Buddhism in Thailand

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Thailand is 95% Buddhist, the highest percentage of any country in the world. It most places of the world, where you find a religious percentage so high, there are usually laws which enforce a certain religious belief, but that is not the case in Thailand.  Thai’s are completely free to practice any religion they wish, although Buddhism is the official religion of the nation.

History of Buddhism in Thailand

Buddhism first entered Thailand around 228 B.C. when the Indian Emperor Ashoka the Great sent Buddhist missionary monks to bring the teachings of the Buddha to nations as far west as Italy and as far east as Vietnam.  Two royal monks, Sona and Uttara, traveled to modern day Thailand with holy books and began to spread the Buddha’s teachings.  Throughout the next nine hundred years, different schools of Buddhism influenced the nations of South-east Asia, and modern day Thailand had several different Buddhist philosophies varying by region.

Ruins of Ancient Thai capital, Sukothai

About 1153 A.D. Parakramabahu the Great became king of Ceylon, (modern day Sri Lanka.)   He was a tireless supporter of Theravada Buddhism and did much to reform the Theravada doctrines to more closely resemble that which Buddha originally taught.  At this time.  As word began to spread about these reforms, monks from South-east Asia traveled to Ceylon to be trained under the monks there, in order to bring a purer form of Buddhism back to their homelands.  These monks traveled back to Thailand, often times with Ceylonese monks, and were officially invited by King Ram Kamhaeng to come to the capital city of Sukhothai and given royal support to teach the people Buddhist doctrines.

Since this time, Theravada Buddhism has become so rooted in Thai culture, to the point that Buddhism itself is virtually inseparable from what it means to be Thai.  For this reason, the Thai’s say, “To be Thai, is to be Buddhist.”

Buddhist Practice in Thailand

Angkor Wat, Cambodia

When Buddhist missionary monks were spreading the teachings of Buddha throughout Asia, they did not approach it with a mentality of replacing the religious beliefs that were already in place.  Buddhism was presented as sort of an addendum to existing belief systems, and for this reason, it had great success in being integrated into the surrounding cultures.

Though Theravada Buddhists take pride in practicing the form of Buddhism most closely resembling what Buddha originally taught, it has been greatly influenced by previous belief systems.  The following are elements of different religious traditions that paint a composite picture of the way Thai’s practice Buddhism.

Hinduism

Thai representation of the Hindu god, Brahma. In Thai, he is called Phra Phrom.

Buddhism itself is a type of reformation of Hinduism, so there is quite a bit of overlap in the beliefs of each.  Siddhartha Gautama (the Buddha) did not intend to create a new religion, but saw his teachings as a path within Hinduism.  The people of Thailand have been directly influenced by Hinduism due to their formerly powerful neighbors in Cambodia, the Khmer.  Before Buddhism began to take hold in the region, the Khmer practiced Hinduism.  The now famous Angkor Wat is the largest Hindu temple in the world.  Although the direct influence of Hinduism has diminished greatly through the years, there are still remnants seen in religious practices.  Some rituals can be specifically traced back to Hindu origins and the Hindu god of creation, Brahma, is worshiped as a god of good fortune and luck under the Thai name, Phra Phrom.

Folk Religion

While Thai’s have a high corporate identification as Theravada Buddhists, their day-to-day lives reflect their strong belief in folk religion.  There is a great preoccupation with the spirit world and much energy is spent in the appeasement of spirits, astrology, divination, & exorcism.  Many Thai people wear amulets, often in the shape of a medallion that is supposed to be a source of great power and prosperity for them.  It is also a common practice to wear a string bracelet that has been blessed at a temple for protection or blessings.

Spirits known as Phi are believed to exist everywhere and impact the lives of people, mostly for the negative.  If a person dies an untimely death, or a violent death, they will become a phi.  Funeral rites must be performed carefully, or the deceased will haunt the household as a phi.  For most ordinary people, the worship and appeasement of phi are the most common spiritual practices.

Thai Spirit House

Virtually every house has a small spirit house which is usually raised on a platform or column.   They typically look like a miniature temple or traditional Thai house.  These are for the phra phum (spirit of the land) which Thai’s do not want in their homes.  There are some spirits that are welcome into the home (phi ruan), but the phra phum needs to be appeased with a spirit house and offerings.  Monks may be consulted to make sure the spirit house is in a good location on the property to ensure the phra phum are kept happy.

Mahayana Buddhism

Although Thai’s practice Theravada Buddhism, there are still some aspects of Mahayana Buddhism that have endured in Thai religious beliefs through the centuries.  One of these is the belief in a couple of bodhisattvas.  A bodhisattva is a being who has achieved enlightenment, but rather than take the final step into Nirvana, the bodhisattva has chosen to  remain in existence to help all sentient beings reach a place of enlightenment.  Although this is a Mahayana concept, it remains in Thai Buddhism.

Maitreya depicted as Budai.

The first bodhisattva revered in Thailand is Lokesvara, who is the embodiment of compassion, and the other prominent bodhisattva Maitreya, who is depicted in the Budai form.  Many westerners confuse the image of Budai with that of the historical Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama.  You would recognize Budai as the fat laughing Buddha often seen in Chinese restaurants.  The King of Thailand is also revered as a boddhisattva and is greatly revered by the Thai people.

Theravada Buddhism

Temple in Chiang Mai

Temple in Chiang Mai

For Thai’s, the wat (temple) is a very important aspect of their faith and they attend faithfully.  These temples are often times elaborately decorated, with the naga (snake) on the roofline or gates and sharp rising eaves, standing out against simple village backgrounds.  They are, especially in rural areas, the centers of education, and attendance will help you to earn merit that will improve your position in future births.  All males are expected to enter the monastery for a period of time, usually after high school.  This is a source of great pride for the family.  Most males only remain in the monastery for about three months, but for those who choose to commit themselves for an extended period of time will choose to focus on scholarship (usually city temples) or meditation (the “forest” temples).  No matter where you are, it is common to see monks walk the streets in orange robes during the early morning, collecting food.

Incense left at an altar in Chiang Mai after prayer.

Incense left at an altar in Chiang Mai after prayer.

Temples are always open, and worshipers come with incense, candles, or lotus blossoms.  The lotus blossoms are placed on the altar, and the individual kneels (or stands, if they are outdoors) before the Buddha image.  Three incense sticks, representing the Buddha, the Dharma (teaching of the Buddha), & the Sangha (the Buddhist community) are lit, and placed  between the palms, which are folded in the classic “praying hands” position. They bow their heads and the hands are then raised between the heart and the
head three times before the incense is planted in a pot at the altar.

Although the ultimate goal for Theravada Buddhists is nirvana, the blowing out, or the extinguishing of desire and suffering, this is viewed as being so far off, and unobtainable, that most settle for “a better” rebirth in the next life.

 Buddhism and Nationalism

In most places where you find Theravada Buddhism, you also find a strong sense of nationalism tied into the religion.  This means that the nation as a whole takes tremendous pride in the religion, and it becomes infused as a part of their identity.  For most Thai’s, they could not see themselves as anything other than Buddhists, and to convert to another religion would be seen as turning their backs on their nation, their culture, their heritage and their families.

The King of Thailand is the protector and promoter of Buddhism within the nation, and by law, the King must be Buddhist.  Thailand is the only nation in the world who requires their King to be Buddhist.  When nationalism is fused with religious devotion and adoration towards the leader of a nation, there is a seemingly unbreakable allegiance to all.  The challenge in reaching the Thai’s with the Gospel is helping them to understand that Jesus is not a threat to their national identity, cultural heritage or their leaders.