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Buddhism In Thailand
Buddhism in Thailand is largely of the Theravada school. As much as
94% of Thailand's population is Buddhist of the Theravada school, though
Buddhism in this country has become integrated with folk beliefs such as
ancestor worship as well as Chinese religions from the large Thai-Chinese
population. Buddhist temples in Thailand are characterized by tall golden
stupas, and the Buddhist architecture of Thailand is similar to that in other
Southeast Asian countries, particularly Cambodia and Laos, with which Thailand
shares cultural and historical heritage.
Three major forces have influenced the development of Buddhism in Thailand.
The most visible influence is that of the Theravada school of Buddhism, imported
from Sri Lanka. While there are significant local and regional variations, the
Theravada school provides most of the major themes of Thai Buddhism. By
tradition, Pāli is the language of religion in Thailand. Scriptures are recorded
in Pāli, using either the modern Thai script or the older Khom and Tham scripts.
Pāli is also used in religious liturgy, despite the fact that most Thais
understand very little of this ancient language. The Pāli Tipitaka is the
primary religious text of Thailand, though many local texts have been composed
in order to summarise the vast number of teachings found in the Tipitaka. The
monastic code (Patimokkha) followed by Thai monks is taken from the Pāli
Theravada- something that has provided a point of controversy during recent
attempts to resurrect the bhikkhuni lineage in Thailand.
The second major influence on Thai Buddhism were Hindu beliefs received from
Cambodia, particularly during the Sukhothai period. Vedic Hinduism played a
strong role in the early Thai institution of kingship, just as it did in
Cambodia, and exerted influence in the creation of laws and order for Thai
society as well as Thai religion. Certain rituals practiced in modern Thailand,
either by monks or by Hindu ritual specialists, are either explicitly identified
as Hindu in origin, or are easily seen to be derived from Hindu practices. While
the visibility of Hinduism in Thai society has been diminished substantially
during the Chakri dynasty, Hindu influences- particularly shrines to the god
Brahma- continue to be seen in and around Buddhist institutions and ceremonies.
Folk religion- attempts to propitiate and attract the favor of local spirits
known as phi forms the third major influence on Thai Buddhism. While
Western observers (as well as urbane and Western educated Thais) have often
drawn a clear line between Thai Buddhism and folk religious practices, this
distinction is rarely observed in more rural locales. Spiritual power derived
from the observance of Buddhist precepts and rituals is employed in attempting
to appease local nature spirits. Many restrictions observed by rural Buddhist
monks are derived not from the orthodox Vinaya, but from taboos derived from the
practice of folk magic. Astrology, numerology, and the creation of talismans and
charms also play a prominent role in Buddhism as practiced by the average Thai-
topics that are, if not proscribed, at least marginalized in Buddhist texts.
Additional, more minor influences can be observed stemming from contact with
Mahayana Buddhism. Early Buddhism in Thailand is thought to have been derived
from an unknown Mahayana tradition. While Mahayana Buddhism was gradually
eclipsed in Thailand, certain features of Thai Buddhism- such as the appearance
of the bodhisattva Lokesvara in some Thai religious architecture, and the belief
that the king of Thailand is a bodhisattva himself- reveal the influence of
Mahayana concepts. The only other bodhisattva prominent in Thai religion is
Maitreya; Thais sometimes pray to be reborn during the time of Maitreya, or
dedicate merit from worship activities to that end.
In modern times, additional Mahayana influence has stemmed from the presence
of Chinese immigrants in Thai society. While some Chinese have 'converted' to
Thai-style Theravada Buddhism, many others maintain their own separate temples
in the East Asian Mahayana tradition.