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Buddhism and Thai Society
Dr. Sunthorn Plamintr

Freedom of choice

Although Buddhism is Thailand's state religion, freedom to practice the religion of one's choice is guaranteed by the constitution, and all Thai citizens equally enjoy this right and prerogative. This freedom is, in fact, rooted in the spirit of tolerance, which is one of the most distinctive characteristics of the Buddha's teachings.

According to the 1990 Thai census there were 53,403,919 Buddhists in Thailand. In addition, there were 2,252,427 Moslems, 299,069 Christians, 3,606 Hindus and Sikhs, and 65,728 who profess other religions or no religion. The same census also reveals that there are 29,002 monasteries in the Kingdom, 225 of which are royal monasteries. There are 2,687 mosques, 854 Protestant churches, 331 Catholic churches, 33 Hindu and Sikh temples.

Buddhists are generally tolerant and accommodating, which is why religious persecution at Buddhist hands is unheard of in the long history of the religion. This has emboldened people of other religions to take advantage of Buddhist hospitality and tolerance by engaging in activities that are detrimental to Buddhism. We learn from history that with the Hindu overthrow of the Mauryan dynasty, around the early part of the 2nd century BC, the Hindus embarked on a massive and systematic persecution of the Buddhists, which resulted in a rapid decline of the religion in ancient India. A thousand years later they tried to wipe off whatever was left of Buddhism in the country by systematically distorting the Buddhist teachings and making Buddhism a subbranch of Hinduism. With the Moslem invasion of Sind in 710 AD, and especially when they gained more control over India in the 11th and 12th centuries, Buddhism suffered a great loss at the hands of Moslem fanatics. Buddhist monks were killed by the thousands, people were forced en masse to embrace Islam, and Buddhist monasteries were destroyed.

In contemporary Thailand, some Christian missionaries are engaged in dubious activities that are detrimental to the stability of Buddhism. They teach, for example, that the Buddha was a messenger of God, whose duty it was to prepare people in Asia for Christianity. The Buddha's enlightenment, some Christian priests claim, was God's revelation. Christian educators also make systematic efforts to reinterpret or distort the Buddha's teachings to confuse Buddhists. They have no qualms about claiming the origin of the most fundamental Buddhist doctrines, such as the Four Noble Truths, the Noble Eightfold Path, and Dependent Origination, as their own, tracing them to imaginary sources in the Bible. These and many other incidents are part of an on-going scheme to win converts to Christianity.

Factors for the solidarity of Buddhism in Thailand

The appeal of the Dhamma to the Thai mentality and the ability of the religion to accommodate and transform the local culture are the most important factors underlying the Thai acceptance of Buddhism. The religion also contains within its traditions and teachings some positive characteristics that attract both ordinary laymen and intellectuals.

Since the earliest introduction of the religion, the Thais have been most liberal in their support of the Buddhist institution. Royal patronage, in particular, has always been a significant factor contributing to the stability and progress of the religion in Thailand. Following Khun Luang Mao, who was the first Thai ruler to declare himself a Buddhist, all subsequent Thai kings and rulers, without exception, were great supporters of the religion and did much to promote its advancement. Some of them, like King Lithai of Sukhothai and King Borom Trailokanath of the early Ayutthaya period, even entered the Order and trained for a time as monks. This set a precedent for a national custom: ever since then it has been a general practice for Thai men to leave home and enter the monkhood to receive monastic training for a certain period of time, at least once in their lives. Prior to his coronation as King of Thailand, King Mongkut of the Chakri dynasty in the more recent Bangkok period spent 27 years in the robes and became one of the most esteemed authorities on Buddhism and its practices. The present King and the Crown Prince also entered the monkhood for short periods.

To say that Buddhism and its practices are suitable to the Thai people is an understatement. The word 'Thai' means freedom, and this is the spirit that is most cherished by the Thai people. No other religion answers so well to that spirit as Buddhism, and this explains why the Thais feel completely at home with the religion. Also, as mentioned above, the Buddhist ecumenical outlook and philosophy seem to leave enough room for the accommodation and subsequent transformation of indigenous beliefs and practices, so that the religion not only became readily accepted by the local inhabitants, but was able in the process to bring about harmonious development in social values and traditions in the country as a whole. Thus, the royal patronage accorded to the Buddhist institution may be viewed on one hand as an expression of the King's religious devotion and personal preference, but on the other it may also be interpreted as a solid representation of the people's will and religious faith. Whatever the King does, the common people feel inclined to follow; while the King is anxious to fulfill the wants and wishes of the common people. In this way the King's actions can be said to reflect his people's aspirations.

Buddhism has become so integrated with Thai life that the two are hardly separable. Buddhist influences can be detected in Thai life-style, mannerisms, traditions, character, arts, architecture, language, and all other aspects of the Thai culture. The fact that Thailand has become widely known today as the Land of Smiles is due in no small measure to the Buddhist influence on the Thai people. Indeed, the nation as a whole owes much to the religion and wholeheartedly acknowledges her indebtedness to the Buddha's teachings.

Traditionally, Thai kings and their subjects have supported Buddhism in many different ways. They provide the four requisites of robes, food, shelter, and medicine to monks and novices, who are generally regarded by lay Buddhists as the principal guardians of the religion, and look after their other material needs. They also contribute to the construction and maintenance of monasteries and patronize monastic educational activities. Nowadays the King, as the supreme patron of the religion, appoints the Supreme Patriarch to head the Council of Elders, which is the governing body of the Sangha in charge of religious affairs in the country.

Different interpretations of the Teaching

Differences in doctrinal interpretation and modes of practice are a common phenomenon in every major religion, including Buddhism. It is natural that living faiths will be subject to investigation and reinterpretation, which in some cases lead to differences in opinions and views. If these find sufficient support and following, the result is often the formation of a new school of thought within that particular religion.

Buddhism is an old religion. Through the course of its long and complicated history many different schools or sects have come into existence, each offering seemingly different views and interpretations on the Buddha's teachings. New modes of training have also been introduced, each claimed to have enriched the original system and made the practices more accessible and meaningful. Some schools have continued to grow, while others were little more than passing phenomena. We may regard this as a natural manifestation of events, especially since Buddhism is very much a living religion, dynamic and open. However, never has Buddhism lost its essential character, which is common throughout all its sects and denominations. Most of the apparent differences find a point of unity on a higher level of understanding, and Buddhists have no difficulty in perceiving its real message amidst the many later ramifications and developments.

The Dhamma is one, it is often stressed, but different teachers may give more emphasis to certain aspects of the Dhamma, depending on their predisposition or training. Just as the ocean has but one taste, so does the Dhamma have but one flavor, the flavor of freedom. It is possible, however, that different seekers of truth may find it more convenient to approach the Dhamma through different ways. Thus there may be more than one way to explain certain doctrinal points. At times the various approaches may give rise to confusion and uncertainty, but this state of affairs will come to an end when the Dhamma is realized on the experiential level. Just as there may be different ways to arrive at the same destination, so there may be different paths to arrive at the same truth. Once the goal has been reached, it becomes pointless to argue about methods. The best approach to solving doubt and problems is to practice and experience the Dhamma for oneself. When the Dhamma is realized, all doubts will dissolve.

The Buddha himself might have envisaged this issue. In the discourse called Mahapadesa he gave a broad criterion on which to judge if a teaching is the true Dhamma. This discourse can be used as a gauge to verify the authenticity of a teaching, and we may apply it to the instruction and practice as found in many Buddhist centers around the world. According to the Mahapadesa, if a teaching is claimed to be the word of either the Buddha, the Sangha, a group of learned monks, or a single elder (thera), such teachings should neither be welcomed nor rejected without due consideration. The teaching should be compared to the doctrine and the discipline (Dhamma-Vinaya) to see if they perfectly agree with one another. "If, after thoroughly comparing them with the Discourses and the Discipline, the words and meaning fit not with the Discourses and agree not with the Discipline, then you may rightly conclude: Certainly, not from the Blessed One is the teaching, and it has been wrongly comprehended by that monk (who makes the claim). Then you should reject it. If, however ... they fit with the Discourses and agree with the Discipline, then you may rightly conclude: Certainly, from the Blessed One is the teaching, and it has been rightly comprehended." This means that we should take the Dhamma-Vinaya as the ultimate criterion for judgment of matters concerning differences in the teachings.

In a discourse given to Venerable Upali, the Buddha similarly delineated a criterion to verify the true doctrine and discipline. According to that criterion, the true Dhamma is that which, when practiced, leads to disenchantment, detachment, the extinction of dukkha, calm and peace, direct discernment and knowledge of the truth, enlightenment, and Nibbana. Thus it can be concluded that the true Dhamma, no matter what label we give to it, is that which is conducive to the development of wisdom and understanding, and leads the practitioner to peace and happiness.

In Thailand some monastic establishments give more importance to scriptural study, some to meditation practice. Among those monasteries that function chiefly as educational centers, some are known to specialize in Abhidhamma studies, others may concentrate mainly on providing traditional ecclesiastical courses of Dhamma and Pali studies. There are also those that cater to contemporary needs with a balanced system of education that combines Dhamma studies with appropriate secular subjects to equip monks with necessary tools for future Dhamma work. Currently, there are two Buddhist universities in Bangkok, Mahachulalongkorn and Mahamakut, with their many affiliated colleges and schools throughout the Kingdom. There are also monasteries that may be considered 'unconventional,' like Buddhadasa's Suanmokkha and Ajahn Cha's Wat Nongpapong, which strive to give training within the context of a living condition believed to closely resemble that during the Buddha's time. Even those centers that are known for their emphasis on meditation provide a wide variety of different techniques of training. Some advocate concentration as the primary objective; others emphasize insight meditation as the most important way. There are also centers that offer training in both concentration and insight meditation. If we understand the basic unity of all these establishments and know what to choose, there should be no confusion or perplexity. The vast array of choices may be viewed as an advantage, considering the different levels of spiritual maturity and development of those who are interested in Buddhist learning and practice.

Buddhism and social problems

Although social problems can be linked to religion, it would be naive to attribute them directly to religion. Essentially, it is the lack of true religion in the heart of people that is the root of all problems. Sometimes we take extraneous components of a religious institution, such as religious statues, buildings, and even traditional practices, rites and ceremonies, to represent religion and forget to really live the religious teachings. As a result, religion is rarely allowed to play its proper role in our personal and social lives. This leads to many problems, one of the most unfortunate of which is the fact that we hardly realize how much we lack true religion. The vicious circle seems to blind us and problems in society continue to multiply.

To be fair, problems like violence, fraud, corruption, and prostitution are not peculiar to any one particular society or nation. They are widespread social phenomena prevalent in all parts of the world, not excepting the most affluent or highly developed nations. Social problems may arise from a variety of causes and conditions for which religion can hardly be held responsible. For example, hunger and lack of suitable means for a decent livelihood may drive a basically harmless individual to an act of crime or violence. The long-term centralization of political and economic powers due to greed and megalomania may cause corruption and poverty on a large scale in the country. In fact, there are many non-Buddhist countries in the world today that are plagued with social problems of all descriptions and have not known peace for a long time. Sometimes the problems are directly related to their own religious fanaticism, which is a truly unfortunate situation.

Thai society owes a great deal to Buddhism for many of the blessings that it enjoys. There is no doubt that if more people earnestly practiced the Dhamma, many of the problems Thailand now faces could be satisfactorily solved or ameliorated. For example, if people really observed the five precepts, there would be little room left for violence, fraud, and corruption. Even if only one precept of the five was adhered to, it would surely contribute tremendously to society. Indeed, it is not Buddhism that is a problem to society, but not following it in the proper way.

Buddhism is a religion of practice. This means that in order to derive benefit from the religion one needs to exert oneself and put it into practice. To call oneself a Buddhist without trying seriously to follow Buddhism will not mean much in terms of practical results. Although Thailand is a Buddhist country and the majority of the population professes Buddhism, that is hardly half the story. There still remains the need to practice the Dhamma, and if this is done by a sufficiently large number of people peace and prosperity will certainly result, and there will be less problems in society. Buddhism is a time-honored religious system; its teachings have stood the test of time for more than twenty-five centuries. The Dhamma is universally true and eternally valid. All that is needed is a sincere and earnest commitment to it.

The challenge of modernization

Through its long history Buddhism has been exposed to various cultural forces and traditions in different lands. The religion has demonstrated its excellent resilience throughout and has survived the most trying developments in human history. The scientific and logical appeal of the Buddhist teachings have consistently won new adherents and admirers in whichever lands the religion found its home. With the rapid increase of modern communications, creating an ever-shrinking world, Buddhism, which originated in the East, finds itself locked in contact with contemporary Western culture. Interestingly, new developments are taking shape.

Unlike her neighbors, which had been colonized by Western powers at one time or another, Thailand has always maintained relatively cordial relationships with the West. When the first 'farangs' (Caucasians) called at a Thai port, they were welcomed with open arms by the locals and were treated with great hospitality and friendship. Thai kings and royalty even donated large pieces of land and allowances to Christian missionaries and generously supported them in their activities. Christian churches, schools, and hospitals were built. Western culture and customs were introduced. As Thai people have always maintained a friendly attitude toward foreigners, Western influence continues to spread throughout the country, unchecked and unhindered, under the most favorable circumstances possible.

Of course, the West is at clear advantage in many respects. Modern technology impresses the Thais and the Western system of education has been adopted in lieu of the traditional one. People with a Western education have been regarded as a progressive class, while their counterparts were branded old fashioned and conservative. Gradually, more and more Thai intellectuals began to identify themselves with Western thought and values; unconsciously, they isolated themselves from traditional Thai society. In an effort to modernize the country in line with the 'more civilized' nations, Western prototypes of development were blindly followed -- sometimes with devastating effects. Modernization came to be identified with Westernization and traditional Thai values came to be regarded, mostly by the so-called Western educated class, as incongruous and anachronistic in the modern Thai context.

The impact of Western influence on modern Thai society is too obvious to require any detailed examination. One may say that almost every aspect of Thai life has been touched by it -- from the structure and form of government to the system of education, the economic system, commercialism and consumerism, to the arts and entertainments (where the impact is the strongest, especially among the Thai youth). Amidst these developments, Thai Buddhism is faced with a new challenge. From the perspective of religion, the impact of Christian missionary efforts in the country has been less than impressive. Despite the missionaries' best tactics and the enormous amount of money pumped into the country to support their activities, Christianity has won, until recently, only a marginal number of Thai converts. However, because Western culture is closely connected with Christianity and vice versa, what it lacks in philosophical value it amply makes up with cultural appeal and influence. This is all the more difficult for Thai Buddhists to deal with. Christianity spreads covertly in the garb of modernization and Western culture, and Thai Buddhists are caught unaware in the unremitting currents of these new developments.

For many Thais, Buddhism is closely associated with traditional values and cultural activities. But the cultural scene itself is fast changing in urban Thai society. Under the Westernized system of education, a large part of the Thai population has been alienated from Buddhism and traditional Thai culture. Gradually, Thai Buddhism finds itself more and more restricted in its role as a social and religious force. The intellectual leadership long enjoyed by the Thai Sangha has become much less distinct in the present, thanks in part to the misdirected process of modernization and in part to the inability of the Sangha to cope with the new developments sweeping through the country. Thus, the role of many Sangha members nowadays is more or less confined to little more than the performance of rites and ceremonies, although there are quite a few progressive monks who struggle hard to participate more meaningfully in social welfare programs and environmental issues.

So far Thailand's modernization efforts seem to have been concentrated mostly in the cities, and it is the urban populace who have shared most of the benefits from those programs. In rural areas, monks still hold social leadership among the underprivileged, with whom they maintain a comparatively close relation and cooperation. Village monasteries fulfill people's social needs and monks still fill their traditional roles of helping the villagers in their spiritual and temporal concerns. The monkhood is still greatly respected and provides a much needed opportunity for the poor to acquire a higher level of education, something not always accessible otherwise. Monks in forest meditation centers play a key role in preserving fast diminishing Thai forest reserves and wild life. They hold great potential to contribute to society. Thus, Western influence in Thailand may be drastically different in urban and rural areas, especially where Buddhism is concerned.

Fortunately, the encounter of Thai Buddhism with the West has also produced some very positive results. Many Westerners who visited the country have found in the Buddha's teachings an answer to their spiritual quest and have made Buddhism their adopted religion. Quite a few have even taken to the robes and spent the rest of their lives in monastic training. Although these cases are mainly personal spiritual pursuits, they do have an indirect influence on the Thai religious scene as a whole. These Thai trained Western monks have also played a crucial role in the growth of Buddhism in the West in recent years. Inspired by their commitment and exemplary conduct, many Thai Buddhists have begun to reexamine their religious and cultural identity. They become more serious in Buddhist studies and practice, hitherto somewhat neglected, and have grown more appreciative of Buddhist values and culture. Ironically, it is through Westerners that some Thais begin to appreciate their own spiritual heritage. Although the scope of their influence in Thailand is still limited, this development is nonetheless worth mentioning.

To say that Western influence in Thailand represents a challenge or threat to Buddhism may be an overstatement, yet its impact must be recognized. Whether the religion will continue to prosper, or how long it will survive the onslaught, will depend on how well Buddhists respond to the calls of their conscience and responsibility. As the Buddha himself stated prior to his passing away, the progress and decline of the religion lie in the hands of Buddhists. It is they who will be responsible.

Modern trends in Thai Buddhism

For Thai traditionalists Buddhism often means merit making activities such as offering food to monks or contributing to the construction projects of a monastery. Taking part in Buddhist festivals and ceremonies is also considered a meritorious act. The more devout may occasionally observe five precepts, which every lay Buddhist is expected to follow, and learn to practice basic meditation. However, they usually lack intellectual understanding of the Buddha's teachings, and take little interest in studying them, for which reason they are prone to indulge in superstition and astrology. Temple fairs and celebrations provide them with cultural entertainment and more opportunities to make merit. These people are more or less content with the status quo and expect little from their involvement with the religion other than the so-called accumulation of merits. Normally, one would not expect them to have any particular vision concerning religious or social reform, but they do contribute in no small measure to the preservation and maintenance of the Buddhist institution and the Thai culture.

Characteristically, the institution of the Thai Sangha is traditionalistic and conservative almost to the extreme. This conservatism represents both a weakness and a strength in the system, but in the ultimate analysis it often confines the Sangha to unnecessary constraint and impedes efforts by the Sangha to express their sense of social responsibility more fully. Even the so-called two duties of scriptural study and meditation practice, which the commentary attributes to monks and to which monks are supposed to confine themselves, have sometimes been criticized, not quite justifiably, as too restrictive and unrealistic, not reflecting the needs of the community to which the Sangha institution belongs. Thus, other than these two express tasks, monks are frequently seen engaged in monastic construction or renovation. Socially, their activities now rarely extend beyond the performance of religious rites and ceremonies. Public instruction or edification is often carried out perfunctorily, and the intellectual leadership which the Sangha previously enjoyed has weakened considerably.

Fortunately, however, there are a handful of individual Sangha members who are quite capable, socially conscientious, and dedicated. While not neglecting to preserve the conservative spirit of the Theravada tradition, they do make concerted efforts to relate to social needs and go out of their way to overcome the barriers and weaknesses of both traditionalism and conservatism. They run the risk of being called unconventional, but they do contribute substantially to society, in terms of both material development and spiritual well-being. Under their initiative and support, schools are built in remote rural areas, roads are constructed to connect villages, wells are dug to provide more water to villagers, funds are established to enable poor children to attend schools and colleges, family disputes are amicably settled, electricity is brought into long forgotten village settlements, etc. Some monasteries run charitable therapeutic centers for drug addicts, others establish charitable nursing homes for the aged or terminally ill AIDS patients. There are also monks who are active as environmentalists and conservation activists, who consistently try to raise public awareness in these pressing issues.

Of course, despite all these tasks, the fundamental position of scriptural study and meditative practice never suffers a setback, for there are many more monks who are traditionally active in those areas. One only hopes that there will emerge in course of time more socially engaged Sangha members and that the balance between conservative traditionalism and visionary farsighted pragmatism will be properly maintained.

With the phenomenal increase of Western interest in Buddhism, more Thai Buddhists have also begun to take a closer look at their own religion. One may assert that the coincidence is more accidental than incidental, but the trend is positively a welcome sign. True, this never amounts to anything close to a reform or revival movement, yet it is nonetheless quite a meaningful development. Perhaps this has been prompted, at least in part, by modern Thai political unrest and the simultaneous surge in crime and violence characteristic of moral deterioration in society. People have subsequently been forced to look for a practical alternative and solution in Buddhism, and they have found answers in the ancient message of the Buddha, which had been hitherto neglected through the headlong rush toward the material utopia. This rediscovery gives them new-found confidence in the Dhamma, which they believe may be employed to effectively stem the downhill slide of public moral consciousness. It is generally accepted that one of the causes of social problems in modern Thai society is the lack of interest in and commitment to Buddhism and Buddhist practices. This trend of spiritual disillusionment is strongest among the technocrats and the intelligentsia, hence the relatively sharp increase in their involvements with religious activities within the modern Thai social context.

With the new trend, existing meditation centers have become revitalized and new centers have been established to meet public interest. A growing number of people take to meditation. Educational establishments, such as schools, colleges, and universities, organize seminars or workshops centering on Buddhist themes for both students and the general public. Extracurricular summer courses for intensive training in Buddhist studies and monasticism are widely introduced and generously supported. More and more young men from the middle class and the intellectual sector join the Order for religious training. Although most enter the training programs for brief periods of time, the effect this has come to bear on the public moral consciousness is quite substantial. An increasing number of laity are seriously engaged in the intellectual pursuit of Buddhist scriptural knowledge, previously regarded as a strictly monastic domain, and Buddhist courses have been integrated into advanced educational curricula at university level throughout the country.

The role of lay Buddhists as Dhamma teachers in the modern religious scene should also be recognized. University courses in Buddhism, Pali, Sanskrit, and general religious studies are all taught by lay teachers, alternatively supplemented by occasional participation of invited Sangha members. Some lay Dhamma teachers are also active even outside their educational establishments, holding classes in Buddhism for the benefit of the general public. Even the Abhidhamma, considered more technical and therefore more difficult to comprehend, is taught and studied by interested laity. Those with a background in higher secular knowledge have the added advantage of relating it to religious understanding and are in a better position to express it, if need be, in contemporary vocabulary to make the Dhamma more intelligible and interesting.

It is worth remarking that women have also begun to take a keen interest in these intellectual pursuits, countering their previous predominant role as material supporters and their relative indifference to serious religious studies. In fact, they have now come to the forefront in the field, gaining eminence as religious instructors and forming a major part of the academic sector.

Of course, these lay academic activities are as yet rather limited, and beyond this restricted circle, monks still fill the major role of religious instructors. There are two Buddhist universities, Mahachulalongkorn and Mahamakut, both located in Bangkok, that cater to the educational needs of monks in the Kingdom, as well as those from foreign lands. These two establishments have affiliated colleges and schools in various parts of the country and offer graduate and postgraduate courses which are recognized by the Ministry of Education. They are administered solely by the respective governing bodies of monks, and the services they have rendered to the advancement of Buddhist studies have been widely recognized. Meditation is another area of specialization where the role of monks is still of the greatest significance, although some very able lay teachers are quite active in this field as well. Monk instructors do have a positive advantage, because they naturally inspire faith and respect in the practitioners and because they not only train in meditation but actually live a meditative life. Lay teachers, on the other hand, are generally more accessible and flexible, so they appeal to certain groups of people who prefer a more relaxed approach. The increased interest in recent years in the practice of meditation is, indeed, a welcome trend in contemporary Thai Buddhism.

Another important development is the recent Thai participation in international Buddhist missionary activities. Comparatively, the Thai entry into the international religious scene is long overdue, yet there are considerable resources which the country could contribute. With the West increasingly becoming interested in Buddhism, there seems to be a great demand for religious personnel to bring the Buddha's message of peace and wisdom to new and unfamiliar lands. Unfortunately, the Thai Sangha, especially the ecclesiastical governing body, has been slow in responding to this new opportunity. So far nothing of significance has been done in this direction, but there are individual monks who have long been active in their self-imposed foreign missions. Many have rendered quite commendable services, against all odds and, for Thai communities, the hardships of anun accustomed environment. Thai-trained Western monks are the most successful with Western enthusiasts and the growth of their activities has been phenomenal. Presently, quite a few Thai temples, eighty-nine by the latest official figure, have been firmly established in Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, Australia, India, the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, and in many parts of the European Continent. Out of these, only four are directly supported by the Thai government. However, recent attempts have been made by the Thai ecclesiastical governing body to form an institute which will deal exclusively with foreign missionary activities, and the Department of Religious Affairs is actively collaborating on the project. It is hoped that this will more effectively solve the long-standing problems with regard to the Thai role in the international Buddhist mission and will further help promote the advancement and spread of the religion in many a foreign country.

How serious are Thais with their religion?

It is not possible to generalize whether Thai Buddhists are serious or not about their religion. Most probably this is true of all religious institutions, within which we find varying degrees of commitment and dedication. However, unlike most other religions, which stress the importance of faith more than anything else, Buddhism places great emphasis on wisdom and understanding. Thus the level of faith and commitment to religious practice tends to depend largely on understanding and appreciation of its teachings. Naturally, this varies from one individual to another.

If generosity and friendliness were the standards by which to judge religious commitment, Thai Buddhists would no doubt be regarded as dedicated and earnest practitioners. The Thai traits of generosity and friendliness are often cited as examples of the Buddhist influence on the national personality.

Briefly speaking, there are three modes of making merit recommended by the Buddha for a lay Buddhist to follow. These are generosity (dana), morality (sila), and mental development (bhavana). Of these three principles, generosity is considered basic training, for it explicitly concerns outward practice. It has been pointed out that although the act of giving itself is based on an inner quality of mind, yet it is directed outwardly. The practice of morality refers to the conscious observance of moral precepts. This is said to be of higher merit and more noble than generosity, because it directly concerns the control of bodily and verbal actions. Mental development is of the highest virtue, for it deals with the training and purification of the mind, which is the most important component of the psycho-physical structure. To train the mind is to engage in the practice of meditation.

Generosity is the mode of merit making that Thai Buddhists practice more than anything else. This normally takes the form of offering food to monks, supporting the Sangha with material needs, contributing to monastic construction projects, or supporting charitable services. Fewer people go beyond this step to follow the moral precepts regularly. Of course, there is a customary practice of ceremonially asking for the five precepts at the beginning of every formal religious function, and most Buddhists take pains to fulfill their part in the ceremony. But, to be sure, this does not always amount to a conscious attempt to practice according to the spirit and intention of the precepts. The more devout would be an exception here. As for meditation, few are ever inclined to commit themselves to it, especially to a formal course or in a prolonged training program. Nevertheless, the recent increase of public interest in meditation may be regarded as an encouraging sign that this supreme form of merit making has finally received the attention it deserves, although one would not expect it to become a household practice.

Buddhist holy days are still considered special occasions for making merit in Thailand. There are a number of regular religious sermons or discussions on radio and television, especially on Sundays or holy days. The more important holy days, those connected with special events in the life of the Buddha, such as Magha, Visakha, and Asalha, are celebrated with greater enthusiasm and piety than the others. The three month period of the rains retreat is considered especially sacred for spiritual practices, and young men will leave home to enter monastic life for training as well as for merit.

One may say therefore that, on the one hand, the majority of Thai Buddhists need to commit themselves more meaningfully to the religion, yet, on the other, it may also be rightly asserted that Buddhism in the country is still very much alive and strong. Optimistically, one hopes that things will improve, for Thailand is admittedly one of the most important strongholds of the Buddhist world today.

Buddha lockets and amulets

It must be clear from the outset that the use of charms, talismans, and such objects as Buddha lockets or votive tablets were neither part of the Buddha's teaching, nor recommended by him. They were adopted by Buddhists in a much later period and have become popular in a comparatively recent time.

To be sure, the use of charms or talismans is a fairly widespread practice in all religions. In fact, these things are as old as civilization itself, if not older. In Buddhism, their primary introduction might have been a result of the religion's geographical proximity with Hinduism. The Tibetans are known to have practiced magic and occultism since ancient times, and they might have been among the earliest Buddhists to produce such sacred objects, which were intended for protection and blessing. Spiritually advanced lamas consecrated the objects by repeatedly reciting a sacred incantation, such as Om mani padme hum, or by entering into a very deep state of concentration and invoking the desired power in the objects. It is believed that by so doing the energy field of the consecrated objects is transformed or intensified and the objects eventually acquire spiritually magnetic qualities with esoteric magical powers. Of course, it is further explained that the efficacy of such sacred objects depends to a large extent on the faith and confidence of the users, as well as their own favorable past kamma. That strong unshakable faith and conviction do produce powerful energies where the lack thereof does not is a common experience which anyone may testify from personal accounts. This is the philosophy behind the use of magic, charms, and talismans that have come into vogue through human history. Naturally, it is likely to be rejected by scientists and many intellectuals simply laugh at it.

Early Thai literature abounds with references to the use of magic and charms, testifying to the fact that such practice had been known in the country for a long time. Such practices do serve a certain purpose, but they also have severe limitations. People who lack self-confidence and a clear understanding of the doctrine of kamma may feel the need for some additional psychological support, which they find in such charms and magical objects. As people become more mature and have a better grasp of the Dhamma, they need less psychological support, other than that which the Dhamma provides, and are thus free from superstitious beliefs and practices.

Buddha lockets or votive tablets are only miniaturized versions of larger Buddha images. Originally, Buddha images were meant to serve as reminders of the Buddha and his virtues. Since Buddhists have the images at home for worship or meditative practice, it is natural that they would want to have them when not at home, too, such as while travelling. Thus miniature replicas of Buddha images, which could be conveniently carried around the neck, were produced by the faithful. This soon became popular and the practice was adopted by increasingly large numbers: people feel secure and auspicious when they have a Buddha image with them. Of course, since Buddha images are held in high esteem as symbolizing the Buddha and his virtues, they are duly consecrated and are treated differently from other objects. Buddhists consider them sacred and regard them with reverence.

Buddha lockets or votive tablets were also originally employed as an instrument -- a skillful means, so to say -- to induce people to practice the Dhamma or lead a life of righteousness. It was commonly held that whether or not one might benefit from the sacred objects depended largely on the stipulation that those who wear them must practice the Dhamma or lead a virtuous life. If people truly believed in this rationalization, they would likely be discouraged from doing wrong or evil deeds and would naturally be encouraged to do good. Although this may not strictly appear to be in keeping with the Buddhist spirit of wisdom and understanding, it does serve some practical purpose. Certainly, when the Dhamma is clearly understood one will develop a more realistic perspective and such rationalization would become irrelevant.

However, in later times the connection between Buddha lockets or votive tablets and the Dhamma seems to have been lost or forgotten altogether. Where magic is concerned, many no longer have faith in the Dhamma but have come to blindly believe in the sole powers of magic. Sacred objects cease to be an effective vehicle for the practice of Dhamma and their original, more sublime purposes are defeated. Worse still, modern day magic has become so commercialized that there are concerted efforts to spread superstition among the gullible for commercial ends. Charms and talismans are being promoted through advertising like household commodities. Surely, the need for the true Dhamma is now more urgent than ever.


[Originally published in Sunthorn Plamintr's Getting to Know Buddhism (Bangkok: Buddhadhamma Foundation, 1994), pp. 185-206.]


Sincere thanks to Bhikkhu Le^. Tho. for retyping this article.


Updated: 3-5-2000

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