Buddhist Religion in Thailand
services of monks are requested
for every occasion. New houses or cars should be blessed to
bring good luck nine monks are required for a marriage, and three
days of chanting ‘mantras’ by a group of monks is normal at a
live of Lord Buddha
people who, as in the case of Hindus, believed in gods and
goddesses, to the animists who believed in spirits, to the Buddhists
who believed in celestial beings and the several abodes of heaven
and hell, it was only natural to impute to the Buddha supernatural
and god-like qualities. He could perform miracles, communicate with
the gods, transport himself to heaven, and so on.
yet there are facts: His birth, his renunciation, his studies with
gurus, his period of asceticism, his long period of intense
meditation leading to enlightenment, his forty-five years devoted to
teaching disciples, his establishment of the Sangha (the world’s
oldest monastic order), his discourses - these are some of the facts
that we know of the Buddha’s life.
facts speak to the mind, the legends to the heart. Together they
form a glorious story of a man who twenty-five centuries after his
death is revered by millions world wide, not just in Asia, but in
ever-increasing numbers in the western world.
of the Buddha
birth place of the Buddha - to be
was Kapilavastu, now part of Nepal, located close to its
southern-most border. Kapilavastu was home of the Sakyas, a small
Aryan tribe of the Gotama clan, ruled by his father, Suddhodana. His
mother was Maha Maya, splendid, beautiful and steadfast, of the neighboring
tribe of Koliya.
was the custom of the day, when Maha Maya approached the time for
delivery, she wanted to return to her parental home. On their way to
Koliya, Maya and her courtiers found themselves in Lumpini Grove,
where she suddenly went into labor and gave birth to a son, in what
was said to be a painless delivery. She died seven days later, and
her younger sister, Prajapati, also wife to King Suddhodana, took on
the responsibility of bringing up the child.
after the birth, a sage and prophet named
Asita came to see the boy, an declared that he was destined
to be either a great king or great spiritual leader. Suddhodana then
named his son Siddartha,
meaning “he who has accomplished all his aims”, and to
make sure that he would be a great king and not a great spiritual
leader, he resolved to keep the boy always at home, in luxurious,
palatial surroundings, with amusements and diversions to keep him
the Prince Siddartha left the Palace
the age of twenty-nine Siddartha Gotama ventured out of the palace
grounds for the first time. As he rode forth into an unknown world,
his eyes came upon four sights that were to change the course of his
world : The first was a old man, his hair was gray, his back bent,
teeth broken, supporting himself on a cane and trembling. The second
was a sick man, body diseased and infected. The third sight was the
corpse of a dead man, and the fourth, a religious mendicant, a
Brahmin monk who had left the world and adopted a homeless life in
order to seek salvation.
enquired of his charioteer, Channa, just what these sights were, and
after he was told the meaning of old age, sickness and death, he
knew what he must do.
historians and scholars view these “four passing sights” as a
way to impute supra mundane happenings to mundane events. The
Buddha-to-be may be presumed to have had a sensitive nature, a
probing mind, and extraordinary intelligence. By the age of
twenty-nine he must have witnessed old age, sickness and death,
despite the attempts by his father to insulate him, and he would
have been so distressed by these manifestations of human suffering
that he would have resolved to seek the cause and the cure.
at the age of twenty-nine Prince Siddartha Gotama left his world of
luxury, foregoing his inheritance and his future ascension to the
ruler ship of the Sakyar, his beautiful wife and child, his
concubines and worldly pleasures, and went forth to seek knowledge
Search for Truth
then summoned Channa and told him to saddle his favorite horse,
stealthily departing from the palace, the reached the river Anoma,
beyond the territory of the Koliya. Siddartha dismounted, exchanged
his princely clothes and ornaments for the rags of a passer by, and
told Channa to return to the palace and inform his father and wife
that he had gone forth into the homeless life.
Gotama then cut off his hair and went alone into the forests seeking
those ascetic and teachers who might help him in his search. The
first of these was Alara Kalama, a renowned Brahmin monk who resided
at present - day Rajgir, his teaching were based on the belief in an
eternal soul with out which there could be no salvation. This did
not appear to the Buddha-to-be to be the truth, so he left Alara,
and turned to another renowned Brahmin monk, Udraka
expounded on the effects of karma and the transmigration of souls,
and although Siddartha believed in the doctrine of Karma - the
concept of cause and effect that transcends individual lifetimes -
he questioned the existence of and eternal soul. Nevertheless,
through his studies with Udraka, as well as with Alar, he absorbed
considerable knowledge of Brahmin-Hindu beliefs, some of which he
retained in his own later teaching. He felt that even though they
had laughed at him everything they knew and believed, they had left
many of his questions unanswered-especially his questions about
suffering, how it came about and how it could be eliminated. And so
he continued his search elsewhere…..
the jungles of Uruvela, near present-day Bodhgaya, he came across
five ascetics who were “keeping their senses in check, subduing
their passions, and practising severe penance”. For the
next six years, in the company of the five ascetics, Siddartha
applied himself to self-mortification and the most severe
penance. He ate so little that his body wasted away. And when
he put his hand on his abdomen he could feel his spine.
local girl named Sujata saw the starving Siddartha and prepared a
meal of special rice-milk and offered it to him in a golden bowl.
Revived by Sujata’s rice-milk, he recalled the meditation he had
experienced when he was seven years old and decided that would now
sit and meditate intensely, concentrating uninterruptedly on the
nature of life, the nature of reality, the nature of self, and
especially on the nature of suffering, its cause and its
elimination. He walked to the nearby town of Bodhgaya and sat down
under a Bodhi tree.
long he meditated is not truly known. Some commentaries say seven
days, some as many as forty-nine days. However long his meditation
might have lasted he arose at last as the Buddha, the “Enlightened
great an event later inspired wonderful legends: The most famous
concerns the re-appearance of Mara, the Evil One, who came to the
future Buddha as he sat under the Bodhi tree, and summoned all his
forces to attack him. Storms, hot rocks, burning coals, sand, mud
were all hurled at the Buddha but with no effect. Then Mara summoned
his daughters, Desire, Discontent, and Passion, but their efforts
were in vain.
then, touching his finger to the ground before him, Gotama asked the
earth to bear witness to his rightful struggle for enlightenment,
whereupon the earth responded with a frightful roar, and the Earth
Goddess created a monstrous flood drowning all of Mara’s demon
dawn was breaking on the day of the full moon of Visakha (the same
day as his birth and eventual death) Gotama achieved full
enlightenment. Later, the Buddha was to say that at the moment of
his enlightenment, there arose in him the knowledge of his
emancipation, the realization that the cycle of rebirth was ended
for him. Ignorance was dispelled, and knowledge arose. Darkness was
dispelled and light arose. And in the same discourse he said
enlightenment comes similarly to anyone who is vigilant, strenuous
and resolute in their practice of the Dharma.
the Buddha Taught - the Meaning of Enlightenment
first Noble Truth
is the existence of suffering : Birth is suffering, sickness is
suffering, old age is suffering, death is suffering, Sorrow,
dejection and despair are suffering. Contact with unpleasant things,
not getting what one wants are suffering. Suffering must be
comprehended, and its cause given up.
Second Noble Truth
is that the cause of suffering is craving or desire. Craving for
pleasures, wealth, power, even craving for rebirth, create eventual
suffering because of inherent greed and lust.
Third Noble Truth
is that anyone can eliminate the cravings (and thereby, the
suffering) on his own, without the need of Gods and priests to
direct our beings.
Fourth Noble Truth is
the path leading to cessation of suffering. Known as The Eightfold
Path it consists of : Right View, Right Intention, Right Speech,
Right Action, Right Livelihood, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness, and
taught these fundamentals of what was to become one of the world’s
great religious philosophies - a way of life towards individual
salvation, and a path that is today followed by countless millions.
the next fifty years the Buddha traveled the length and breadth of
what is now Northern India, teaching the Dharma to anyone willing to
listen, from simple peasants to royalty including his own family. He
also instructed his monks to “teach” respect for all religions.
spread of Buddhism for more than twenty-five hundred years has
occurred because many millions of people have recognized in the
Buddha’s teachings a truth intensely and personally meaningful to
them, a path to their self enlightenment.
Buddha Passes into Nirvana
then asked what those disciples should do who had been accustomed to
pay reverence to the Buddha when the Rainy Season had ended. The
Buddha told him there were four places to which a faithful disciple
might go, places that would rouse his devotion :LUMPINI GROVE, where
the Buddha was born ; BODHGAYA, where he attained enlightenment ;
SARNATH, where he delivered his first discourse on the Turning of
the Wheel of the Doctrine, and KUSINARA (Kashinagar), where he would
soon attain complete nirvana.
what was to be the last day of his life and still seriously ill, he
stayed in the mango grove of a smith named Cunda, who prepared for
him a meal accidentally contaminated with a bacteria, which made the
Buddha dreadfully sick, causing violent pains. Through the force of
mindfulness and meditation the Buddha was able to control the pains,
and continued on to Kusinara with Ananda.
to a quiet grove, the Buddha laid down for the last time, his head
pointing to the north, and received devotees from the village.
Asking the five hundred assembled monks if any of them had any
doubts, misgivings, or questions about any matter of the Dharma, all
his last breath, the Buddha addressed this final advise to his
disciples: “Decay is inherent in all compound things. Work on your
salvation with diligence”. Then, as the founder of one of the
world’s great religions, the compassionate teacher who showed
mankind how to escape suffering, entered nirvana, lotus blossoms
fell from heaven and covered his body.
taken from “The Buddha’s Life” by Gerald Roscoe,
love to “make merit” with Buddha by donation religious objects
to temples. These are always accepted, which means that temples are
cluttered with religious bric-a-brac.
The richer the populace the more extensive and impressive the
objects donated. Recently, a poor lady won six million baht
in the national lottery. She spent all the money on the building of
a new temple, so staying poor but making enough merit to assure her
of a good reincarnation at her death. Truly a long term investment!.
wats are exclusively
Buddhist, there are elements of pre-Buddhist, Hindu beliefs in most
temples. Hindu gods such as Shiva may have their statues included,
and Thais combine Buddhism with ancient Animist beliefs so that
temples have become centers of local superstition as well as
Buddhism. For many visitors, wats
can become too much. Having seen a few, they merge in the mind’s
eye into an unfathomable riot of strange sculptures and bright colors.
some understanding of the design and function of the various parts,
the brain can switch off and “no more temples” is the
wat is a complex of
several buildings. There is no fixed pattern, but in general the
largest and most central building is the wiharn.
This building will have one or more Buddha statues at the far end (Buddhas
should always face east), before a large open area for the general
public. In this area people come to worship, and to receive
instructions from the monks. The chief monk ( or Abbot ) may have a
special low dias of ornamented wood to the left of the altar area.
The walls of the wiharn
are usually decorated with murals depicting the life of Buddha.
These vary from exquisite ancient depictions to ugly modern ones.
one side of the wiharn there
will usually be one or more chedis.
These conical structures of brick, coated with plaster painted white
or covered in brass or gold, are said to resemble piles of rice.
When asked at his death how he should be remembered, Buddha replied
“Make piles of rice to remember me by”. Chedis
contain the bones or other relics of religious leaders. The most
prestigious (giving the temple the name of Wat
Prathat or Wat Mahathat) contain relics of Buddha himself. Many Thais, on
cremation have their remains interred into the side of a chedi, identified by a small plaque set into the surface.
bot is the building where
monks are ordained. It may contain the most sacred Buddha sculpture,
but is often closed when not in use, and the building may be quite
small, tucked away in a corner. The area of consecrated ground is
marked by eight black stones around the corners and axes of the bot.
temples also contain a library, usually a decorated wooden building
raised on a podium, and a sala
where novice monks or orphaned
children are educated by ordained monks. It is customary to
have a bothi tree within
the temple grounds. It was under this thick trucked tree with heart
shaped leaves that Buddha became “enlightened”. To one side of
the temple grounds, identified by the saffron robes hanging out of
windows, are the monks’ quarters. Monks administer, clean and look
after the wat, as well as teaching and meditating in it.
temples are covered in small, highly reflective mosaics of colored glass. Their significance is to drive away evil spirits - if they
approach too close they will see their reflection and be frightened
away. There are other precautions to ward off bad spirits, including
the monster figures often guarding doorways. Many temples are
approached by long flights of steps, guarded at the base by pairs of
fearsome serpent heads (nagas)
whose long scaly backs form the walls on either side of the steps.
naga is a serpent which
can change shape at will. One guarded Buddha in the wilderness by
growing seven heads to form an umbrella over Buddha’s head, and
promised to give his body for use by Buddha for all time. Candle
holders near the altar within the wat are normally made in the form of a naga.
are very popular in Northern Thailand. These are stylized lion
statues, and originate in Burmese folklore. They represent strength
and power and are usually depicted with mouth
half open, seated outside temple door, or devouring a
frightened victim. The Kala
is a monster that devours itself, representing the relentless
passage of time. It is usually shown without its lower jaw, which it
has already eaten. Originally a Hindu god, it is often seen above
windows and doors.
are beautiful women above the waist, but with the wings and legs of
a bird. They are companions to the gods, and are Himalayan and
Animist in concept. Ornate Kinnari
are popular in Chiang Mai temples.
Hongse is a mythical
swan-like creature, the mount of the god Brahma. It is often seen in
the Northern Thailand as a decoration for ornamental gates or
standing on a tall pole in front of the wiharn.
temples contain at least one, and usually many, Buddha images. They
can be made from a wide range of materials, but are commonly brick
based and covered in cement or plaster stucco. Smaller or more
venerable statues will be made of molded bronze, brass or gold. In
front of the main image in every temple will be an arrangement of
offerings, including lotus blossoms covered in a tea cozy like hood
of dried flowers, bronze or copper money trees and commonly a host
of lesser Buddha statues, donated by worshippers to make merit.
physical features of Buddha are largely determined by convention.
These vary over time and from place to place. All Buddha's though,
have certain features in common. There is a lotus bud on the head to
symbolize enlightenment, and very long earlobes which show he was of
a royal family who wore such heavy earrings that the ears became
lengthened. The fingers are, in most styles, of equal length, as are
statues of Buddha are very different. The Chinese favor an obese,
pot bellied Buddha. One at Doi
has a large deep navel in which visitors are invited to toss
coins. This Buddha is associated with happiness, wealth, food and
plenty. A fine example towers over the food market at Chiang Rai.
An emaciated statue refers to Buddha’s experiment as an
ascetic - when he decided that total self denial was unnecessary,
and developed the idea of ‘the middle path’.
may be pictured in
number of different poses. Most usually he is seated cross
legged, which indicated meditation. If the right hand is raised,
palm outwards, this indicates that Buddha is imploring peace. With
left hand raised, palm up, he is teaching. If two fingers are held
up, he is blessing. If both bands are down, then Buddha has achieved
reclining Buddha, in which he is seen resting on a cushion with one
arm holding his head, refers to the death of Buddha - the point at
which he achieved nirvana.
walking Buddha refers to walking meditation - regarded as very
difficult by most monks. Standing with both hands raised, palms
outwards, is a sign of power and refers to a legend in which Buddha
stopped the sea from engulfing a village by adopting this pose.
Buddha images are designed according to precise convention. The
sculptor has no artistic freedom in which to work. The changes
through time and place of the statues is a catalogue of cultural
evolution, not artistic development.