When you travel through Thailand, you will come into much contact with Buddhism. Monks dressed in their orange robes, nuns, Buddha statues and extravagant Wats (temples) are everywhere.
About 95% of the population follows Theravada, a very old denomination of Buddhism which is practised particularly in Thailand, Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia and Sri Lanka. Buddhism is not actually a religion in the strictest sense of the word, as it does not entail the worship of a divine figure. Buddhists are followers of Siddhartha Gautama, a prince from northern India around 2500 years ago. He promoted a lifestyle which was intended as a reformation of Hinduism, which was regarded as too rigid and uncompromising. He achieved a state of enlightenment during his life, earning the name of Buddha, or ‘enlightened one’. Part of his philosophy was that the existence or otherwise of a god or gods was of little importance.
Buddhism, like Hinduism, represents belief in a cycle of reincarnation that no one, not the gods, not the universe nor humanity can escape. However, he claims to have escaped the constant cycle of rebirth through reaching nirvana, a state of eternal rest and oneness with everything in the universe.
The basic assumption of Buddhism is that all life is suffering, and this suffering is a result and desire. Buddhists believe that defeating this desire is the way to end the suffering. Another core aspect of the ‘religion’ is the way to defeat these desires through following the correct path in life. This correct path is a manner of thought and a code of conduct that is designed to improve one’s karma. Karma is a sort of running total of all good or bad thoughts or actions during this and previous lives. Improving one’s karma results in reincarnation into higher forms. Eventually, one will reach the level of bodhisattva, in which the only desire is for the happiness of others. After this level nirvana is reached, a state of total enlightenment where one realises that everything that exists is merely an illusion.
Most Thai Buddhists do not see attainment of nirvana as a life goal. They believe that nirvana is intended for some monks and not for ordinary people. Through good deeds they hope to make their rebirth in the next life as advantageous as possible. They give gifts to the local wat (temple), pray, provide food for ‘beggar-monks’, give assistance to a sangha (order of monks) and take (temporary) residence in temples. Meditation and pilgrimages are also important.
Buddhism has a very significant place in everyday life and this is easy to see during religious holidays and festivals, which usually take place during a full moon. Rich and poor alike offer bowls of rice to the ‘beggar-monks’, regularly attend the temple and have an altar for the Buddha at home. Most Thai people do not follow Buddhist philosophies to the extreme, but are in general relatively devout. Wafer-thin strips of gold are sold in small books and adhered to Buddha statues as a blessing. They place the strips particularly on the head (for wisdom), the chest (for friendliness and health) and the mouth (for good oratory skills). Every man is expected to become a monk at some point in his life, even if just for a short time. This usually takes place after completion of education, before beginning his career. Some monks remain at the monastery for the rest of their lives and this option is strongly favoured by many people in rural areas, as a monk in the family is seen as a blessing of luck and distinction.
Many Thais believe in ghosts. Tattoos and blessed amulets (phra phum) shaped like the Buddha or famous monks are seen to bring luck or protection from evil spirits. On the land belonging to every house, office or public building there is a spirit house (phra phi), a miniature house in the form of a Buddhist temple, often placed on top of a pillar. They are seen as houses for the spirits which inhabit that particular piece of land. People are allowed to use the land, but must provide shelter and accommodation for the spirits in order to prevent them from becoming angry and bringing misfortune to the living occupants. To satisfy the ghosts further, people bring food offerings and lay wreathes. Aside from Buddhism, there are also Muslims, Hindus, Taoists, Confucianists and Animists in Thailand.