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 Thailands 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.
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 Rs - 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.
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
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 persons passage - birth, ordination, marriage,
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 babys 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 ones 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 brides 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 deceaseds 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 villagers
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
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
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 ones 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
Update : 01-12-2001