A Short Introduction To Buddhism In Thailand
Whilst walking the streets of Thailand.whether in Bangkok, Surat Thani are all the way north in Mae Sai on the border of Burma, it’s difﬁcult to separate Thai culture from Buddhism. Everywhere you look you see monks robed in orange, temples and shrines to the Buddha where Thais show their respects in the form of a wai. It’s clear that Thai culture and buddhism are woven intricately together – embedded in one another now for more than 2000 years.
Like with most things in life, different opinions exist about when Buddhism reached Thailand. Some suggest that Buddhism was introduced to Thailand during the reign of the great Indian emperor Asoka (the emperor was known to send Buddhist missionaries to various parts of what was then the known world), while others say that Thailand received Buddhism much later. A safe option is to judge archaeological ﬁnds and other historical evidence throughout Thailand, and this would suggest that Buddhism ﬁrst reached Thailand when the country was inhabited by the Mon-Khmer people whose capital was Dvaravati (modern day Nagara Prathama), which is some 50 kilometres to the west of Bangkok. Of course Buddhism didn’t arrive in Thailand all at once – rather at four different periods which are Theravada (southern Buddhism) approx.3BC, Mahayana (northern Buddhism) approx.5AD, Burma (Pagan period Buddhism) approx.1057AD and Ceylon (Lankavamsa Buddhism) approx.1153AD. There are various archaeological ﬁndings throughout Thailand which conﬁrm these periods such as the Great Pagoda at Nakon Pathom.
According to recent censuses – some 94% of the Thai population are Buddhists. To put this in perspective – consider that christianity (Anglicanism, Roman Catholicism, Methodism etc) in the UK accounts for only 59% of the people.This fact demonstrates more than anything else just how incredibly inﬂuential Buddhism is in Thailand. Then theres the country’s constitution, which speciﬁes that the King of Thailand must be a Buddhist and the Upholder of Buddhism – meaning that all the Thai kings in the recorded history of presentday Thailand have been adherents of Buddhism. To jump back to our introduction – when a tourist, you or me walk down the street in Bangkok or most other Thai cities the ﬁrst things that strike us are the grand Buddhist temples reaching into the sky and the groups of robed Buddhist monks collecting alms and simply walking from A to B. These two sights remind us that this is a country where Buddhism is a dominant force in all the people’s life, and from this we can go on to understand that Buddhism has been the main spring from which ﬂows the country’s culture, philosophy, art, literature and morality, as well of course the focal point of its festivals and the centre of almost every persons life.
Some Of The Philosophies Of Buddhism
Dukkha & The Four Noble Truths
It’s likely that billions of words have been committed to describing and understanding Buddhism – and to summarise such a vast framework of stories and beliefs is, quite simply, incredibly difﬁcult – impossible even. However, one thing that is central to understanding the Buddhist doctrine is the recognition of suffering (dukkha) and the Four Noble Truths (perhaps somewhat simpliﬁed here): • That there is suffering • That while there is indeed suffering, it is impermanent and will eventually cease • That suffering is a consequence of desire, usually created by ourselves • That suffering can be brought to an end through practising of the Dhamma (Buddhist life)
One thing to remember when considering Buddhism is that unlike Christianity, Buddhism doesn’t focus on a supreme creator or God, instead emphasising the need to live in the present moment and upholding a number of precepts (not too dissimilar to the Ten Commandments) that are the Eightfold Path – simply speaking eight aspects of life which Buddhists try to integrate into their daily routines/lives. These are Right Understanding, Right Intent, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness, and Right Concentration. But again, unlike Christianity and other religions – this isn’t meant as a decree of laws but rather a guideline to achieve the process of self discovery.
Buddhists understand life as samsara (perpetual wandering) and describe the transition like a ball hitting another ball – but instead of a physical transference as in the belief of reincarnation, this is a completely spiritual transference – leaving behind your body but carrying on, spiritually, from where you last left off in a new physical form. A primary aim of Buddhism is to break free of samsara, and to reach a new level called Nirvana. This is of course the philosophy of Karma. This leads us to what is perhaps the most misunderstood term in all of Buddhism: Nirvana. Nirvana isn’t the heaven or heaven on earth that many westerners believe it to be – rather it’s a goal, but not a destination, more a spiritual frame of mind. Literally speaking, Nirvana means unbinding – the implication being that reaching Nirvana is achieving freedom from whatever binds you – whether from desire, jealousy, or ignorance etc. Once these things are overcome, one achieves a state of bliss and there is no longer the need for the cycle of birth and death as described above.
Finally, you may have noted whilst in Thailand that the date, generally, doesn’t match up to the Gregorian calendar – that’s because Thailand use instead the Buddhist Era calendar which is 543 years ahead of the Gregorian year, making the year 2015 in Europe 2558 in Thailand. This is of course the calendar as began from the Birth of the Buddha in the 4th century BC.