Buddhism and Thai Culture

19 April 2515

[The introductory part of a presentation given at the University Museum of the University of Pennsylvania from April 5 to May 4, 1972]

I am very pleased to meet you and to talk with you in this program of the confrontation of cultures which has been arranged by the University Museum of the University of Pennsylvania. I wish to thank the University Museum for its generous invitation and the warm welcome which the museum officials have tendered to me. It is also my great pleasure to have this opportunity to introduce to you Thailand, my country, and Buddhism, which is her religion.


A. Thailand is a Southeast Asian country to the west of Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. It has an area of 200,000 square kilometers and a population of 34 million. Ninety-four percent of the people are Buddhists. Buddhism in Thailand belongs to the Theravada or Southern School. Travelers to Thailand are impressed by the large number of Buddhist monasteries distributed all over the country—in cities, towns and villages. The number of monasteries now amounts to about 24,000 and the number of monks and novices to about 280,000. Many travelers call Thailand “the Land of the Yellow Robes.”

To gain a true understanding of the culture and character of the Thai people, it is necessary to learn something of Buddhism. A simple way to know the influence of Buddhism on Thai culture is to know the roles that monks and monasteries play in Thai society.

B. The Buddhist brotherhood is composed of four assemblies: monks, nuns, laymen and laywomen. The four can be classified into two sections: the monastic section and the lay section.

All Buddhists, whether monks or laymen, are expected to realize that they should live a balanced life, experiencing both material comforts and spiritual happiness. The monastic section is more devoted to spiritual development while the lay section still has much to do with material quest. The monks are bound by a large number of disciplinary rules. They have to observe strict discipline to make life conditions favorable to spiritual development. On the other hand, the laymen are treading the path at different levels. They may merely keep basic standards of morality. If they have confidence in the teaching and are prepared for their training, they are Buddhists. There is no religious confinement to separate or isolate them from other people or groups in society.

As the monks are more devoted to spiritual development, their duties and responsibilities are centered on the spiritual. To devote their time and energy fully to spiritual development, they have to cut off as many personal cares and worries as possible. Thus they shave their heads, wear the yellow robes and possess only a few requisites. However, they have to be careful about their personal behavior, not to affect the moral standards of the people. Not only that, they even have to encourage the moral standards of society because they are responsible for the spiritual security of society. On the part of the laity, since they have to spend much of their time on material quest while being careful not to neglect the spiritual side, they have to depend on the monks for spiritual guidance. Therefore there is a basic principle for maintaining and encouraging the relationship between the monks and the laymen; the monks depend on the laity for material necessities—food, clothing, lodging and medicine—while the laity depend on the monks for spiritual guidance. Based on this basic principle Buddhist monks and monasteries in Thailand have played important roles in the spiritual and cultural life of Thai society throughout its history of over 700 years.

C. To get a clearer picture of this, let us look at the life of village people because the village is the fundamental rural Thai community. Usually a village has a monastery of its own. When starting a new village, the villagers usually build a new monastery for their village and invite some monks from somewhere else to live there. It is neither the Buddhist Order nor the government that erects the village monastery. It is the people themselves who erect it and feel that they belong to the monastery and that the monastery belongs to them. The village monastery becomes the center of social life and activities of the village. Their roles may be summed up as follows:

1. Educational Institution

When a boy is seven years old, he may be sent to a monastery to live under the monks and acquire such basic knowledge as reading and arithmetic. After some years he may be selected and ordained as a novice. At the age of 20, he will be ordained as a monk and further his studies. But not all boys become novices and continue to live in the monastery. Some boys after gaining their basic knowledge may return home and help their parents to make a living. They will come to the monastery again when they turn twenty and ordain for at least three months during the rainy season. It is a tradition for a Thai male to ordain for at least three months in his life and every monk is free to leave the Order and resume a layman’s life at any time. A man who has been ordained is held in high regard as an educated member of society. Eight out of the nine kings of the Bangkok period were ordained and lived the life of a monk just like ordinary citizens.

2. Creation and Preservation of Art

Most Thai art has been created and preserved in monasteries. Monasteries are also places where drama shows find expression. Art plays are an important part of culture and help to distinguish the Thais from other peoples. In this light, monasteries reflect the identity and uniqueness of the Thai nation.

3. Meeting Place of People and Playground for Children

Regularly on Buddhist holy days, at intervals of seven or eight days, people go to present food to the monks at the monastery. Usually at least one from every family in the community goes there. Besides meeting with the monks they also meet there to talk and discuss different matters which concern their community life. Their relationship is strengthened; they get to know one another better and problems concerning their communities can be solved there. As for the children, they use the grounds of the monastery as their playground. Older people may learn more about the teachings, stay overnight in the monastery and experience calmness and serenity of mind.

4. Moral and Ethical Teaching

Besides obtaining merit, the villagers will listen to the monks preaching in the monastery hall. Their sons will be trained in moral lessons and study other subjects under the monks. The mothers will also take moral lessons there and in turn impart them to their children at home.

5. Services of Guidance and Counseling

When facing life problems, conflicts in the family or disputes with neighbors, people will go to the monasteries for guidance and counseling; advice of the monks will be heeded with high regard.

6. Recreational Activities

Many times during a year, people have festivals, which are usually held in the monastery. There are movies, shows and many kinds of amusement there.

7. Welfare Services

Needy people, elderly people without anybody to take care of them, and people who do not want to live in their own family may go to the monastery for food and shelter.

8. Rites and Ceremonies at Passages of Life

People come to the monastery when there is a funeral. They also invite the monks to their homes on various occasions such as housewarmings, wedding ceremonies, annual merit-makings and so on. They want their lives to be blessed and happy and to express their gratitude.

9. Other Activities

Monasteries play many other roles. Some monks help the people with medical care. Small halls provide accommodation for those on a journey.

10. Unity and Harmony

As community centers for social life, monasteries serve to unify people into social units, and to communicate and cooperate with other communities.

11. Leadership, Cooperation and Coordination

Monks are not only spiritual leaders but also social leaders. People respect and put trust in the monks. Their respect and obedience are grounded on the monks’ virtues rather than power of control. This kind of reverence is more effective and long-lasting. To initiate a project, to join hands in social activities or to cooperate with outsiders such as government officials, the villagers will look to the monks for advice and help in their decision-making. This attitude of the people is being utilized in projects of community development.

“How has it come to be like this?” one might wonder. It is not so easy to give a definite answer here. One simple explanation is that Buddhism is an integral part of Thai culture. The Thai nation has been connected with Buddhism throughout its history. The Thai nation originated over 1000 years ago. Buddhism also came and played a part in Thai history over 1000 years ago. The Thai nation settled down firmly in present-day Thailand over 700 years ago and adopted the present form of Buddhism almost at the same time. The history of the Thai nation is, therefore, also the history of Buddhism.


However, Thailand of today is not the same as Thailand a century ago. The conditions of Thai society now are not the same as they were long ago. Although the original pattern of life and social systems in the countryside are largely retained, they have changed a lot in cities and towns. In some metropolitan areas, monasteries cannot be called centers of social life any more; in others, they can hardly be called so. One of the most important factors that have caused this is the rapid influx of Western civilization.

Western civilization reached Thailand about 70 years ago. People were impressed by its arts and sciences, and modern comforts and conveniences brought about by technology. They were excited and hoped for much progress; they adopted a new pattern of life, modern education and other modern systems. Separation occurred by degrees between the lay section and the monastic section of Thai society. But modern civilization has both good and bad sides. After some time its bad sides have caused many problems and conflict with the original values; its value has become dubious. Now people are increasingly beginning to realize the bad sides of modern civilization and the various problems caused thereby. As a result, they have turned to look inside, to investigate their own pattern in search of the real values. They do not think or speak so highly of Western civilization as they did one or two decades ago.

In looking inside, they take into consideration not only popular Buddhism as believed and practiced by the populace, but also its fundamental principles. Popular Buddhism is something we have discussed in the first part of this presentation. Now let us take a look at the fundamental teaching through some brief remarks on Buddhist concepts.


A. Basic Principles of the Truth

1. All existence keeps on going in its own way—according to causes and conditions—which came to be called the law of cause and effect. This law is natural. It exists independently of any founder of religion. It goes on without beginning and without end. There is no First Cause. There is no God the Creator who created and has control over it.

2. All existence is conditioned and relative. Things are composed of constituent parts and keep on going according to causes and conditions. Their existence is relative.

3. Subject to the law of cause and effect, all conditioned things are impermanent and unenduring (in other words, suffering or conflicting), they are always in the process of changing. This comprises both material and mental existence. In this process there is no part that is stable, which can persist and remain all the same; there is nothing that can be called “self” or “soul” in the absolute sense. Things are soulless and unsubstantial.

B. Basic Principles of Ethics

1. The Buddha is only the shower of the way. He discovered the truth and made it known to the people. He can only point out the way. He guides and encourages people along the way. The path to the goal has to be trodden by a man himself. It is the path of self-purification requiring self-exertion.

2. All men are born equal in being human. They are to be judged by their character and action; in other words, by what they think and do, not by their birth. Individually, everyone can improve his quality and needs self-exertion. Socially, one can guide and encourage others, and association with good people is needed. People should be friends and help one another.

3. In the path of self-purification, wisdom is the key virtue and thus is to be developed. To develop wisdom, one must learn to think, to investigate and to understand things for oneself. Buddhist principles are things to see, not just to believe. Therefore, the words in the scriptures are to be studied and investigated thoroughly, not to be believed blindly. “Don’t go by mere tradition. Don’t go by mere reasoning. Don’t go merely because it is the master who says this. Don’t go merely because it is said in the scriptures, etc.”

4. The practical teaching of Buddhism is summed up in the Middle Way or the Noble Eightfold Path, which comprises the threefold training of morality, concentration and wisdom. These three components are interdependent. They must all be practiced in order to obtain the goal. In a more practical way, they can be expressed as the three instructions, viz: (a) not to do evil, (b) to cultivate good and (c) to purify the mind.

The third instruction shows that Buddhism teaches more than an ethical code. It teaches not only to love and not to hate, but also how to achieve this, that is to say, how to love and how not to hate, so that our virtue and good behavior become natural and spontaneous instead of forced and premeditated.

C. The Goal

Nirvana is the final goal of Buddhism. This goal can be experienced here and now in this very life. However, one need not wait until one attains nirvana in order to experience the fruit of Buddhist life and live in the present only with a hope for the future. In each moment of life, at every step along the right path, once one practices, by seeing, by the increase of knowledge of the nature of things, by peace of mind and freedom from anxiety and by gradually removing the cause of suffering, one experiences the fruit of Buddhism and treading the path of nirvana.

This is Buddhism in brief—what Buddhists believe and practice—parts of which the Thai people have lived up to, and which has conditioned the Thai culture as it is today.

Phra Srivisuddhimoli
April 19, 1972

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