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Buddhism in Thailand is relatively conservative and considered to be close to the earliest forms of Buddhism. It originated in India and came to Thailand around the 5th century, and since then has steadily become more and more widespread.
The main manifestation of Buddhism in Thailand are the wats, the most important places of all the major cities, where both Buddhists and tourist gather to pray or to admire the stunning architecture and the fascinating Buddha images. And if you get a closer look at the daily life of the Thai people, you will see how Buddhism influences their thoughts and actions.
Read our quick guide to learn everything you need to know about Thai Buddhism.
Thai Buddhism comes from India, but is the result of many influences, such as the Theravada school from Sri Lanka, folk religion, and other Buddhist schools from the rest of Asia.
The biggest influence of Buddhism on the daily life of Thai people is perhaps the concept of “merit-making”. Buddhists believe that an external force protects the faithful and, in order to strengthen this force, one must behave well, help others, respect the elders, and follow Buddhist principles. This is particularly clear during Buddhist festivals, when every action (like cleaning the house, donating to charity, washing the elderly) is aimed at merit-making.
The importance of Thai Buddhism can be seen in the ubiquitous presence of wats and Buddha images, wonderful examples of Thai architecture and art, and one of the most interesting sights in the whole country.
We can say that Thai Buddhism had three big influences. Firstly from the Theravada school: It was imported from Sri Lanka and it used Pāli which was the language used for the scriptures. The Pāli Tipitaka is the most important religious text of Thai Buddhism, and the monastic code also comes from the Theravada Canon.
The second influence comes from Hinduism, mostly received from Cambodia during the Sukhothai Kingdom. Hinduism influenced the creation of the laws and the institution of the monarchy, and some of the rituals practiced in Thailand today are clearly of Hindu origin. Shrines dedicated to Brahma are one of the clearest examples that can still be seen nowadays.
Another influence is folk religion. The main purpose of this religion is to attract the favor of the phi, the local spirits, and it is mostly followed in rural areas. The observance of Buddhist principles is employed to please the spirits, and many restrictions followed by rural monks come from folk magic.
A wat (from Sanskrit, meaning “enclosure”) is a group of buildings inside a sacred precinct. It encompasses a vihara (quarters for monks), a temple, a building for lessons, and one chedi (or stupa) housing Buddha images. However, in everyday Thai, a wat is any place of worship (except for mosques and synagogues).
There are more than 30,000 Buddhist wats in Thailand, of all different ages and different styles. However, all the wats follow the same principle, and a Thai wat will consist of two parts: the Phutthawat (the area dedicated to Buddha), with the chedi; the ordination hall, called ubosot (or bot); and the viharn, the assembly hall. The second part is the Sangkhawat, where the monks live.
Every part of the wat represents the Buddhist conception of the universe, and every detail, decoration, and statue has its own rich symbolical meaning. The architecture follows the principle of peace, lightness, and floating, which helps to meditate successfully.
Buddha images are extremely important to Buddhists, and their features changed through the centuries. During the Dvaravati period (7th - 11th century), images were influenced by Indian and Khmer artists. Between the 8th and the 13th century, many Sri Viajay images were created, following the teachings of the Mahayana school. They have a naturalistic style and ideal body proportions, and an innate elegance as well.
Lopburi images (11th century or thereabouts) have a smiling Buddha with realistic hair, and the earlobes are unnaturally long. Lanna images with crystals or gemstones were created in the same period, and have lotus-bud-shaped hair curls, narrow lips and a big chest. Buddha is crossing his legs, and the soles of the feet are visible.
The style radically changes under the Sukhothai period, which depicts the superhuman traits of the Buddha. Modern images are often replicas of the Sukhothai ones. Faces are more realistic, and clothes are often decorated with flowers.
Monks are the officiants of ceremonies and are responsible for conveying the teaching of the Buddha. Many monks start when they are just 8 years old, serving as temple boys. This way, they gain a basic education about Buddhism and the scriptures. They then become novices, and after one or two years, they can receive upasampada, the higher ordination.
Lots of men decide to become monks for a vassa (a rainy season). Some remain monks after the first vassa, for about two years, and a part of those never return to the secular life. A period spent as a monk is required for many positions of leadership.
Monks are usually specialized in scholarship or meditation. Those specialized in scholarship, travel to education centers to keep studying the scriptures, and some of them rise up in the ecclesiastic hierarchy.
The influence of Buddhism in Thailand extends to festivals. Many holidays are closely related to Buddhism: two of the most important ones are Loy Krathong and Yi Peng.
Loy Krathong takes place in the 12th month of the traditional lunar calendar (around November), and it sees thousands of people launching their krathong (a small boat with candles and other goods) on the rivers of the country, creating a unique, fascinating setting. The krathong contains their wishes for the future, and it is an offering to the spirits of the waters.
Yi Peng is a similar Lanna festival held in Chiang Mai. It happens in the same period as the Loy Krathong. However, instead of small boats, people give their wishes to big lanterns (khom yoi) that will fly in the sky, lighting up the dark night. They do so in order to make merit and receive good luck for the coming year.
Understanding such a rich culture is a rewarding process that everyone should undergo. Travel to Thailand, and let our trip advisors craft the best itinerary for your trip, so that you will fully understand the rich complexity of Thai Buddhism, its tradition, and its importance in the shaping of the whole country.