Thai, Buddhist Literature in

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Thai, the national language of Thailand, is closely related to Lao, the national language of neighboring Laos, as well as the Shan language of northern Burma (Myanmar) and several other languages and dialects in northern Vietnam and southern China. Together, they comprise the Tai language family. Approximately half of the more than sixty million residents of Thailand speak Thai as their mother tongue. Thai, and all Tai languages, are tonal languages in which a change of syllable tone results in a change of meaning.

The origin of the Thai script is credited to King Ramkhamhaeng the Great of Sukhothai and an inscription that dates from the latter part of the thirteenth century. While there is some debate about the authenticity of this inscription, it is generally held to be the first written evidence of the strong presence of Buddhism in Siam or Thailand. The Thai definition of literature is far reaching, and this inscription, which reads like a nation's constitution, is also viewed as a seminal piece of Buddhist literature. In it, the king states that he gives alms to the Mahāthera Saṅgharaja, a wise monk who has studied the Buddhist Pāli canon (Tipiṭaka) from beginning to end (and who also likely came from Sri Lanka). The king also mentions that paying proper tribute to a divine spirit residing at a local mountain helps to ensure the prosperity of the kingdom. This blend of Buddhist practice and animistic elements continues to be characteristic of the Thai worldview.

The Thai imagination is most active in a work attributed to Phya Lithai, Trai Phum Phra Ruang (TheThree Worlds of King Ruang, 1345). Based on Buddhist canonical texts, local legends, and dreams, this detailed, full-blown cosmology serves as a road map to various heavens and hells and the perils of lives lived at all levels of existence. In this work, gaps in Buddhist texts are filled in with speculation about the creation of life, while the spirit of other texts provides a springboard into rich pools of fantastic description that include falls from grace, detailed accounts of karmic consequences, and elaborated notions of a wheel-turning king whose right to rule is based on his righteousness.

One of the most enduring Thai literary works is the Ramakian, a uniquely Thai interpretation of the Indian epic, the Rāmāyana. While some people believe that the Thai version of the Rāma legend predated the establishment of the Kingdom of Sukhothai, the earliest archeological evidence for it was found in the ruins of the Kingdom of Ayudhaya, which was sacked by the Burmese in 1767. The destruction of Ayudhaya is considered one of the greatest losses of art and literature in Thai history. The longest version of the Ramakian was written by a group of poets in 1798 and was sponsored by the first king of the Chakri dynasty, Rāma I. Much has been written about the Indianization or Sanskritization of Southeast Asia, and the Ramakian, a blend of Thai legends, state rites, and Buddhist elements, stands as clear evidence of such influence.

The jĀtaka tales, or birth stories of the Buddha, have held a prominent place in the imagination of the Thai people. Traditionally, the most popular tale describes the Buddha's penultimate life before attaining Buddhahood, that being the story of the generous Prince Vessantara (Sanskrit, ViŚvantara). This Job-like tale focuses on the sacrifices and merit made by Prince Vessantara. It includes demonstrations of the prince's nonattachment and giving—even the giving up of family members—in the process of demonstrating his commitment to generosity. The merit-making message of this tale is evidence of the importance of gift giving in Thai culture. Many monks continue the tradition of chanting, day and night, an elaborate version of this jātaka tale in an annual event called the Thet Mahachat (Sermon of the Great Life).

A further outgrowth of gift giving takes the form of an unusual genre of literature, the cremation volume. Souvenirs are often presented to attendees at the close of cremation rites. As early as the 1870s, with the advent of printing presses in Thailand, people began to distribute books at funerals. These volumes usually include a brief biography of the deceased; in addition, the publication of cremation volumes is a way of distributing and preserving literary, cultural, and religious information that families find meaningful. In a status-conscious society, these volumes also help to "place" people in the Thai social order. A collection of cremation volumes at Wat Bovoranives in Bangkok is cataloged according to an adaptation of the Dewey decimal system that reflects the status, ranks, and structure of Thai society.

Buddhist teachings and stories have been preserved through the strength of oral traditions and attention given to (palm leaf) manuscripts. The name of the Buddhist canon, the Tipiṭaka, presumably comes from an early filing system: putting the three parts of the canon—rules (vinaya), teachings (sutta), and philosophical details (abhidhamma)—into separate baskets. While ideally monks should be well versed in all three of these dimensions, Buddhist tradition and subsequent curricula for monks focused on certain parts of the canon over others, making the observer often wonder which basket carries the most weight. For example, the meditative interests of forest monasteries tend to focus on texts (and biographies of local monks) dealing with such practices, while the leaders of some urban monasteries may favor other parts of the canon, including a fascination with the abhidhamma. The Dhammapada has always been a popular text, and its inclusion in several levels of monks' Pāli exams has helped to maintain its popularity. Thai Buddhist laity are more likely to gain their knowledge of Buddhism from the influence of parents and teachers, and through listening to sermons and reading collections of proverbs, modern commentaries, or interpretations, rather than the canonical texts themselves.

Several modern figures have made major contributions to religious literature in Thailand. At the end of the nineteenth century, Prince-Patriarch Wachirayanwarorot (1860–1921, half-brother to King Chulalongkorn, Rama V) wrote a number of concise textbooks aimed at providing summaries of the important tenets of Buddhism. These texts were especially useful for people who ordained temporarily during the "rainy season retreat" (vassa) and they took an important place in the early curriculum for monks. BuddhadĀsa Bhikkhu (1906–1993) fostered his own brave, innovative blend of Thai colloquial terms and interpretations of dhamma to spark more interest in Buddhist practice. His commentaries run many volumes, resembling a canon itself. In 1971 Prayudh Payutto published the first edition of Buddhadhamma, a summary of major Buddhist principles, focusing especially on Buddhist notions of causality and interdependence. This major work has been expanded to over one thousand pages. And, not to be overlooked, modern Thai fiction itself is often a blend of romantic love, heroism, the life of the Buddha, and references to jātaka tales. While globalization refashions traditional belief, the Thai creative imagination continues to respond to modernity with its own distinctive synthesis of the past and present.

See also:Southeast Asia, Buddhist Art in; Thailand


Bofman, Theodora Helene. The Poetics of the Ramakian. DeKalb, IL: Northern Illinois University Center for Southeast Asian Studies, 1984.

Chamberlain, James F., ed. The Ramkhamhaeng Controversy: Selected Papers. Bangkok, Thailand: Siam Society, 1991.

Olson, Grant A. "Thai Cremation Volumes: A Brief History of a Unique Genre of Literature." Asian Folklore Studies 51 (1992): 279–294.

Payutto, Prayudh. Buddhadhamma: Natural Laws and Values for Life, tr. Grant A. Olson. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1995.

Reynolds, Frank E., and Reynolds, Mani B., trans. Three Worlds According to King Ruang: A Thai Cosmology. Berkeley, CA: Asian Humanities Press, 1982.

Rutin, Mattani Mojdara. Modern Thai Literature: The Process of Modernization and the Transformation of Values. Bangkok, Thailand: Thammasat University Press, 1988.

Grant A. Olson