Thai Rituals and Festivals Connected with Buddhism

1 March 2524

I. Thai Buddhist Ceremonial Calendar

  • April 13: Songkran (Water-throwing festival, traditional Thai New Year)
  • Early May: Phuet Mongkhon (Blessing for rice-fertility)
  • Full moon of the 6th lunar month: Visākha-Pūjā (commemorating the birth, enlightenment and demise of the Buddha)
  • Eighth day of the waning moon of the 6th lunar month: Aṭṭhamī-Pūjā (Commemorating the cremation of the Buddha’s body)
  • Full moon of the 8th lunar month: Āsāḷha-Pūjā (Commemorating the First Sermon)
  • First day after the 8th full moon: Beginning of Rains Residence
  • New moon of the 10th lunar month: Sārd (Giving merit to the departed)
  • Full moon of the 11th lunar month: End of Rains Residence
  • One month till the 12th full moon: Kathin (Annual robepresentation)
  • Full moon of the 12th lunar month: Loy Krathong (Offering-floating festival)
  • Full moon of the 3rd lunar month: Māgha-Pūjā (Commemorating the Great Assembly of Disciples)

II. Classification by Association with Buddhism

1. Ceremonies associated with events in the life of the Buddha and the Dispensation, viz.,

a) Visākha-Pūjā (Worship on the full moon of the 6th lunar month in commemoration of the birth, enlightenment and decease of the Buddha), believed to have been celebrated since the Sukhothai Period about 700 years ago, is the most important and most widely observed of all the four worship-ceremonies of this group. It is a national holiday in Thailand.

b) Aṭṭhamī-Pūjā (Worship on the eighth day of the waning moon of the 6th lunar month in commemoration of the cremation of the body of the Buddha) has been less and less observed, and is not recognized as a public holiday. The sermon delivered on this occasion deals especially with the distribution of the relics of the Buddha.

c) Āsāḷha-Pūjā (Worship on the full moon of the 8th lunar month in commemoration of the First Sermon of the Buddha), the latest of this group, first celebrated in 1958, is one among the current national holidays. It is commemorated as the day of the Buddha’s turning the Wheel of the Dhamma, his winning of the first disciple who was then ordained as a bhikkhu and thus the completion of the Triple Gem of the Buddha, the Dhamma and the Sangha. However, as the Āsāḷha-Pūjā falls on the same day as the eve of the Beginning of Rains Residence, activities on the two occasions are sometimes confused. In fact, most of the monastic rites and merit-making activities performed on that day are parts of the ceremonies associated with rains residence observed long before Āsāḷha-Pūjā came into existence.

d) Māgha-Pūjā (Worship on the full moon of the 3rd lunar month), a national holiday first celebrated about a century ago in the reign of King Rama IV, is observed to commemorate the Great Assembly of the Buddha’s Disciples in the ninth month after his enlightenment, at which the Buddha expounded the Fundamental Teaching or the gist of Buddhism called ovāda-pātimokkha. The Assembly is marked by the union of four factors, viz.,

  1. The 1,250 monks who formed the Assembly were all Arahants (Worthy or Perfect Ones) and had attained the sixfold superknowledge.
  2. All of them were ordained by the Buddha himself.
  3. All of them came to assemble simultaneously without prior instruction or notification.
  4. It was a full moon day (that of the Māgha month).

Though there are some merit-making activities such as offering food to monks on these four days, merit-making is not the central part of the ceremony. In other words, these are not occasions on which lay Buddhists show their support to the monks. Rather, they are occasions for all Buddhists—monks and laymen—to join in worshipping the Triple Gem, commemorating the great events in the life of the Buddha and the Dispensation. This being so, it is the monks who are expected to play the active role of leading the congregation in worship, and to see that the laypeople gain proper benefit from these occasions.

Activities on the four days of this group follow the same pattern. They center in the evening, usually comprising circumambulation, sermons and chanting of Pali suttas and excerpts connected with the event commemorated.

2. Ceremonies connected with the Discipline and monastic life are, in contrast to the pūjā or worship ceremonies of the first group, primarily the concern only of monks as the latter are bound by disciplinary rules to observe them. However, it was not long before lay devotees came in to support the monks. Then, merit-making activities developed as the means for the laity to encourage the monks in their observance of the Discipline and other practices of the monastic life. The lay devotees also find these occasions good opportunities for them to gain merit, and it is in this way that they come to play a part in these ceremonies. Thus, in popular Buddhism, these ceremonies confirm the laypeople’s relationship with the monks and their role as supporters of the monks, the monasteries and the Buddhist religion through merit-making activities.

Belonging to this group are:

a) The Beginning of Rains Residence, which falls on the first day of the waning moon of the 8th lunar month (usually in the later part of July), is based on a disciplinary rule that enjoins the monks to take a permanent residence throughout the first three months of the rainy season, and thus primarily to be observed only by monks. As evidence of the laypeople’s support of the monks, the beginning of the monks’ rains residence is preceded by the laity’s merit-making ceremony of food-offering, the offering of rains-cloth to the monks, and the presentation of a rains-residence candle (a large candle which can burn throughout the three months of the rains residence) to the monastery.

As the custom of temporary monkhood as a means of socialization and public education has developed in Thailand, the Beginning is preceded by a period of the ordinations. As all monks stay in the monastery during the rains residence, it is easier for newly ordained monks to find senior monks to teach them. This is the factor that has made the rains residence a period of comparatively more serious study and meditation. Lay devotees follow the monks’ examples by observing the precepts more strictly and other religious practices more actively and more regularly.

The Beginning of Rains Residence is also marked by the rite of pardoning at which all monks ask one another for pardon so that they will spend the rains residence together in harmony devoting themselves to serious study and practice.

b) The End of Rains Residence comes as a mere corollary of the Beginning of Rains Residence on the full moon of the 11th lunar month (usually in late October). It is marked by the “Invitation,” a ceremony prescribed by the Discipline as a formal act of the Sangha in which monks invite one another to speak, for the purpose of correction, of any offenses or unbecoming behavior they have seen, heard or suspected to have been committed during the rains.

The merit-making ceremony on this occasion developed later as the laity came in to show their support of the monks. Its special name, “devorohaṇa,” the Descent of the Buddha from the World of Gods, is taken from the legendary great event of the Buddha’s returning from heaven to the world of man after preaching the Abhidhamma to the gods during a rains residence there. The legend says that on that occasion the Buddha opened the three Worlds of Heaven, Earth and Hell, making the residents of those worlds see one another. Laypeople offer food to the monks by putting it in their bowls as they walk by in a single file headed by a Buddha-image.

The End of Rains Residence is also the end of the period of serious study and practice and the end of world-renunciation by temporary monks. It thus marks the beginning of the resumed wandering of the more permanent monks and the returning to the world on the part of temporary younger monks. This process of ending and beginning is usually complemented by the Kathin ceremony.

c) Kathin (Annual robe-presentation) is a formal act of the Sangha to be performed in the last month of the rains following the rains residence. As the fourth and last month of the rainy season has been set aside for the seeking and making of robes as a preparation for resumed mendicancy, a disciplinary rule further prescribes that all the monks who have completed the rain residence together in a monastery seek pieces of cloth, make them into a robe, and present it by vote in assembly to one among them whose robe is most worn. The process of making the robe must be finished in one and the same day, requiring every monk to participate. Here lies the spirit of Kathin, that is to say, the test of unity and harmony of those who have spent the community life together for the whole period of the rainy season.

Here again lay devotees come in to offer their help to the monks. Moreover, as this ceremony can be performed during only one specific month and one monastery can perform it only once within that limited period of time, the Kathin has been regarded as a very special occasion. Starting as a merit-making ceremony of presenting the Kathin robe to the monks, it has developed into a big festival with celebrations. There are many Kathin processions going to present robes to monasteries in different communities, or in faraway provinces. The spirit of unity, harmony and cooperation, expands beyond monastic communities to become unity and cooperation among all Buddhists, both monks and laypeople.

3. Ceremonies connected with folk cultures and non-Buddhist elements are those which have been appropriated by Buddhism or accepted into the Buddhist fold by assimilation or by the incorporation of Buddhist elements. The following are included in this group:

a) Songkran (Water-throwing festival), the traditional Thai New Year, falls on April 13 in the hottest time of the year in Thailand. It is believed to be Hindu in origin. It is a big festival celebrated for three to seven days each of which begins with merit-making ceremonies of offering food to monks. The festival is characterized by the ceremony of bathing monks and elderly people and the throwing of water on one another among younger people. At the hottest time, water best symbolizes a happy beginning by its twofold function of making new through cleaning and making happy through refreshment. Younger people pay respects and express their good wishes to monks and elderly people by bathing the monks and by bathing and giving new clothing to the elderly people, and receiving in return blessings from them. Traditionally they are said to go to ask the monks and elderly people for their blessings. The festival ends with water-throwing, an act both of refreshment and merry-making.

b) Phuet Mongkhon (Blessing for plant-fertility), a royal ceremony in early May for the beginning of the agricultural cycle, is a supplementary Buddhist part invented by King Mongkut just a century ago to add a Buddhist dimension to the age-old first plowing ceremony of Hindu origin. The Buddhist ceremony is performed in the Grand Palace without the knowledge of most people, where monks are invited to chant selected Pali words of blessing for the fertility of plants throughout the kingdom.

c) Sārd (Giving merit to the departed), a ceremony of Hindu and animistic origin, falls on the new moon of the 10th lunar month (usually toward the end of September or in early October), the time when dead people are believed to be released temporarily from the world of the dead to see their relatives in the human world. Originally, people make food offerings to their departed ancestors and relatives (perhaps by leaving them at the foot of a tree.) Having been incorporated into Buddhism, the ceremony consists only in the merit-making ceremony of offering food to monks and dedicating or transferring the merit resulted therefrom to the dead. In many parts of the country, however, both practices are still followed.

d) Loy Krathong (Offering-floating festival), a festival of obscure origin, comes at the most seasonable time on the full moon of the 12th lunar month (usually in late November) when rivers and canals in Thailand are at the highest tide and full to the brim, or often even overflow at the end of the rainy and Kathin season. People make small vessels or baskets of banana leaves and float them with flowers, lit candles and incense-sticks inside. This is an act of worship, but people disagree about what is worshipped. Some say they dedicate the offering to the Buddha’s footprint on the shores of the river Nammadā. Others give different explanations. Beyond this there is little connection with Buddhism. However, annual festivals at many monasteries are celebrated at this time. It should also be noted that the time of this festival is concurrent with the harvest period when some regions have just finished harvesting and others are commencing it.

In addition to these celebrations, there is still another grand merit-making ceremony which does not fall into the previous three categories or calendrical stipulations, and which varies from region to region. This is Thet Mahachat (“Sermon on the Great Life”), also called Khatha Phan (“Story of 1,000 stanzas”) and known in the northeast of Thailand as Bun Phra Wes (“Merit-making in connection with Prince Vessantara”). This is the story of the last former life of the Buddha when he was fulfilling the Perfection of Almsgiving. In northern Thailand, it is celebrated in the twelfth lunar month (most often in November). In the northeast, it is usually held in the fourth lunar month (usually in March). In other regions, it occurs in April or during the rains residence. The spirit of this ceremony may be interpreted as an attempt to impart selected Buddhist values to the people. Besides the importance as the last former life of the Buddha, the reason for selecting this jātaka may be because the Perfection of Giving, which is the main theme of the story, is directly connected with merit-making, and because of the princely and sovereign position of the Bodhisatta in that jātaka. It happened that the poet who first gave an honored place to this jātaka in Thai literature was a great king of the early Ayutthaya period.

Classified in order of popularity and prevalence of observance or celebration, ceremonies with elements of fun and amusement usually come first. Roughly arranged, the order would appear as follows:1

  1. Songkran (Traditional Thai New Year)
  2. Kathin (Annual robe-presentation)
  3. Beginning of Rains Residence
  4. End of Rains Residence; Thet Mahachat; Loy Krathong
  5. Visākha-Pūjā
  6. Māgha-Pūjā; Āsāḷha-Pūjā; Sārd
  7. Aṭṭhamī-Pūjā and Phuet Mongkhon

Not included on the public calendar are annual festivals in celebration of important objects of worship at some prominent monasteries such as the Buddha’s relics at the Golden Mountain at Wat Saket in Bangkok, at the Pathom Chedi (“first cetiya”) in the central region, at Phra That Phanom in the northeast, at Wat Hariphunchai in the north, at Wat Phra Mahathat in the south, and the Buddha’s footprint at Wat Phra Putthabat in the central region. Many of these are celebrated on the full moon of the 12th lunar month and others at varied times from the 3rd to the 6th lunar months.

In addition to the above, there are private or household merit-making ceremonies and celebrations for different occasions, either regular or occasional, which are usually classified as auspicious and non-auspicious (i.e. funeral). Auspicious ceremonies include birthday, ordination, wedding, house-blessing, laying a foundation stone, and various other celebrations. Funeral and memorial ceremonies include merit-making while the body lies in state, dedicatory ceremonies on the seventh, fiftieth and one-hundredth days after death, cremation, merit-making at the collection or housing of bone-relics and annual memorial dedicatory merit-making ceremonies.

These rituals and ceremonies serve as a channel for the monks to gain access to people of all levels and walks of life, as a linkage between people of different generations, as an agent to bring together people from different localities, and as a factor to make the monastery the center of a community. They encourage an esprit de corps and help to create and strengthen cooperation, harmony and unity in Thai society. Through them ethical and spiritual values are implanted in the public mind, cultural values are perpetuated, and entertainments are given an instructional and moral dimension.

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เชิงอรรถ

  1. Based on personal experience and observation only, without statistical basis.

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