Buddhism in Thailand

By: Kirstie Savage, Lisa Swift, MacKenzie Mitchell

History of Buddhism

The birth of Buddhism began with Buddha. Buddha was a man named Siddhartha Gautama who was born the son of a king some 500 years prior to the birth of Jesus. According to legends, shortly after Siddhartha was born holy men examined him and predicted that he would either become a great political leader who would unify India or a great religious leader and a savior of humanity (Boeree). His father, wanting his son to follow in his footsteps, provided him with a life of every imaginable luxury and shielded him from pain and suffering.

One day, Siddhartha went out and traveled through the kingdom and experienced the first of four encounters that brought significant perspective to his life; on this first encounter, he saw an old man. On the next tour outside, he saw a sick man. On his third trip, he saw a dead person, and on his fourth, he saw a spiritual seeker. Seeing these people made Siddhartha realize that the things these people were experiencing were his fate, too, and he became troubled. He wanted to understand the nature of suffering and decided to leave the palace. He was only twenty-nine years of age, and had resolved to join others as they sought what was called “the holy life” (Grubin).

Siddhartha made a huge sacrifice in seeking the holy life. He left behind everything he loved, but his resolve was strong, and he set off to find a teacher who could instruct him in the path to enlightenment. Siddhartha spent time studying under two famous gurus, but found their practices lacking and moved on. He began to study with five others who practiced an ascetic lifestyle. He did this for six years and practiced with intensity and devotion. He, in essence, was torturing himself to try and destroy anything within himself that he saw as bad. However, as with the gurus, this practice came to an end as he realized he could not gain what he wanted through by this method (Armstrong 1-10).

Now alone, he decided to sit under a Bodhi tree until he got the answers he was looking for. He was determined to attain the supreme and final wisdom.  Siddhartha sat under the tree first in deep concentration, clearing his mind fully, then in intense meditation, allowing himself to be open to truth. It is said that while he meditated under the Bodhi tree, he began to see all his previous lives, and all the moments of the past became the present to him (“Buddha 101”). He was able to see the process of birth, death, and rebirth. His mind was at peace, and he had become “the awakened one,” or “Buddha.”

After this experience, the Buddha set out to share what he had learned. He devoted the rest of his life to his teachings and accepted many men as followers. The Buddha would teach in the local dialects, to men and women alike, and even those considered to be at the lowest level. The Buddha died still sharing his teachings. After the Buddha’s death, his beliefs lived on and Buddhism began to spread from India into China (Boeree).

There is a lot of uncertainty as to when the spread of Buddhism actually occurred, but it is thought that the spread into China was around 67 A.D. via the Silk Road. From there, Buddhism spread to Korea in fourth century A.D. then to Japan in 538 A.D. and Tibet in 609 A.D. Buddhism became accepted in Thailand in the thirteenth century A.D. (Boree).

The first form of Buddhism that was introduced to Thailand was Theravada, which has been proven by archaeological remains. This was the time of King Asoka and records show that he had sent out missionaries headed by Buddhist elders to different territories, one of which was in Thailand (Lom).

Sometime around one thousand years after the Buddha’s death, a new kind of Buddhism became very popular in India: Mahayana Buddhism. This new popularity brought missionaries to spread this new belief. The regions of Thailand that these missionaries went to were areas of strong Theravada belief, so Mahayana Buddhism did not have initial success. However, Mahayana Buddhism was established successfully in Cambodia, and once Thailand came under the influence of Cambodia, this form of Buddhism because popularized there as well (Lom).

Finally, there was the Lankavamsa period. During this time period, the form of Buddhism that is still prevalent in Thai culture today was introduced. King Prarakkama Pahu ruled over Ceylon and further introduced Buddhism to Thailand. (Lom)

Buddhism in Thailand has had its set backs throughout history but it has always managed to get back on its feet; although, there are different sects of Buddhism within Thailand they all live at peace and cooperate with one another.

Buddhist Philosophy & Practice

To an outsider, Buddhism is more than vegetarianism, meditation, nonviolence, and peace. However, the philosophies and practices of Buddhism cannot be easily explained. This non-theistic religion based upon human wisdom is deep, complex, and, at times, almost inconceivable. One of the biggest misconceptions of Buddhism is that Buddha is the celestial being. Buddhists do not venerate to an external man; rather, they honor Buddha’s teachings and wisdom. The hallmark of Buddhist followings is outlined in the four basic truths that Buddha himself articulated. These truths, “The Four Seals” are the primary fundamentals in Buddhism:

  • All compounded things are impermanent
  • All emotions are pain
  • Nirvana is beyond concepts
  • All things have no inherent existence

Unlike in Christianity and Islam, morals and ethics are subordinate in Buddhism; wisdom is the predominate concern. This shift in primary concern does not mean Buddhists have a license to behave demonically; instead, they focus on the truths established in wisdom. The ultimate goal in Buddhism is to reach spiritual enlightenment, whereby everything is perceived as unity. Buddha expressed that any sex or caste can find the spiritual enlightenment that he did (Hopfe).  Many Buddhists refer to spiritual enlightenment as nirvana or moksha.

Buddhists believe that everyone who has not achieved enlightenment is subjected to reincarnation. Interestingly, Buddhists see reincarnation as unsatisfactory and would be made analogous to a Westerner having to repeat middle school over and over again.

Not surprisingly, yoga is a popular activity practiced by Buddhists because it enhances spiritual development, meditation, and union. The Sandhinirmochana-sutra is a Buddhist scripture that extends insight on philosophical and pragmatic foundation of Buddhist yoga and sheds light on Buddhist enlightenment (Cleary). L. K. Taimni states, “Yoga is the inhibition of the modifications of the mind” (Taimni). Another attribute of Buddhist ideology is Karma. Karma is seen as a moral law with a cause and effect to one’s actions. Karma is considered inferior and discourages the path of enlightenment.

As mentioned, their are two types of Buddhism in Thailand, Mahayana Buddhism and Theravada Buddhism. Both have key differences in beliefs. Theravada Buddhism is more conservative—it considers itself to be closer to the original teachings of the Buddha (Hopfe).  heravada monks are seen as the ideal figure, “it is he who shaves his head, puts on the yellow or orange robe, takes up a begging cowl, and seeks release from life through meditation and self-denial” (Hopfe). When a monk accomplishes his goal, he then becomes an “arhat.” Once that monk dies, he escapes the tribulations of reincarnation. Theravadas can be seen wearing a traditional robe. Their building structure for practice is called a “wat,” in Thai, which is used for teaching, and meditation (Hopfe). There are two important types of mediation techniques they practice: Sammatta meditation, which involves serious concentration which will lead to the path of enlightenment, and Vipassana, which is used to enhance intuitive realization of Buddhist truths. The latter was the same meditation method Gautama did while under the bo tree (Hopfe).

In Mahayana Buddhism, they belief that Gautama was more than a man, but rather an eternal, divine, compassionate being who came to earth as a man because he loved all humans and wanted to be of assistance (Hopfe). Mahayana teaches that there are many Buddhas located throughout different cosmic realms, all of whom are able to help people into the path of enlightenment. Another interesting belief of the Mahayana is that they don’t ask their native friends to detach their gods, for these gods are seen as an avatar of the Buddha (Hopfe). Similar to Christianity practice, Mahayana voice prayers which they belief can be answered by the Bodhisattva (future Buddhist who reside in heaven) to those in need.

Mahayana or Theravada, Buddhist Philosophies are found enriching and nonviolent for all living beings that practice Buddhism. Buddhists are the world’s most peaceful beings, which seek knowledge, embrace happiness, and share their light and wisdom. They avoid the material world and set a highly difficult but tranquil goal to reach enlightenment.

Buddhism Today in Thailand

Today in Thailand, Buddhism is still a very important part of culture and society. Ninety percent of the Thai population is Buddhist (Sommer). In Thailand religion is heavily tied to politics. “The country’s constitution specifies that the King of Thailand must be a Buddhist and the Upholder of Buddhism” (Kusalasaya).  This requirement has an influence on the culture of Thailand because a party that has such a strong political and social icon will have an immense effect on the culture.

Despite this political and social connection between Buddhism and Thai culture, Buddhism does not have a religious monopoly in Thailand. “According to the 1990 Thai census there were 53,403,919 Buddhists…2,252,427 Muslims, 299,069 Christians, 3,606 Hindus and Sikhs, and 65,728 who profess other religions or no religion” (Buddhism in Thai Society).

Although Thailand is prevalently Buddhist, westernization has still had an effect on Buddhism in Thailand. “Under the Westernized system of education, a large part of the Thai population has been alienated from Buddhism and traditional Thai culture” (Buddhism and Thai Society). This has occurred mostly in the more urban areas. There the people benefit more from the western style of life than do the rural less wealthy population. Benefits from western lifestyle seem to have a correlation with how widely Buddhism is practiced.

Although western culture has had some detracting effects on Buddhism in urban areas, there have also been some positive influences of Western culture. Western religions such as Christianity “are a very small percentage of the Thai population, [however] their influence in society is somewhat disproportional, as most of the major hospitals and the most prestigious boarding schools have been founded by Christians” (Sommer). This shows that Western society has had some positive effects on Thailand, even though it has detracted from the prevalence of Buddhism in some areas.

Although western influence has greatly impacted Buddhism in Thailand, Buddhism has also had an affect on western culture. “Just 100 years ago Buddhism was still mainly centered in its Asian birthplace. Today it reaches around the world” (Wangu). Wangu says that Buddhism is not necessarily a religion that many westerners practice, but it is a tool used to enrich their lives. The spread of Buddhism into western culture can be seen in our society through things like meditation centers, Buddhist magazines—like the Tricycle and the Shambhala Sun being available in the newsstands, and even in mainstream medicinal practices. (Wangu)

“The Dalai Lama has said he is not interested in conversions to Buddhism. He wants people to become better Christians or Jews, or whatever their original faith background is” (Wangu). This is really interesting because many western religions, especially Christian religions, attempt to convert everyone to their religion, but in Buddhism, they just want everyone to be the best they can be no matter what they believe in. This may be why Buddhist principles and beliefs have been so widely accepted into Western culture. It is not forcing someone to change their original beliefs, but it is something they can include and add to enhance their life.


Armstrong, Karen. Buddha. New York: Penguin Group, 2001. 1-10. Print
Boeree, Dr. George C.. “The Life of Siddhartha Gautama.” . Shippensburg University, 1999. Web. 6 Apr 2012. <http://webspace.ship.edu/cgboer/siddhartha.html&gt;.
“The History, Philosophy, and Practice of Buddhism.” Buddha 101. N.p., 2000. Web. 6 Apr 2012. <http://www.buddha101.com/h_life_frames.htm&gt;.
Cleary “Buddhist Yoga, A comprehensive course,” Thomas Cleary 1995 Boston & London
For text and word-by-word translation as “Yoga is the inhibition of the modifications of the mind.” See: Taimni, p. 6.
Grubin, David, dir. The Buddha. PBS, Film.
Hopfe, Lewis. Religions Of The World. Twelfth. New York: Pearson, 2012. Print.
Lom, Phrakru. “Buddhapadipa Temple.” When Did Buddhism Come to Thailand. N.p., n.d. Web. 6 Apr 2012. <http://www.buddhapadipa.org/buddhism/when-did-buddhism-come-to-thailand/&gt;.
Siddhartha Gautama. N.d. Photograph. blingcheese.comWeb. 1 May 2012. <http://www.google.com/imgres?q=siddhartha
“what makes you not a buddhist” Dzongsar Jamyanf Khyentse,” 2007, Boston 7 London. shambhala

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