Thai Religion

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THAI RELIGION . Thailand must be counted as one of the preeminent Buddhist countries in the world. Official figures place the percentage of Buddhists in a population of 47 million in 1980 as more than 95 percent. If those, mainly of Chinese and Vietnamese extraction, who follow Mahāyāna and Confucian traditions are excluded from the census category of Buddhists, wherein they are officially subsumed, still well over 90 percent of the populace of Thailand can be counted as adherents of Theravāda Buddhism. Despite the apparent uniformity of religion that such a characterization suggests, there are many facets of Thai religion. As different sectors of the Thai populace have attempted to find meaningful ways to confront fundamental problems of disease and death, threats of social disorder, and experienced or perceived injustices, they have turned to different types of religious practice, each with its own distinctive history. Although these different types can be said in some basic sense to belong to an encompassing tradition of Thai Theravāda Buddhism, they are still sometimes in tension with each other.

Traditional Thai Religion

In 1292, Ramkhamhaeng (Rāma Khamhaeng), the king of the principality of Sukhōthai in what is today north-central Thailand, put up a stele on which was recorded the first known text in any Tai languagethat is, in any of the languages spoken by the ancestors of such modern-day peoples as the Lao, the Yuan (Northern Thai), and the Siamese (Central Thai). The inscription is notable for being the first historical evidence that Tai-speaking peoples had become adherents of Theravāda Buddhism. Prior to the thirteenth century, Tai-speaking peoples living in northern mainland Southeast Asia and in southern China had followed animistic traditions based on beliefs in a realm of spirits (phī) and deities (thāēn) and in a vital essence (khwan) that made human beings, rice, and certain animals more than mere physical organisms. Some Tai-speaking peoples such as the Red Tai, or Tho living in northern Vietnam and northeastern Laos, remained animistic until at least the middle of the twentieth century. Others, such as the Siamese, the Yuan of northern Thailand, the Lao of Laos and northeastern Thailand, the Shan of Burma, and the Lue of southern China and northwestern Laos, while retaining beliefs in spirits and a vital essence, also came to understand the world in terms of the Buddhism of the Pali tradition.

Initially, Buddhism among the Tai, as among other peoples in mainland Southeast Asia, appears to have centered primarily on the cult of relics. The enshrinement of such relics in stupas and the placement of images and other reminders of the Buddha served to establish the presence of the Buddha in the domains (muang) of the Tai. Having accepted the Buddha, the Tai were open to the teachings of missionary monks belonging to what has been termed the "forest monastery" tradition who traveled from domain to domain in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. One of the most important consequences of the work of these monks was the establishment of wat s (temple-monasteries) in villages as well as in court centers. The members of the sangha (Skt., sagha ), or order of monks, who lived in these monasteries popularized the Dhamma, the doctrines of Buddhism, by using texts written in the vernacular rather than in Pali, the canonical language of the Theravāda tradition. Among the most influential were the Sermon on the Three Worlds, written by a prince of Sukhōthai in the middle of the fourteenth century, and sermons in the form of sutta s, written probably in northern Thailand in the fifteenth century, that tell of the "blessings" (ānisasa) acquired through ritual acts.

In the Buddhist worldview adopted by the Tai, all sentient beingshuman, animal, demonic, and divineare understood to be situated along a continuum of relative suffering, the place they occupy on the continuum being determined by the consequences of kamma (Skt., karman; Thai, kam )that is, consequences of actions performed in previous existences. The differences among human beingsmale and female, ruler and peasant, rich and poor, beautiful and ugly, healthy and sicklycan also be interpreted with reference to the theory of kamma. Tai continued to believe in a personal vital essence (khwan), in spirits (phī), in godsnow construed in Hindu-Buddhist terms as devatā (Thai, thē-wadā ), as well as in "fate" or cosmic influencenotions adapted from Indian thought and conceived of as khro̮ˀ ˀ (from Skt., gha, astrological mansion or the place of a planet in the zodiac) or chatā (from Skt., jāta, "born"). These beliefs, however, related to proximate, not ultimate, causes of fortune and misfortune. One's kamma ultimately determined whether one could be successful in securing one's wandering vital essence, in propitiating spirits, in worshiping the deities, or in dispelling cosmic influences.

A significant change of one's position along the continuum of suffering could only be accomplished through accumulating merit (puñña; Thai, bun) and not acquiring demerit (pāpa; Thai, bāp). To "make merit" (tham bun) as a layperson one was to offer alms (dāna; Thai, thān) to the sangha. A male could also make significant merit through becoming a member of the sangha and subjecting himself to the monastic "discipline" (vinaya; Thai, winai). To avoid demerit one was to observe a code of morality (sīla; Thai, sīn) that ensured that one would transcend ignorance and resist the temptation to act so as to fulfill one's lust, greed, or anger. The consequences of immoral behaviorsuch as punishment in hell (naraka; Thai, narok) as well as of moral and meritorious actionsuch as rebirth in heaven (sagga; Thai, sawan from Skt. svarga) and eventual rebirth on earth at the time of the next Buddha, Śrī Ariya Maitreya (Thai, Phra Sī Ān)were detailed graphically in such sermons as the popular tale of the travels of the monk Mālaya to hell and heaven.

These Buddhist ideas, as well as the articulation of these beliefs with notions deriving from the pre-Buddhist past of the Tai, were organized into three major popular religious traditions followed by Tai-speaking peoples living in what is today Thailand. To this day, the ritual practices of the Siamese of central Thailand, the Yuan of northern Thailand, and the Lao of northeastern Thailand, while sharing some basic similarities, remain distinctive.

The Buddhist worldview adopted by Tai peoples shaped their orientation toward society. Fundamental to this order was the division between the sexes. The ideal Buddhist man should become a member of the sangha in order to pursue the Path. In practice, very few Tai men ever became members of the sangha for life, but it became the norm among all peoples living in premodern Thailand for young men to spend at least a lenten period of three months as either a novice or a monk. For women, a connection was made between the secular role of woman as mother and woman as nurturer for the religion. The hierarchical order of traditional society was understood in terms of differences in the karmic legacies that each person was assumed to have been born with.

Most monks in premodern Thailand acted primarily to preserve and transmit the local religious traditions of the communities where they lived. Although they traced their lineage to the "forest monastery" monks of the fifteenth century, there is no evidence to suggest that monks during the period between the fifteenth and nineteenth centuries were known for withdrawing from the world to devote their lives to meditation. Some monks, however, lived in monasteries that served as centers of study of the Dhamma. It was these monks who kept alive a tradition of Pali scholarship as well as of composition of vernacular religious texts. These centers were supported mainly by rulers of the traditional kingdoms or by lords of domains subordinate to the kings.

Kings and lords of premodern Tai realms and domains were held in popular belief to have the right to rule because they "had merit" (mī bun); that is, they had inherited at birth a large store of positive consequences of kamma from previous incarnations. They were expected to display their meritoriousness in their conspicuous support of the religion and in ensuring the peace and order of the worlds over which they held sway. This concept of merit can be seen to be similar to the Mahāyāna notion of compassion shown by bodhisattva s toward the world. Some Tai kings did claim to be bodhisattva s, but such a claim was far less common in Tai kingdoms than in those of premodern Burma.

In the major premodern Tai kingdom, the Siamese kingdom of Ayutthayā (13501767), court traditions, especially after the fifteenth century, showed strong Brahmanic influences, influences introduced from Angkor, which the Siamese had conquered. When the new Siamese kingdom with its capital at Bangkok was founded in 1782, its first rulers downplayed the Brahmanic state cult in favor of such Buddhist activities as unifying the sangha, restoring the scriptures, and sponsoring public almsgiving. At the end of the nineteenth century, King Chulalongkorn (c. 18681910) restored many Brahmanic state rites in an effort to enhance the image of the monarchy. The observance of some of these rites persisted even after a coup in 1932 transformed Siam into a constitutional monarchy, but by the second half of the twentieth century they had assumed a more dramaturgical than religious significance.

Contemporary Religion in Thailand

Religion as practiced by the peoples living in what was to become modern Thailand was rarely rendered problematic to its adherents. Only when the world collapsed, as it did following the destruction of Ayutthaya by the Burmese in 1767, did people question the efficacy of traditional practice for making sense of their lives. The period between the fall of Ayutthaya and the founding of Bangkok in 1782 is notable for the appeal that Buddhist millennialism held for many. Millennial experimentation was brought to an end, however, when in 1782 General Cakkrī deposed the then-reigning monarch, Taksin, who claimed to be a bodhisattva. Cakkrī, as Rama I (17821809), the founding ruler of the present dynasty, laid the foundations for a new order by restoring peace throughout the kingdom and, indeed, by extending his political control even farther than his predecessors. He moved to purify the religion by purging the sangha of monks who were deemed not to be observing the Vinaya (disciplinary code), by convening a Buddhist council to ensure that the Tipiaka (Skt., Tripiaka), the Buddhist scriptures, were available in an error-free Pali form, and by promoting the study of both the scriptures and commentarial literature written in Pali.

The new order established by Rama I proved to be fertile ground for the development of a major reform movement led by a man who would become King Rama IV, better known as Mongkut. Mongkut, who served as a monk between 1824 and 1851, was stimulated by his conversations with Christian missionaries and other Westerners who had begun to come to Siam to search for what could be taken as the essential elements of Buddhist practice. He became the leader of a small coterie of monks who spurned what they considered to be "superstitious" accretions in traditional practice and turned to Pali scriptures and commentaries to find the basis for "true" Buddhism. When Mongkut became king (r. 18511868), his associates in the sangha became the vanguard of a new fraternity, one called the Dhammayuttika-nikāya ("the fraternity of those who adhere to the Dhamma"), in contrast to the larger fraternity, the Mahānikāya (Mahanikai), of monks who continued to follow traditional practice.

Under King Chulalongkorn, Mongkut's son and successor, leading Dhammayuttika monks, and especially Prince Wachirayān (Vajirañāavarorasa), another of Mongkut's sons and the head of the Dhammayuttika fraternity, were given effective authority over the whole of the sangha in Chulalongkorn's domains. Prince Wachirayān, even before he became prince patriarch (sangharāja) in 1910, was able with the backing of the king to bring monks from the several different local Theravāda traditions into a single national order. Prince Wachirayān also instituted reforms throughout the sangha on the basis of Mongkut's and his own interpretations of Pali texts. The religious reforms instituted by Prince Wachirayān became the basis for what might be termed officially sanctioned orthodoxy in contemporary Thai Buddhism.

Under King Chulalongkorn, Siam began a transformation into a modern state. To meet the threat of colonial expansion by the British and the French, Chulalongkorn instituted administrative reforms that entailed the replacement of local lords by centrally appointed officials who adhered to common bureaucratic norms. So long as Siam was ruled by absolute monarchs, however, it still retained an important characteristic of the traditional state; that is, order depended upon the personal efficacy of the monarch. This traditional characteristic was eliminated in the "revolution" of 1932, during which a group of nonroyal "promoters" forced King Prajadhipok (r. 19251935) to accept a constitution that proclaimed Thai sovereignty to rest not in the monarch but with the people as a nation.

Although the name Siam persisted for a time after 1932, modern Thailand can be said to have begun in this year. The revolution of 1932 focused attention on the question of who made up the national community of Thai, a question that emerged in the wake of large-scale migration of Chinese to Thailand, the integration of peoples of different traditions into a single state, and the drawing of clear territorial boundaries around the state as a consequence of pressures from neighboring colonial powers. Since 1932, successive governments have made use of a unified sangha and a statewide system of compulsory education to inculcate in the populace the idea that Thai nationalism is rooted in what is taken to be a common Buddhist heritage.

Both the reformation of Buddhism led by the Dhammayuttika fraternity and the emergence of state-sponsored Thai Buddhist nationalism served to stimulate a self-consciousness in many Thai about their religion. This self-consciousness, in turn, stimulated yet further changes in Thai religion. While the refiguration of Theravāda thought begun by Mongkut early in the nineteenth century reached a climax in the works of Prince Wachirayān, works that still today form the basis of religious studies carried out by most monks, a number of monks have continued to pursue significant theological inquiries. By far the most influential of contemporary Buddhist thinkers is Phutthathāt Phikkhu (Buddhadāsa Bhikkhu), who lives at a center called Sūan Mōk ("garden of liberation") in southern Thailand. Phutthathāt (b. 1906) has sought in lectures and writings to interpret the Dhamma with reference to the theologies of other religions, most notably Zen Buddhism, and with reference to the experiences of Thai living in a much more secularized world than did their forebears. Writing for a more learned audience, the monk known under the title of Phra Rātchawaramunī (Rājavaramunī)given name Prayut (b. 1941)has sought also to make the Buddhist message relevant to modern life. His Phutthatham (Buddhadhamma), published in 1982, has been acclaimed as one of the most significant works on Theravāda ethics ever written.

The radical reformulation of Buddhist practice also begun by Mongkut and the founders of the Dhammayuttika fraternity has been carried yet farther by some monks. Ācān Man Phūrithattha (Bhūridatto Thera), a Lao-speaking Dhammayuttika monk from northeastern Thailand who died in 1949 at the age of 78, concluded early in his life that to follow the Path to ultimate salvation, one must withdraw from the world and devote one's life to meditation. His life as a dhūtanga, or wandering ascetic, became the model for many other monks. A number of his disciples, and the disciples of his disciples, known in Thai and Lao as ācān (Skt., ācārya ), or teachers, have achieved fame as meditation masters and strict followers of the Dhamma. A new interest in the significance of meditation for Buddhist practice has also been strongly encouraged by a number of non-Dhammayuttika monks and lay masters. Phutthathāt's center, Sūan Mōk, and satellite centers elsewhere, like the forest retreats of the ācān, attract many laypersons as well as monks who wish to learn to meditate. In the 1950s Phra Phimonlatham (Vimaladhamma Thera; given name Āsatha), a high-ranking monk from Wat Mahāthāt, a major temple-monastery in Bangkok, introduced and worked to popularize a form of vipassanā ("insight") meditation that he had learned from a master in Burma.

Prior to the death of Prime Minister Sarit Thanarat in 1963, Thai governments considered the burgeoning popularity of meditation monks as potentially, if not actually, threatening to establishment Buddhism. Since the mid-1960s, however, the disciples of Ācān Man in particular have been accorded increasing official support, and the king and queen have been conspicuous in their patronage of these monks and in their attendance at the funerals of Ācān Man's major disciples. Forest monasteries today are popular retreats for urban laypersons who seek to temper their active involvement in the world with a detachment that comes from meditation practice. Meditation centers have also been established in Bangkok and other cities, not only by monks but also by the laity. Among the most famous lay masters is Ācān Nāēp, a woman. Since the late 1970s, Phimonlatham has also undertaken a program to stimulate the popularity of insight meditation in rural communities as well as in the cities and towns.

Although what might be termed the "meditation movement" has been accommodated to establishment Buddhism in Thailand, other movements have emerged in reaction to official orthodoxy and to government-sponsored Thai Buddhist nationalism. Millennial uprisings in northeastern Thailand in 19011902 and resistance in the 1920s and 1930s by Khrūbā Sīwichai (Siri-vijoyo Thera), a highly revered popular northern Thai monk, to the authority of the state-appointed sangha hierarchy were precursors to contemporary religious dissent in Thailand. In the mid-1950s and especially in the 1970s, a number of monks emerged as conspicuous critics of government policies. While most of these "political monks" could be considered leftists, there were also a number associated with right-wing causes. Of particular note is Kittiwutthō Phikkhu (Kittivuho Bhikkhu), who gained notoriety in the mid-1970s for arguing that killing communists was not murder as understood in Buddhist terms and thus did not produce demerit. Although only a few monks have taken active roles in Thai politics, there are many lay Buddhist leaders who have contributed to a widening discourse on the salience of religious values for public life. Among the best known of what might be termed "social gospel" Buddhists is Sulak Sivarksa, who has exerted significant influence through his numerous essays and the organizations he has helped to create.

Members of the laity have also assumed leadership roles in the many cults that have emerged and continue to emerge in contemporary Thailand. The typical cult is one in which a spirit medium (who typically would be a woman) is believed able to gain the assistance of her control spirit to aid a client who is ill or otherwise in distress. Some cults have assumed a wider significance; the most famous of recent years is one known under the name Samnak Pū Sawan (Center of the Heavenly Ancients). The male leader of this cult claimed to be the vehicle for the spirits of a number of famous men in Thai history, including a former patriarch of the sangha. As it developed, the belief system of the cult became increasingly syncretic, uniting Christian, Muslim, and Chinese elements with magico-Buddhist ones. In the late 1970s, the cult, which had gained thousands of followers, including several high-ranking military officers, took on a distinctly political cast as its leader sought to use it for promoting an international peace center that he would head. In 1981 the government attempted to arrest him, but he disappeared before the arrest was effected.

Although the ecumenicalism of the Samnak Pū Sawan movement was idiosyncratic, more significant connections between Thai Buddhism and other religions in Thailand have evolved in recent years. A number of Protestant and Catholic leaders have joined with Buddhist leaders in religious dialogue and in human rights activities. The smallness of the Christian population (about 0.6 percent of the total) has perhaps helped to encourage relatively good relations between Christians and Buddhists. In contrast, Muslims (who account for about 4 percent of the population) have found it much more difficult to relate to Buddhists. A Muslim-Buddhist dialogue may, nonetheless, prove to be a means leading to a reconstrual of Thai civil religion in other than strictly Buddhist terms.

Life in Thailand in the twentieth century has become increasingly secularized and rationalized as more and more aspects of experience are interpreted with reference to bureaucratic regulations, market transactions, technological processes, and scientific medicine. While these processes of change have led many Thai to turn away from traditional religious practices as being no longer significant to their lives, they have also served to make people aware of those experiences that do not make sense in terms of secular, rational meanings. It is the awareness of those illnesses that do not respond to modern medicine, of increasing disparities in wealth and power, of the potential collapse of order as occurred in Kampuchea, that leads many Thai to consider what ritual and ethical practices are most meaningful to them. This religious consciousness is what gives contemporary Thai religion its dynamic character.

See Also

Buddhism, article on Buddhism in Southeast Asia; Folk Religion, article on Folk Buddhism; Kingship, article on Kingship in East Asia; Mongkut; Sagha, article on Sagha and Society in South and Southeast Asia; Southeast Asian Religions, article on Mainland Cultures; Theravāda.


The collection Religion and Legitimation of Power in Thailand, Laos, and Burma, edited by Bardwell L. Smith (Chambersburg, Pa., 1978), contains several essays that trace the history of Thai religion and discuss the relationship between Buddhism and power in both traditional and contemporary Thailand. A. Thomas Kirsch's "Complexity in the Thai Religious System: An Interpretation," Journal of Asian Studies 36 (February 1977): 241266, provides a good introduction to traditional Thai religion. Stanley J. Tambiah's World Conqueror and World Renouncer (Cambridge, 1976) traces the history of Thai religion with reference to sangha -policy relations and his Buddhism and the Spirit Cults in North-East Thailand (Cambridge, 1970) details the elements of traditional religious practice as still found in a Lao-speaking community in northeastern Thailand.

A major source for traditional Buddhist cosmology as understood by the Thai is Three Worlds According to King Ruang: A Thai Buddhist Cosmology, translated with an introduction and notes by Frank E. Reynolds and Mani B. Reynolds (Berkeley, 1982). Lucien M. Hanks, Jr., considers the implications of Buddhist cosmological beliefs for Thai society in his "Merit and Power in the Thai Social Order," American Anthropologist 64 (1962): 12471262. For discussions of gender ideas as shaped by the traditional Buddhist worldview of Tai peoples, see my essays "Mother or Mistress but Never Monk: Buddhist Notions of Female Gender in Rural Thailand," American Ethnologist 11 (May 1984): 223241, and "Ambiguous Gender: Male Initiation in A Buddhist Society," in Gender and Religions: On the Complexity of Symbols, edited by Caroline Bynum, Stevan Harrell, and Paula Richman (Boston, 1956). The best study of the religious reforms of the nineteenth century is Craig J. Reynolds's "The Buddhist Monkhood in Nineteenth Century Thailand" (Ph. D. diss., Cornell University, 1973). See also Reynolds's "Buddhist Cosmography in Thai History, with Special Reference to Nineteenth-Century Culture Change," Journal of Asian Studies 35 (February 1976): 203220, and A. Thomas Kirsch's "Modernizing Implications of Nineteenth Century Reforms in the Thai Sangha," Contributions to Asian Studies 8 (1975): 823.

The structure and ritual practices of established Thai Buddhism are discussed in Kenneth E. Wells's Thai Buddhism: Its Rites and Activities (1939; reprint, Bangkok, 1960). Jane Bunnag's Buddhist Monk, Buddhist Layman: A Study of Urban Monastic Organization in Central Thailand (Cambridge, 1973) describes establishment Buddhism as she observed it in the old capital of Ayutthayā. On the government's control and use of the Thai sangha in the twentieth century, see Yoneo Ishii's "Church and State in Thailand," Asian Survey 8 (October 1968): 864871; my "Buddhism and National Integration in Thailand," Journal of Asian Studies 30 (May 1971): 551567; J. A. Niels Mulder's Monks, Merit and Motivation, 2d rev. ed. (DeKalb, Ill., 1973); Somboon Suksamran's Political Buddhism in Southeast Asia: The Role of the Sangha in the Modernization of Thailand, edited by Trevor O. Ling (London, 1977); and Tambiah's World Conqueror and World Renouncer.

The theology of Phutthathāt is examined at some length by Louis Gabaude in "Introduction à l'herméneutique de Buddhadasa Bhikku" (Ph. D. diss., Sorbonne, 1979); also see Buddhadāsa's Toward the Truth, edited by Donald K. Swearer (Philadelphia, 1971). Phra Rātchawaramunī's Phutthatham (Bangkok, 1982) has been reviewed at some length by Sulak Sivaraksa in the Journal of the Siam Society 70 (1982): 164170. The role of Ācān Man, his disciples, and other meditation masters in Thailand have been analyzed by Stanley J. Tambiah in The Buddhist Saints of the Forest and the Cult of Amulets (Cambridge, 1984). Also see Jack Kornfield's Living Buddhist Masters (Santa Cruz, Calif., 1977).

My article "Millennialism, Theravāda Buddhism, and Thai Society," Journal of Asian Studies 36 (February 1977): 283302, discusses the major millennial uprising in modern Thai history. Somboon Suksamran in Buddhism and Politics in Thailand (Singapore, 1982), as well as in his earlier Political Buddhism in Southeast Asia, Tambiah in World Conqueror and World Renouncer, and several of the essays in Religion and Legitimation of Power in Thailand, Laos and Burma (all cited above), discuss political monks. Sulak Sivaraksa's A Buddhist Vision for Renewing Society (Bangkok, 1981) brings together several of the author's essays written in English. On religious and ethical self-consciousness of some Thai in the context of political-economic change, see also my article "Economic Action and Buddhist Morality in a Thai Village," Journal of Asian Studies 42 (August 1983): 851868.

New Sources

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Hayashi, Y. Practical Buddhism Among the Thai-Lao. Melbourne, 2003.

Hughes, J. Faces of Culture: Explorations in Anthropology. Queensland, 1993.

Kamala, T. Forest Recollections: Wandering Monks in Twentieth-Century Thailand. Honolulu, 1997.

Keyes, C. F., et al. Asian Visions of Authority: Religion and the Modern States of East and Southeast Asia. Hononlulu, 1994.

Mulder, N. Inside Thai Society: Religion, Everyday Life, Change. Chiang Mai, Thailand, 2000.

Rhum, M. R. The Ancestral Lords: Gender, Descent, and Spirits in a Northern Thai Village. DeKalb, Ill., 1994.

Taylor, J. L. Forest Monks and the Nation-State: An Anthropological and Historical Study in Northeastern Thailand. Singapore, 1993.

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Revised Bibliography