The doctrine of Theravada Buddhism can be found in the three-part Tipitaka. The first of the three baskets (or sections) sets forth the discipline governing the monastic order. The second presents the sermons or discourses of the Buddha and contains the dharma (literally, doctrine). The third comprises the commentaries and explications produced by learned monks in the centuries after the death of the Buddha. It is here that significant differences exist between Theravada and Mahayana Buddhism.
In the first basket, and central to the structure of Buddhist belief, are the doctrines of karma, the sum and the consequences of an individual’s actions during the successive phases of his existence, and samsara, the eternal cycle of birth, death, and rebirth. Both doctrines were derived from the Indian thought of the Buddha’s time, although he invested the concept of karma with very strong ethical implications. Broadly, these ideas taken together assert that evil acts have evil consequences for those committing them, and good acts yield good consequences, not necessarily in any one lifetime, but over the inevitable cycle of births and deaths. A concomitant to the belief in karma and samsara is the view that all forms of life are related because every form originated in a previous one. In the canonical view, but not in the popular one, the entity that undergoes reincarnation is not the soul (although the idea of soul exists) but a complex of attributes--actions and their consequences--that taken together are said to constitute the karma of an individual. It is karma in this sense that survives in another form.
The second basket, containing the dharma, provides the essentials that define the way to nirvana. The foundation of the system lies in the Four Noble Truths: suffering exists, it is caused by craving or desire, it can be made to cease, and it can be brought to an end by following the Noble Eightfold Path. The last Noble Truth contains the eight precepts to be followed by Buddhists: right view, or having an understanding of the Four Noble Truths; right thought--freedom from lust, ill will, and cruelty; right speech, which means abstention from lying, gossiping, harsh language, and vain talk; right action, by which killing, stealing, and sexual misconduct are proscribed; right livelihood, which requires an individual’s sustenance be earned in a way that is not harmful to living things; right effort, by which good thoughts are encouraged and bad thoughts are avoided or overcome; right mindfulness, or close attention to all states of the body, feeling, and mind; and right concentration, that is, concentration on a single object to bring about a special state of consciousness in meditation. Following the Noble Eightfold Path conscientiously is necessary if a person aspires to become an arhat (usually translated as saint), ready for nirvana.
Virtually from the beginning, however, the Buddha acknowledged that it would be difficult for a layperson to follow all aspects of the Noble Eightfold Path singlemindedly. The conditions appropriate to such pursuit are available only to mendicant monks. The demands on the layperson are therefore less rigorous, and most interpret the doctrine as requiring acts gaining merit so that the layperson may achieve a condition in the next life that will allow stricter attention to the requirements of the path.
The acts that bring merit are, in principle, those that conform as closely as possible to the ethical demands of the Noble Eightfold Path. Acts that support the brotherhood of monks are also included. Consequently, providing material support, e.g., food, to the members of the sangha, showing them deference, underwriting and participating in certain ceremonies, and supporting the construction and maintenance of the wat have come to be the chief methods of gaining merit. The powerful ethical content of the Noble Eightfold Path is reduced to five precepts or injunctions. The laity are expected to refrain from the following: taking life, stealing, lying, engaging in illicit sexual relations, and drinking intoxicating liquors. Thai Buddhists--like many followers of other religions--select only a few of the Buddha’s teachings to guide them. Many Buddhist principles, while not actually practiced, are venerated as ideals.
According to some observers, most Thai place little emphasis on the achievement of nirvana, whether as a final state after many rebirths or as an interior condition. What is hoped for is an improved condition in this life or the next. In Thai thinking, the ideas of merit and demerit so essential to the doctrine of karma are linked linguistically to those of good and evil; good and merit are both bun; evil and the absence of merit are bap. The Theravada idea of karma (and the Thai peasant’s understanding of it) charges the individual with responsibility for good and evil acts and their consequences. Thai do not rely solely on the accumulation of merit, however gained, to bring that improved state into being. Other forms of causality, ranging from astrology to the action of spirits of various kinds, are also part of their outlook.
The world of the Thai villager (and that of many city folk as well) is inhabited by a host of spirits of greater or lesser relevance to an individual’s well-being. Although many of these are not sanctioned by Buddhist scripture or even by Buddhist tradition, many monks, themselves of rural origin and essentially tied to the village, are as likely as the peasant to accept the beliefs and rituals associated with spirits.
Most important are the spirits included in the rather heterogeneous category of phi, thought to have power over human beings. The category includes spirits believed to have a permanent existence and others that are reincarnations of deceased human beings. Phi exist virtually everywhere--in trees, hills, water, animals, the earth, and so on. Some are malevolent, others beneficial.
The ghosts of persons who died violently under mysterious circumstances or whose funeral rites were improperly performed constitute another class of phi; almost all of these spirits are malevolent. In contrast, the ghosts of notable people are said to reside in small shrines along the roads and are referred to as "spirit lords." They are often petitioned in prayers and can enter and possess the bodies of mediums to give oracles. Among the more important of the spirits and ghosts is the evil phi pop (ghoul spirit), which, at the instigation of witches, can enter human beings and consume their internal organs.
Another category consists of the chao (guardian spirits), of which perhaps the most important is the chao thi, or guardian of the house compound (an alternative name is phra phum). Fixed on a post in the compound of most houses in Thailand’s central region is a small spirit dwelling. Food offerings are made to the chao thi on the anniversary of the spirit’s installation in the house, on New Year’s Day, and on other special days. The spirit is told of the arrival of guests who are to stay any length of time, of projected journeys by members of the family, and of births and deaths. The spirit’s intercession is also sought during illness and misfortune.
Other spirits protect gardens, the rice fields, and the wat. The spirit of the rice field is worshiped only once a year, at the beginning of the rice planting; the Rice Goddess receives offerings when the seedbed is to be prepared and when the harvest is ready. The Mother Earth Goddess often receives offerings at transplanting time.
In addition to the rites dedicated to an assortment of spirits either regularly or as the occasion demands, other rites intended to maximize merit for the participants are practiced. The Buddha prescribed no ceremonies for birth, death, and marriage, but the Hindu rites, which were adopted by the Thai people, entail the participation of Buddhist monks. The ceremonies, which are held at home rather than in the wat, have no scriptural sanction. The monks limit their participation to chanting the appropriate Buddhist scriptural texts or to providing holy water.
The propitiation of an individual’s khwan (body spirit or life soul) remains a basic feature of Thai family rites. Any ceremony undertaken to benefit a person, animal, or plant is referred to as the making of khwan. On important occasions, such as birth, ordination into the priesthood, marriage, a return from a long journey, or the reception of an honored guest, a khwan ceremony is performed.
Of all the life cycle and family ceremonies, funeral rites are the most elaborate. When a person is dying, he or she should fix his or her mind on the Buddhist scriptures or repeat some of the names of the Buddha. If the last thoughts of the dying person are directed toward the Buddha and his precepts, the fruits of this meritorious behavior will be repaid to the deceased in the next incarnation. After his or her death, other meritorious acts are performed for the benefit of the deceased, such as attendance at the wake and provision of food to the officiating monks. Every effort is made to banish sorrow, loneliness, and fear of the spirits by means of music and fellowship.
Ceremonies in the wat consist of those that benefit the entire community and those that primarily affect the sangha. The first kind include the rites held on such occasions as Mahka Bucha (an important February holiday that marks the beginning of the season for making pilgrimages to Phra Phuttabaht, the Buddha’s Footprint Shrine), Wisakha Bucha (a festival commemorating the Buddha’s birth, enlightenment, and death), Khao Phansa (the holiday marking the beginning of the three-month Buddhist holy season, July to October), and Thot Kathin (a festival during which robes and other items are given to the monks by the laity). Ceremonies that primarily concern the sangha include ordination, confession, recitation of the 227 monastic rules, and distribution of new robes after Thot Kathin.
Of all the ceremonies affecting the sangha, ordination is the one in which the laity are most involved, both physically and spiritually. Frequently, before a young man makes his initial entry into the sangha, a ceremony is held in the home of the aspirant to prepare him for ordination. His khwan is invited to enter the sangha with him; otherwise, evil and illness might befall him. He is informed of his parents’ happiness with his decision, of the sacrifices they have made for him, and of the life of austerity and discipline he is to begin. In Thailand, it is a popular belief that by becoming a monk great merit is gained, merit which also accrues to persons or parents who sponsor the ordination.