Thai Buddhism

By: Erin Elton & McCall Smith

For Thai’s, Buddhism is more than a religion, it is a way of life. In fact, 95% of people in Thailand are Buddhist (TAT). It has been the dominant religion since early-recorded history, and is the official religion of Thailand. The people of Thailand are extremely proud of their religion, but at the same time are compassionate and tolerant of other’s. They are very open about their beliefs and practices.  Many Thai’s are more than willing to answer any questions visitors have and will even include non-Buddhists in their religious practice. When traveling to Thailand it is important to familiarize yourself with Buddhism, particularly Thai Buddhism (TAT).


Buddhism is based on the teaching of Siddhartha Gautama or Buddha, meaning the “Enlightened One”(PBS).  A little back-story on Buddha, he was born into royalty and led an extravagant lifestyle to early adulthood, but after becoming jaded of his title and luxuries, he searched the world for understanding. As he searched he came to the conclusion that “suffering laid at the end of all existence”(PBS). After becoming enlightened, he then renounced all of his worldly things and titles and became a Monk. He devoted the rest of his life to teaching others of his enlightenment.

The essence of Buddhism lies within the Four Noble Truths. They are the truth of suffering, the truth of the cause of suffering, the truth of the end of suffering, and the truth of the path that leads to the end of suffering (PBS). The concept of suffering refers to suffering of a physical or mental nature. The first Noble Truth acknowledges or identifies the presence of suffering and it’s unavoidable nature. The second Truth addresses the cause of suffering. In Buddhism, the root cause of suffering lie within two things, desire and ignorance. Desire refers to one’s wants that can never be satisfied and ignorance refers to one’s inability to see the world as it truly is. The third Noble Truth is the end of suffering, meaning not only in this life, on earth, but also in the spiritual life. This is done through achieving Nirvana, where spiritual enlightenment is reached. The Fourth truth is called the Noble eightfold path, it maps the path or method for achieving Nirvana, the ending of suffering (PBS).


The concept of Karma is one that most people are familiar with. For Buddhist’s, Karma encompasses the good or bad actions a person takes in their lifetime and how these affect their happiness in the long run. Karma also goes along with another major player in Buddhism, the cycle of rebirth (PBS). The short version is that there are 6 planes one can be reborn in, those with good Karma will be reborn into a fortunate realm, these include; the realm of demigods, gods, and man. The realm of man is considered the highest realm of rebirth.  Those with bad karma will be reborn into a not so fortunate realm, these include: the realm of animals, ghosts, and hell. To be born human is a precious gift to Buddhists, for only in the realm of man does one have the opportunity to achieve Nirvana or spiritual bliss (PBS).

Now that we know the basics, let’s talk about Thai Buddhism. There are, like many religions, different branches of Buddhism. However, unlike other religions, there is a high degree of harmony and respect between the different schools of Buddhism. There are 3 main schools of Buddhism. There is Theravada Buddhism (Southern Buddhism), Mahayana Buddhism (Northern Buddhism) and Vajrayana Buddhism (Tibetan).  The largest populations of Buddhists in Thailand are specifically Theravada Buddhists (Deprung, 2015).


Theravada Buddhism translates to “the doctrine of elders” (BBC, 2002), the elders are the senior Buddhist monks. This school of Buddhism is believed to have remained closest to the original teachings of Buddha, but it is in no way fundamentalist, nor does it heavily emphasize the status of these teachings. “The teachings of Buddha are seen as tools for people to understand the truth, and not as having merit of their own”(Deprung, 2015). It is technically considered a philosophy than an organized religion (Hays, 2014). Theravada Buddhism emphasizes the attainment of self-liberation from suffering through one’s own effort. This is a major difference compared to Northern Buddhist doctrine that emphasizes the liberation of suffering for all creatures (Deprung, 2015). Thai Buddhism is unique in that it has spiritual beliefs that are considered animist or Hindu in nature. For example, many Thai homes and businesses will have what is called a “spirit house”, where offerings can be made to appease the spirits. Also, Thai Buddhists may light incense and pray to images of Buddha or Hindu Gods whose shrines are located in Bangkok and throughout the countryside (Hays, 2014).


Monastic life is incredibly central to Theravada Buddhism and it shows, throughout Thailand there are over 30,000 wats (Hays, 2014). What’s a wat? Wat translates to temple or monastery, in rural areas there is usually at least one in every village (TAT). Monks are revered members of Thai society. The ideal path for males is to dedicate their lives to being full time monks. Almost all Thai males spend at least some portion of their lives, whether it be a few months or years dedicated to monastic life (BDEA).  Meditation and concentration are considered vital elements to attain enlightenment or self-liberation. The monks in Thailand are more than happy to teach you, seriously, you can attend meditation classes or a retreat. Monks and “lay people” have a very strong relationship, it is a way of mutual support-monks provide blessings, support and teachings while lay people provide food, medicine and cloth for robes. Neither are required to do these things, and neither are allowed to demand these things of each other, it is all done through open-hearted giving (BBC, 2002).


As mentioned earlier, for Thai’s, Buddhism is more than a religion, it is a way of life.  It is reflected in the people of Thailand, in their compassion, openness, and tolerance of others. Remember Theravada Buddhism is all about the teachings of the elders- Thailand is “The Land of the Yellow Robes” for a reason; the monks in their yellow robes are central to Thai Buddhism and Thai life. This is only a teeny tiny scratch on the surface, there is so much more to learn about Thai Buddhism. Check out our works cited for more info.


Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT). No Date. “Religion”.

Deprung Loseling Monestary Inc. 2015. “What are the Major Forms of Buddhism”.

PBS. No Date. “Basics of Buddhism”.

Hays, J. May 2014. “Buddhism and Religion in Thailand”.

Buddha Dharma Education Association (BDEA). 2012. “The Daily LIfe of a Thai Monk”.

BBC. 2002. “Religions-Buddhism:Theravada Buddhism”.

Image References

Sukhothai Historical Park, Sukhothai


Buddha and Eightfold Path

Buddhist monks in Thailand pray for new year in Thailand

Wat in Chiang Mai

Monk Meditating







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