Buddhist Culture in Thailand

In Thailand, Buddhism is the official religion of the state based on century-old traditions and principles. Thailand adopts so-called Theravada Buddhism which transformed Thai culture and society. Consequently, the Thai today differ in language, literature, music, drama, religion, family organization, and in the values and activities relating to these aspects of culture. In Theravada Buddhism, the activities are centered in the public places of worship – principally temples – which have remained a significant part of community life. There are religious activities centered in the home and its immediate environs (Peach, p. 1). The overseas Thai regard both temple and home observances as essential although, of course, individuals differ in the attention given one or the other.

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Bangkok is justly famous from every continent for the beautiful Hīnayāna Buddhist monastery/temples of the Thai people. Thai wat is colorful and sparkling which rise gloriously from their surroundings. The easiest way to locate temples in the labyrinth districts of the capital is simply to follow immigrant women who, dressed in freshly starched white jackets and black trousers, with baskets of incense and offerings on their arms, in the early morning hours stream toward a nearby temple (Kitiarsa, p. 1). These temples, when finally found, are not rewarding in appearance. Usually, they have a nondescript look, sooty and faded, and more likely than not will seem incongruous to a Westerner’s conception of a place of worship. Yet one has only to visit a temple on a festival day, when it is teeming with worshippers and piled high with a variety of offerings to the gods, to realize the importance of these places in the religious life of the Thai. Temples usually face an open courtyard where on festival occasions Thai plays are presented (Kitiarsa, p. 1). One feature of this courtyard is a fireplace where paper money and similar offerings to the gods are burned; and here also vendors with caged birds offer passersby the privilege, for a small fee, of releasing a bird and thus doing a good deed before entering the temple. Beyond the red entry doors are a number of dimly lighted and smoky rooms and small courts; at the rear are the rooms for resident monks. At the principal altar immediately inside the door, and at smaller altars placed throughout the temple, one finds the familiar Taoist gods, Mahayana Buddha images, and not infrequently Thai Buddhist statues (Mcdaniel, p. 10). Scarlet banners and embroidered lanterns, blackened with smoke and thick with a decade’s accumulation of dust, enclose the altars and hang from the dark ceiling. Many come on other occasions as well, whenever they need heavenly guidance and assistance, and even on any ordinary day, one finds a scattering of worshippers. Financial support does not appear to present a problem, and several temples have recently been renovated and redecorated, a good indication of continuing popular interest and use (Lertrit, p. 1).

Thai festivals and celebrations, many of which are religious in nature, provide another means of religious experience, one that is both temple-centered and home-centered. The most popular festival is Wesak, Song Kran (New Year). These festivals appear to have changed as have indeed many religious practices of this minority, and yet the changes are not so great as to make overseas religious observances incompatible with that practiced in the homeland (Mcdaniel, p. 10). Participation in religious activities and associations is now of interest primarily to the immigrant generation and to women. It remains to be seen what further changes will occur in this sphere of overseas life as the immigrant representation of the group is decreased, and the status of women generally is altered (Peach, p. 1). The most popular rituals followed by Buddhists in Thailand are meditation, concentration, signing of mantras, pilgrimage, and symbolic gestures (mudras).

Although these worshippers constitute an informal, shifting, very loosely structured group, to the Westerner more like the customers in a market than a congregation, still they provide the main basis for the financial support of the temple. Without them, grass does indeed grow in the temple courtyard (Peach 1). A number of temples have been built by dialect associations on their own premises and are supported entirely by the association but if one can judge by appearances, week after week, such temples are of very slight importance. They are not served by monks and in general, they are ignored by the community–perhaps their main function is to gain a tax exemption for the association on the claim that the association’s premises are used partially for religious purposes (Mcdaniel, p. 10).

Thai Buddhist monks wear garments of the saffron-yellow hue, Thai monks. shave their heads and are bound to observe similar rules of austerity, avoiding worldly pleasures and comforts. While the Thai may remain in their monastic order for only a brief period of several months if they so wish, and may marry before they enter or after they leave the order, Chinese monks take vows of celibacy and service for life (Peach 1). Thai monks perform services throughout an individual’s life from birth to death, and they are called into the home for various festive occasions, such as weddings and birthday parties, as well as in the event of sickness and death. Thai monks depend upon daily food offerings from the devout, gathered each morning at their very doorsteps. Each order has its own distinct administration and leaders, yet there is a total absence of competition, rivalry, or hostility of any sort between them. There is, at the same time, very little fraternization, and in going about their duties in Thailand the members of each group keep pretty much to themselves (Darlington, p. 43).

Buddhist associations perform religious services in the temples and in individual houses. On the first and the fifteenth day of each lunar month, the association meets at its temple for special services, and on specially designated days more elaborate ceremonies are held. Some associations, when a member of the relative of a member dies, conduct religious services at the home of the deceased; such services supplement but do not replace the usual funeral services by Thai monks. Religious associations are exceedingly popular with women. Most immigrant women since the time of their coming to Thailand have belonged to one or another of the associations described above (Platz 54). The monastic order is a basic institution in Thailand and almost all Thai men sometime in their lives enter the order as novices or monks. Yet one almost never sees an immigrant or succeeding generation, becoming a novice or monk. practically all Thai householders offer food to Thai monks in the early morning as an accepted and every essential part of their religious life. Presenting this food has a definite value as a means of making merit and thereby assuring one’s future salvation (Mcdaniel, p. 10).

In Thailand much of the holiday flavor of this day has been lost, although its observance in the home makes up to a certain extent for this. There are no boat races. Instead, the Buddhists worship at their temples and make offerings to the temple gods, at various animistic shrines, and to the household spirits. This task usually falls to the women (Ratanakul, p. 32). At home in preparation for this festival the housewife makes small cakes of glutinous rice and nuts, and these after being offered ritually to the gods, are served to the family as a special treat. Usually, enough cakes are made to last for several days, much to the delight of the children. Some special dishes will be added to the evening meal on this day, and in the evening it is customary for adults to visit friends, play mahjong with a small group at a restaurant, or go to the movies (Platz, p. 54). A brief festival, it serves mainly to break the monotony of everyday life and give those who have worked hard for several months an excuse for relaxation and enjoyment. A kind of ethnic stereotype based on informal religious practices serves also to separate the two peoples. Religious differences-as we shall see–stemming from Buddhism does not hinder amalgamation. The Thai regard themselves as religiously akin, although differing in practices (Peach, p. 1). The greatest tolerance is shown by the toward other religions and very much the same can be said of the Thai. Of all the reasons given for unwillingness to sanction intermarriage, differences in religion are never mentioned. The religion of the Thai is compounded by three elements: Buddhism, Brahmanism, and animism. The latter, spirit worship or animism, is an exceedingly powerful influence in the life of Thai on all levels of society, and in many ways, animism has become so intertwined with Buddhism that no distinction is made in the popular mind between the two. One aspect of Thai animism is the belief in charms, among them the use of love philters (Ratanakul, p. 32).

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In sum, Buddhism is a part of Thai culture becoming a part of their social life. All traditions and events in Thailand reflect Buddhist traditions and religious values, norms, and principles of the secular world. Buddhism is a part of household determining the way of living and thinking, relations with the environment and other people.

References

  1. Darlington, S.W. The Ordination of a Tree: The Buddhist Ecology Movement in Thailand. Ethnology, 37 (1998), 43.
  2. Kitiarsa, P. Beyond Syncretism: Hybridization of Popular Religion in Contemporary Thailand. Journal of Southeast Asian Studies, 36 (2005), 1.
  3. Lertrit, S. Cultural Resource Management and Archaeology at Chiang Saen, Northern Thailand. Journal of Southeast Asian Studies, 31 (2000), 1.
  4. Mcdaniel, J. Spreading the Dhamma: Writing, Orality, and Textual Transmission in Buddhist Northern Thailand. Journal of Southeast Asian Studies, 38 (2007), 10.
  5. Platz, R. Buddhism and Christianity in Competition? Religious and Ethnic Identity in Karen Communities of Northern Thailand. Journal of Southeast Asian Studies, 34 (2003), 54.
  6. Ratanakul, P. Thailand: Refining Cultural Values. The Hastings Center Report, 20 (1990), 32.
  7. Peach, L. J. Buddhism and Ecology: The Interconnection of Dharma and Deeds. Buddhist-Christian Studies, 2002 (1) 1.
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