Thailand is the world’s largest Buddhist nation and it’s a country that continues to take its religion seriously. Visitors to Thailand will soon notice numerous temples, spirit houses and Buddhist icons everywhere they look, and indeed modern Thais continue to wrap their daily lives in rituals and beliefs associated with Buddhism.
Ninety per cent of the country is Buddhist, with the remainder being largely Moslem, while missionaries have creates small pockets of Christian followers. But the country as whole functions under a timeless influence of Buddhism which pervades all aspects of society, from Royal pomp and ceremony, to having your new car blessed by a monk or making merit to bring on good business fortune.
Even modern and sophisticated Thais retain a healthy respect to Buddhist spiritual beliefs and most will make regular visits to temples or shrines to pray for various fortuitous turns of events, departed ancestors, blessings, merit making and general show of respect. Unlike Christians, they do not attend regular services, but carry out routine rituals such as meditation, offerings of food to deities, momentary wais given to passing Buddha statues and superstitious beliefs that affect the time, dates and manner in which they conduct their lives.
It’s unclear just how early in history Buddhism was introduced to Thailand, although it’s widely agreed that monks brought it over from Sri Lanka and it took hold during the Sukhothai era. But older temples suggest it’s been in the region much longer. Much of the remaining antiquities of Siam’s proud history are dedicated to the glorification of this noble religion.
The practice of Buddhism here has many cultural identities almost exclusively associated with Thailand and the Theravada (Hinyana – small wheel) sect of ‘old school’ Buddhism practiced in this country. Many of the mystical and mythical aspects of everyday Thai dhamma (Buddhist practice) have their roots in Hinduism, such as the symbolic characters and habits within the religion.
Visitors will perhaps find curiosity in the small ornately decorated spirit houses, seated on plinths beside buildings everywhere. These are built as residence offerings for the spirits that may occupy the area, and are important for avoiding any negative influence from a displeased spirit. They demonstrate the widespread Thai habit in making merit with the many spirits that are intertwined with their Buddhist beliefs. Likewise, they place superstitious importance on wearing amulets acquired from revered temples.
The support of the monkhood and temples is central to the harmony among a Thai community. The site of early morning alms bearing monks walking single file and barefoot through neighbourhoods to benefit from local charity is a timeless image of Thailand. All young men will be inducted as monks at some stage spending weeks or months in the temple, while many Thais enter temple retreats regularly. Others carry out lay work, and the temple complex acts as a relief centre, guidance resource, occasional administrative outpost and they even educated the youth in previously centuries.
Buddhism continues to play a significant role in most facets of life in Thailand, from the Royal family right down to the humblest farmer. Even the Thai calendar is reckoned from the time of Gautama Buddha, 543 years before Christ.
Buddhism: a quick introduction
With its locus in Asia, Buddhism was founded around 2,500 years ago upon the teachings of an Indian prince, Siddharta Gautama, otherwise known the Buddha (enlightened one). After years of meditation and austere wandering in search of truth, he eventually achieved a state of ‘nirvana’ through strict emptying of his mind using meditation techniques. In such a state one finally and wholly lets go of all desire and thus any suffering arising from it. Part of this truth was the concept of impermanence (annica), and Buddhists believe that their ‘souls’ are continually trapped in a cycle of re-incarnation or rebirth, which they strive to break.
Central to understanding Buddhist doctrine is the recognition of suffering (known as dukkha) and out of this arises the Four Noble Truths: That there is suffering. That suffering is impermanent and will eventually cease. That suffering is a consequence of desire, usually created by ourselves. That suffering can be brought to an end through practicing of the dhamma. The dhamma, or ‘Buddhist life’, encourages the Eightfold Path of right understanding, thought, speech, conduct, livelihood, effort, attention and concentration, towards reducing or eliminating suffering.
Unlike Christianity, Buddhism doesn’t focus entirely on a supreme creator, but rather places emphasis on living in the present moment and upholding a number of precepts which are quite similar to the Ten Commandments. In practice, many modern Thais tend to lose sight of the pure teachings and motivations of Buddhism and habitually follow the rituals. ‘Church’ isn’t attended weekly but rather private trips are made to the temple regularly, as Thais place a lot of believe in merit making and appeasing of spirits. However, as with other religions, the Temple plays an important role in the Sangha (community), providing moral judgment, support and welfare, and sometimes even education and officialdom.
Around about the time of Christ there was a great schism in Buddhism, splitting the religion into two distinctive practices. The Theravada Buddhism which is largely practiced in Thailand and the rest of Southeast Asia belongs to the Hinyana (lesser wheel) sect, which observes the original, pure form. The Mahayana (greater wheel) sect is a reformed style of Buddhism which has resulted in the Zen Buddhism practiced predominantly in Japan and the four sects of Tibetan Buddhism, some of which are being popularised in the West.