Buddhism plays a very significant role in the daily life of the Thai people. Since about 95% of the people in the kingdom of Thailand are Buddhists, Buddhism inevitably involeves almost every occasion such as birthdays, marriages, moving to the new house, funerals, opening business offices and buying new vehicles etc.
Even though no concrete evidence can be found as to when and where Buddhism was actually established in Thailand, it is presumed that Buddhism was first brought to the country during the 3rd century B.C. when Theravada Buddhist missionaries led by Venerable Sona and Uttara were dispatched by the Buddhist Indian emperor Asoke and visited Suwannaphum or the present Nakhon Pathom. Once it was introduced, Buddhism became widely accepted and gained a permanent ground in the peninsula.
Briefly speaking, the Buddhist doctrine stresses the three principal aspects of existence :
- dukkha = suffering
- anicca = impermanence, and
- anatta = non-substantiality
Thus the ultimate aim of Buddhism is Nibbana (or Nirvana in Sanskrit) which literally means the extinction of all desire and thus of all suffering (or dukkha). It is an end, not only to suffering and action (Karma), but also to the cycle of rebirths that is existence.
Buddhism probably reached its height under the reign of King Li Thai of Sukhothai (King Ramkhamhaeng’s grandson) as it was during his reign that the first Buddhist didactic literary work was written and it was known as the “Tribhumikatha”. Through the centuries Buddhism has been the main driving force in Thai cultural development. Thais of all classes subscribed to Buddhist doctrine. Although Buddhism is proclaimed as the state religion, all Thais are endowed with full religious freedom. Though Thai Constitutions stipulate that Thai Kings must be Buddhists the Kings, however, must be the Upholders of All Religions.
There are about 27,000 Buddhist temples across the country and majority of them are in the countryside. In Thailand Buddhist monks are highly venerated for their chaste life, self-restraint, social benevolence and knowledge of spiritual practice. To allow people to have more time to devote to religious practices, all major Buddhist holy days are declared as national holidays, In addition, it has long been a Thai custom for Buddhist males over twenty years old to be temporarily ordained as Buddhist monks, usually during the annual Rains Retreat. Temporary ordination, ranging from a few days to three months, is opened to everyone, even His Majesty King Bhumibol and Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn have been monks for short periods. Their acts will continue a tradition for the new generations to come.