- Buddhism in Thai Culture
- Dr. Sunthorn Na-Rangsi
Buddhism has long been recognized as the state religion of Thailand,
and the vicissitudes of its development are associated with the historical fortunes of the
country. Although the kingdom of the Thai people was established in the Indo-Chinese
peninsula only in 1238, their relationship with
Buddhism began in the first century C.E., when they were living in their ancient kingdom
called Ailao, in Yunnan, with the conversion of King Khun Luang Mao to Buddhism. Presumably the Buddhism professed in this period was
that of some Frinayana sect. When the Ailao kingdom was conquered by the Chinese in 255,
the Thai people lost their independence. The majority remained in their homeland under the
Chinese rule, but a great number migrated southward, and in the course of time many of
them moved as far as the Chao Phraya river valley of present day Thailand. In 651 the
Thais in Yunnan rose against China and established the Nanchao kingdom, which remained
independent until it was conquered by the army of Kublai Khan in 1253, causing a second
massive migration southward. The prevalent form of Buddhism in the Nanchao kingdom was
Mahaayaana, which had come from China during the T'ang dynasty. The Chinese annals of the
"rang dynasty record that "the people of Nanchao were of high culture, devoted
to Buddhism, and they recited the sutras with great reverence."
The annals of the Yuan dynasty state that the people of Nanchao could travel
with relative ease to India; that an altar for the Buddha image could be found in every
house, rich or poor; and that the people of Nanchao, old and young alike, always held the
rosary in their hands ready for use at the time of daily prayer.
In 1238 the Thai people revolted against the Khmer who
ruled over the region which is now Thailand and set up the Sukhothai kingdom. The Thais
who had lived in the Indo-Chinese peninsula for generations followed either the Theravaada
Buddhism of the Mon or the Mahaayaana Buddhism of the Khmer, the indigenous races of
Indo-China. Those who joined them after the fall of Nanchao brought their Mahaayaana
tradition with them. The introduction of the form of Buddhism dominant today was the work
of King Rainkainhaeng the Great, who ruled from 1297 and greatly expanded the Thai
kingdom. Impressed by the calm appearance and learned attitude of Sri Lankan monks who
came to propagate Theravaada Buddhism in Nakorn Sridhammaraj (some 800 km. south of
Bangkok), he invited some of them to establish Theravaada Buddhism in his capital. As they
preferred to live in a quiet place, he ordered the construction of a forest monastery for
them. A stone inscription reads: "To the west of this city of Sukhothai there is a
monastery of the forest monks. King Rarnkainhaeng founded it and offered it to the
Venerable Preceptor, learned in all the Three Pitakas, in erudition excelling all other
monks in the whole land." King Ramkamhaeng
offered the title of Sa"ngharajaa (Ruler of the Order) to the leader of the monks.
This group ordained a great number of Sukhothai youths, and Theravaada Buddhism of
Ceylonese lineage thus became firmly established in the kingdom.
This was the beginning of a long history of religious relations between
Thailand and Sri.Lanka. In the reign of King Lithai (1347-1374) a Sri Lankan bhikkhu,
Sumana Thera, was welcomed by the king and was invited to pass the rainy season (Vassa,
the Buddhist lent) in a newly constructed monastery in the mango grove. King Lithai
himself entered the monkhood for a temporary period, the first reigning Thai king to do
so. This is presumably the origin of the later custom, still observed, whereby young men
temporarily ordain as monks for a three-month period of Vassa. King Lithai is celebrated
as a Buddhist scholar. Consulting the Pali Tipitaka, commentaries, and about thirty other
independent Pali works, he wrote a treatise called Tebhuumikathaa (Sermon on the
Three Worlds), describing the three planes of existence in Buddhist cosmology and the
kamma (action) leading to them. Another expression of the vitality of the Theravaada
tradition in this reign is the art of the school of Sukhothai, which may be admired in the
exquisite image of the Buddha called Iinaraaj in the grand temple of Pitsanuloke (about
400 km. north of Bangkok), and in the Phra Buddha Jinasiiha and Phra Srisasadaa in the
main chapel and the vihaara of Wat Bovoranives in Bangkok. After this reign the kingdom of
Sukhothai declined until in 1438 it was annexed to the Ayudhya, kingdom, which had been
founded by King Uthong in 1350.
Ayudhya inherited Theravaada Buddhism from Sukhothai and religious life
in this period continued smoothly. Buddhism continued to play an important role as the
national religion and the source of morality. King Boromkot (1733-1758) was able to repay
Sri Lanka's kindness to Thailand by sending Upali to re-establish a pure and correctly
ordained Sa"ngha there, in response to the request of Kittisiriraajasiiha, king of
Kandy. When Ayudhya was sacked and destroyed by the Burmese in.1767, King Tak Sin the
Great, then a general of the Thai army, was able to liberate his motherland within seven
months. He established Thonburi, opposite present-day Bangkok, as the capital, and
ascended the throne, Although he tried to restore Buddhism to its former state and undo
the damage of the war, the brevity of his reign prevented him from achieving very much.
Buddhism recovered its former stability and prosperity in the Bangkok period. Although
King Rama I, who founded Bangkok as the capital, had to wage many wars against the
invading enemy, he found time to advance the prosperity of Buddhism. He sponsored a
Buddhist Council, which produced a standard, purified Pali Tipitaka written on corypha
palm leaves. Many of the major monasteries of Bangkok were built at his command, and the
study and practice of Buddhism were encouraged.
A reform of disciplinary practice undertaken by the later King Mongkut
during his twenty-seven years of monastic life led to the emergence of the Dhammayuttika
Nikaaya, a new Buddhist sect strictly observing the rules of discipline laid down by the
Buddha. The Thai Buddhist Church has since then been divided into two sects: the
Dhammayuttika, and the traditional Sa"ngha, called the Mahaanikaaya, which has the
majority of monks and novices. As sovereign, King Mongkut, although the founder of one of
them, rendered impartial support to both sects. His successor, King Chulalongkorn
(18681910), continued the tradition of royal support for Buddhism. He founded two Buddhist
academies, Mahamakuta-raajavidyalaya of the Dhammayuttika and Mahaachulalongkorn
raajavidyalaya of the Mahaanikaaya, which later developed into two Buddhist universities,
and he initiated the first printing of the Pali Tipitaka in Thai script.
It can be said that the way of life of Thai people is inseparably
connected with Buddhism from birth to death. When a child is born, the parents approach a
monk for an auspicious name for him. Children are taught to pray and to pay homage to the
Triple Gem (Buddha, Dhamma, Sa"ngha ) before going to bed, and to pay respect to
monks. Many Buddhist families give food to the monks every morning; this is regarded as a
way of accumulating merit and fulfills the duty of lay Buddhists to support the monks who
preserve the Buddha's teachings for the world. When a young man reaches twenty years of
age the parents arrange for his temporary ordination as a monk, and he remains in the
monkhood for at least the three months of Vassa.
Public education in Thailand was formerly organized in monasteries,
found in almost every village. Monasteries performed the function of school, college, or
even university. Parents who wanted their sons to be educated in literary or vocational
knowledge had to bring them to monasteries, which served as both lodgings and place of
study. Education was free of charge at every level; the daily class timetable was not very
systematic, as it had to be accommodated to the times each monk was free. The boys served
their teachers in necessary domestic tasks. The modern system of education in Thailand
began in the reign of King Chulalongkorn. As most of the primary and secondary schools are
situated in monastery campuses, Buddhist monks in Thailand still have some role to play in
The impact of Buddhism on Thai architecture and art has also been
immense. The construction of monasteries has been motivated not only by wholehearted
devotion but also by the desire to exhibit a monument of artistic achievement to the
public and to posterity. Architects and artists lavished their skill on the chief
buildings of monasteries such as the pagoda, the shrine hall, and the vihaara. These
buildings serve as living textbooks for the architects and artists of younger generations.
As sacred places for people of all classes they have played an important role in
preserving national architecture and works of art throughout the long history of the
 Rong Syamananda, A History of Thailand (Bangkok:
Thai Watana Panich, 1977) 8.
 Mahamakut Buddhist University, Buddhism
in the Kingdom of Thailand. Bangkok: Mahamakuta Rajavidyalaya Press, 1972) 26.
 Ibid., 21.
 Ibid., 23.
 H. H. Prince Dhani Nivat, Kromamun
Bidyalabh, A History of Buddhism in Siam (Bangkok: The Siam Society, 1965).
[Originally published in Buddhist Spirituality - Indian, Southeast
Asian, Tibetan, Early Chinese, edited by Takeuchi Yoshinori (New York: The Crossroad
Publishing Company, 1993), pp. 108-112.]
Sincere thanks to Phramaha Somnuek Sacksree for
retyping this article.