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BUDDHISM IN THAILAND

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Introduction: Thailand has been known by various epithets such as "Land of the Free", "Land of Smile" and "Land of the Yellow Robes". The last title vividly describes the religion most widely embraced by the Thai people. 

 Thai history is normally divided into four main periods - Sukhothai, Ayutthaya, Thon Buri and Rattanakosin (Bangkok). The Sukhothai period dates back 700-800 years when Buddhism was established as the religion of Thais. Of a total population of fifty three million about 95 percent have declared themselves Buddhists, mostly of the Theravada (Hinayana) school. The latest available statistics show that there are over 30,000 temples scattered throughout Thailand’s seventy five provinces. The number of ordained monks varies, however, depending on the time of the year. The highest figures are recorded during Buddhist Lent in the rainy season, from July to September, and normally stand around 350,000. Apart from fully ordained monks, there are young novices, normally between six and nineteen years of age, who live their lives in accordance with only 10 precepts as opposed to the 227 upheld by Buddhist monks. Buddhist monks are easily recognised by their shaven heads, yellow robes and measured manners. These monks, together with their Wats (Buddhist monasteries) have played an important role in Thai society for over 700 years. Their role in the fields of education, economy and socio-cultural spheres are described below in brief. 

Education: 

 Since early times monks have made important contributions in the domain of education. The first schools established in Thailand were set up in the ground of Buddhist monasteries and monks, in addition to their religious duties, taught the so-called 3 R’s - reading, writing and arithmetic - as well as other subjects, to local youngsters. 

 These Wat Schools were widely dispersed throughout the entire country and were operated at a very minimal cost as monks accepted no payment for their services. During the reign of King Chulalongkom (Rama V) formal education was introduced to Thailand. Government schools were set up one by one outside the monastery compound, and as the years passed, Wat schools were gradually taken over by the Ministry of Education, thus giving monks a diminishing role to play in formal education. Professional teachers are being trained and are now gradually replacing monks. Buddhist monks have progressively taught fewer and fewer subjects and the last remaining subject which they have been permitted by the Ministry of officials to teach is "Civil and Moral Ethics". Their role as teachers in the formal educational sphere of the country has now virtually ended. However, their legacy stands clear for all to see in the large number of school buildings under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Education and other governmental institutions still standing within the compound of monasteries. The names of so many schools, well recognised for their high scholastic standards, are reminiscent of the active roles of Buddhist monks in times past. They are known by such descriptions as "Wat Thepsirin School", "Wat Suthi araram School" and so on. 

 Many education-minded Buddhist monks are still, however, involved in the construction of schools. They may literally build schools themselves or hire construction firms to do the work for them, but money for construction and operation costs comes from donations. Teaching is conducted in accordance with the approved curriculum and pupils are normally admitted free of charge. 

Economic Sphere: 

 Buddhism as practised in Thailand has played certain beneficial roles in the sphere of the economy. Many Buddhist teachings give practical advice on how to maintain an economically viable and satisfactory household. The Buddha taught the layman who intends to become successful, economically or otherwise, to follow the four rules of conduct (The Fourfold Path to Success or, in Pali, Iddhipada). These include, for example, hard work and constant attention to whatever one is doing. Buddhism does not place great emphasis on economic achievement, but Buddhist teachings can be made applicable to economic development. 

 Generally, Buddhist monks do not enjoin the people into feverish economic activities. Their teachings tend to give weight to a moderate way of life. Economic gains may be pursued but not as an overriding goal. 

 One essence of Buddhism is the emphasis on the "middle way", but this does not necessarily impede the path toward economic development. 

 In addition to teachings related to economic activities, Buddhist monasteries, particularly in rural areas, give practical lessons which augment the skills or practical knowledge useful for laymen and monks. These skills may include herbal medicine, carpentry, construction techniques, painting and other crafts. Usually, by necessity and not by choice, the abbot of a monastery may have to supervise the construction of a school building or a meeting hall. Many abbots undertake this task themselves so that labour costs will be reduced to virtually nothing. Thus, those intending to be ordained for a brief period can also get practical experience in construction techniques. Laymen are indebted to their sojourns as monks for the acquisition of extra skills. They may have learnt about carpentry, painting of building or even sculpting and other crafts which can be very useful for their livelihood. 

Buddhism and the Rites of Passage in Thailand 

 Since Buddhism is such an integral part of Thai life, it is not surprising that it plays a particularly important role at those critical periods that serve to mark a person’s passage - birth, ordination, marriage, and death. 

 Birth: Parents often consult a monk when choosing a name for their child. The name has to be linguistically satisfying and at the same time conveys a good meaning. Other religious practices following a birth may vary from region to region. In the central part of the country, for example, it is customary to shave the baby’s head when he or she is one month old. This essentially Brahamanic rite, known as the khwan ceremony, may be accompanied by a Buddhist ceremony in which monks recite passages from the sacred texts. 

 Ordination: The second rite in the life span of most Thai men is ordination into monkhood. It is considered that monkhood matures a man and prepares him for his adult life. This practice occurs any time after the man has reached the age of twenty and many parents would prefer that ordination take place before marriage or before starting an official career. Entering monkhood also allows the man an opportunity to make merit for the souls of deceased relatives, or for one’s parents when they are still living. It also gives the man a chance to fulfil a vow he may have made to the Buddha when seeking help in solving a personal or family problem. 

 Ordination generally takes place throughout the month of July, prior to the commencement of the three month rains retreat, observed during the rainy season. On the day before the ordination is scheduled to take place, the man will have his head shaved and will don white clothes. Monks may be invited to his home for chanting and celebrations are held. Friends, neighbours and relatives may participate in the ceremonies, thereby gaining much merit. On the day of the ordination, the prospective monk will be carried around the monastery three times before being taken into the ordination hall where a group of monks await him. After undergoing examination by senior monks before an image of the Buddha, and provided that he satisfies all the necessary conditions, he will be accepted into monkhood and don the saffron robes. For the period that he is ordained he is expected to live in the monastery, exemplifying the Buddhist ideal of life and undergo rigorous training in body and mind control. He is free to revert to the status of laymen at any time he so desires. 

 Marriage: Buddhism also plays an important role in the ceremony which binds two people in the sacred bond of marriage. Traditionally, monks are invited to chant in the home of the bridal couple on the evening before their marriage. The following morning the couple offer them food. On the morning of the wedding, the monks partake of food at the home of the bride’s parents, and chant verses from the scared texts as a blessing for the bridal couple. Upon completion of the chanting, the most senior monk sprinkles holy waters on the bride and groom and all the people gathered at the ceremony. The actual wedding takes place either directly after this ceremony is completed or later in the afternoon. Elder and other guests pour holy waters from a conch shell onto the hands of the couple. The hands are held in an attitude of worship as the couple kneel on a low bench, each wearing a wreath of many unspun threads, symbolically joining them together. 

 Funeral Rites: These vary according to local customs, the type of death and whether the person was a layman or monk at the time of his demise. As the moment death approaches, Buddhist chants are whispered, if possible, into the ear of the dying person. Once death has occurred, a bathing ceremony is usually conducted on the first afternoon, either at home if he dies there, or at the monastery where his body is taken from a hospital or any other location. Monks, relatives and friends pour scented water on the outstretched right palms of the deceased and a scared thread is passed three times around three different parts of the body, symbolising the bonds of passion, anger and ignorance. The thread is normally removed at the time of cremation. The body is next placed in a coffin decorated with fresh flowers and that evening monks are invited to the deceased’s home, or to a pavilion in the monastery grounds where the coffin is placed, for evening chanting. Friends and relatives come to present wreaths or garlands of fresh flowers and listen to the chanting. 

 Although cremation may follow immediately, it is common for evening prayers to continue for at least one week. The body is either entombed in a cemetery or kept at home where monks are invited to perform chanting ceremonies at regular intervals. On the day before the funeral (which may take place on any convenient day, except a Friday which is reserved for happier occasions) the coffin is taken to a special pavilion reserved for such rites. That evening monks are invited to chant verses on behalf of the deceased as family and friends pay their final respects. On the day of cremation, a final service is held followed by a lunch offering and a sermon.  

 The actual cremation can be performed in a variety of ways such as burning the body in a wooden coffin on a funeral pyre or in a modern crematorium. The ashes of the deceased are then collected, some to be placed in ums to be kept at home near the family or in the monastery grounds, while the rests are scattered in the sea or cast to the wind. Each year, on the anniversary of the death, relatives will again invite monks to chant verses and bless the ashes. On this occasion food and gifts can be offered to the dead person through the medium of the monks. 

Social Welfare Roles of Buddhist Monks 

 The Buddha taught that His followers should cultivate Metta and Karuna, together with a host of other virtues. Metta is goodwill towards all sentient beings, while Karuna is compassion for those who are less fortunate than ourselves. Perhaps it is because of these two teachings that some Buddhist monks become actively involved in matters of social welfare. 

 One very well-known activity in this field is the treatment of drug addiction given by a monk who lives in the province of Saraburi in the central part of Thailand. That monk, together with his assistants, has gone to great pains to find a herbal cure to administer with therapeutic methods. Results have shown that his treatment is more than seventy percent effective in treating drug addiction. The monk has had to make a lot of personal sacrifices as the treatment involves many expenses including the cost of locating and producing the herbal medicines, the cost of constructing and upkeeping small cottages and residential hall for addicts receiving treatment, the cost of meals for patients and the cost of paying assistants involved in the treatment process. Donations have been received, but not at a rate commensurate with the demand. The Magsaysay Award Committee recognised the work which this monk has been doing, and about ten years ago, conferred upon him the Award for Humanitarian Service. The Award carried with it a purse of $10,000 US. That amount has subsequently been used to further the cause of the drug cure. 

 This monk is just one amongst literally hundreds who are engaged in one way or another with the health care of the people. Certain monks specialise in curing, or producing cures for certain diseases and afflictions such as sinus, leprosy, cancer and even rabies. 

 Buddhist monks do not treat only physical illnesses, but also perform excellent services for those who fell unhappy, suffer nervous disorders or undergo mental breakdowns. Quite often when feeling depressed, people will go to a monastery to help them find peace of mind. They may not go to see anybody is particular, but may just sit or wander around within the compound of the monastery. The peace and tranquillity to be found in the monastery is most curative, almost miraculously so. Some people may enter the main part of the monastery where the Buddha image is housed. These people will pay homage before the image and seek solace from it. Some may visit a monk, normally a senior one, to seek advice on possible ways out of their problems. 

The Wat as a Store House 

 Some people in rural areas often feel insecure about keeping their valuables in their homes, so turn to the monastery abbot and request permission to store them in the monastery. 

 The Wat is not only the villager’s ‘safe deposit box’, but it is also a storehouse for documents or artefacts of historical significance. In past times, palm leaves were used for the purpose of recording in place of paper. For hundreds of years it has been a common practice for monks to record the Pali texts on palm leaves which are threaded together. When giving a sermon, particularly from the Pali text, these palm leaves will be unfolded in an accordion manner and the text read. Palm leaves were also used to record historical events or stories of ancient kingdoms and Thai city-states. 

 The monastery is also the storehouse for Buddha images. These come in various sizes, some quite huge measuring over five metres tall while others are much smaller, only about 10 inches. Such images are used for public veneration and objects of meditation. There are also other Buddha images of even smaller sizes which come in the form of a medallion and bear a variety of designs. The designs often reflect the belief or values upheld during a particular period. These images are normally worn on a chian around the neck and serve to remind the wearer of the Buddha and his teachings. They are believed by some people to have powers to advert danger and misfortune. 

 Both types of images are stored in large quantities in monasteries. By studying the design and other aspects of these images, one can gain insight into the social life of the Thais through history. 

The Wat as an Inn and Hostel 

 In the past, when inns or hotels were non-existent, people travelling from one place to another had nowhere to stay overnight, unless they had friends or relatives in the area. They, therefore, would turn to the monastery, seeking permission from the abbot to spend the night there. 

 During the Songkran Festival which takes place on April 13, people flock by the thousands to the northern province of Chiang Mai where it is most popularly celebrated. Hotels and guest houses cannot accommodate the large number of visitors, so they turn to the local monasteries and schools. Each monastery usually has an openside community hall where the people can sleep. In return for the hospitality the visitor give donations to the monastery. 

 The hospitality of the monastery is not restricted to the festival season only and all through the year it offers accommodation to people who are in need. Many people in the rural areas like to send their children to school in Bangkok. Sometimes it is difficult and expensive to find accommodation so these boys take refuge in the city monasteries. These boys, known as monastery boys, live with the monks, assisting them with their daily chores, such as washing, cleaning and carrying food containers. These boys not only receive accommodation, but are also fed and given instruction in the Buddhist tenets. Throughout the years thousands of young boys and men have received such hospitality and because of this kindness, many young people have been able to complete their education. 

The Wat and Governmental Functions 

 The village monastery usually has a large meeting hall and a playground. The district unit of the Royal Thai Government may make use of the hall for the meeting of district functionaries and village headman. The playground may be used on various occasions, such as meetings of government officials and villagers, parliamentary elections and conscription. Health officials may also use the playground when vaccinating the local people and officials from the Ministry of Trade may make use of it as a station of buying rice at a guaranteed price or as a distribution point for selling certain commodities at a specially low price. 

The Wat as a Socio-Cultural Centre 

 The Wat offers many uses to Thai society, particularly in the villages. Village youth like to gather there in the early evening hours to play sports such as takraw and football. Some may participate in cycling while parents take their small children there for strolls. Apart from being a centre of religion, it is also a centre for recreation. 

 During the festival seasons, the Wat has a very important role to play. Fairs are organised in the monastery compounds, stalls are set up to sell merchandise of various types. There are games for children such as darts, hoopla, ferris wheels and luckydip. Movies are shown alongside performances of traditional folk opera and exhibitions of Thai-style boxing. There are also concerts and singing competitions. Everybody in the village looks forward to the festival season with much enthusiasm. 

 The Wat fairs are the place where the villagers have a chance to express their common social and cultural membership and esprit de corps. Their participation underlines their sense of belonging to a common way of life and cultural heritage. In the southern part of Thailand, shadow plays depicting the Thai version of the Ramayana are normally performed. In other parts of the country people perform music, dance and plays of local variations or of local tastes. Wat fairs thus assist in the preservation of time-honoured traditions. 

 In addition, certain monasteries are famous for their architectural style, excellent sculpture and beautiful mural paintings. These are parts of the cultural heritage upheld by the Thai Wat. 

 Buddhism plays an integral part in the life of the Thais. First and foremost, it inculcates a Buddhist view. One of the basic tenets of Buddhism is the law of causation; that is, everything that happens must have a cause, explainable by either past or present karma (deeds). The ultimate cause of all happenings, particularly one’s problems, is aijja or ignorance. Desire, particularly in the extreme form, is the immediate root cause of all problems. Buddhism puts great emphasis on practising the middle path. Perhaps it is no coincidence then that Thais are known for their moderate outlook. 

 Mention has been made about the important roles of Buddhism and the Wat in Thai society. Thus it is no exaggeration to say that, to the majority of Thais, Buddhism permeates their way of life from birth through death.  

Source: Today Magazine, Bangkok, 8/1997

 


Computer typing: Lydia Quang Nhu
Update : 01-12-2001

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