By Meghan Garrecht-Connelly , Katie Saad, and Haley Schiek
History and Influences of Thai Buddhism:
There are varying theories about when Buddhism reached Thailand. Some say that Buddhism was introduced to Thailand during Asoka’s (a great Indian leader) reign. He sent Buddhist missionaries to many parts of the world. Others believe that Buddhism was introduced much later. Based on archeological and historical evidence, Buddhism first reached Thailand when it was inhabited by a racial stock of people known as the Mon-Khmer who had their capital city situated about 50 kilometers from where Bangkok is now.
Buddhism reached Thailand in 4 different periods:
1) Theravada (Southern) Buddhism
2) Mahayana (Northern) Buddhism
3) Burma (Pagan) Buddhism
4) Ceylon (Lankavamsa) Buddhism
The Theravada school of Buddhism, from Sri Lanka, was the first form of Buddhism introduced into Thailand, and is the most influential. The king is thought of as a protector of the religion, helping approximately 94% of the population today identify as Buddhist. While the vast majority partakes in the religion, the “spirit of tolerance” is a large part of Buddhism and that, on top of a constitutional agreement, allows for freedom of religion that all of the people in Thailand are entitled to.
As Buddhism has experienced modernization, the “religion has demonstrated its excellent resilience” (Plamintr) and has remained steadfast and very prevalent. Thailand has always had a fairly positive relationship with the west, so when westerners entered Thailand they were welcomed with open arms and the missionaries were given land and support. Buddhism encapsulates traditional Thai values and culture, and the pull of western technology and education is strong. While Christianity never gained much ground in Thailand, the cultural appeal has proven to be the greatest challenge for the Buddhist religion and caused the Thai people to look into their religion for an answer, consequently strengthening their confidence in the Dhamma.
With the Theravada school of Buddhism being the most influential on Thai Buddhism, the second is Hindu beliefs from Cambodia. There are many rituals practiced today that are from Hindu in origin, and while Hindu influence has declined it is still visible throughout Thai Buddhism.
Folk religions hold the last major influence on Buddhism. Western observers have tried to separate folk religions and Buddhism, however the locals do not acknowledge this divide. Many of the rules monks follow come from the practice of folk magic, and are integrated into the religion.
Modern Thai Buddhism:
In Thailand approximately 94 percent of the population is Buddhist. The King is a head of their nation. Rulers of Thailand have supported Buddhism and this has been a major factor in stability and progress in the country. In the record history of Thailand, all of the kings have been Buddhist. “The country’s constitution specifies that the King of Thailand must be a Buddhist and the upholder of Buddhism.” (Kusalasysa, K. 2006) It is a national custom for Thai men to enter the monkhood to receive monastic training for a period of time at least once in their lives. This custom creates a strong link between the monkhood and the general public in Thailand.
Buddhism has been so integrated with Thai life that the two are almost inseparable. Its influences can be seen on Thai lifestyle, traditions, arts, language, architecture, etc. Thailand is known as the “The Land of the Yellow Robes” due to the large number of monks in the country and also as “The Land of Smiles” because of the influence of Buddhism on the Thai people. The generosity and friendliness of the Thai people can be attributed to the tradition of the Buddhist religion. Specifically, Buddha recommended three modes of making merit to the lay: generosity, morality and mental development. Often Thais remind each other to take it easy and be calm. To do good is the principal focus in Buddhism. This takes the form of contributing to the temples, monks and each other.
Meditation is a large part of the Buddhist culture. Its aim is to develop mindfulness, concentration, tranquility and insight. It is to take one’s own state of mind and change it for the better. “By engaging with a particular meditation practice you learn the patterns and habits of your mind, and the practice offers a means to cultivate new, more positive ways of being.” (The Buddhist centre: Buddhism for today.) Love and Kindness are practiced. To become a Buddhist some believe you must belong to a particular community and follow the life taught by the Buddhist, but it’s also believed that religion should be free open and truthful and Thais generally have an easy-going attitude toward religion.
There are two sects of the Buddhist order: Mahanikaya and Dhammayuttika Nikaya. The Dhammayuttika was designed to lead with more discipline and scholarly life. Whereas Mahanikaya is the oldest sect and most use it focus on the doctrine. Monks in both groups are still required to follow the same rules. Monks are not allowed to carry money. Each morning monks walk around the neighborhoods while the locals give them food. Monks are not allowed to touch women. If a woman wants to give something to a monk in must be done through an intermediate. When entering a temple, shoes must be removed. Buddhism believes in the importance of discipline and ethics.
People in rural areas are generally more religious and traditional. The role of monks in these areas is important the teaching of academics to children and to the religious and social life of the people. The monks are major forces in education and also offer counsel and encouragement to the local people who come to them in times of crisis or trouble. In 1989 a group of activist monks was formed to focus on present day issues such as deforestation, poverty, drug addiction and AIDS. While sometimes criticized for being unconventional and too concerned with worldly issues, Buddhist social activists justify this approach as duty to the community.
The government recognizes holy days, as national holidays and ways of making merit for the general public. The more important holy days are those connected with special events in the life of Buddha. Regular religious sermons and radio and television discussions are important parts of these holy days.
Buddhist Philosophy and Principles
Though many of us may think of Buddha as referring to Siddhartha Gautama, the original sage whose teachings helped found Buddhism, the word “Buddha” actually means “awakened one,” and refers to anyone who is enlightened. Someone who has reached such a state of being has learned to completely free their mind of mental obstructions or delusions, seeing themselves and the world as it really is. Thus, the main goal of practicing Buddhism is to cultivate positive mental states and virtues such as calmness, concentration, love, clarity, and compassion to overcome negative mental states such as anger, jealousy, ignorance, and anxiety (Kadampa Meditation Center, 2017). Through methods such as meditation, as well as by following The Eight-Fold Path, one can consciously change how their mind works to live in a more focused, clear, and enlightened state.
Here are two meditations that the original Buddha taught were used to develop calmness and emotional positivity: Mindfulness of Breathing and Loving-Kindness (The Buddhist Centre, n.d.). Check out the links and give them a try yourself!
The Four Truths:
- Suffering: This truth is founded on the hardships that we endure on a daily basis due to being attached to our temporary, physical selves and experiences. We suffer when we are ignorant our of our highest, non-material, non-changing Self.
- The Cause of Suffering: This truth teaches that we suffer when we desire or crave things, especially material items. Wanting such things means that we are externally searching for happiness. We will ultimately never find fulfillment or security this way. As a result, we will continue to suffer and go through cycles of birth and rebirth.
- The End of Suffering: This truth teaches that to end human suffering, we must overcome ignorance, ill-will, and desire. In doing so, a person reaches a state known as “Nirvana,” or enlightenment. In Nirvana, a person is connected to their highest, unchanging self. We must let go of our physical realities and detach from both our pleasurable and painful experiences. Doing this frees us from the chaos of worldly desires and delusions (ThoughtCo, 2017).
- The Path That Frees Us from Suffering: The Buddha taught “The Eight-Fold Path” as the cure for suffering. Following this path helps us learn to control the body and mind. Through practicing these principles every day, we are able to live in a positive and clear state of mind, free from suffering (Jodo Shinshu Buddhist Temples of Canada, 2015).
The Eight-Fold Path (directly quoted from ThoughtCo):
- Right View or Right Understanding, insight into the true nature of reality.
- Right Intention, the unselfish desire to realize enlightenment.
- Right Speech, using speech compassionately.
- Right Action, using ethical conduct to manifest compassion.
- Right Livelihood, making a living through ethical and non-harmful means.
- Right Effort, cultivating wholesome qualities and releasing unwholesome qualities.
- Right Mindfulness, whole body-and-mind awareness.
- Right Concentration, meditation or some other dedicated, concentrated practice.
Basic Buddhist Principles. (n.d.). Retrieved May 10, 2017, from http://www.thaibuddhism.net/principles.htm
Buddhism in Thailand and its History of Evolution | Thai Buddhas. (n.d.). Retrieved May 11, 2017, from http://www.thai-buddhas.com/thai-buddha- statues/buddhism-in-thailand/
Buddhism in Thailand: Its Past. (n.d.). Retrieved May 11, 2017, from http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/kusalasaya/wheel085.html
Buddhism in Thailand. (2017, May 03). Retrieved May 11, 2017, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Buddhism_in_Thailand#Early_traditions
Jodo Shinshu Buddhist Temples of Canada. (2015). What is Buddhism? Retrieved May 4, 2017, from BCC: http://www.bcc.ca/buddhism/fournobletruthsandeightfoldpath.html
Kadampa Meditation Center. (2017). What is Buddhism? Retrieved May 4, 2017, from Kadampa New York: http://kadampanewyork.org/about/about-buddhism-new-york?gclid=CM-U_-uC6NMCFUpNfgodTRULEw
Kusalasysa, K. (2006). Buddhism In Thailand . Retrieved May 9, 2017, from http://www.buddhanet.net/pdf_file/bud-thailand.pdf
Plamintr, S. (n.d.). Buddhism and Thai Society. Retrieved May 10, 2017, from http://www.viet.net/anson/ebud/ebdha108.htm
Thai Buddhism – Thailand Buddhism in Present Day. (n.d.). Retrieved May 10, 2017, from http://studentunifreight.com/thai-buddhism-thailand-buddhism-in-present-day
The Buddhist Centre. (n.d.). Buddhism for Today. Retrieved May 4, 2017, from The Buddhist Centre: https://thebuddhistcentre.com/text/what-meditation
ThoughtCo. (2017). The Eight-Fold Path. Retrieved May 4, 2017, from ThoughtCo: https://www.thoughtco.com/the-eightfold-path-450067
ThoughtCo. (2017). The Four Noble Truths. Retrieved May 4, 2017, from ThoughtCo: https://www.thoughtco.com/the-four-noble-truths-450095
The Daily Life of a Thai Monk. (n.d.). Retrieved May 10, 2017, from http://www.buddhanet.net/e-learning/buddhistworld/wat_m5.htm