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Thai Buddhism

Thai Buddhism

By Chris QuanUpdated Nov. 2, 2022

Thai Buddhism is the national religion, present in every aspect of Thai culture. Thai Buddhism aims to learn the spirit and the behavior of Buddha and, in doing so, Buddhists refrain from doing any bad things, trying instead to purify the body and the mind.

Virtuous acts help Buddhists to make merit, and acts of renewal are also extremely important. Burning incense, washing Buddha statues and one’s body, cleaning the house etc., are all acts that help Buddhists to cleanse their spirit and progress in their spiritual life.

History of Buddhism in Thailand

Buddhism originated in India, and it must have come to Thailand around the 5th century, even though it became the official religion only under the Sukhothai Kingdom, in the 13th century. During this period, the King was the patron of the religion, but religion and politics remained separate.

Before the 19th century, the kingdoms of Thailand tended to expand and constantly change the king’s authority. With the appearance of the Chakri dynasty, this stopped, and the kingdom and the sangha (the monastic community) became more centralized. King Mongkut (1804-1868), who was a monk himself, began a reform movement that became the basis for the Dammayuttika order of monks and a more rigorous discipline for Buddhists.

The King was able to tighten the relations between monarchy and sangha, and his reforms were followed by his successors. Rama V (1868-1910) promulgated the Sangha Law in 1902, which is still the foundation of the sangha administration in Thailand. During its history, Buddhism experienced periods of liberalization or strict state control, depending on the governor of the time.

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The Story of Buddha

Prince Siddhartha Gautama lived more than 2,500 years ago in a city at the foot of the Himalaya. His parents were rich and lived in a huge castle.

His mother died giving birth to him, and he grew up inside his huge palace, without ever going out. He liked to help others and always avoided causing pain. But he soon realized that pain was unavoidable. He thus started meditating, and nothing could distract him.

Since nothing could cheer up the prince, his father allowed him to go for short trips to neighboring villages. In the first village, he saw an old man for the first time, and he realized that everyone will one day be old. Then he saw a sick man and understood that anyone could get sick.

When he saw a dead man, he realized that everyone will die. Finally, he saw a monk, and got inspired. He wanted to be free from the pain of life.

He then began to wander and meditate and, through the practice of asceticism, he finally found enlightenment, becoming the first Buddha.

Thai Buddhist Temple Attractions

There are more than 40,000 Buddhist temples in Thailand. The following ones are the most popular attractions among tourists:

Temple of the Emerald Buddha

The Emerald Buddha housed in the temple is a potent religio-political symbol and the palladium (protective image) of Thai society. The Emerald Buddha, a dark green statue, is in a standing form, about 66 cm (26 in) tall, carved from a single jade stone.

The temple is built in a style called Rattanakosin (old Bangkok style) and is made in the image of the temple of the ancient capital Ayudhya. It consists of over 100 buildings with “200 years of royal history and architectural experimentation” linked to it.

The construction of the Temple of the Emerald Buddha started when King Buddha Yodfa Chulaloke (Rama I) moved the capital from Thonburi to Bangkok in 1785. Wat Phra Kaew has undergone a number of renovations and additions in its history, particularly during the reign of King Rama III and Rama IV.

Wat Pho

Wat Pho, the “Temple of the Reclining Buddha”, is the most famous and most sacred temple in the country. Located in Bangkok, it houses a giant Buddha statue, and it is also famous for being the birthplace of the practice of Thai massage.

Wat Pha Sorn Kaew

Five hours north of Bangkok you will find Wat Pha Sorn Kaew, a stunning temple built on a tall mountain. The temple is really recent (its construction began in 2004), and its main features are the complex and beautiful mosaics that adorn the main pagoda. The temple is surrounded by breathtaking views of mountains and valleys.

Historical Park of Ayutthaya

On the other hand, some of the oldest temples are to be found in the Historical Park of Ayutthaya. Wat Phra Sri Sanphet, for example, is located inside the ruins of the old Royal Palace, and is characterized by big, bell-shaped pagodas built in the center of a rectangular platform.

Wat Phra That Doi Suthep

In the North, Chiang Mai is the place to visit if you want to see some of the finest temples in Thailand. Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, the most popular, is located on a mountain and is a noteworthy example of northern architecture. The temple encompasses shrines, trees, gardens, and terraces, making this the perfect place for walking and meditating, with spectacular views.

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Etiquette for Visiting a Wat

Visitors must be respectfully dressed and will be refused admission if inappropriately attired. This means covering the shoulders and knees and wearing shoes (or trainers/sneakers) with a heel. Shorts, flip-flops, sandals, singlets, spaghetti straps, fisherman’s pants are all inappropriate. Clothing can be hired from a small booth. Smoking is prohibited inside the complex. Please do not disturb monks or other people who are worshipping. Photography sometimes is not allowed in some buildings, please follow the rules.

Remember that you must not point at a monk or at a Buddha statue, neither with your fingers nor your feet. As a woman, you cannot touch a monk at all, even brush against his robes. Never touch or turn your back to an image of Buddha.

The Practice of Meditation

The traditional practice of meditation is described in ancient Buddhist texts. Buddhism uses meditation in order to pursue enlightenment and the nirvana. The goal of meditation is to develop mindfulness, concentration, and tranquility, thus removing hate, anger, and sensual lust.

In Thailand there are many meditation retreats, at which travelers can learn how to meditate through the teachings of knowledgeable monks. Some of them offer complete immersion in Buddhism, giving you the chance to lead the life of a monk.

You can find two-day retreats or ten-day ones, and everything will be provided, including accommodation and food. They constitute a wonderful opportunity to learn meditation in a unique way.

Explore Thai Buddhism with Asia Highlights

Devout Buddhist people always pay homage to a Buddha, with a simple bow or a full prostration. When visiting Thailand, let our guides show you more interesting facts about Buddhism and help you understand how it plays an important role in local people’s life.

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