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Thailand is known as “the Land of Smiles”, but also as “the Land of Buddhism”. More than in other countries in Southeast Asia, Thai society and culture have been influenced by Theravada Buddhism, practiced by almost the whole population. No wonder many travelers go to Thailand to learn about Buddhism and meditation.
Buddhism is such an important part of Thai culture that its teachings dictate the daily actions of many people, especially those willing to make merit, i.e. to gain a force that can help and protect them.
Of course, the major witnesses to the importance of this are the thousands of temples you will find around the country, that are also major tourist attractions and destinations for many devotees.
Thai Buddhism belongs to the Theravada school. Buddhism came to Thailand around 250 BC, and has always been extremely important in the development of culture and society.
Thai monarchs are regarded as the main patrons of Buddhism in the country and, over the centuries, they contributed to the diffusion of Buddhism, with the construction of temples, monasteries, and schools.
The Theravada school comes from Sri Lanka, and is the backbone of Thai Buddhism. The doctrinal core of the school is found in the Pāli canon (Pāli is a language from the Indian subcontinent).
Theravada Buddhism is characterized by conservative views about doctrine and monastic discipline, and it strongly believes that insight must come from the aspirant’s experience, application of knowledge, and critical reasoning.
Differences with other schools come from the systematization of Buddha’s teachings. Theravadins aim for a perfect interpretation of the teachings of Buddha, to state his system with precision. For example, Theravadins do not believe that arthats (those who have reached nirvana) can regress, but they see them as perfect beings. And, for them, insight is perfect and comes all at once; it is not a gradual progression.
Thai Buddhism has also been influenced by Hindu beliefs, coming mostly from Cambodia during the Sukhothai Kingdom (around the 14th century). Hindu beliefs played an important role in the creation of law and order for Thai society; and many rituals practiced nowadays also come from Hinduism.
The importance of Hinduism has decreased under the Chakri Dynasty (the current one), but shrines to the god Brahma are still to be seen all around the country.
Another influence comes from folk religion. Its main belief is the existence of phi, local spirits that can help humans, whose favors have to be attracted with the observance of Buddhist principles (as merit-making). Astrology, amulets, and numerology, important to the average Thai, all come from folk religion.
Buddhism is a key component of the daily lives of many Thai. Daily offerings are given to the spirit houses, small tokens are left in the temples around the cities, and street dogs (soi) are fed to make merit. Making-merit, a fundamental concept in Buddhism, is what leads the lives of devotees.
Merit-making is done by monastics and laypeople, and it is achieved with mindfulness, meditation, chanting, and other rituals. This concept is so important in Buddhism that most of the daily actions of devotees are aimed towards it.
By making merit, Buddhists gain a protective force that will help them in this life and to reach enlightenment. People usually pursue merit-making for direct benefit in this world. However, in old age people tend to make merit for the next life.
Giving and visiting wats is extremely important. Since monks are not allowed to cook food, laypeople have to take care of them with food donations, and monks will teach them in return.
People will also bring robes and supplies to the monasteries, and will encourage teenagers to become ordained as monks. Many Thai people start their day with a visit to the wat.
Often merit-making is a group activity, and group merit-making is a pivotal custom during the most important Buddhist festivals, such as Songkran. It is believed that if merit-making is done as a group, those people will be born together in the next life.
“Cleansing” is an important concept in Buddhism. Burning incense is an action full of complex symbolic meanings.
First of all, it is a sacred offering and a way of honoring the Buddha. The fragrant smoke of the incense stick teaches the necessity to burn away negative qualities and try to reveal the pure self within us.
The strong aroma purifies the air of the wat and of the house, and it can inspire devotees to develop a pure mind. The scent will spread all over the rooms, as good actions will bring benefits to many.
Finally, incense will vanish into the air, reminding Buddhists that everything comes to an end.
In Thailand there are about 300,000 monks. Every man, before he turns 20, is required temporarily to become a monk (for about two or three months) to make merit and receive good karma. It is an important rite of passage that signifies the transition from youth to adulthood.
When men decide to become monks, they must go through many rituals. They have to shave their heads and their eyebrows; they have to accomplish daily tasks inside the wats; they have to respect hundreds of rules; e.g. they cannot laugh or speak loudly.
Many wats have monk chats. Everyone can sit down and chat with a monk and ask about their lives.
Sticking golden leaves to the Buddha’s statue is another way to honor him and his teachings. People believe that this practice can also alleviate pain. In case of pain, it will be necessary to stick the leaves on the part of the statue corresponding to the painful body part.
Of the many things that shape a culture, religion is one of the most important. Travelling to Thailand means immersing yourself in the Thai Buddhist culture and society, trying to learn more about the daily lives of the devotees and of the monks, and visiting stunning temples built all over the country to honor the Buddha.
Asia Highlights can assist you in planning your trip and ensuring a hassle-free experience. Our knowledgeable staff will help you choose your destinations and the best accommodation, so you will only have to focus on your experience and what you can get from it.
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