At least 90 percent of Thais practice Theravada Buddhism. This was first brought to the region from India around the 3rd century BC and is based on the ancient Pali canon of the Buddha’s teachings (Tripitaka). However, Thai practice incorporates many Hindu, Tantric, and Mahayana Buddhist influences. The worship of Buddha images, for instance, is a Mahayana Buddhist practice. Animist beliefs in spirits and the magical and in astrology are also widespread. Thais believe that Buddhism is one of three forces that give their kingdom its strength, the other two being the monarchy and nationhood. Religious rituals color daily life, especially in the form of merit-making.
Most Thai males are ordained as monks at adolescence – a major rite of passage. They usually spend at least a few months as monks, earning merit for themselves and their families. Few Thai women become nuns.
Applying gold leaf to Buddha images is a popular act of merit-making Books of gold leaf can be readily purchased at temples, and the thin leaves are applied in profusion on Buddha images, wat decoration, and murals.
King Bhumibol, like many kings before him, spent time as a monk. For Thais, this act reinforces the notion that Buddhism and the monarchy are unified powers.
Story of the Buddha The Buddha was born Prince Siddhartha Gautama in India in the 6th century BC. He gave up his riches to seek Enlightenment, and later taught the way to nirvana. Statues of the Buddha and murals depicting his previous 10 lives (jatakas) abound in Thailand.
The family is held in high regard in Thailand. A senior monk will be asked by the family for his blessing at child-naming ceremonies, weddings, to bless a new house or car, or simply after a donation to the wat has been made. Children are taught the simple moral codes of Buddhism from an early age.
Walking meditation is practiced by most monks. Here, the most senior monk leads the line walking around the temple clockwise. Meditation on the nature of existence is a major way in which Buddhists progress toward Enlightenment – Buddha literally means “One who is Enlightened.
Cremation ceremonies are sober but not morbid; they are a rite of passage from this life to the next. The scale of the pyre reflects the status of the deceased. Chulalongkorn’s funeral was one of the grandest.
Ritualistic tattooing is an ancient Hindu-Buddhist custom. Such tattoos are believed to act as powerful talismans against bad forces.
The Basic Tenets of Buddhism
Buddhist cosmology encompasses many states of being and heavenly realms. Buddhists believe in perpetual reincarnation, whereby each life is influenced by the actions and deeds of the previous one. This underlying philosophy of cause and effect, known as karma, is symbolized by the “wheel of law.” Enlightenment (nirvana) is the only state that will end the cycle of rebirth. To reach this, Buddhists try to develop morality, meditation, and then wisdom (the “three pillars”). Following certain codes of behavior in each life, including the basic principles of tolerance and nonviolence, assists in this aim.