Thailand Religion - Buddhism

Throughout the history of the Kingdom, Buddhism has been Thailand's national religion and its impact is all embracing. It is professed and practised by nine-tenths of the population, while gilded temple spires, ubiquitous Buddha statues and files of saffron-robed monks on morning alms round are all distinctive images of Thai life.

One of the world's great living religions, Buddhism is, strictly speaking, atheistic in that it neither implies any question of faith nor demands any belief in the existence of a god.

Essentially, it is a rational philosophy, derived from the teachings of the Buddha, the 'Enlightened One', the title of a a historical person, Siddharta Gautama.

The Buddha was born around 560BC near present day Lumbini in southern Nepal. He spent his long life - he died in his 80th year - teaching around the central region of the Ganges plain, gathering a large number of followers.

Disciples were encouraged to take full responsibility for their thoughts and actions on a path to spiritual growth that was in essence a way of life rather than an organized religion.

Some of the Buddha's followers did none the less become ordained and formed the monkhood (sangha) in which they lived disciplined lives and sought wisdom, their prime virtue. The early form of Buddhism, known as Theravada or the 'teaching of the elders,' was later challenged by a new school which aimed to have a more popular appeal.

It called itself Mahayana or Great Vehicle, as it offered salvation to a greater number of people than Theravada Buddhism, which it derisively termed Hinayana, or 'Small Vehicle'.

Though sharing basic doctrines with Theravada Buddhism, the Mahayana school places less emphasis on monasticism and claims any layman may achieve nirvana, release from the individual's endless cycle of reincarnation and suffering by extinguishing desire.

It also differs in considering the Buddha omnipresent, representing not only the Enlightened One but also the principle of Enlightenment. Mahayana further introduces the concept of Bodhisattvas, Enlightened beings who decline entering nirvana in order to help others.

In this way the religion evolved into a theistic faith, with the divine radiance of the Buddha emanating from heaven, and man benefiting from the compassion of deities and Bodhisattvas.

But it was Theravada Buddhism that became the dominant faith in Thailand.

In trying to lead a good life the layman has the opportunity to accrue merit by, for example, giving food and other offerings to monks who make early morning alms rounds in cities, towns and villages throughout the country. This will ensure rebirth under more favourable conditions in the next incarnation.

Pervasive and genuine though their adherence to Buddhism is, the Thais have retained from their ancestors animistic practices which interact with ordinary life. These include beliefs in charms, amulets, magical tattoos, fortune telling, exorcism and other shamanistic rituals, as well as in spirits.

Similarly, Brahmanism, the ancient form of Hinduism which was a potent influence on the early development of Southeast Asian civilization, also continues to play an important role in rituals, notably in traditional royal ceremonies.

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