the lay communities, but it reinforces Buddhist teachings and values.
Technically speaking, there are no true nuns in Theravada Buddhism. However, Thailand has lead the way in the fight to re-establish the order of nuns and many Thai women live as Mai jis, or nuns, in nunneries throughout Thailand. While they are recognized as good women, they receive no financial support form the government; moreover, local communities tend to favor monks when giving financial support to the Buddhist community. Thus, the nuns are quite marginalized in Thai society. A number of important Thai women are working to change this and to have the community of nuns recognized as an integral part of the Buddhist community.
Theravada (Teaching of the Elders) Buddhism is one of the three major divisions of Buddhism, the others being Mahayana (Great Vehicle) and Tantrayana (esoteric Buddhism). This form of Buddhism is the one currently prevalent in the Southeast Asian countries of Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, Burma (Myanmar) and Sri Lanka. It considers itself to be the oldest form of Buddhism and the one closest to the original teachings of the Buddha. All forms of Buddhism have key beliefs in common and the differences are in matters of practice and emphasis.
All Buddhists accept Buddha as the historical founder of the religion. Theravada emphasizes his humanity: he was a man who discovered the way to enlightenment and anyone can follow his footsteps and achieve enlightenment as well. Buddha was a teacher, a guide, one who showed the way to happiness and enlightenment. Buddha was a human who lived, discovered the middle way between pleasure and pain that leads to enlightenment, taught this path for 45 years, and then entered Nirvana (when he passed away). He is not a God, is not involved in the world any longer and thus he cannot answer prayers or petitions. Thus, Theravada stresses self reliance and obtaining enlightenment on one’s own by following the way of the Buddha. Both Mahayana and Tantrayana, on the other hand, stress the supernatural quality of the Buddha and the fact that Buddha and other beings can help one on the way to enlightenment.
Buddhism is a religion which originated in India in the 6th century B.C. and rapidly spread throughout Asia. Founded by Siddhartha Gautama (the Buddha), the religion stresses one’s own responsibility for one’s actions and promotes the central virtues of love, compassion, kindness, and no harm to any living creature. Buddhism grew out of dissatisfaction with the increasingly ritualistic practices of Hinduism; it also totally rejected the caste system and insisted on the equality of everyone. However, Buddhism kept certain of the key Hindu beliefs, including the belief in reincarnation, the role of Karma (one’s actions) in causing reincarnation, the desire to escape from this “wheel or rebirth” and the belief that ending the cycle of life resulted in entrance to Nirvana, a vaguely described feeling of total bliss. Buddhists also believed that the world, while often a thing of joy, is also a place of suffering; the aim of Buddhism is to relieve the suffering of mankind by eliminating the cause of this suffering.
The basic ideas of Buddhism are those taught by the Buddha in his first sermon, in the Deer Park in Benares, after he himself attained “enlightenment”. The legend of the Buddha states that he was a prince (Siddhartha Gautama) of a small kingdom called Sakya (now in Nepal). When he was born, a seer predicted that he would be either a great king or a great world renouncer. His father the king, wanted to prevent his son from renouncing the world and becoming a wandering holy man and thus surrounded him with luxury and kept from him knowledge of ills and evils. However, the gods took a hand and, when the prince was out riding one day, exposed him to the fours sights: a beggar, an ill man, a corpse, and a holy man. These sights shocked the young prince who realized how much suffering existed. He decided to rid the world of this suffering and one night, at the age of 29, left his palace, his wife, his son (named Rahula, which means fetters), his horse and clothes and adopted the robe of a wandering ascetic. He spent 6 years in self-mortification, starving and suffering and then realized that this was not bringing him closer to understanding the cause of suffering. So he ate and drank in moderation and sat under a tree (since called the Bodhi or tree of enlightenment) and meditated until he came to a realization, an understanding of the cause both of misery and of rebirth. This understanding is called enlightenment and it came to have two meanings: that one would not be reborn again but, upon “death” would go to Nirvana, a state of bliss; and that one would live the rest of one’s life in total joy and happiness, unbothered by anything that would happen.
The way to rid oneself of suffering that the Buddha came to understand and to preach was called the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path. These are the basic core beliefs of Buddhism. The Four Noble Truths are:
- The world is full of suffering
- This suffering is caused by desire
- There is a cure for this suffering
- The cure is to get rid of desire
The Noble Eightfold Path is the way to get rid of desire, which is seen as the cause of all misery AND the cause of rebirth. The Indian term Karma, which literally means actions, was redefined by Buddha to imply that it is the desires behind one’s actions that cause the accumulation of karma, which in turn causes rebirth. Thus any action which is accidental or which is done with no selfish desire of any kind does not cause rebirth. The key to escaping from the cycle of rebirth, as well as to achieving happiness on earth, is the elimination of desire. Following the eightfold path is the easiest and best way to achieve this aim. The path consists of three sections: ethical conduct, mental development and wisdom. Under ethical conduct one practices right speech, right action and right livelihood; under mental development one practices right effort, mindfulness, and concentration; and under wisdom, one practices right view and right intention. The various sects which developed had different ideas about what constituted these eight virtues and how to practice them. For example, what is right speech? Is it permissible to tell a lie to save people’s lives? Under right action, for example, one must take a vow of non-harm of other creatures. Does this mean that one should starve to death rather than eat meat? Does it mean one should never kill in self-defense? Each of the above 8 virtues raised many questions about its implementation and these were answered differently by different Buddhists.
The center of Buddhist life is the monastery. Buddha felt that it is difficult to avoid desire and preference while leading the life of a householder; giving up the things of the world and living in a monastery with one’s simple wants met would make it easier to follow the above eightfold path. Thus, monks and nuns have always been at the center of Buddhism and the monastic way of life is practiced in all Buddhist countries. Gradually a set of rules, called the Vinaya rules, governing monastic life was created. Each monk or nun takes 3 great vows: poverty, chastity, non-harm to others and agrees to abide by ten precepts: to abstain from harming living beings, taking things not freely given, sexual misconduct, false speech, intoxicating drinks and drugs causing heedlessness, taking untimely meals, dancing, singing, music, the use of flowers, perfumes and personal adornment, the use of high seats, and the use of gold and silver. In Theravada countries, it is the custom for each young boy to spend a certain amount of time, ranging from one week to several months, in a monastery. In his initiation, he repeated the Buddha’s life by renouncing things of this world, shaving his head and donning the robes of a monk. This served to inculcate Buddhist values in these young boys and ensure tight relations between the monks and the community.
For the first 300 years or so after Buddha’s death, his teachings were passed on orally and were memorized by the monks and nuns. Eventually they were written down into a series of sutras know as the Tripitaka or Three Baskets. These contained the ethical, practical and metaphysical teachings of the Buddha as well as the rules for monastic living. All Buddhists consider these scriptures to be the word of the Buddha and thus sacred. Theravada Buddhists accept only this collection of Sutras as valid. Both Mahayana and Tantrayana Buddhists have additional writings which they consider to also be the teachings of Buddha.
For a detailed discussion of Theravada Buddhism and excerpts from the scriptures (Sutras) please click on the following site.
Another good site on Theravada Buddhism with special reference ot Thailand is the following:
Since most Thais live as lay people rather than as monks they are much more concerned about gaining good karma for their present and future lives, than in reaching the abstract state called Nirvana. Thus they are concerned with performing acts which bring “merit” or “good karma;” they include a number of activities. “Merit” is gained from supporting the monastic community: feeding the monks who in Thailand go out on daily begging rounds; making and presenting clothing to the monks; building or repairing monasteries; underwriting the creation of Buddha statues and other ritual implements; and participating in Buddhist ceremonies. In addition, merit is earned by following the Buddhist ethical code and refraining from taking life, stealing, lying, engaging in illicit sexual relations, and drinking intoxicating beverages. As in many religions, these are the ideals to be aspired to, and are not always followed in daily life.
In Thailand, as in many other countries, Buddhism as practiced has adopted many of the ideas and traditions of the Thai animistic religion and folk traditions. It is very common to see small “spirit houses” dedicated to one of the many phi spirits believed to inhabit the earth and to have power over humans. As is true of other animistic religions, phi are commonplace and exist in trees, hills, water, animals, the earth, etc. In addition, there are guardian spirits of the house, the gardens, the rice fields, and, of course, the wat or temple. Offerings of food are made to the house guardians on a daily basis and to the other spirits at appropriate times; for example, offering are made to the rice goddess on the occasion of the transplanting of the young rice shoots. The spirits of the dead can be either helpful or malevolent. The spirits of those who died prematurely, by violence or whose funerals were improperly conducted, form an especially dangerous class of phi as they are motivated by anger and rage to wreck havoc on the living.
Since Buddhism provides no specific rituals for life time events such as birth, death and marriage, Thais tend to use the Hindu rituals which came to Thailand centuries prior to the adoption of Buddhism. However, Buddhist monks officiate and attend these ceremonies and their absence would be seen as very inauspicious. Of all the rituals, the funeral ceremonies are the most important as it is believed that these can help to determine a person’s next incarnation (rebirth). The dying person is directed to turn his mind toward the Buddhist scriptures and to repeat the names or sayings of the Buddha. Monks surround the bedside chanting verses from the scriptures. After the death, gifts are made to the monks in the deceased person’s name and further ceremonies are carried out at intervals after the death. These acts are all believed to assist the deceased in his/her future life.
The center of Thai Buddhist life is the wat and wats are found everywhere in the country. Wats have both public areas in which ceremonies for the benefit of their communities are performed, and private areas in which the monks live, study and meditate. Wats are many different sizes but all have public halls for worship and ceremonies, buildings for the preservation and display of Buddha statues, as well as libraries, chedi for storing sacred relics, and other buildings. The interior and sometimes exterior walls of the main building are painted with scenes from Buddha’s life. For pictures of the component parts of a typical wat, please visit Thailand Temple
A wat is more than a place to worship or to go for ceremonies, it is often the center of village life. It can serve as a community center, a school, a theatre or training ground for Thai musicians and dancers, a playground, a market, political center or public restaurant. While wats are exclusively Buddhist, they often contain elements of pre-Buddhist Hindu beliefs, such as statues of such Hindu gods as Shiva. In addition, temples in Thailand are often covered in small reflective mosaics of colored glass which serve to drive away evil spirits (if they approach too closely they are frightened by their own reflections.) Other common statues found in temples include the naga or snake; according to legend, one guarded Buddha in the wilderness by growing 7 heads, and multi-headed naga are common in monasteries. Singha (lions) which represent strength and power are often found outside the doors while the kala, a monster who devours himself, representing time, is often found above doors and windows.
Many Buddha images are found in temples. These are very stylized and, while traditions changed over centuries, certain elements are common; these include elongated earlobes symbolizing wisdom and royal birth, a topknot symbolizing enlightenment, a “Mona Lisa” type smile and hands placed in a mudra or symbolic gesture. Common poses for the statues include the seated Buddha, the reclining Buddha which represents his entering Nirvana at the time of his death, the standing and walking Buddhas which are the least common and which represent walking meditation. Many festivals and ceremonies dot the year in Thailand as elsewhere and the wat is the center of these festivities. The two most important festivals are Wisakha Day, the spring full moon festival which celebrates the day that Buddha was born, became Buddha, and died, and the festivals marking the beginning and ending of the rainy season( July to September) commonly referred to as the Buddhist Lent because it is a time for increased meditation, remaining put in one place, a time for lay people to join the monastery for a temporary period of time, etc.
For a discussion of the festivals as well as pictures of the temples and ceremonies, please click on the following two sites: