Buddhism in Thailand
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Buddhism in Thailand is largely of the Theravada school. Nearly 95% of Thailand's population is Buddhist of the Theravada school, though Buddhism in this country has become integrated with folk beliefs as well as Chinese religions from the large Thai-Chinese population. Buddhist temples in Thailand are characterized by tall golden stupas, 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.
According to many historians,[which?] around 228 BC Sohn Uttar Sthavira (one of the royal monks sent by Ashoka the Great) came to Suvarnabhumi (or Suvannabhumi) which some identify with Thailand along with other monks and sacred books.
During the 5th to 13th centuries, the Southeast Asian empires were influenced directly from India, so that these empires essentially followed traditions of Mahāyāna Buddhism. The Chinese pilgrim Yijing noted in his travels that in these areas, all major sects of Indian Buddhism flourished. The 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 9th to the 13th centuries, the Mahāyāna Buddhist 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 neighboring Thailand.
After the decline of Buddhism in India, missions of monks from Sri Lanka gradually converted Burmese Buddhism to Theravāda, and in the next two centuries also brought Theravāda Buddhism to the areas of Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia, where it supplanted previous forms of Buddhism. Theravada Buddhism was made the state religion only with the establishment of the Thai kingdom of Sukhothai in the 13th century AD.
The details of the history of Buddhism in Thailand from the 13th to the 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. The anthropologist-historian S. J. Tambiah, however, has suggested a general pattern for that era, at least with respect to the relations between Buddhism and the sangha on the one hand and the king on the other hand. In Thailand, as in other Theravada Buddhist kingdoms, the king was in principle thought of as patron and protector of the religion (sasana) and the sangha, while sasana and the sangha 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 sangha 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 sangha. That control was coupled with greater support and patronage of the ecclesiastical hierarchy. When a king was weak, however, protection and supervision of the sangha also weakened, and the sangha declined. This fluctuating pattern appears to have continued until the emergence of the Chakri Dynasty in the last quarter of the 18th century.
By the 19th century, and especially with the coming to power in 1851 of King Mongkut, who had been a monk himself for twenty-seven years, the sangha, 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 Pali Buddhist scripture. Moreover, at that time the immigration of numbers of monks from Burma was introducing the more rigorous discipline characteristic of the Mon sangha. Influenced by the Mon and guided by his own understanding of the Tipitaka, 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 Mahanikaya order, perhaps somewhat influenced by Mongkut's reforms but with a less exacting discipline than the Dhammayuttika order, comprised about 95 percent 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 sangha 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 sangha reforms that Mongkut started were continued by his successor. In 1902 King Chulalongkorn (Rama V, 1868–1910) made the new sangha hierarchy formal and permanent through the Sangha Law of 1902, which remained the foundation of sangha administration in modern Thailand.
Three major forces have influenced the development of Buddhism in Thailand. The most visible influence is that of the Theravada school of Buddhism, imported from Sri Lanka. While there are significant local and regional variations, the Theravada 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 Tipitaka 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 Tipitaka. The monastic code (Patimokkha) followed by Thai monks is taken from the Pāli Theravada Canon.
The second major influence on Thai Buddhism is Hindu beliefs received from Cambodia, particularly during the Sukhothai period. Vedic 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.
Folk religion—attempts to propitiate and attract the favor of local spirits known as phi—forms the third major influence on Thai Buddhism. While Western observers (as well as urbane and 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 proscribed in Buddhist texts (see Digha Nikaya 2, ff).
Additionally, more minor influences can be observed stemming from contact with Mahayana Buddhism. Early Buddhism in Thailand is thought to have been derived from an unknown Mahayana tradition. While Mahayana Buddhism was gradually eclipsed in Thailand, certain features of Thai Buddhism—such as the appearance of the bodhisattva Lokesvara in some Thai religious architecture, and the belief that the king of Thailand is a bodhisattva himself—reveal the influence of Mahayana concepts.
The only other bodhisattva prominent in Thai religion is Maitreya, often depicted in Budai form, and often confused with Phra Sangkajai (Thai: พระสังกัจจายน์), 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 Mahayana influence has stemmed from the presence of Chinese immigrants in Thai society. While some Chinese have "converted" to Thai-style Theravada Buddhism, many others maintain their own separate temples in the East Asian Mahayana tradition. The growing popularity of the goddess Kuan Yin in Thailand (a form of Avalokitesvara) may be attributed to the Chinese Mahayanist presence in Thailand.
While Thailand is currently 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 government oversight.
In addition to the ecclesiastic leadership of the sangha, 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- monks attempting to revive the Theravada bhikkhuni 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 Sangha Supreme Council granting the applicant permission to travel abroad; Buddhist monk identification card; a copy of House/Temple Registration; and submit any previous Thai Passport or a certified copy thereof.
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, Kathin)—-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.
Calls for state establishment
In 2007, calls were made by some Thais for Buddhism to be recognized in the new national constitution as a state religion. This suggestion was initially rejected by the committee charged with drafting the new constitution. This move prompted a number of protests from supporters of the initiative, including a number of marches on the capital and a hunger strike by twelve Buddhist monks. Some critics of the plan, including scholar and social critic Sulak Sivaraksa, have claimed that the movement to declare Buddhism a national religion is motivated by political gain, and may be being manipulated by supporters of ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Sinawatra.
The Constitution Drafting Committee later voted against the special status of Buddhism, provoking the religious groups. The groups condemned the Committee and the constitution draft. On August 11, Sirikit, the Queen of Thailand, expressed her concern over the issue. According to her birthday speech, Buddhism is beyond politics. Some Buddhist organizations announced the break of the campaigns a day after.
Ordination and clergy
Like in most other Theravada nations, Buddhism in Thailand is represented primarily by the presence of Buddhist monks, who serve as officiants 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 dek wat (Thai: เด็กวัด) (literally, 'child[ren] of the wat'). Dek wat are traditionally no younger than eight, and do minor housework around the temple. The primary reason for becoming a dek wat 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 dek wat 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 dek wat has declined significantly. However, many government-run schools continue to operate on the premise of the local village temple.
Formerly known as dek wat, typically for four years or more, boys now typically ordain as a samanen (Thai: สามเณร) often shortened to nen (Thai: เณร). In some localities, girls may become samaneri. Novices live according to the Ten Precepts, but are not required to follow the full range of monastic rules found in the Patimokkha (Buddhist monastic code). There are a few other significant differences between novices and monks. 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 amounts to a gap in seating, rather than the separation observed between monks and the laity. Novices usual 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 one or two years. At the age of 20, they become eligible to receive upasampada, 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 rainy season (known in Pāli as vassa, and in Thai as phansa). Those who remain monks beyond their first vassa typically remain monks for between one and three years, officiating at religious ceremonies in surrounding villages and possibly receiving further education in reading and writing (possibly including the Kham or Tham scripts traditionally used in recording religious texts). After this period of one to three years, most young monks return to lay life, going on to marry and begin 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.
Monks who do not return to lay life typically specialize in either scholarship or meditation. Those who specialize in scholarship typically travel to regional education centers to begin further instruction in the Pāli language and the scriptures, and may then continue on to the major monastic universities located in Bangkok. The route of scholarship is also taken by monks who desire to rise in the ecclesiastic hierarchy, as promotions within the government-run system is contingent on passing examinations in Pāli and Dhamma studies.
Monks who specialize in meditation typically seek out a known master in the meditation tradition, under whom they will study for a period of years. 'Meditation monks' are particularly revered in Thai society as possessing great virtue and as potential sources of supernatural powers. Ironically, monks of the Thai Forest Tradition often find themselves struggling to find time and privacy to meditate in the face of enthusiastic supporters seeking their blessings and attention.
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 three days, or three weeks, or three months or three years, or example of three weeks and three days. This retreat is expected of all male Thai, rich or poor, and often is scheduled after high school. Such retreat brings honor to the family and blessings (merit) to the young man. Thai make allowances for men who follow this practice, such as holding open a job.
- Thammayut Nikaya (Pali) (Thai: ธรรมยุตนิกาย) who adhere strictly to the monastic discipline is an order of Theravada Buddhist monks founded in the 19th century by King Mongkut, son of King Rama II as a reform movement that later became an independent denomination recognized by the Thai Sangha.
- Dhammakāya Movement founded in Thailand in the 1970s. It was criticized to be a cult of personality rather than a legitimate Buddhist movement, and was investigated by the Thai government in the 1990s but still grows quickly and nothing has been determined to be illegal although their consumerist views are frowned upon by some, while others may view the material wealth as simply a blessing to be freely accepted and celebrated.
- Santi Asoke (Thai: สันติอโศก) literally Peaceful Asoke established by Phra Bodhirak after he "declared independence from the Ecclesiastical Council (Sangha) in 1975"
Position of women
Unlike in Myanmar (Burma) and Sri Lanka, the female Theravada bhikkhuni lineage was never established in Thailand. As a result, there is a widespread perception among Thais that women are not meant to play an active role in monastic life; instead, they are expected to live as lay followers, making merit in the hopes of being born in a different role in their next life. As a result, lay 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 Mae Ji, non-ordained religious specialists who permanently observe either the eight or ten precepts. Mae Ji do not generally receive the level of support given to ordained monks, and their position in Thai society is the subject of some discussion.
Recently, there have been efforts to attempt to introduce a bhikkhuni lineage in Thailand as a step towards improving the position of women in Thai Buddhism. The main proponent of this movement has been Dhammananda Bhikkhuni who is the Abbess of Wat Songdhammakalyani a temple that was founded by her mother, Venerable Voramai in the 1960s. Unlike similar efforts in Sri 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. Most objections to the reintroduction of a female monastic role hinge on the fact that the monastic rules require that both five ordained monks and five ordained bhikkhunis be present for any new bhikkhuni ordination. Without such a quorum, critics say that it is not possible to ordain any new Theravada bhikkhuni. The Thai hierarchy refuses to recognize ordinations in the Taiwanese tradition (the only currently existing bhikkhuni ordination lineage) as valid Theravada ordinations, citing differences in philosophical teachings, and (more critically) monastic discipline.
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Buddhism in Thailand.|
- Anagarika laity
- Buddha images in Thailand
- Dhammakaya Movement
- Dhammayuttika Nikaya
- Luang Pu Thuat
- Mae Ji
- Santi Asoke
- Supreme Patriarch of Thailand
- Thai Forest Tradition
- Mahasati meditation
- Thai temple art and architecture
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