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Buddhism and Thai Society
A very interesting contribution written by "Bigdog" on asfe mailing list (see asfo,com for information) 

I will start this series of posts by saying that I do not claim to be any kind of expert on Buddhism. I have studied it extensively over the years, and although I don't profess to be a Buddhist myself, I am very much interested in Buddhism, especially as my wife is Thai and a Buddhist. And my formal education has focused on Asia, in particular Thailand. What I will present will be based on my understanding and education on Buddhism and Thai society.

I'm sure there are those on the list who are more knowledgeable about Buddhism, and its relationship/relevance to the Thai people and Thailand than I am. I hope they will contribute to what I will post. If I make any mistakes in my presentation, please comment and set the record straight if need be.

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. Besides the majority of Thais being Buddhist, there are also Moslems, Christians, Hindus and Sikhs, and many others who profess other religions or no religion.

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 sytematic 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.
In response to comments about above, bigdog clarifies:

The purpose of this post is to offer my apology to anyone that is of the Christian faith. What I wrote above wasn't meant to offend anyone. I received a private e-mail concerning the above comment I made, and although they weren't offended or upset with what I said, they did question why and how I could make this comment. I was hoping to get some responses, and even some challenges on what I am posting, even if privately. I would like to take this opportunity to tell everyone what I said in my reply to the private e-mail.

I am basing the above comment on talks I have had with monks in Bangkok, and my wife's hometown of Nakhon Sawan. Some of these monks are farang men who have converted to Buddhism after coming to Thailand to work as Christian missionaries. One farang monk in particular, has been in Thailand for 40 years now, of which 15 years (back in the 60s and 70s) was spent as a Christian missionary. He told me stories of how missionaries tried twisting the teachings of Buddha around (in the ways I mentioned in my post) to try and convert Thai Buddhists to Christianity.

I realize that his word, along with the other monks I spoke with, don't constitute an authority on this, but I felt it was relevant enough to add to my post. I'm glad that it was challenged, because it shows that what I have been told should be questioned.

As I said at the start of my post on this topic, I am by no means an expert on Buddhism or Thai society. I am only relating what I have learned through formal education, practical experience, and what I have learned from lay people such as the monks I referred to in this post.

I cannot prove one way or another that this is going on, but only stating what has been told to me. It is my intention to stir people into thinking and questioning, and not necessarily accepting what is written. As people respond to what I have written, I learn from them.
The appeal of the Dhamma to the Thai mentality and the ability of the religion to accomodate 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 accomodation 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 fulfil 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 so 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 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.
Comments from Raddemo
While on topic, yet off ASFO sexy subjects, I today got a taste of Thai Buddhism in the works. My Thai girlfriend and I had our house tambuned by 5 nice monks. I have been asking her to do it for ages and we finally got around to doing it.

The process is quite nice. It is a hell of lot better than going to church because one is actually involved. There is no sermon going on for eternity about some Semites wandering around in Palestine not eating pork and taking Saturdays off or about Jesus who is supposed to be God, yet dies, but doesn't really die because he is God. And yet he created human beings all fucked up anyway and will erase all our sins because of his original screw up. Yeah, Christianity is really rational. I still don't understand it and my mother is a minister. Anyway, the monks came to bring us good luck. You do this by inviting them to your house. You offer them hospitality. You offer them food. You give them food for the poor. You give them some money to help with their wat and its programs. The monks say a few blessings, spray us with some water, offer some compliments and leave. We made some merit and hopefully the merit will be returned to us. Very simple. Buddhism is a simple way of life which makes it the most convincing. Don't steal. Don't lie. Don't kill. Don't scew around. Don't mess with up your mind with unhealthy intoxicants. Notice how these important precepts don't impose your will upon anybody else. It is called common sense management in a free society. If we dig deeper into Buddhist thought, it goes beyond those simple ideals into a notion of self-improvement based upon living consciously. Makes sense, doesn't it? Does one really need an invisible God? What for? He just gets in the way of self-improvement. Why do it for him when you can be doing it for yourself? Makes sense, again. I mean who do you trust more, the Dalai Lama or Jerry Falwell? I know what my answer is.

Buddhism and Thai Society, Part 2 By Bigdog
Modernization Effects of Western Influence

This post will cover the effects modernization has had, in particular the Western influence, on Thailand and Buddhism. I accept that the content of this post may not be as exciting as talking about bargirls, but I am hopeful that it will be of some interest to those who want a better understanding of Thai culture, society, and religion.

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 has 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 prgressive 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 fulfil 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 thier 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.

Notes by Robert White in response:

Lots of western cultural influence and yet also a lot of uniquely Thai adaptions in television and music. They recently released the 8th or 9th adaption of (ummm) Nak Nang (something like that :-)). A very traditional ghost story with the husband running to the Wat for sanctuary. It did very very well.

Popular Abbot Dhamachayo goes to trial shortly for embezzling 6 million baht while directing a MLM inspired sales drive to get everybody into Heaven (!?) and building a Wat that looks like a football stadium. The supreme Sangha of top level guys who run Buddhism in the country came off looking worse than provincial politicians covering each other's ass and Lots of people are unhappy with the whole scene. Which isn't necessarily a bad thing.

> These Thai trained Western monks have also played a
> crucial role in the growth of Buddhism in the West in recent years.

good example here

> To say that Western influence in Thailand represents a challenge or
> threat to Buddhism may be an overstatement, yet its impact must be
> recognized.

I don't think a little MTV around the edges is gonna Really make that big a difference in the long term.

The Thai people are the freest and richest in SE Asia because the system works. They are innovative and traditional at the same time. Personally I detest lurid green neon halos around a Buddha image but Buddha doesn't mind :-))

Buddhism and Thai Society, Part 3 By Bigdog
Thai Buddhists - How Serious about their relgion?

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 a 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.

Some of the following comments were taken from a previous post of mine, but I would like to add them in quote again as they are relevant to this post.

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 fulfil 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 ocasions 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.

In part 4, which will be the last, I will talk about something that may be of a bit more interest. The topic will be Buddha lockets and amulets. Many of the ladies we know wear them, as do many farang men; even farang men who aren't professing Buddhism. Are Buddha lockets part of Buddha's teachings, or even recommended by him? What is the relevance of the lockets/amulets? I'll try and address those questions in my next post.

Buddhism and Thai Society, Part 4 (Buddha Lockets & Images)

This will be the last part of this series of posts. Thank God, or Buddha, you say!! ;) Although the previous three parts were more of an academic style post that I assume may have been rather boring to some who prefer more bargirl stories, I'm hopeful that this one may be of more interest.

In all the years I've been visiting Thailand, I've taken notice of the number of Thai men/women who wear chains around their necks with a Buddha locket hanging on the end. I had always assumed it was the same as a Christian wearing a chain with a cross, and was an outward sign of professing their faith. Whatever their individual reasons are for wearing them, I wanted to use this post to discuss what Buddha's teachings have to say about lockets/amulets and such. I also would like to discuss the relevance of Buddha images in general.

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 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 (actions). 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 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 have 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 traveling. 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 skilful 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 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.

In closing, I am hopeful that this series of posts, along with the ones (the five precepts and such) I made in reply to Dave's question about Buddhism and bargirls will help people to understand why a Thai lady, professing to be a Buddhist, can end up working as a bargirl. Almost all Thai bargirls profess being a Buddhist, but we must remember that Buddhism is a religion of practice. There are no commandments to follow. The ways of making merit allows for 'non-practicing' Buddhists, such as bargirls, to atone for their conscious decision (regardless of the reason) in not following the third precept of 'abstaining from sexual misconduct'. As I had said in a previous post, merit making serves as a 'way out' for bargirls.

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