Sunday, January 23, 2011

Buddhism in Thailand


Theravada Buddhism

Most Thai citizens are Theravada Buddhists. The doctrine of Theravada Buddhism comes in three parts (or baskets).
In the first basket are the doctrines of karma (the sum and the consequences of an individual's actions during the successive phases of his existence) and samsara (the eternal cycle of birth, death and rebirth). These doctrines were derived from the Indian thought of the Buddha's time but the Buddha invested the concept of karma with strong ethical implications. Taken together these ideas assert that evil acts have evil consequences for those committing them, and good acts yield good consequences, not necessarily in any one lifetime, but over the inevitable cycle of births and deaths. These concepts were introduced by Sidhartha Gautama in the 6th century BC. An Indian prince-turned-ascetic he became known as Buddha (the enlightened one).
The Buddha taught his disciples:
When you see, just see.
When you hear, just hear.
When you smell, just smell.
When you touch, just touch.
When you know, just know.
Thai Buddhists are encouraged to find their own truths and not to rely solely on the teachings of others.
The second basket presents the discourses of the Buddha and contains the dharma which defines the way to nirvana. Theravada doctrine stresses three principle aspects of existence: anicca (impermanence) dukkha (dissatisfaction) and anatta (insubstantiality). The truth of anicca reveals that no experience, no state of mind, no physical object lasts. Trying to hold on to experience, states of mind and objects which are constantly changing creates dukkha. Anatta is the understanding that all forms of life are related because every form originated in a previous one. And so, the foundation of the Therevada system lies in these Four Noble Truths: 1. suffering exists, 2. it is caused by craving or desire, 3. it can be made to cease, 4. it can be brought to an end by following the Noble Eightfold Path. The final Noble Truth contains the eight precepts to be followed by Therevada Buddhists: right view, or having an understanding of the Four Noble Truths; right thought, freedom from lust, ill will, and cruelty; right speech, which means no lying, gossiping, harsh language, and vain talk; right action, by which killing, stealing, and sexual misconduct are prohibited; right livelihood, which requires an individual's sustenance be earned in a way that is not harmful to living things; right effort, by which good thoughts are encouraged and bad thoughts are avoided or overcome; right mindfulness, or close attention to all states of the body; and right concentration, that is, concentration on a single object to bring about a special state of consciousness in meditation. Following the Noble Eightfold Path conscientiously is necessary if a person aspires to become a saint ready for nirvana.
The Theravada idea of karma (and the Thai peasant's understanding of it) charges the individual with responsibility for good and evil acts and their consequences.The Buddhist theory of karma is well expressed in the Thai proverb Tham Dee, Dai Dee, Tham Chua, Dai Chua (good actions bring good results; bad actions bring bad results). In Thai thinking, the ideas of merit and demerit so essential to the doctrine of karma are linked linguistically to those of good and evil; good and merit are both bun; evil and the absence of merit are bap. Acts that bring merit are those that conform as closely as possible to the ethical demands of the Noble Eightfold Path. From the beginning the Buddha acknowledged that it would be difficult for a layperson to follow all aspects of the Noble Eightfold Path singlemindedly. The demands on the layperson are therefore less rigorous, and the powerful ethical content of the Noble Eightfold Path can be reduced to just five precepts. The laity are expected to refrain from taking life, stealing, lying, engaging in illicit sexual relations, and drinking intoxicating liquors. Many Buddhist principles, while not actually practiced, are venerated as ideals. Acts that support the brotherhood of monks are included as a way to gain merit. Providing material support, such as food, to the members of the monkhood, showing them deference, and supporting the construction and maintenance of the Wat have come to be the chief methods of gaining merit in Thailand. Making merit (Tham Bun) is an important social and religious activity in Thailand.


The concept of rebirth is widely accepted in Thailand and is central to the structure of Buddhist belief. The ultimate end of Theravada Buddhism is nirvana, the extinction of grasping at the moment, and thus an end to all suffering. Effectively, this is also an end to the cycle of rebirths (both moment-to-moment and life-to-life) that is existence. Most Thai people place little emphasis on the achievement of nirvana, whether as a final state after many rebirths or as an interior condition. In reality most Thai Buddhists aim for rebirth in a ‘better’ existence. By feeding monks, giving donations and performing regular worship at the local temple Thais seek to acquire merit.

Thai Temples (or Wat)

Thai Buddhism has no particular day of the week when Thais are supposed to make temple visits. Nor is there anything corresponding to a mass over which a monk presides. Instead Thai Buddhists go to a temple (or Wat) whenever they feel like it. At the temple Thai people will offer traditional symbols of respect, such as lotus buds, incense and candles, at the various alters. They may offer food to the temple monks or simply listen meditatively to the monks chanting. Visitors may also seek counsel from individual monks. Most Thai people relax immediately on entering a temple compound, absorbing strength from the quiet, supportive environment.

Thai Buddhist Monks

Socially every Thai male is expected to become a monk for a short period of his life, usually between the time he finishes school and the time he starts on a career. In Thailand, it is a popular belief that by becoming a monk great merit is gained, merit which also accrues to parents who sponsor the ordination. Monks (recognised by their orange robes) are very highly respected and there are a number of Thai customs relating to the special status of monks in Thai society. Lay people are expected to sit or stand with their heads at a lower level than that of a monk. Because of their religious discipline, Thai monks are forbidden physical contact with women. Women are therefore expected to make way for passing monks to ensure that accidental contact does not occur. A variety of methods are employed to ensure that no incidental contact (or the appearance of such contact) between women and monks occurs. Women making offerings to monks place their donation at the feet of the monk, or on a cloth laid on the ground or a table. Powders or ungents intended to carry a blessing are applied to Thai women by monks using the butt of a candle or stick.

Thai Spirits and Spirit Houses
The world of the Thai villager (and that of many city folk as well) is inhabited by a host of spirits. Although these beliefs are not sanctioned by Buddhist scripture or even by Buddhist tradition, many monks, themselves of rural origin and essentially tied to the village, are as likely as the peasant to accept the rituals associated with spirits. Most important are the spirits included in the rather heterogeneous category of Phi, thought to have power over human beings. This includes spirits believed to have a permanent existence and others that are reincarnations of deceased human beings. Phi exist virtually everywhere, in trees, hills, water, animals, the earth, and so on. Some are malevolent, others beneficial. The ghosts of notable people are said to reside in small shrines along the roads and are referred to as 'spirit lords.' They are often petitioned in prayers and can enter and possess the bodies of mediums to give oracles. Another category of spirits consists of the Chao (guardian spirits), of which perhaps the most important is the Chao Thi, or guardian of the house compound. Fixed on a post in the compound of most houses in Thailand is a small spirit dwelling. Without this vital structure you’re likely to have the spirits living with you! Food offerings are made to the Chao Thi on special days. The spirit is told of the arrival of guests of projected journeys by members of the family, and of births and deaths. The spirit's intercession is also sought during illness and misfortune. Other spirits protect gardens, the rice fields, and the Wat. The ghosts of people who died violently under mysterious circumstances or whose funeral rites were improperly performed constitute another class of Phi; almost all of these spirits are malevolent. Among the more important is the evil phi pop (ghoul spirit), which, at the instigation of witches, can enter human beings and consume their internal organs!

Fortune Tellers

Thai people do not rely solely on the accumulation of merit to bring about an improved state of being. Other forms of causality, ranging from astrology to the action of spirits of various kinds, are also part of their outlook. Thai people will often consult fortune tellers. For a fee the fortune teller will offer predictions and advice. Thai people do not believe this practice compromises their religion.

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