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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,[1] 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.[2] 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."[3] 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.[4]

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."[5] 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 national education.

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 nation.


[1] Rong Syamananda, A History of Thailand (Bangkok: Thai Watana Panich, 1977) 8.

[2] Mahamakut Buddhist University, Buddhism in the Kingdom of Thailand. Bangkok: Mahamakuta Rajavidyalaya Press, 1972) 26.

[3] Ibid., 21.

[4] Ibid., 23.

[5] 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.


Updated: 3-5-2000

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