Every Thai constitution since 1932 has provided that a person shall have complete freedom to profess any religion, denomination or doctrine and shall have freedom to practise any religious rites as long as such practice does not go against public order and morality. The Royal Thai government has accorded people not only religious freedom but also full support to their faith. The state deems the patronage of religions as one of its affairs. Moreover, under the constitution the King is obliged to be a Buddhist and the upholder of all religions professed by Thai citizens.
Thai people are known for their tolerance and non-judgmental outlook toward others with different beliefs and values. The great majority are Buddhists, while about four percent are Muslims, one percent Christians and the remainder Brahmins, Hindus, Sikhs and others. There
are hundreds of Islamic mosques, Christian churches and Chinese shrines as well as some Hindu and Sikh temples around the country alongside Buddhist temples of monasteries (wat).
It is a common belief that Buddhism came to Thailand in the 3rd century B.C. when King Ashoka the Great of India sent two Buddhist missionaries (Sona Thera and Uttara Thera) to Nakhon Pathom, the very first Buddhist centre, the capital of the ancient Dvaravati Kingdom of Suwannaphum (approx. 139 B.C.–457 A.D.). The stupa standing majestic in Nakhon Pathom was probably the first stupa built in Thailand. It is also possible that Buddhism came with Indian traders and settlers who for seven hundred years frequented the shores of present day Myanmar (Burma), Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand and Cambodia. The early settlers brought both Hinduism and Buddhism. By the 6th century A.D. the religion was well established in southern and central areas of what is now Thailand.
The form of Buddhism observed in Thailand is Theravada Buddhism. Buddhism has played a profound role in shaping the Thai character and worldview toward events. The Buddhist concept of impermanence in the world of change, for example, has done much to create a feeling of relaxed charm that is one of the most appealing characteristics of Thailand. Over the centuries the Thai have incorporated older beliefs in spirits (phi) and other deities. Some of these non-Buddhist beliefs are Brahman in origin and have become part and parcel of the Thai social fabric including such occasions as birth, wedding, starting a business, and taking public office.
Buddhism teaches that one’s life does not begin with birth and end with death. It is a link in a chain of lives, each conditioned by acts (karma) that were previously committed and that are being committed. The concept of karma, the law of cause and effect, suggests that selfishness and craving result in suffering. Thus, by eliminating desire one can find peace of mind. Desire can be overcome by following the Middle Way. The concept is called the Four Noble Truths. The key to living a life in proprieties is to have right view, right thought, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness and right concentration. The end result is enlightenment leading to nirvana. Buddhist temples are constructed and funded through charitable contributions from the general public. In order to obtain a permit to build a monastery, the promoters are required to submit a detailed proposal to the Sangha Supreme Council (the central administrative body that governs the Buddhist Order). It is noteworthy that a Buddhist wat is never isolated from its social environment. Most wat have schools of some sort attached to them. The wat are open to anyone who wishes to seek refuge in them. In the rural areas, the wat is the focal point of the village, acting as the major unifying element, particularly during festivals and merit-making ceremonies. Abbots and senior monks frequently enjoy more prestige and moral persuasion than does the village head. In times of personal crisis they are often the first whose advice is sought. Within the wat, the abbot has absolute administrative and spiritual authority. It has been a tradition for a young man to enter monkhood for a period ranging from one week to three months. Almost every young man, before starting his own family, is expected to undergo this experience. Ordination ceremonies are usually held at the beginning of the Buddhist rainy season retreat. The Buddhist ordination is a fusion of religious solemnity, merit making and boisterous celebration. The ordination itself originated more than 2,500 years ago and has changed little to this day.
While in the monastery, the newly ordained monk listens to sermons based on the Buddha’s teachings, studies the religious scripts or Tipitaka (the Three Canons,also known as Traipidok), practices meditation and learns the virtues of an ascetic life free from material possessions.
To people outside, the wat and its monks offer an opportunity for merit-making, an act believed to ensure the almsgiver of greater rewards later in life or after death. Early in the morning in a rural as well as urban area one can see several Buddhist monks in saffron robes and with alms bowls walk with grave dignity and accept alms from people. Besides giving food, the most popular way of earning merit is to make some repairs to the wat or replace a dilapidated religious building with a new one.
Muslims constitute Thailand’s second largest religious group concentrated mainly in the southernmost provinces of Narathiwat, Pattani, Yala, and Satun. Islam is said to have been introduced to the Malay Peninsular by Arab traders and adventurers during the 13th century. Ninety-nine percent of Thai Muslims are Sunni and one percent Shi’ite. Both groups enjoy inspirational and financial support from His Majesty the King, who has provided funds for translating the Koran into Thai. Each year the King or the Crown Prince preside over celebrations commemorating the Prophet Muhammad’s birthday. Moreover, His Majesty appoints a Muslim religious leader as Chularatchamontri (State Counselor for Islamic Affairs).
The government also provides funds for building and renovating mosques.
In the southern provinces where the Muslim population is substantial, government-employed Muslims are allowed to leave for important Muslim festivals and to work half-day on Friday, the Muslim holy day. In those provinces family and inheritance cases are judged according to Koranic law with a Muslim religious judge (kadi) sitting on the bench. In addition, Muslim employees are granted a four-month leave with full pay to perform the pilgrimage Haj to Mecca.
Christianity was introduced to Thailand by European missionaries in the 16th and 17th centuries. These early Catholic missionaries were later joined by Protestants of the Presbyterian, Baptist and Seventh-Day Adventist denominations. Despite their small number, they have made major contributions to the country in many fields. For instance, in the early Rattanakosin Period some Christian missionaries introduced Thailand’s first printing press, and King Mongkut (Rama IV) learned English and Latin from them. Others helped to introduce Western surgery, performed the first smallpox vaccination, trained the first doctors in Western medicine, and compiled
the first Thai-English dictionaries.
Hinduism and Sikhism
The approximately 20,000 Indians residing in Thailand are almost equally divided between Hindus and Sikhs.
The Hindu community is most densely concentrated in Bangkok where they worship their gods at four main
Hindu temples. There are also several Brahman shrines where Hindus as well as Buddhists go to worship.
The Hindus operate their own school, with the curriculum based on the Thai education system. In addition
to the Thai language, these schools teach Hindi, Sanskrit and English.
Thailand welcomes different religious faiths in the Kingdom. Although Buddhism is the main religion,the Thai have always subscribed to the ideal of religious freedom and harmony. The Royal Thai government annually allocates funds to finance religious education and to construct, maintain and restore monasteries, mosques and churches. At present, Thailand is the seat of the headquarters of the World Fellowship of Buddhists, an international Buddhist organization promoting coordination and cooperation in Buddhist education and work throughout the world.
Taken from: Thailand: Traits and Treasures. The National Identity Board, Royal Thai Government 2005.
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