The vast majority of Thais (95%) are Theravada Buddhists. Muslims form the largest minority with 4%, predominantly in the four southernmost provinces. The remaining 1% of the population is almost entirely made up of Mahayana Buddhists, Hindus, Christians, Taoists or Confucianists.
Theravada Buddhism, which is also practiced in Burma, Laos and Cambodia, arrived in Thailand from Sri Lanka during the Sukhothai period of the 13th century. Theravada means “teaching of the elders” and is sometimes referred to by Thais as Lankavamsa Buddhism to differentiate it from its original form. However, Theravada Buddhism, especially in Thailand, has remained relatively truer to its roots than Mahayana Buddhism, which expanded on and adapted its original teachings so as to be more accessible to potential converts as it spread northwards and eastwards from India. As a result, Theravada Buddhism is also known as Hinayana (the lesser vehicle) compared to Mahayana (the greater vehicle).
The teachings of Theravada Buddhism centre on three principal aspects of existence: suffering, impermanency, non-essentiality of reality. There are also four noble truths that have the power to liberate all who truly grasp them. These four truths are the truth of suffering – existence is suffering, the truth of the cause of suffering – desire causes suffering, the truth of the release from suffering – eliminate desire, and the truth of the path to enlightenment – the path is eight-fold.
The ultimate goal of Theravada Buddhists is to reach nibbana (nirvana), a state of non-existence. In order to attain this cessation of re-births and suffering, followers must take the Middle Way (the 8-fold path) to enlightenment. The path is divided into three separate pillars. The first pillar is wisdom and includes right understanding and right thought; the second pillar is morality and includes right speech, right bodily conduct and right livelihood; the third pillar is concentration and includes right effort, right attentiveness and right concentration.
The concept of nibbana is difficult for many to fully comprehend, even Theravada Buddhists, but this only serves to perpetuate the sense of “enlightenment” when it is finally achieved. Most Thais set themselves a lower goal and instead of nibbana aspire to be re-born into a position of higher social and financial standing. From the layman’s perspective, there is certainly a case to argue that this contradicts the very principles of Theravada Buddhism, and nibbana may be a leap of faith too far for many Thais.
Most Thais believe in a form of karma, wherein bad deeds can be neutralized or the standing in the next life can be improved by making merit (tham boon). It is, therefore, a social as well as religious exercise. There are many ways to make merit. It can be attained through giving food to monks, making charitable donations, worshipping at a temple or even releasing captive birds or fish. It is strange as a Westerner to observe Thais buying caged birds to release in the hope of becoming not a better person but a richer one.
Every Thai male is expected to enter the monk hood for a short period in a form of “religious service”. This customarily happens between starting a career and finishing school or university. The traditional length of service is three months and begins during Thai Buddhist Lent in July. However, these days many young Thai men settle for as little as a week of austere living in the monastery. Some monks ordain for life and go on to become teachers. It is estimated that there are well in excess of 30,000 monasteries and 200,000 monks in Thailand.
Related article – A Monk's Tale