has been known by various epithets such as "Land of the
Free", "Land of smile" and "Land of the
Yellow Robes". The last title vividly describes the
religion most widely embraced by the Thai people.
history is normally divided into four main periods -- Sukhothai,
Ayutthaya, Thon Buri and Rattanakosin (Bangkok). The Sukhothai
period dates back 700-800 years when Buddhism was established as
the religion of Thais. Of a total population of fifty-three
million about 95 percent have declared themselves Buddhists,
mostly of the Theravada (Hinayana) school. The latest available
statistics show that there are over 30,000 temples scattered
throughout Thailand's seventy- five provinces. The number of
ordained monks varies, however, depending on the time of the
year. The highest figures are recorded during Buddhist Lent in
the rainy season, from July to September, and normally stand
around 350,000. Apart from fully ordained monks, there are young
novices, normally between six and nineteen years of age, who
live their lives in accordance with only 10 precepts as opposed
to the 227 upheld by Buddhist monks. Buddhist monks are easily
recognized by their shaven heads, yellow robes and measured
manners. These monks, together with their Wats (Buddhist
monasteries) have played an important role in Thai society for
over 700 years. Their role in the fields of education, economy
and socio-cultural spheres are described below in brief.
early times monks have made important contributions in the
domain of education. The first schools established in Thailand
were set up in the grounds of Buddhist monasteries and monks, in
addition to their religious duties, taught the so-called 3 R's--
reading, writing and arithmetic--as well as other subjects, to
Wat Schools were widely dispersed throughout the entire country
and were operated at a very minimal cost as monks accepted no
payment for their services. During the reign of formal education was introduced to
Thailand. Government schools were set up one by one outside the
monastery compound, and as the years passed, Wat schools were
gradually taken over by the Ministry of Education, thus giving
monks a diminishing role to play in formal education.
teachers are being trained and are now gradually replacing monks.
Buddhist monks have progressively taught fewer and fewer
subjects and the last remaining subject which they have been
permitted by the Ministry officials to teach is "Civil and
Moral Ethics". Their role as teachers in the formal
educational sphere of the country has now virtually ended.
However, their legacy stands clear for all to see in the large
number of school buildings under the jurisdiction of the
Ministry of Education and other governmental institutions still
standing within the compound of monasteries. The names of so
many schools, well recognized for their high scholastic
standards, are reminiscent of the active roles of Buddhist monks
in times past. They are known by such description as "Wat
Thepsirin School", "Wat Suthi Wararam School" and
education-minded Buddhist monks are still, however involved in
the construction of schools. They may literally build schools
themselves or hire construction firms to do the work for them;
but money for construction and operation costs comes from
donations. Teaching is conducted in accordance with the approved
curriculum and pupils are normally admitted free of charge.
as practiced in Thailand has played certain beneficial roles in
the sphere of the economy. Many Buddhist teachings give
practical advice on how to maintain an economically viable and
satisfactory household. The Buddha taught the layman who intends
to become successful, economically or otherwise, to follow the
four rules of conduct (The Fourfold Path to Success or in Pali,
Iddhipada). These include, for example, hard work and constant
attention to whatever one is doing. Buddhism does not place
great emphasis on economic achievement, but Buddhist teachings
can be made applicable to economic development.
Buddhist monks do not enjoin the people into feverish economic
activities. Their teachings tend to give weight to a moderate
way of life. Economic gains may be pursued but not as an
essence of Buddhism is the emphasis on the "middle way",
but this does not necessarily impede the path toward economic
addition to teachings related to economic activities, Buddhist
monasteries, particularly in rural areas, give practical lessons
which augment the skills or practical knowledge useful for
laymen and monks. These skills may include herbal medicine,
carpentry, construction techniques, painting and other crafts.
Usually, by necessity and not by choice, the abbot of a
monastery may have to supervise the construction of a school
building or a meeting hall. Many abbots undertake this task
themselves so that labor costs will be reduced to virtually
nothing. Thus, those intending to be ordained for a brief period
can also get practical experience in construction techniques.
Laymen are indebted to their sojourns as monks for the
acquisition of extra skills. They may have learn about carpentry,
painting of buildings or even sculpting and other crafts which
can be very useful for their livelihood.
and the Rites of Passage in Thailand
Buddhism is such an integral part of Thai life, it is not
surprising that it plays a particularly important role at those
critical periods that serve to mark a person's passage--birth,
ordination, marriage, and death.
Parents often consult a monk when choosing a name for their
child. The name has to be linguistically satisfying and at the
same time conveys a good meaning. Other religious practices
following a birth may vary from region to region. In the central
part of the country, for example, it is customary to shave the
baby's head when he or she is one month old. This essentially
Brahmanic rite, known as the khwan ceremony, may be accompanied
by a Buddhist ceremony in which monks recite passages from the
The second rite in the life span of most Thai men is ordination
into monk hood. It is considered that monk hood matures a man
and prepares him for his adult life. This practice occurs any
time after the man has reached the age of twenty and many
parents would prefer that ordination take place before marriage
or before starting an official career. Entering monk-hood also
allows the man an opportunity to make merit for the souls of
deceased relatives, or for one's parents when they are still
living. It also gives the man a chance to fulfill a vow he may
have made to the Buddha when seeking help in solving a personal
or family problem.
generally takes place throughout the month of July, prior to the
commencement of the three- month Rains Retreat observed during
the rainy season. On the day before the ordination is scheduled
to take place, the man will have his head shaved and will don
white clothes. Monks may be invited to his home for chanting and
celebrations are held. Friends, neighbors and relatives may
participate in the ceremonies, thereby gaining much merit. On
the day of the ordination, the prospective monk will be carried
around the monastery three times before being taken into the
ordination hall where a group of monks await him. After
undergoing examination by senior monks before an image of the
Buddha, and provided that he satisfies all the necessary
conditions, he will be accepted into monk-hood and don the
saffron robes. For the period that he is ordained he is expected
to live in the monastery, exemplifying the Buddhist ideal of
life and undergoing rigorous training in body and mind control.
He is free to revert to the status of layman at any time he so
Buddhism also plays an important role in the ceremony which
binds two people in the sacred bond of marriage. Traditionally,
monks are invited to chant in the home of the bridal couple on
the evening before their marriage. The following morning the
couple offer them food. On the morning of the wedding, the monks
partake of food at the home of the bride’s parents, and chant
verses from the sacred texts as a blessing for the bridal couple.
Upon completion of the chanting, the most senior monk sprinkles
holy waters on the bride and groom and all the people gathered
at the ceremony. The actual wedding takes place either directly
after this ceremony is completed or later in the afternoon.
Elder and other guests pour holy waters from a conch shell onto
the hands of the couple. The hands are held in an attitude of
worship as the couple kneel on a low bench, each wearing a
wreath of many unspun threads, symbolically joining them
Rites These very according to local customs, the type of death
and whether the person was a layman or monk at the time of his
demise. As the moment of death approaches, Buddhist chants are
whispered, if possible, into the ear of the dying person. Once
death has occurred, a bathing ceremony is usually conducted on
the first afternoon, either at home it he dies there, or at the
monastery where his body is taken from a hospital or any other
location. Monks, relatives and friends pour scented water on the
outstretched right palms of the deceased and a sacred thread is
passed three times around three different parts of the body,
symbolizing the bonds of passion, anger and ignorance. The
thread is normally removed at the time of cremation. The body is
next placed in a coffin decorated with fresh flowers and that
evening monks are invited to the deceased’s home, or to a
pavilion in the monastery grounds where the coffin is placed,
for evening chanting. Friends and relatives come to present
wreaths or garlands of fresh flowers and listen to the chanting.
cremation may follow immediately, it is common for evening
prayers to continue for at least one week. The body is either
entombed in a cemetery or kept at home where monks are invited
to perform chanting ceremonies at regular intervals. On the day
before the funeral (which may take place on any convenient day,
except a Friday which is reserved for happier occasions) the
coffin is taken to a special pavilion reserved for such rites.
That evening monks are invited to chant verses on behalf of the
deceased as family and friends pay their final respects. On the
day of cremation, a final service is held followed by a lunch
offering and a sermon.
actual cremation can be performed in a variety of ways such as
burning the body in a wooden coffin on a funeral pyre or in a
modern crematorium. The ashes of the deceased are then collected,
some to be placed in urns to be kept at home near the family or
in the monastery grounds, while the rest are scattered in the
sea or cast to the wind. Each year, on the anniversary of the
death, relatives will again invite monks to chant verses and
bless the ashes. On this occasion food and gifts can be offered
to the dead person through the medium of the monks.
Welfare Roles of Buddhist Monks
Buddha taught that His followers should cultivate Metta and
Karuna, together with a host of other virtues. Metta is goodwill
towards all sentient beings, while Karuna is compassion for
those who are less fortunate than ourselves. Perhaps it is
because of these two teachings that some Buddhist monks become
actively involved in matters of social welfare.
very well-known activity in this field is the treatment of drug
addiction given by a monk who lives in the province of Saraburi
in the central part of Thailand. That monk, together with his
assistants, has gone to great pains to find a herbal cure to
administer with therapeutic methods. Results have shown that his
treatment is more than seventy percent effective in treating
drug addiction. The monk has had to make a lot of personal
sacrifices as the treatment involves many expenses including the
cost of locating and producing the herbal medicines, the cost of
constructing and up-keeping small cottages and residential hall
for addicts receiving treatment, the cost of meals for patients
and the cost of paying assistants involved in the treatment
process. Donations have been received, but not at a rate
commensurate with the demand. The Magsaysay Award Committee
recognized the work which this monk has been doing, and about
ten years ago, conferred upon him the Award for Humanitarian
Service. The Award carried with it a purse of $ 10,000 U.S. That
amount has subsequently been used to further the cause of the
monk is just one amongst literally hundreds who are engaged in
one way or another with the health care of the people. Certain
monks specialize in curing, or producing cures for certain
diseases and afflictions such as sinus, leprosy, cancer and even
monks do not treat only physical illnesses, but also perform
excellent services for those who feel unhappy, suffer nervous
disorders or undergo mental breakdowns. Quite often when feeling
depressed, people will go to a monastery to help them find peace
of mind. They may not go to see anybody in particular, but may
just sit or wander around within the compound of the monastery.
The peace and tranquillity to be found in the monastery is most
curative, almost miraculously so. Some people may enter the main
part of the monastery where the Buddha image is housed. These
people will pay homage before the image and seek solace from it.
Some may visit a monk, normally a senior one, to seek advice on
possible ways out of their problems.
Wat as a Store House
people in rural areas often feel insecure about keeping their
valuables in their homes, so turn to the monastery abbot and
request permission to store them in the monastery.
Wat is not only the villager’s ‘safe deposit box’, but it
is also a storehouse for documents or artifacts of historical
significance. In past times, palm leaves were used for the
purpose of recording in place of paper. For hundreds of years it
has been a common practice for monks to record the Pali texts on
palm leaves which are threaded together. When giving a sermon,
particularly from the Pali text, these palm leaves will be
unfolded in an accordion manner and the text read. Palm leaves
were also used to record historical events or stories of ancient
kingdoms and Thai city-states.
monastery is also the storehouse for Buddha images. These images
come in various sizes, some quite huge measuring over five
meters tall while others are much smaller, only about 10 inches.
Such images are used for public veneration and objects of
meditation. There are also other Buddha images of even smaller
sizes which come in the form of a medallion and bear a variety
of designs. The designs often the beliefs or values upheld
during a particular period. These images are normally worn on a
chain around the neck and serve to remind the wearer of the
Buddha and his teachings. They are believed by some people to
have powers to avert danger and misfortune.
types of images are stored in large quantities in monasteries.
By studying the design and other aspects of these images, one
can gain insight into the social life of the Thais through
Wat as an Inn and Hotel
the past, when inns or hotels were non-existent, people
traveling from one place to another had nowhere to stay
overnight, unless they had friends or relatives in the area.
They, therefore, would turn to the monastery, seeking permission
from the abbot to spend the night there.
the Songkran Festival which takes place on April 13, people
flock by the thousands to the northern province of Chiang Mai
where it is most popularly celebrated. Hotels and guest houses
cannot accommodate the large number of visitors, so they turn to
the local monasteries and schools. Each monastery usually has an
open-side community hall where the people can sleep. In return
for the hospitality the visitor give donations to the monastery.
hospitality of the monastery is not restricted to the festival
season only and all through the year it offers accommodation to
people who are in need. Many people in the rural areas like to
send their children to schools in Bangkok. Sometimes it is
difficult and expensive to find accommodation so these boys take
refuge in the city monasteries. These boys, known as monastery
boys, live with the monks, assisting them with their daily
chores, such as washing, cleaning and carrying food containers.
These boys not only receive accommodation, but are also fed and
given instruction in the Buddhist tenets. Throughout the years
thousands of young boys and men have received such hospitality
and because of this kindness, many young people have been able
to complete their education.
Wat and Governmental Functions
village monastery usually has a large meeting hall and a
playground. The district unit of the Royal Thai Government may
make use of the hall for the meeting of district functionaries
and village head men. The playground may be used on various
occasion, such as meeting of government officials and villagers,
parliamentary elections and conscription. Health officials may
also use the playground when vaccinating the local people and
officials from the Ministry of Trade may make use of it as a
station for buying rice at a guaranteed price or as a
distribution point for selling certain commodities at a
specially low price.
Wat as a Socio-Cultural Center
Wat offers many uses to Thai society, particularly in the
villages. Village youth like to gather there in the early
evening hours to play sports such as takraw and football. Some
may participate in cycling while parents take their small
children there for strolls. Apart from being a center of
religion, it is also a center for recreation.
the festival seasons, the Wat has a very important role to play.
Fairs are organized in the monastery compounds, stalls are set
up to sell merchandise of various types. There are games for
children such as darts, hoopla, ferris wheels and luckydip.
Movies are shown alongside performances of traditional folk
opera and exhibitions of Thai-style boxing. there are also
concerts and singing competitions. Everybody in the village
looks forward to the festival season with much enthusiasm.
Wat fairs are the place where the villagers have a chance to
express their common social and cultural membership and esprit
be corps. Their participation underlines their sense of
belonging to a common way of life and cultural heritage. In the
southern part of Thailand, shadow plays depicting the Thai
version of the Ramayana are normally performed. In other parts
of the country people perform music, dance and plays of local
variation or of local tastes. Wat fairs thus assist in the
preservation of time-honored traditions.
addition, certain monasteries are famous for their architectural
style, excellent sculpture and beautiful mural paintings. These
are parts of the cultural heritage upheld by the Thai Wat.
plays an integral part in the life of the Thais. First and
foremost, it inculcates a Buddhist view. One of the basic tenets
of Buddhism is the law of causation; that is, everything that
happens must have a cause, explainable by either past or present
karma (deeds). The ultimate cause of all happenings,
particularly one’s problems, is a ijja or ignorance. Desire,
particularly in the extreme form, is the immediate root cause of
all problems. Buddhism puts great emphasis on practising the
middle path. Perhaps it is no coincidence then that Thais are
known for their moderate outlook.
has been made about the important roles of Buddhism and the Wat
in Thai society. Thus it is no exaggeration to say that, to the
majority of Thais, Buddhism permeates their way of life from
birth through death.