Buddhism In Thailand

Buddha Shop Bangkok, Thailand

Look Inside Buddhism in Thailand

Buddhism is a religious belief about the teachings of Siddharta Gautama who later was known as the “Buddha” or “awakened one”.  Since Siddharta Gautama lived in a place what is now Nepal and Northeastern India, the English word Buddha is literally translated” to be enlightened” while its Sanskrit(India) translation is “Bodhi” or “awakened”.  Buddha taught people that awakening takes place directly by one’s experiences and not as a result of beliefs or ideologies.  At this time the estimated number of practicing Buddhists around the world is said to be at least 350 million which makes this religion one of the largest ones in the world.

Even if Buddhism is categorized under religion, still Buddhism teaches that belief in gods is useless for those who want enlightenment.  The focus of its ideals is by practicing and experiencing Buddhism rather than believing in it.  It is an exacting discipline.  It is also based on the Four Noble Truths and these are:

  • The Truth about Suffering
  • Causes of Suffering
  • End of Suffering
  • Path that Frees Us from Suffering

Buddhism was divided into two major schools: Theravada and Mahayana.  For centuries to come, Theravada has been the most dominant school in Thailand, Sri Lanka and nearby Asian countries.  Mahayana was dominant in China, Japan, Korea and Vietnam.  Mahayana was further sub-divided into sub-schools: Pure-Land and Zen.  To make sense of Buddhism the doctrine known as Anatman or Anatta must be understood.  This defocuses on the self.  Basically Thailand’s Theravada school considers Anatman or freedom from one’s ego as its main doctrine.  Since the individual is free from his “self” he will enjoy Nirvana.  Nirvana in Buddhism is the concept where the individual is free from the cycle or death and rebirth.  Nearly about 95% of Thailand’s population is Buddhist under Theravada school.

Thailand’s Buddhists believed in a form of Buddhism that integrates their folk beliefs and Chinese religion into the concept of Buddhism.  As proof of their belief, tall temples with tall golden stupas are spread throughout Thailand.  This practice attracted the Thai people because the religion focuses on man not gods.  Simply put, to achieve Nirvana desire must cease.  Buddhism has spread all throughout Asia but it evolved into different interpretations which led to the establishment of several sects.  The teachings that reached Sri Lanka were written in an Indonesian Aryan language closely associated with Sanskrit.  This form of Buddhism was the state religion of the Old Kingdom of Sukhothai in the 13th century.  Since the Burmese destroyed Ayutthaya (The Capital City of the Old Kingdom) the details about Buddhism from the 13th till the 19th century was by far sketchy.  Whatever documentations that have been found refer to the general belief that the King was the patron and protector of this religion and that he has a good relationship with the sangha(monks).  With the succession of Kings that took the throne, the protection of the sangha strengthens and diminishes.  Simply put, if the King was weak, the protection of the sangha suffered as well.

By the 19th century however, since the King Mongkut was a monk he offered a much more stabilized protection for the sang has both then and in the future by its institutionalization.  After his administration ended, his successor King Chulalongkorn formally and permanently introduced the Sangha Law of 1902 which is still followed up to this day.

Forces That Further Influence Thailand Buddhism

There were instruments that bring about the continuous belief in Buddhism in Thailand.  One of these is the Theravada School of Buddhism.  Another factor that influenced this belief is the Cambodian influence on Hindu beliefs most especially during the most important period during the reign of King Mongkut and King Chulalongkorn.

Even if the Hindu influences are diminishing in its society, still it remains.  As a testament to these Hindu beliefs, some shrines like those to the god Brahma are still in existence in areas where Buddhism is practiced.  Folk religion ingrained in Buddhism focuses on acquiring the favor of local spirits known as phi.  Modern Buddhist does not dwell on this belief unlike those who live in rural areas.

Even if Mahayana Buddhism did not gain popularity still its influences can be seen.  One of these is the belief that the Thai King is a Bodhisattva (an enlightened being).  Chinese who converted to Theravada Buddhism still maintain their Mahayana temple.  As evidence, Kuan Yin goddess is popular among the Chinese Thai people.

Bonds That Exists

The kingship is clearly tied up to Buddhism in Thailand.  It is protected and supported by the state.  The bond that exists is what grants special favor towards Buddhist institutions and its clergy.  Before a monk can travel abroad, he must seek an official letter from the Sangha Supreme Council.  He has his identification card, copy of his Temple registration and a copy of his Thai passport.  Monks enjoy privileges like free public transportation.  They are given preferential seating even in airports and train stations.  They are also recipients of gifts even from the royal family.

Monks clearly represent Buddhism in Thailand.  They officiate in ceremonies including those attended by the King and members of Royalty.  He is responsible for preserving the teachings of Buddha and its propagation.  Monks start their training as early as eight years old.  They do minor household work and are referred to as Dek wat.  At the age of twenty, monks are eligible for the three years training period as monks.  After this three year period they return to lay life and may marry.

If in case they survive the testing period they are now ripe for monastic life.  Meditation monks are given respect by Thai Society and this can only be achieve after taking a study for a number of years.  Monks who meditate find it hard to do so in the presence of those who are seeking their blessings.  Young men are encouraged to go through this apprenticeship period even if they will not be a full pledge monk in the future.  Rich and poor alike would love to see their son go through this training.  With such support no wonder Thai Buddhism continues to thrive fruitfully.