Buddhism in Thailand | Overview

1. Buddhism in Thailand

Buddhism in Thailand is largely of the Theravāda school, which is followed by 94.6% of the population. Buddhism in Thailand has also become integrated with folk religion as well as Chinese religions from the large Thai Chinese population.

Buddhist temples in Thailand are characterized by tall golden stūpas, and the Buddhist architecture of Thailand is similar to that in other Southeast Asian countries, particularly Cambodia and Laos, with which Thailand shares cultural and historical heritage.

Buddhism is believed to have come to what is now Thailand as early as 250 BCE, in the time of Indian Emperor Aśoka. Since then, Buddhism has played a significant role in Thai culture and society.

Buddhism and the Thai monarchy have often been intertwined, with Thai kings historically seen as the main patrons of Buddhism in Thailand.

Although politics and religion were generally separated for most of Thai history, Buddhism's connection to the Thai state would increase in the middle of the 19th century,

following the reforms of King Mongkut, that would lead to the development of a royally backed sect of Buddhism and increased centralization of the Thai Saṅgha under the state, with state control over Buddhism increasing further after the 2014 coup d'état.

Thai Buddhism is distinguished for its emphasis on short term ordination for every Thai man and its close interconnection with the Thai state and Thai culture.

The 2 official branches, or Nikāyas, of Thai Buddhism are the royally backed Dhammayuttika Nikāya and the larger Mahā Nikāya.

Historical background

2. Early traditions

Some scholars believe that Buddhism must have been flowing into Thailand from India at the time of the Indian Emperor Aśoka of the Maurya Empire and into the 1st millennium after Christ.

During the 5-13th centuries, Southeast Asian empires were influenced directly from India and followed Mahāyāna Buddhism. The Chinese pilgrim Yijing noted in his travels that in these areas, all major sects of Indian Buddhism flourished:

Srivijaya Empire to the south and the Khmer Empire to the north competed for influence and their art expressed the rich Mahāyāna pantheon of bodhisattvas.

From the 9-13th centuries, the Mahāyāna and Hindu Khmer Empire dominated much of the Southeast Asian peninsula. Under the Khmer Empire, more than 900 temples were built in Cambodia and in neighbouring Thailand.

After the decline of Buddhism in India, missions of Sinhalese monks gradually converted the Mon people and the Pyu city-states from Ari Buddhism to Theravāda

and over the next 2 centuries also brought Theravāda Buddhism to the Bamar people, Thailand, Laos and Cambodia, where it supplanted previous forms of Buddhism.

Theravāda Buddhism was made the state religion only with the establishment of the Sukhothai Kingdom in the 13th century.

3. 13-19th centuries

The details of the history of Buddhism in Thailand from the 13-19th century are obscure,

in part because few historical records or religious texts survived the Burmese destruction of Ayutthaya, the capital city of the kingdom, in 1767.

Ayutthaya was the centre of Thai Tantric Theravāda, which included the Yogāvacara tradition, and has survived in only a few temples as well as possibly the contemporary Dhammakāya tradition.

The Tantric Buddhist Yogāvacara tradition was a mainstream Buddhist tradition in Cambodia, Laos and Thailand well into the Modern Era. An inscription from northern Thailand with tantric elements has been dated to the Sukhothai Kingdom of the 16th century.

In Thailand, as in other Theravāda Buddhist kingdoms, the King was in principle thought of as patron and protector of the religion (Sāsana) and the Saṅgha, while Sāsana and the Saṅgha were considered in turn the treasures of the polity and the signs of its legitimacy.

Religion and polity, however, remained separate domains, and in ordinary times the organizational links between the Saṅgha and the king were not close.

Among the chief characteristics of Thai kingdoms and principalities in the centuries before 1800 were the tendency to expand and contract, problems of succession, and the changing scope of the King's authority.

In effect, some Thai kings had greater power over larger territories, others less, and almost invariably a King who sought successfully to expand his power also exercised greater control over the Saṅgha. That control was coupled with greater support and patronage of the ecclesiastical hierarchy.

When a King was weak, however, protection and supervision of the Saṅgha also weakened, and the Saṅgha declined. This fluctuating pattern appears to have continued until the emergence of the Chakri Dynasty in the last quarter of the 18th century.

4. Modern era

By the 19th century, and especially with the coming to power in 1851 of King Mongkut, who had been a monk himself for 27 years, the Saṅgha, like the Kingdom, became steadily more centralized and hierarchical in nature and its links to the state more institutionalized.

As a monk, Mongkut was a distinguished scholar of Pāli Buddhist scripture.

Moreover, at that time the immigration of numbers of monks from Burma was introducing the more rigorous discipline characteristic of the Mon Saṅgha.

Influenced by the Mon and guided by his own understanding of the Tipiṭaka, Mongkut began a reform movement that later became the basis for the Dhammayuttika order of monks.

Under the reform, all practices having no authority other than custom were to be abandoned, canonical regulations were to be followed not mechanically but in spirit, and acts intended to improve an individual's standing on the road to Nirvana but having no social value were rejected.

This more rigorous discipline was adopted in its entirety by only a small minority of monasteries and monks.

The Mahā Nikāya order, perhaps somewhat influenced by Mongkut's reforms but with a less exacting discipline than the Dhammayuttika order, comprised about 95% of all monks in 1970 and probably about the same percentage in the late 1980s.

In any case, Mongkut was in a position to regularize and tighten the relations between monarchy and Saṅgha at a time when the monarchy was expanding its control over the country in general and developing the kind of bureaucracy necessary to such control.

The administrative and Saṅgha reforms that Mongkut started were continued by his successor:

In 1902 King Chulalongkorn (Rāma V, 1868–1910) made the new Saṅgha hierarchy formal and permanent through the Saṅgha Law of 1902, which remained the foundation of Saṅgha administration in modern Thailand.

While Buddhism in Thailand remained under state centralization in the modern era, Buddhism experienced periods of tight state control and periods of liberalization depending on the government at the time.

5. Statistics

=> Approximately 94% of Thailand's population are Buddhists (5% Muslims).
=> As of 2016 Thailand had 39 883 Wats (temples):
=> 310 are Royal Wats, the remainder are private (public).
=> There were 298,580 Buddhist monks,
=> 264 442 of the Mahā Nikāya order and
=> 34 138 of the Dhammayuttika Nikāya order.
=> There were 59 587 Buddhist novice monks.

6. Influences

3 major forces have influenced the development of Buddhism in Thailand”:

1) The most visible influence is that of the Theravāda school of Buddhism, imported from Śrī Lanka. While there are significant local and regional variations, the Theravāda school provides most of the major themes of Thai Buddhism.

By tradition, Pāli is the language of religion in Thailand:

Scriptures are recorded in Pāli, using either the modern Thai script or the older Khom and Tham scripts. Pāli is also used in religious liturgy, despite the fact that most Thais understand very little of this ancient language.

The Pāli Tipiṭaka is the primary religious text of Thailand, though many local texts have been composed in order to summarise the vast number of teachings found in the Tipiṭaka. The monastic code (Pātimokkha) followed by Thai monks is taken from the Pāli Theravāda Canon.

2) The second major influence on Thai Buddhism is Hindu beliefs received from Cambodia, particularly during the Sukhothai Kingdom:

Hinduism played a strong role in the early Thai institution of Kingship, just as it did in Cambodia, and exerted influence in the creation of laws and order for Thai society as well as Thai religion.

Certain rituals practiced in modern Thailand, either by monks or by Hindu ritual specialists, are either explicitly identified as Hindu in origin, or are easily seen to be derived from Hindu practices.

While the visibility of Hinduism in Thai society has been diminished substantially during the Chakri Dynasty, Hindu influences, particularly shrines to the god Brahma, continue to be seen in and around Buddhist institutions and ceremonies.

3) Folk religion - attempts to propitiate and attract the favour of local spirits known as phi - forms the 3rd major influence on Thai Buddhism:

While Western observers (as well as Western-educated Thais) have often drawn a clear line between Thai Buddhism and folk religious practices, this distinction is rarely observed in more rural locales.

Spiritual power derived from the observance of Buddhist precepts and rituals is employed in attempting to appease local nature spirits.

Many restrictions observed by rural Buddhist monks are derived not from the orthodox Vinaya, but from taboos derived from the practice of folk magic.

Astrology, numerology, and the creation of talismans and charms also play a prominent role in Buddhism as practiced by the average Thai - practices that are censured by the Buddha in Buddhist texts.

Additionally, more minor influences can be observed stemming from contact with Mahāyāna Buddhism. Early Buddhism in Thailand is thought to have been derived from an unknown Mahāyāna tradition.

While Mahāyāna Buddhism was gradually eclipsed in Thailand, certain features of Thai Buddhism - such as the appearance of the Bodhisattva Lokeśvara in some Thai religious architecture, and the belief that the King of Thailand is a Bodhisattva himself - reveal the influence of Mahāyāna concepts.

The only other Bodhisattva prominent in Thai religion is Maitreya, often depicted in Budai form, and often confused with Phra Sangkajai, a similar but different figure in Thai Buddhist folklore.

Images of one or both can be found in many Thai Buddhist temples, and on amulets as well.

Thai may pray to be reborn during the time of Maitreya, or dedicate merit from worship activities to that end.

In modern times, additional Mahāyāna influence has stemmed from the presence of Overseas Chinese in Thai society:

While some Chinese have "converted" to Thai-style Theravāda Buddhism, many others maintain their own separate temples in the East Asian Mahāyāna tradition.

The growing popularity of Guanyin, a form of Avalokiteśvara, may be attributed to the Chinese presence in Thailand.

7. Government ties

While Thailand is a constitutional monarchy, it inherited a strong Southeast Asian tradition of Buddhist Kingship that tied the legitimacy of the state to its protection and support for Buddhist institutions.

This connection has been maintained into the modern era, with Buddhist institutions and clergy being granted special benefits by the government, as well as being subjected to a certain amount of governmental oversight.

Part of the coronation of the Thai monarch includes the king proceeding to the chapel royal (the Wat Phra Kaew) to vow to be a "defender of the faith" in front of a chapter of monks including the Supreme Patriarch of Thailand.

In addition to the ecclesiastical leadership of the Saṅgha, a secular government ministry supervises Buddhist temples and monks.

The legal status of Buddhist sects and reform movements has been an issue of contention in some cases, particularly in the case of Santi Asoke, which was legally forbidden from calling itself a Buddhist denomination,

and in the case of the ordination of women attempting to revive the Theravāda Bhikkhunī lineage have been prosecuted for attempting to impersonate members of the clergy.

To obtain a passport for travel abroad, a monk must have an official letter from Saṅgha Supreme Council granting the applicant permission to travel abroad; Buddhist monk identification card; a copy of house or temple registration; and submit any previous Thai passport or a certified copy.

In addition to state support and recognition - in the form of formal gifts to monasteries made by government officials and the royal family (for example, Kathina) - -a number of special rights are conferred upon Buddhist monks:

They are granted free passage on public transportation, and most train stations and airports have special seating sections reserved for members of the clergy.

Conversely, ordained monastics are forbidden from standing for office or voting in elections.

8. Calls for state religion

In 2007, calls were made by some Buddhist groups for Buddhism to be recognized in the new national constitution as the state religion:

This suggestion was initially rejected by the committee charged with drafting the new constitution.

This move prompted protests from supporters of the initiative, including a number of marches on the capital and a hunger strike by 12 Buddhist monks.

Some critics of the plan, including scholar and social critic Sulak Sivaraksa, claimed that the movement to declare Buddhism the national religion is motivated by political gain, manipulated by supporters of ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.

The Constitution Drafting Committee later voted against the special status of Buddhism, provoking religious groups. They condemned the committee and the draft constitution.

On 11 August 2007, Sirikit, the Queen of Thailand, expressed her concern over the issue. She said, in her birthday speech, that Buddhism is beyond politics. Some Buddhist organizations halted their campaigns the next day.

9. Elections

The members of the Buddhist community and the communities of other religions are not entitled to elect or be elected as a holder of any government post. For instance, the 2007 constitution of Thailand disfranchises "a Buddhist monk, a Buddhist novice, a priest or a clergy member".

The Saṅgha Supreme Council also declared the same prohibition, pursuant to its Order dated 17 March 1995. At the end of the Order was a statement of grounds given by Nyanasamvara, the Supreme Patriarch. The statement said:

The members of the Buddhist community are called Samaṇa, one who is pacified, and also Pabbajita, one who refrains from worldly activities.

They are thus needed to carefully conduct themselves in a peaceful and unblamable manner, for their own sake and for the sake of their community. ...

The seeking of the representatives of the citizens to form the House of Representatives is purely the business of the State and specifically the duty of the laity according to the laws.

This is not the duty of the monks and novices who must be above the politics. They are therefore not entitled to elect or be elected.

And, for this reason, any person who has been elected as a Representative will lose his membership immediately after becoming a Buddhist monk or novice. This indicates that the monkhood and noviceship are not appropriate for politics in every respect.

When a monk or novice is involved in or supports an election of any person..., the monk or novice is deemed to have breached the unusual conduct of Pabbajita and brought about disgrace to himself as well as his community and the Religion.

Such a monk or novice would be condemned by the reasonable persons who are and are not the members of this Religion.

A Pabbajita is therefore expected to stay in impartiality and take a pity on every person...without discrimination.

Moreover, the existence of both the monks and the Religion relies upon public respect. As a result, the monks and novices ought to behave in such a way that deserves respect of the general public, not merely a specific group of persons.

A monk or novice who is seen by the public as having failed to uphold this rule would then be shunned, disrespected and condemned in various manners, as could be seen from many examples.

10. Ordination and clergy

As in most other Theravāda nations, Buddhism in Thailand is represented primarily by the presence of Buddhist monks, who serve as officiates on ceremonial occasions, as well as being responsible for preserving and conveying the teachings of the Buddha.

During the latter half of the 20th century, most monks in Thailand began their careers by serving as temple boys (Thai: dek Wat, "children of the Wat"). Temple boys are traditionally no younger than 8 and do minor housework.

The primary reason for becoming a temple boy is to gain a basic education, particularly in basic reading and writing and the memorization of the scriptures chanted on ritual occasions.

Prior to the creation of state-run primary schools in Thailand, village temples served as the primary form of education for most Thai boys.

Service in a temple as a temple boy was a necessary prerequisite for attaining any higher education, and was the only learning available to most Thai peasants.

Since the creation of a government-run educational apparatus in Thailand, the number of children living as temple boys has declined significantly. However, many government-run schools continue to operate on the premises of the local village temple.

Boys now typically ordain as a Sāmaṇera or novitiate monks (Thai: samanen, often shortened to Nen). In some localities, girls may become Sāmaṇerī.

Novices live according to the 10 Precepts but are not required to follow the full range of monastic rules found in the Pātimokkha.

There are a few other significant differences between novices and Bhikkhus:

=> Novices often are in closer contact with their families, spending more time in the homes of their parents than monks.

=> Novices do not participate in the recitation of the monastic code (and the confessions of violations) that take place on the Uposatha days.

=> Novices technically do not eat with the monks in their temple, but this typically only amount to a gap in seating, rather than the separation observed between monks and the laity.

=> Novices usually ordain during a break from secular schooling, but those intending on a religious life, may receive secular schooling at the Wat.

Young men typically do not live as a novice for longer than 1-2 years.

At the age of 20, they become eligible to receive Upasampadā, the higher ordination that establishes them as a full Bhikkhu.

A novice is technically sponsored by his parents in his ordination, but in practice in rural villages the entire village participates by providing the robes, alms bowl, and other requisites that will be required by the monk in his monastic life.

Temporary Ordination is the norm among Thai Buddhists. Most young men traditionally ordain for the term of a single Vassa or rainy season (Thai phansa).

Those who remain monks beyond their first Vassa typically remain monks for between 1-3 years, officiating at religious ceremonies in surrounding villages and possibly receiving further education in reading and writing.

After this period of 1-3 years, most young monks return to secular life, going on to marry and start a family.

Young men in Thailand who have undergone ordination are seen as being more suitable partners for marriage; unordained men are euphemistically called "unripe", while those who have been ordained are said to be "ripe".

A period as a monk is a prerequisite for many positions of leadership within the village hierarchy. Most village elders or headmen were once monks, as were most traditional doctors, spirit priests, and some astrologists and fortune tellers.

In a country where most males can be ordained as monks for even short periods of time, the experience can be profitable:

The Thai musician, Pisitakun Kuantalaeng, became a monk for a short period following the death of his father in order to make merit. He observed that,

"Being a monk is good money,...When you go and pray you get 300 baht about £ even though you have no living expenses, and you can go 4 times a day. Too many monks in Thailand do it to get rich. If you become a monk for 3 months you have enough money for a scooter."

Monks who do not return to secular life typically specialize in either scholarship or meditation.

Those who specialize in scholarship typically travel to regional education centres to begin further instruction in the Pāli language and the scriptures, and may then continue on to the major monastic universities in Bangkok.

The scholarship route is also followed by monks who desire to rise in the ecclesiastic hierarchy, as promotions within the government-run system are contingent on passing examinations in Pāli and Dhamma studies.

The Thai tradition supports laymen to go into a monastery, dress and act as monks, and study while there. The time line is based on threes, staying as a monk for 3 days, or 3 weeks, or 3 months or 3 years, or 3 weeks and 3 days.

This retreat is expected of all Thai males, rich or poor, and often is scheduled after high school.

Such retreats bring honour to the family and blessings (merit) to the young man. Thais make allowances for men who follow this practice, such as holding open a job.

11. Health issues

Rising obesity among monks and concerns for their well-being has become an issue in Thailand:

A study by the Health Ministry in 2017 of 200 Bangkok temples found that 60% of monks suffer from high cholesterol and 50% from high blood sugar.

Public health experts attribute this to 2 factors:

a) First, monks are required to accept and eat whatever is given to them on their daily alms rounds.

b) Second, monks are not permitted to engage in cardiovascular exercise as it is undignified.

Monks eat only 2 meals per day, breakfast and lunch. But the remainder of the day they are allowed to drink Nam Pana, which includes the juice of fruit less than fist-sized, often high in sugar.

To combat the high rate of non-communicable diseases among monks, the National Health Commission Office (NHCO) issued a pamphlet, National Health Charter for Monks, designed to educate monks and laypeople alike as to healthy eating habits.

12. Controversies

The Thai media often reports on Buddhist monks behaving in ways that are considered inappropriate:

There have been reports of sexual assault, embezzlement, drug-taking, extravagant lifestyles, even murder.

Thailand's 38 000 temples, populated by 300 000 monks, are easy targets for corruption, handling between US$ 3-3.6 billion yearly in donations, mostly untraceable cash.

In a case that received much media attention, Luang Pu Nenkham Chattigo was photographed in July 2013 wearing Ray-Ban sunglasses, holding a Louis Vuitton bag full of US dollars, and "...was later found to be a trafficker of methamphetamines, an abuser of women and the lover of a pregnant 14-year-old."

There have been cases of influential monks persecuted and jailed by the Thai government, through verdicts later declared moot or controversial:

13. Reform movements

The Dhammayuttika Nikāya began in 1833 as a reform movement led by Prince Mongkut, son of King Rāma II of Siam:

It remained a Reform Movement until passage of the Saṅgha Act of 1902, which formally recognized it as the lesser of Thailand's 2 Theravāda denominations.

Mongkut was a Bhikkhu under the name of Vajirañāṇo for 27 years (1824–1851) before becoming King of Siam (1851–1868). In 1836 he became the first abbot of Wat Bowon Niwet Vihāra.

After the then 20-year-old prince entered monastic life in 1824, he noticed what he saw as serious discrepancies between the rules given in the Pāli Canon and the actual practices of Thai Bhikkhus and sought to upgrade monastic discipline to make it more orthodox.

Mongkut also made an effort to remove all non-Buddhist, folk religious, and superstitious elements which over the years had become part of Thai Buddhism.

Dhammayuttika monks were expected to eat only 1 meal a day (not 2) that was to be gathered during a traditional alms round.

The Dhammakāya Movement is a Thai Buddhist tradition which was started by Luang Pu Sodh Candasaro (1884-1959) in the early 20th century. The tradition is revivalist in nature and practices Dhammakāya meditation:

The movement opposes traditional magical rituals, superstition, folk religious practices, fortune telling and giving lottery numbers, and focuses on an active style of propagating and practicing meditation.

Features of the tradition include teaching meditation in a group, teaching meditation during ceremonies, teaching meditation simultaneously to monastics and lay people, teaching one main meditation method and an emphasis on lifelong ordination.

The Santi Asoke (Thai: “Peaceful Aśoka") or Chao Asok ("People of Aśoka") was established by Phra Bodhirak after he "declared independence from the Ecclesiastical Council (Saṅgha) in 1975".

Santi Asoke has been described as "a transformation of the "forest monk" revival of the 1920s and 1930s" and "is more radical than the Dhammakāya Movement in its criticism of Thai society and in the details of its own vision of what constitutes a truly religious-moral community."

The Sekhiya Dhamma Saṅgha are a group of activist monks focusing on modern issues in Thailand (i.e., deforestation, poverty, drug addiction, and AIDS). The group was founded in 1989 among a growth of Buddhist social activism in Thailand in the latter half of the 20th century.

While criticized for being too concerned and involved with worldly issues, Buddhist social activists cite duty to the community as justification for participation in engaged Buddhism

14. Position of women

Unlike in Burma and Śrī Lanka, the Bhikkhunī lineage of women monastics was never established in Thailand:

Women primarily participate in religious life either as lay participants in collective merit-making rituals or by doing domestic work around temples.

A small number of women choose to become Maechi, non-ordained religious specialists who permanently observe either the Eight or Ten Precepts. Maechi do not receive the level of support given to Bhikkhu and their position in Thai society is the subject of some discussion.

There have been efforts to attempt to introduce a Bhikkhunī lineage in Thailand as a step towards improving the position of women in Thai Buddhism. The main proponent of this movement has been Dhammānanda Bhikkhunī:

Unlike similar efforts in Śrī Lanka, these efforts have been extremely controversial in Thailand:

Women attempting to ordain have been accused of attempting to impersonate monks (a civil offense in Thailand), and their actions have been denounced by many members of the ecclesiastic hierarchy.

In 1928 a secular law was passed in Thailand banning women's full ordination in Buddhism.

Varanggana Vanavichayen became the first female monk to be ordained in Thailand in 2002. Some time after this, the secular law was revoked.

On 28 February 2003, Dhammānanda Bhikkhunī received full monastic ordination as a Bhikkhunī of the Theravāda tradition in Śrī Lanka, making her the first modern Thai woman to receive full ordination as a Theravāda Bhikkhunī:

She is Abbess of Songdhammakalyani Monastery, the only temple in Thailand where there are Bhikkhunīs. It was founded by her mother, Voramai Kabilsingh (1908-2003), a Mahāyāna Bhikkhunī, in the 1960s.

In Mahāyāna Buddhism, practised in Taiwan, mainland China, Hong Kong, and Tibet, female ordinations are common,

but in countries that adhere to the Theravāda branch of the religion, such as Śrī Lanka, Thailand, and Myanmar, women were banned from becoming ordained about 8 centuries ago,

"for fear that women entering monastic life instead of bearing children would be a disruption of social order", according to Kittipong Narit, a Buddhist scholar at Bangkok's Thammasat University.

Critics charge that the ban on female ordination is about patriarchy and power. The status quo benefits those in power and they refuse to share the perks with outsiders.

Most objections to the reintroduction of a female monastic role hinge on the fact that the monastic rules require that both 5 ordained monks and 5 ordained Bhikkhunīs be present for any new Bhikkhunī ordination. Without such a quorum, critics say that it is not possible to ordain any new Theravāda Bhikkhunī.

The Thai hierarchy refuses to recognize ordinations in the Dharmaguptaka tradition (the only currently existing Bhikkhunī ordination lineage) as valid Theravāda ordinations, citing differences in philosophical teachings and, more critically, monastic discipline.