Buddhism Encompasses Thai History and Culture

 by: Meagan Gallagher and Morgan Lendway


All over the world countries that are thriving today have been influenced by a culture that has been around for thousands of years. These religions have impacted the way that society is run all the way down to how people live their lives. In Thailand, Buddhism has been a great influence throughout generations and has really formed the country to be the way that is today.

Theravada Buddhism is the primary form of Buddhism practiced in Thailand.  The expansion of the religion into Thailand began when the King of Burma sent monks to Sri Lanka to re-establish Theravada Buddhism.  This created a strong religion affiliation between Burma and Sri Lanka.  Missionaries were sent to Thailand from Burma during the eleventh century.  The religion is widely accepted by Thais and became the official religion of Thailand in the fourteen century after Thailand won independence from the Cambodian Khmer rulers (Mitchell 90).

Ever since Thailand adopted Buddhism as their state religion, it has become a significant part of Thai history.  Thailand’s Kings are one of the most influential and powerful leaders of the country.  In the mid to late 1800s when King Rama IV was the leader of Thailand, he began a reform within the Thai Sangha, called the Dhammayut movement.  The king’s history of being an ordained monk for thirty years before he took throne inspired the movement.  The reform helped standardize Buddhism in Thailand but also stripped monks of some of their major roles.  The king created a secular educational system where the lay people were the teachers.  Up until this reform, the monks were the teachers; however, the reform created a national organization for the Thai Sangha and the Prinee-Patriarch wrote a series of text which standardized information about Dharma, or the doctrine.  Ancient texts were brought to Bangkok, and if they didn’t align with the new text, they were burned.  If the king viewed certain monks from other places as a threat, he was entitled to bring them to Bangkok for interrogation and would potentially arrest some of the monks.  This action helped the movement even though it seems to contradict the most basic teaching of Buddha, which is to be good (Robinson and Johnson 152).  The action of King Rama IV increased the practice and study of Buddhism within the Sangha, increased the general population’s respect for Buddhism, and prevented Thai Sangha from becoming politicized.  The role of Buddhism in the state and government continued to become more defined throughout history.

King Wachirwut, whom ruled from 1910 to 1925, made Buddhism a civil religion by his influential slogan, “nation, religion, king” (Buswell 832).  The king’s relationship with religion is to: “control monastic appointments, appoint secular officials in charge of crown-sangha relationships, donating land and building royal monasteries in the capitol and provinces, and to ordain as monks for a limited amount of time, and help settle sangha disputes” (Buswell 832).  The Kings are practicing Buddhists which emphasizes the importance of Theravada Buddhism in Thailand.  Today, the King is Bhumibol Adulyadej and he is respected by many.

In Thailand, a wat is a Buddhist temple, which can found in almost every Thai village.  The temple is usually the dominate figure in many Thai villages and represents the “physical structure of Theravada Buddhism” (Hopfe & Woodward 114) and serves as a representation of community and worship.  The bot, or a hall inside the wat is used for teaching, preaching, and meditation and contains a statue of Buddha, candles, alters, and incense (Hopfe & Woodward 114).  In the temple there is usually a stupa, a bodhi tree, images of Buddha, and traditional representations of Buddha, such as sacred foot prints.  The temple is a place for prayer and meditation but also reflects Thai art.  Carvings and painting cover the temples inside and out to tell the story of Buddhism.  The temples are decorated with images of the Buddhist legends, Buddha’s former or final lives, as well as images of Hell (Buswell 838).

The worship of Buddha during special holidays shows respect to his teachings and life.    There are numerous holidays or spiritual celebrations that commemorate Buddha and play an important role in Thailand’s traditions and culture.  The Festival of Wesak, or Vesakha Puja is an annual holiday that celebrates the Birth of Buddha, Buddha’s enlightenment, and Buddha’s death.  Devout Buddhists gather at temples where they raise the Buddhist flag and sing hymns that honor the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha, his disciplines.  This holiday emphasizes the importance of bringing happiness to those less fortunate.  This may be done by giving money to a charity that benefits the poor, ill, or handicapped (Buswell 228).  Vesakha Puja is one way that Buddhism creates a sense of identity for most Thais. Thailand worships Buddha with personal practice but annual holidays are a festive and important celebration of Buddha.

Buddha Gautama is the major influence of Thai art and architecture.  Thai art dates back to the sixth century C.E. and was influenced by Indian images, which reflect Buddhist religion (Buswell 782).  Sculptures and painting depict the teachings of Buddha as well as the historical Buddha.  Sculptures are made out of stone, bronze, or wood and are many different sizes.  Buddha sculptures must not be located anywhere other a monastery, museum, or private home alter (Buswell 843).  Images of Buddha are worshiped with offerings of flowers and incense because they are viewed as a representation of truth.  Art and images are an important part of Thai’s worship rituals because images or sculptures of Buddha are viewed as sacred.  Although he is no longer alive, his thoughts and beliefs are thought be tangible via images of Buddha (Buswell 839).  This explains the importance of art in Thailand.

Buddhism’s history has shaped the history of Thailand and has defined the country’s celebration and culture today.  When Buddhism first became intertwined with Thailand, it influenced the action of kings and helped shaped Thai’s government.  The teachings of Buddha define how most Thais treat family, friends, and strangers.  The phrase, nam jai, or “water of the heart,” means, don’t view strangers as threatening or suspicious, reflect Thais genuine acceptance and respect towards others (Carlson, Englar-Carlson, & Emavardhana 1).  Art in Thailand is influenced by the worship of the Buddha.  Holidays and times of celebration for Thais are based on Buddhism.  Buddhism encompasses Thai history and shapes Thai culture.

Thai culture is complex but it is in fact very interesting. Many things that have been mentioned in this paper can be used to enhance our Thailand experience. It will be able to help us understand the history when we see temples as well as gaining a greater understanding with the people of Thailand.


Buswell, Robert. Encylopedia of Buddhism.  New York: Macmillan Reference, 2004.  Vol. 1 and 2.  Print.

Carlson, Jon, Englar-Carlson, Matt, & Emavardhana, Tipawadee. “Individual Psychology in Thailand”. Journal of Individual Psychology.  68.4 (2012): 398 – 410. Academic Search Premier.

Hopfe, Lewish and Woodward, Mark.  Religions of the World. New Jersey: Person Education, 2009. Print.

Mitchell, Donald.  Buddhism: Introducing the Buddhist Experience.  New York: Oxford University Press. 2002.  Print.

Robinson, Richard and Johnson, Willard.  The Buddhist Religion: A Historical Introduction.  Belmont: Wadsworth Publishing Company, 1997. Print.






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