With about 30,000 temples throughout the country, it is evident how vital Thailand’s national religion, Buddhism, is to the people of Thailand. Buddhism is primarily of the Theravada school (most ancient Buddhist school) in Thailand, followed by 95 per cent of the total Buddhist population. With approximately 64 million Buddhists, Thailand has the second largest Buddhist population globally, after China.
Here is an insightful look at Thailand’s Buddhist Communities,
History of Buddhism in Thailand
In 6th century BC, Buddhism originated in India where Prince Siddhartha achieved enlightenment and transformed into Gautama Buddha (awakened one) after a 49 day meditation under a Bodhi tree.
Buddhism later arrived in Thailand from the roots of Sri Lanka in 250 BC and by the 12th century, under the guidance of King Ramkhamhaeng, Buddhism became the most dominant religion in Thailand.
From Thailand’s cultural heritage to its historical heritage, Buddhism has played a significant role in Thai culture and society. As a result, Thai kings have always been seen as major patrons of Buddhism in Thailand. And every King must compulsorily have lived like a Buddhist monk. Becoming a monk is a significant rite of passage for future Thai kings. It shows devotion to the Buddhist faith and one’s respect for parents. It helps individuals gain merit within Thai society. And is seen as one of the most significant events in a Thai man’s life.
Buddhism in Thailand
Theravada Buddhism is the most followed religion in Thailand which is practised by more than 95% of the total population.
You can see the fragments of Buddhism in almost every corner around the country. While visiting Thailand, you can find different aspects of Buddhism during your travels, from the famous Wat Arun temple in Bangkok to the spirit houses protecting buildings and more across the country.
Buddhism is a major part of the identities of the Thai population practising Theravada Buddhism.
Thailand’s Theravada Buddhism is now known as “Lankavamsa” because over 700 years ago, King Ramkhamhaeng invited Sri Lanka’s leading monks, from Nakhorn Si Thammarat, in the South, to teach Buddhism in Sukhothai (historic city of Thailand). Hence, Lankanvamsa (Langka Tradition) was born in Thailand.
Monks of Thailand
Today, there are more than 3,00,000 monks in Thailand living in peace and divinity. No matter where you plan to travel, you are almost guaranteed to spot a few of them visiting Thailand. Their simple yellow and orange robes easily stand out in a sea of modern-day clothing. Many Thais and visitors believe in starting their day off by giving offerings to monks collecting donations in the streets.
If a man decides to become a monk, there are a few rituals they must go complete, including shaving their head and eyebrows and taking part in some special ceremonies. They must also complete their daily duties in the temple they reside at, such as cleaning or receiving offerings in the mornings. Interestingly enough, every man in Thailand must become a monk for a while before he reaches the age of 20. This period holds great value for every Thai family, its expected time length is about three months, but some choose to stay as little as a day or two. The majority of the young men choose to remain monks for at least a few weeks.
It is believed that young men do this to receive good karma and merit.
To read more about the life of a monk, click here!
Monks have a very friendly nature, even while talking to tourists. However, tourists must not touch a monk while merit – making. Some temples of Thailand organise ‘monk chats’. At monk chats, tourists can sit with a monk and talk with them about their lives. As a gesture of respect, the majority of Thais give up their seats on public transportation for a monk. Tourists are expected to do this as well.
Buddhist temples in Thailand
More than 30,000 Buddhist temples in Thailand represent the love and affection the Thais have for their official religion, Buddhism.
Some well-known temples, or Wat, situated in the Land of Smiles include,
- Wat Phra Kaew in Bangkok
- Wat Phra That Doi Suthep in Chiang Mai
- Wat Saket in Bangkok
- Wat Chaiwatthanaram in Ayutthaya
Many Thai locals and tourists that plan their vacations around Buddhist holidays spend their time touring these stunning architectural wonders. In addition to being a place of worship and celebration, most of these temples house monks and act as schools and gathering places for locals. Many temples feature markets just outside of their premises.
To learn more about the ‘Do’s and Don’ts’ in a Buddhist temple, click here!
Being a monastic is a unique and often life-changing experience and if done with full sincerity and commitment, it can transform your world view and your life. There are temples and monasteries like Wat Pah Nanachat (Northeastern Thailand) and Anandagiri Forest Monastery (Khao Kho) that allow tourists to become monks and partake in their ceremonies. You can live like a monk as long as you want, but since it requires a fair amount of mental preparation and discipline, we suggest you become a monk for at least two weeks so you can get a feel for this new way of life.
Wat Phra Phutthabat is another popular temple that translates to ‘the temple of Buddha’s blueprint’. It is situated in Saraburi, Thailand. It is one of Thailand’s oldest temples and is believed to have a natural footprint of Buddha.
Buddhist Retreats are also an engaging way to involve yourself with the Thai Buddhist communities. A retreat is a time set apart to be in quiet and solitude with God. And you can have the same experience in every Thai monastery. Many Thai monasteries allow tourists to undertake small retreats to meditate and learn the Buddhist way of life. From seated and walking meditation to listening to Dhamma talks and attending meetings with instructors, you can choose your retreat. You may also need to perform daily chores, chant Pali scriptures, and bow in homage to the Buddha, Dhamma, and Sangha at these monasteries.
Buddhist festivals in Thailand
Many Thai festivals and holidays, celebrated by both the locals and the visitors, revolve around Buddhism, the major religion of Thailand.
Some of these festivals that visitors in Thailand must not miss on their vacation are,
- Makha Puja, a festival where Buddhists (locals and visitors) gather at temples and light candles during the full moon in February.
- Wat Phra Buddhaphat Fair this festival is celebrated in early March. It is a fair celebrated to honour Buddha’s footprints found at the Phra Puddhabat Temple in Saraburi. During the fair, Buddhists from all over the world come to worship the giant imprint.
- Si Satchanalai Ordinations is a parade celebrated in the month of April. As mentioned above, every young man in Thailand must become a monk for some time before 20. During April, Thais celebrate Si Satchanalai Ordinations as a celebration of this. People take part in the celebrations by wearing colourful costumes and walking in the parade.
- Songkran is one of the most famous Buddhist festivals amongst the locals, as well as the tourists. Songkran is a nationwide water fight that symbolizes the washing away of sins and bad luck from the previous year. It is a week-long celebration that originated from the practice of pouring water over statues of Buddha.
- Visaka Puja is a Buddhist holiday taking place in May. It is a remembrance of Buddha’s birthday, death, and enlightenment. On this day, Thai Buddhists and tourists worldwide gather with lit candles around one of the many temples across the country.
- Khao Phansa, or the Buddhist Lent Day, is the beginning of a three-month period in which monks have to remain immobile. Buddhists from all over the world come and offer yellow robes and candles to the stationary monks.
- Asanha Puja is celebrated during the full moon in July, and it commemorates Buddha’s first sermon.
- The Sakhon Nakhon Wax Candle Festival is celebrated to mark the end of Buddhist Lent and is generally celebrated with a parade and beauty contests.
- Ok Phansa is another Buddhist holiday celebrated in October. During this time, new monks are presented with their robes.
While taking part in the Thai celebrations, one thing to remember is that on many of these Buddhist festivals and holidays, the consumption and sale of alcohol is halted across the country.
Rituals in Buddhism
As important elements of human life, rituals have been a significant aspect of Buddhist practice since the time of the Buddha.
Rituals can be ordinary as a handshake and as extraordinary as an elaborate memorial ceremony that brings healing to grief. And the extraordinary can seem ordinary when universal compassion is regularly awakened through daily prayer or chanting sacred texts.These practices can transform the regular experiences into something special – even something like people joining hands to share a blessing before having a meal.
Going for Refuge is probably the most significant ritual connecting people to the Dharma and is the oldest ritual throughout most Buddhist traditions. Monks are also expected to pay homage or respect to the Buddha, Buddhist teachers, teachings, or other crucial Buddhist life areas. Monks also make offerings or practice dana. They precept ceremonies and chanting Brahma-vihara “prayers” to call on spiritual forces for support or protection. Other than this, the dedication of merit, rites of passage and initiations and ordinations are rituals of a Buddhist monk.
While not touching a monk’s head, not pointing a finger towards a monk, taking shoes off before entering a house or monastery, and keeping a lower voice, are some common traditions followed by the locals of Thailand. These must be kept in mind by all the tourists while visiting Thailand.
Thai Buddhism and Merit-making
There is a common Thai saying that “if you do good, you will receive good. If you do evil, you will receive evil.” Simply put, most Thais believe firmly in reincarnation and karma. And that good and bad actions in a person’s current life will affect their next life. Therefore, making-merit helps ease the path of the present life and the future lives to come.
Praying and offering alms to monks are two common ways of making merit. In most towns and cities, monks can be seen collecting alms early in the morning along with food, flowers and items such as washing powder and anything the temples may find helpful in their day-to-day running. Many Thai festivals, such as Songkran (Thai New Year), provide opportunities to make-merit and help clear the slate for any previous indiscretions.
As a tourist, you too can make merits by giving food and other helpful items to the monks on their daily alms round, donating offerings to the temple, and chanting Buddhist prayers.
Thailand is a beautiful country with a rich cultural heritage. From countless temples to lavish monasteries, Buddhism has played a vital role in shaping Thailand’s modern society and its beliefs. And we hope this article helped you know more about the Buddhist communities of Thailand. To take a closer look at Thailand’s Buddhism and other cultural practices, you must plan your next visit to Thailand soon!