Thailand History

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Procession of decorated rockets for Fire Festival
Courtesy Tourism Authority of Thailand

King Bhumibol during his period of service as a Buddhist monk
Courtesy Royal Thai Embassy

King Bhumibol performing ceremony with members of the Sangha
Courtesy Royal Thai Embassy

Theravada Buddhism, the form of Buddhism practiced in Sri Lanka, Burma, Cambodia, and Laos, was the religion of more than 80 percent of the Thai people in the 1980s. These coreligionists included not only the core Thai, but most other Tai speakers, as well as the Khmer, the Mon, and some members of other minorities, among them the Chinese. Relatively few Thai were adherents of Mahayana Buddhism or other religions, including Hinduism, Christianity, Taoism, animism, and Islam. Of these only Islam, largely identified with but not restricted to Southern Thai of Malay origin, was a dominant religion in a specific geographic area.

Theravada Buddhism was the established religion, in that there were formal organizational and ideological links between it and the state. Thai rulers (the king formerly, and the military and bureaucratic oligarchy subsequently) sought or--if they thought it necessary--commanded the support of the Buddhist clergy or sangha, who usually acquiesced to (if not welcomed) the state’s support and protection. A Thai religious writer pointed out that Thailand was the only country in the world where the king was constitutionally required to be a Buddhist and upholder of the faith.

Buddhism’s place in Thai society was by no means defined solely by its relation to the state. The role of religious belief and institutions in Thai life had changed, and, with increasing commercialism and urbanization, some observers questioned the prevalence of Thai piety and good works. However, the peasant’s or villager’s view of the world remained at least partly defined by an understanding of Buddhist doctrine, and significant events in his or her life and community were marked by rituals performed or at least supervised by Buddhist clergy. Often, the villager’s city-dwelling siblings would return to the home village for significant events such as weddings and funerals. Additionally, much of Thai village life--social, political, economic, and religious--centered on the local wat.

As is often the case when a scripturally based religion becomes dominant in a largely agrarian society, the religious beliefs and behavior of most Thai were compounded of elements derived from both formal doctrine and other sources. The latter either developed during the long history of Buddhism or derived from religious systems indigenous to the area. Implementation of the same Buddhist rite and tradition often varied from region to region. In Central Thailand, for example, praiseworthy priests were selected and honored by the king, whereas in the Northeast this recognition was bestowed by the people.

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