“Thai Buddhism” is a general rubric for diverse and varied practices and beliefs. On the one hand, the diversity is regional and Buddhists in the Northern, Southern, Central, and Northeastern regions have very different ways of articulating their beliefs and undertaking their practices. On the other hand, each practitioner approaches and expresses their religious motivations and rationalities in diverse ways ranging from a nearly secular scientific materialistic attitude to a devout and all consuming one. There is also diversity in terms of religious traditions such as animism, Brahmanism, Islam, and East Asian Buddhisms that have been incorporated into the practice and beliefs of what is commonly known as Thai Buddhism. Thai Buddhism has been studied through it texts, as well as historically, philosophically, socio-politically, artistically, and anthropologically. It would be very difficult, if even possible, to describe Thai Buddhism (or perhaps “Buddhisms” or “religions”) succinctly. Instead I will offer a very short basic history and then discuss some of the major features of the Thai tradition(s). In the end, I point out some problems in the study of Thai Buddhism. In the primary and secondary collections section of tdm.ucr.edu you can read much more, as well as view images and video (including interviews with Buddhist ordained and lay people). Additions, corrections, and suggestions are welcome. Thanks to the many people who sent in suggestions and additions already.
Thai textbooks tell of two emissaries, named Uttara and Sona, that were sent by Moggalliputta Tissa from what is now known as India to Central Thailand 200 years before the Common Era. While there is little proof for this event, it seems that some form of Buddhism was prevalent in the central river valleys near the present day city of Nakhon Pathom (Pali: Nagara Pathama or the “First City”) as early as the 5 th century of the Common Era. But Nakhon Pathom (which was given this name in the 19 th century, previously it was known as Nakhon Chai Sri) over two thousand years ago was not Thailand. It was then the region of Dvaravati which had cultural influence from the Mon and other local ethnic groups.
Between the fifth and eleventh centuries several Khmer, Mon, Sanskrit, and Pali inscriptions are found on large stone dharma wheels, octagonal pillars, on the bases of Buddha, Rishi, and Vishnu images, and on stele. Many are kept in the Lopburi museum, the Nakhon Pathom Museum, the U Thong Museum, or the National museum in Bangkok. They were originally found in Nakhon Sri Thammarat, Ratchaburi, Lopburi, among other places in Southern, Northeastern, and Central Thailand. They reveal a dynamic religious environment with Brahmanic, Buddhist (Sravakayana and Mahayana), and local animist influences. While most are votive, they let us know some of the royal and monk names and something about the structure of Dvaravati, Srivijaya, and Angkorian society in the region. Some also contain passages from canonical suttas regarding the laws of dependent co-arising, the four noble truths, the “ye dharma” incantation, and various praises to the Buddha. Buddha images at this time often times depict the Buddha seated in “European” style with his feet flat on the ground, as well as the more commonly posture of the Buddha seated with his legs folded in the “half-lotus” position. We know little about the day-to-day religious life of these Mon, Khmer, and early Mon speaking peoples. In the various collections of Thai inscriptions (see primary source collections) there are votive and donative inscriptions in these languages as well as Pali, Sanskrit and even Tamil. There are short “ye dharma” inscriptions as well as some evidence that Pali sutta texts like the Mahaparinibbana Sutta and Dhammapada were known. Dhida Saraya, Michael Vickery, Charnvit Kasetsiri, George Coedes, Oliver Wolters, and Peter Skilling have written a great deal about this period. See the primary and secondary source collections for more information.
There were other ethnicities besides Mon and Khmer living in the lower valleys of the Chao Phraya river area as well. There were some Tamil speakers, as well as Malay speaking traders it appears. In the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, Tai speaking peoples emigrated from the south of China partially attracted by the low population and good soil and partly avoiding Mongol aggression in the North. Slowly their numbers grew and they were creating small semi-independent cities ( muang ) in the areas around present-day Jinhong, Muang Sua (Luang Phrabang), Chiang Saen, Kengtung, Chiang Mai, Haripunchai (Lamphun), Lampang, Phayao, Nan, Phrae, Phisanulok, Tak, Sukhothai, Kampaengphet, Xainyaburi, and eventually Lopburi and Suphanburi. These areas had been loosely controlled or influenced by the Angkorian kings based in present-day Cambodia and Northeast Thailand. Although less prevalent, there are still remnants of this Angkor (Khmer-speaking) architecture in the region. While Mon influenced waned (later to be idealistically revived by King Mongkut in the mid-nineteenth century), culturally and linguistically, Angkor remained a very powerful influence in the heart of what is known today as Central Thailand.
Although, the Tai speaking muang of Chiang Saen and Muang Sua were active as early as the eighth century, the two most powerful muang , Sukhothai and Chiang Mai, did not offer any serious challenge to Khmer dominated societies in the region until the thirteenth century. Buddhism was at the time flourishing in Sri Lanka, and there were Buddhist monks and Brahmins coming to Nakhon Sri Thammarat, a bustling and powerful trading muang located in present-day Southern Thailand. Although the dating and authorship of the famous Ram Khamhaeng inscription in Sukhothai is in doubt, according to this and some other sources, King Ram Khamhaeng of Sukhotai (1275-1317) invited monks from Nakhon Sri Thammarat to come to Sukhothai to teach, bring merit, and protect the kingdom. The Kings of Sukhothai promoted this the new religion, and one of its kings, Lithai, the grandson of Ram Khamhaeng, invited another learned monk from the Mon country to his kingdom. Litai also supposedly composed the famous Brahmano-Buddhist cosmological text called: “Tribhumigatha” which has been revised and updated by subsequent Thai monarchs. The ruins of Kampaengphet, Sukhothai, and Sri Satchanalai attest to the active Buddhist patrons and monks in the region.
Although we have very little information about what Buddhist texts were being studied and which rituals were prevalent, we do know that the jatakas were prominent because of murals at Wat Sri Chum in Sukhothai and that the bodily relics of the Buddha and his disciples were seen as powerful protective devices because of great monasteries in Kampaengphet, Haripunchai, and Sukhothai named Wat Mahathat (Monastery of the Great Relic). In Kampaenhphet, Phra Si Iriyabot originally housed Buddha images in four different postures. Depicting the Buddha in the bhumisparsa (Earth Witness) or Samadhi (meditation) postures or as walking were most common. Besides these great urban monasteries, in between these small cities, archaeologists have uncovered numerous examples of forest hermitages which suggest a dynamic Buddhist and Brahmanic religious atmosphere. See studies by Carol Stratton, Hiram Woodward, Pattaratorn Chirapravati, Georges Coed è s, Robert Brown, John Lipostad, Prasert na Nagara, A.B. Griswold for more information.
Writing was developing as well and several scripts were being used for stone inscriptions in Sukhothai and places North including Fakkham, Lan Na (Yuan), Classical Sukhothai, and later Tai Leu, Tai Khoen, (Lao) Tham, Lao, and different types of Shan scripts. These were later used on palm-leaf manuscripts beginning in the fifteenth century (if not earlier). Still, reliable historical information is still scarce for Sukhothai, although epigraphic, architectural, and art historical research by Bampen Rawin, Hans Penth, Pattaratorn Chirapravati, Phanphen Khreuathai, Silao Ketphrom, Peter Skilling, Pierre Pichard, among others has uncovered numerous important findings, which emphasize the importance of the “person” of the historical Buddha conveyed through relic histories, j a takas (birth-stories of the Buddha), sacred biographies, as well as efforts to connect local queens, kings, and monks to the lineage of the Buddha. The sacred biographies of the Buddha seem to have been more prevalent than psychological and philosophical treastises (Abhidhamma and commentaries) and sutta (didactic narratives and declarations) texts. In it also relatively unclear how much the Vinaya monastic code was maintained by every monastery. At this time there was no major ecclesiastical organization which administered the various monastic communities in the region. These groups organized themselves by lineage and sought out (or were sought out by) local rulers for support.
We learn much more about what early Mon-Lankan Buddhist lineages taught and how they were received in Chiang Mai. There was a great deal of Pali writing as early as the mid-fifteenth century in this region. Pali scholars like Sirima n gala, Nanakitti, Rattanapanna, and others were composing local relic histories, grammatical treatises, word commentaries, ritual texts, and compiling anthologies of suttas (especially the Mangala-attha-dipani ). These texts began to circulate among the people of the region and quickly spread along trade routes to present-day Laos, the Shan States, and the cities of Ayutthya, Lopburi, Nakhon Sri Thammarat, Pichit, Surratthani, Nakhon Sawan, and Ratburi. Monks, like masons, woodworkers, and artisans, moved often to take up work under wealthy patrons supporting monastery construction and textual production. The center of this intellectual Buddhist activity, early on certainly seemed to be Chiang Mai. Daniel Veidlinger, Balee Buddharaksa, Donald Swearer, Hans Penth, Supaphanh na Bangchang, Udom Runruangsri, Sommai Premchit, Paitun Dokbuakaeo, among others have written much about Buddhist activity in North Central Thailand in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.
As I discuss more extensively with full citations in the first section of chapter two of my book, Gathering Leaves and Lifting Words (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2007), Chiang Mai long was the largest city in the region and many of its large monasteries had attracted the best monastic students and teachers for centuries before the Siamese court stepped in. For example, Wat Suan Dok, Wat Chedi Luang, Wat Chiang Man, and Wat Phra Singh had run large monastic schools since the fourteenth century and all had large libraries of palm-leaf manuscripts used for that end. Many Sri Lankan, Burmese, Shan, Khoen, Leu, Lao, Siamese, Mon and Yuan monks had studied or taught in the city and then returned to their places of origins with texts from the city and a respect for its centers of learning. Before the Burmese takeover in the 1550s, Chiang Mai was the center of Buddhist education in the region. Phra Sumana, a famous monk of the Sri Lankan and Mon tradition brought texts and images and students from the city of Sukhothai about 200 kilometers south of Chiang Mai to the city of Haripunchai (present-day Lamphun). His brand of Buddhist practice distinguished Chiang Mai from other Burmese, Lao, Khmer and Siamese regional expressions. Many monks and serious lay people traveled to study with Phra Sumana. The region around Chiang Mai became a major educational and ritual center. This is reflected in the Pali and vernacular histories and commentaries composed by local scholar monks, as well as the calling of the council of learned monks to organize and revise the canon by King Tilokarat in 1477 in Chiang Mai. These scholarly endeavors helped attract manpower to the region to build monasteries and populate schools.
Buddhist education, building, and practice continued under the Burmese, who militarily occupied and culturally influenced the region of Northern Thailand between the 1550s and 1770s. The Burmese takeover of the Chiang Mai in the mid-sixteenth century did not destroy Buddhist education in the region, but it did lead to many changes. First, the monks that came with Burmese armies brought new genres of religious texts like nissayas . Second, Pali grammatica and narratives common in Burma were copied and glossed in Northern Thailand. Third, the Burmese occupation and growth of the Lao economy led in part to increased contact between Lao, Shan, Khoen, Leu and Northern Thai monks and lay scholars. The great monasteries of Chiang Mai continued to grow and attract students, but were not producing the large amount of Pali texts as they had done before the Burmese.
Wat Chedi Luang and Wat Suan Dok are good examples of the vicissitudes of education in Chiang Mai during this period. Wat Chedi Luang has been the crown jewel of Chiang Mai monasteries for almost 700 years. It lies in the center of the city and the spire atop its main stupa (Thai: chedi ) even after it partially collapsed after an earthquake, was the highest point in the city until very recently when high rise hotels were built along the river. The stupa/chedi was built under the sponsorship of King Saen Meuang Ma in 1391. King Sam Phang Kaen deposited a relic of the Buddha brought from Sri Lanka as well the relics of his father in 1423. The chedi was enlarged in 1481. This was the year that the most honored Buddha image in the Tai world, the Emerald Buddha, was installed there. In 1511 the chedi was covered in gold leaf (quite a feat for the largest chedi in the region and one of the largest in the world). The “city pillar” of Chiang Mai is also on the grounds of the monastery. This makes Wat Chedi Luang the ritual and cosmological center of the city. This cosmic center is reinforced by a local belief that the God Indra had two mythical god-man creatures bring the pillar from the 33 rd heaven to Chiang Mai. Every May tens of thousands turn out for a seven day celebration held at the monastery in honor of the pillar and the chedi. All of these aesthetic, ritual, and royal accouterments effectively made Wat Chedi Luang the center of at least the Yuan world, if not the entire Tai religious world that covers present-day Northern Thailand, Eastern Burma and Laos in the early sixteenth century.
In 1546 the King of Lanxang (Laos) was invited to rule the city of Chiang Mai and its tributaries known as the Kingdom of Lanna. His first order of business when he entered the city was to bring his retinue, which included many newly ordained monks, to Wat Chedi Luang. Like Burmese, Shan, Siamese, Khoen and Yuan monks, these Lao monks (these ethnic categories are later accretions) studied at the monastery. Famous scholar monks studied and taught at Wat Chedi Luang as well since there was a regular exchange of monks between different monasteries in the region. Moreover, these scholar monks would have been compelled to visit the Emerald Buddha and the relic held in the great chedi to pay obeisance. There is little record of activities at Wat Chedi Luang until 1823 when a golden preaching chair was donated by the king of Chiang Mai. At this time there were 101 monks in residence at the monastery. Since a new ordination hall was also consecrated at this time, the monastery certainly planned to attract more students. It can be said as a standard fact, that virtually all regional monasteries first become ritual centers through their possessions of certain images, relics, royal seals. These ritually powerful objects enabled these monastic schools to attract charismatic teachers, skilled scholars, and draw large audiences to sermons and students to lectures. This ritual legitimacy allows them texts and funding needed to become educational centers. Unfortunately, these generalities will have to suffice for now since, like most other monasteries, historical records tell us virtually nothing of the day-to-day activities of students and teachers at Wat Chedi Luang before the modern period.
Wat Suan Dok is home to the other great secondary school and monastic university of the North. At present it is the branch campus of Mahachulalongkorn Monastic University and high school. Wat Suan Dok (Pali: Puppharama, English: Flower Garden Monastery) is one of the oldest monasteries in Chiang Mai. It was built in 1371 under the direction of Phaya Keu Anasong as a place where the aforementioned Phra Sumana could rest during the rainy season. Within five years, Phaya Keu Anasong added a chedi and a protective surrounding wall and brought relics from Sri Sachanalai to the south. Phra Sumana was so impressed that he spent the last 16 rainy seasons of his life at Wat Suan Dok. Because of Phra Sumana’s presence at the monastery students came to study with him and the Lankawong (Pali: Lankavaṃsa, also known as the Nikaya Ramana) school/lineage/nikaya he represented. The report of Phra Sumana’s auspicious dream of deities visiting the region and bringing relics only increased the fame of the monastery. In fact, Phra Sumana’s school became so synonymous with Wat Suan Dok that locally it was known as the Wat Suan Dok school of Buddhism (Nikaya Wat Suan Dok). This sect came from Sri Lanka via the teachings of Swamī Udumbara of in the Mon region of Martaban in present-day Burma. For years monks from Wat Suan Dok traveled to Burma to study and monks trained in the Mon tradition worked at Wat Suan Dok. Saraswati Ongsakun argues that this simple move of Phra Sumana going to Wat Suan Dok made Chiang Mai the new center of Buddhism and made monks who had studied with Phra Sumana at Wat Suan Dok sought after by monasteries elsewhere in the region. Long after Phra Sumana’s demise, Wat Suan Dok held this status as a center of Buddhist education. Phaya Kaeo who ruled Chiang Mai from 1495 to 1525 was perhaps the greatest supporter of Wat Suan Dok. Despite constantly raising armies to attack Ayutthya and Chiang Tung he built several new structures at the monastery. He also promoted the study of Pali at Wat Suan Dok and in other monasteries in the city and sponsored another copy of the Pali canon ( Tipitaka ) based on King Tilokarat’s 1477 “edition.” We do not actually know the content of either set or even if they were completely in Pali. Phaya Kaeo did not merely want to renew King Tilokarat’s efforts, but surpass them and so he sponsored several commentaries and had them sent to royal courts in Luang Phrabang and Ava (Burma). Besides activity at Wat Suan Dok, there were also active schools at other local monasteries. The efforts of the scholar monks who were working during this period are well-documented. Before the Burmese armies entered and conquered (relatively bloodlessly in three days) Chiang Mai in 1558 intellectual monks, artisans, and scribes seemed to have been moving to Luang Phrabang and others seem to be taken or moved to Burma. Daniel Veidlinger has pointed out that the majority of manuscripts in the Chiang Mai vicinity produced between 1440 and 1550 were made at three monasteries in Chiang Mai and one in Lamphun (Haripunchai) about 20 kilometers from Chiang Mai. These monasteries were intimately connected with the royal family of Chiang Mai and were run by the araññavasi (forest lineage from Sri Lanka) – Wat Pa Daeng, Wat Phra Singh, Wat Mahabodhi, and Wat Phra Dhat Haripunchai. Moreover, three of the greatest writers of this era were connected with the forest lineage and the royal family and lived in Chiang Mai. Phra Sirimangala, Phra Ratanapañña, and Phra Ñanakitti were Pali scholar monks who composed commentaries and sub-commentaries on Sutta, Paritta, Grammar, and Abhidhamma canonical and extra-canonical texts. They were probably descendent of the Sri Lankan lineage which came to Chiang Mai in 1369 under the aegis of the monk Sumana became the sect most intimately connected with writing, Pali and the Chiang Mai royalty. Under Burmese rule there is little information about education at Wat Suan Dok. There is no evidence that its school closed, but certainly it was not thriving as it had during the time of Phra Sumana.
We know little about Wat Chedi Luang and Wat Suan Dok, but this is much more than we know of other monastic schools in the region. The only other school that we can identify as a significant education center is Wat Phra Singh. It was founded in 1454. It became a center of pilgrimage throughout Southeast Asia because of the Buddha image, Phra Buddha Sihing, popularized by texts such as the Jinakalamalīpakara ṇ am , Tamnan Mūlasasana and the Tamnan Phra Buddha Sihing . Sacred relics and images were the main form of advertisement for monastic schools. It is a common theme in canonical and extra-canonical texts from all schools of Buddhism that studying or even sitting in the presence of the Buddha can lead to enlightenment through little self-effort. The myths attached to images and relics in the region, like the Phra Buddha Sihing, the Emerlad Buddha, and the relics in Lampang, Haripunchai (Lamphun), Chiang Mai, Nan, Phrae, etc. (like the Phra Bang Chao and Phra Ong Teu in Laos) emphasize that being in the presence of the relic or image is like being in the presence of the Buddha. This image and the Buddhist school at Wat Phra Singh drew the famous teacher, Phra Maha Agyachulathera and ten of his students to the monastery from Haripunchai, further making Chiang Mai the center of Buddhist education in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. The abbot at Wat Phra Singh was one of the first to pay homage to the Burmese King and there Burmese monks took up residence. In 1806 the supreme patriarch of the North, Phra Chao Nantha was consecrated at Wat Phra Singh along with the two other highest ranking monks of the region, Phra Chao Gambhīra and Phra Phan Tao. King Kawila, the new monarch of post-Burmese Chiang Mai, acknowledged Wat Phra Singh as the center of Buddhism in the North and built the main uposatha hall. In 1821 the main vihara was given a new Buddha image. Later the monarch made his residence next to the monastery and in 1827 the main vihara was repaired and consecrated by the king. Like Wat Suan Dok, Wat Phra Singh was known as a center of education. In fact these monasteries are so close to each other that students must have walked between them quite often (as they do today, in fact many students who study at one monastery actually reside at another and commute everyday to class). Sometimes this commute was quite taxing. In 1833 Krūpa Kañcana of Phrae walked from Wat Sung Men, some 200 kilometers away from Chiang Mai in order to request that the abbot of Wat Suan Dok produce a new copy of the Tipitaka and led a ceremony to mark the occasion at Wat Phra Singh. Krūpa Kañcana went to Wat Suan Dok first because the supreme patriarch was residing there at the time. An inscription on the back wall of the library at Wat Phra Singh tells of his visit. It was because of this library that Krūpa Kañcana wanted to have the work on the Tipi ṭ aka done at Wat Phra Singh. The library, the finest example of its kind in the North, was built in 1811 replacing the former library built in 1488. Krūpa Kañcana had reason to see Wat Phra Singh has the appropriate place for Buddhist textual scholarship since the library had been further renovated in 1826 and the Siamese king, Rama III had visited the library in 1829. Rama III was so impressed that he had royal scholars from Bangkok move to Wat Phra Singh to study its manuscripts. These manuscripts influenced curricula and canon formation in Siam.
While Buddhist education, monastery construction, and artistic production thrived in what is known today as Northern Thailand, it also flourished in Central and Southern Thailand. While these regions remained politically relatively independent until the eighteenth century, they were deeply connected intellectually because of traveling monks, artisans, and merchants.
The area that is known today as Thailand had two other great “Buddhist” kingdoms between the fourteenth and the eighteenth centuries: Ayutthya and Nakhon Sri Thammarat. Nakhon Sri Thammarat has been a powerful and well-populated trading town connected to the Malay speaking “kingdoms” of Srivijaya, Ligor, Tambralinga, and even the kingdoms of Kedah, Chi Tu, and Langasuka. It either served as a tributary city or central administrative center at different times from the 3 rd century CE to the 15 th century when it became more closely connected to the Siamese kingdoms to the North. Even though it was mentioned in the Ramkhamhaeng inscription in Sukhotai, it is doubtful that its leaders and its monks had much commerce with the North until 1468 when a document known as “King Trailok’s law” in Ayutthya referred to Nakhon Sri Thammarat as one of the eight powerful muang. However, how much control Ayutthya exerted over the internal affairs of Nakhon Sri Thammarat is unknown. It was brought under more direct Siamese control by General Taksin after the fall of Ayutthya and the rise of Thonburi and now is one of the most important cities in Southern Thailand. Buddhists and Brhaman have been present in Nakhon Sri Thammarat from the early centuries of the common era. The city’s museum holds a statue of Vishnu from the 8 th or 9 th century. Other Vishnu figures have been found in abundance in the areas of Phang Nga and Phuket (esp. Takua Pa and Thalang) which were under the control of Nakhon Sri Thammarat for most of their history. The largest Buddhist monastery is the thirteenth century Wat Phra Mahathat Woromahawihan with is very large Phra Boromathat Chedi. Recently this monastery was the center of the popular Jatukham Ramathep amulet “cult.” Nakhon Sri Thammarat is widely seen as the southernmost “Buddhist” city in Thailand, as many of the larger towns south of it are majority Muslim.
Ayutthya rose as a regional center after 1350 when King U Thong moved from Lopburi to avoid a disease that was decimating the city. The mix of legitimating myths and epistemologies is evident in that the King named his city after the famous Indian city of Ayodhya which is prominent in Sanskrit epics and took a Sanskrit name, Ramathibodhi, but also claimed to be descended from the divine lineage of Khun Borom in the Lao territories around Luang Phrabang. However, he also explicitly promoted Sri Lankan Buddhism over Brahmanic and animist traditions (although they were practiced alongside Buddhism in the city and part of royal ceremonies). He organized the city ideally according to Brahmanic legal standards ( dharmasastra ), although it is unclear how much he knew about these laws and customs. He could have read about them in Sanskrit manuscripts brought by visiting Indian scholars or he may have been advised by Khmer or Indian Brahmans in his court. However, he also invited Sri Lankan Buddhist monks to take up residence in Ayutthya and ordain men in the city. Brahmanism and Buddhism have been intertwined and have informed each other almost inseparably for the nearly the entirety of Thai history. The royal family’s idea of themselves was also influenced by both Buddhist and Brahamnic concepts. The king was referred to as a “bodhisatta” (a type of compassionate Buddhist sage) as well as a devar a ja (God-king), chakavattan (wheel-turning monarch or one who controls the universe and rules it according to virtue), and “chao chiwit” (lord of life), titles linking him to the Brahmanic gods Vishnu, Shiva, Indra, Rama, Garuda, Ganesha, among others. Prapod Assavavirulhakarn, Chonlada Rungrueangsri, Charvit Kasetsiri, Pattaratorn Chirapravati, among others have written extensively about the Buddhist and Brahman cultures of Ayutthya.
Buddhist practice in the kingdom was centered around massive monasteries and ritual centers in Ayutthya, as well as some smaller monasteries and hermitages in Kanchanaburi, Suphanburi, Nakhon Naiyok, Samut Sakhon, Ratchaburi, Angthong, Singburi, Pichit, and other places. It is unclear how much monks from these various cities interacted. Certainly, it would have prestigious to be connected to the great temples of Wat Chai Wattanaram, Wat Si Sanphet, Wat Ratchaburana, Wat Na Phra Men, Wat Mahathat, among others in the city. Wat Chai Wattanaram was built in the early seventeenth century by one of Ayutthya’s greatest kings –Prasat Thong who seemed to favor Angkorian style architecture and wanted to have a great stupa in which to house relics of the Buddha. Not is the stupa (praeng) in Angkorian style, but royal breastplates, crowns, and belts are carved on the Buddha images linking the royalty to the Buddha was frequently done in Angkor (as well as among the Shan to the North and older Lao images). The central image at Wat Na Phra Men is also in this style and is in the “conquering Mara” pose. Another reliquary was Wat Mahathat in the geographical and ritual center of the city, where the highest ranking monk resided (Sangharaja) as well as relics of previous royal family members and supposedly relics of the Buddha. Artistically, the most important monastery in the city is Wat Ratchaburana where thousands of votive tablets, golden royal attire, jewels, Chinese and Indian influenced murals, and ritual implements were found. Pattaratorn Chirapravati has studied this monastery extensively. These monasteries were not simply monastic schools or meditation centers. They were places where members of the royal family would display their wealth and power. They celebrated military victories, marriages, and coronations. They also most likely served as hospitals, parks, and theatres. For example, Wat Si Sanphet holds the ashes of three kings, as well as Buddha relics. There is little evidence that many monks resided there, but it certainly was a reflection of royal power, and was located adjacent to the palace.
Thanks to royal chronicles and votive inscriptions, we much more about the royal history of Ayutthya than the religious history. We have no evidence that there was an extensive overarching ecclesiastical administration. There was no wide-ranging structure of monastic education as well. European accounts tell us much more about monastic life in Ayutthya than Thai sources often. We know from these accounts and the royal chronicles that a few haphazard efforts to reform Siamese Buddhism had been made by Kings Boromatrailokanaat in 1466 and King Narai in 1688. The former awarded small areas of tenable rice paddy to monks and novices who had “knowledge of the Dhamma.” There is no evidence on how that knowledge was judged although it probably was based on the ability to read and sound out Pali. The latter instituted exams based on the ability to read (sound out, not necessarily know the semantic meaning) of “a certain Bali book” (as reported by Nicolas Gervaise, a visitor to the Ayudhyan court from France in 1687). If monks did not know how to read this book, then they were forcibly disrobed. A member of King Louis XIV’s mission to Siam, Simon de la Loubère, reported that those monks outside the city refused to submit to these exams unless they were given by their own abbot. King Narai apparently did not have the power or the inclination to enforce the examinations further and they apparently fell out of use. Yoneo Ishii, David Wyatt, Prince Damrong, Christopher Baker, Michael Smithies, Anthony Reid, Victor Lieberman, Sunait Chitintaranond , and J.W. Cushman have written much about this period, although there has never been a major study of Buddhism or Brahmanism in the kingdom.
Although the Ayutthyan period is often thought of as a golden age, there was certainly much political division and many princes fought against each other in Central Thailand. There was also fighting between the Malaccan armies in the Malay Peninsula and the Ayutthyan forces. Regardless of these frequent military incursions, as well as wars with the Khmer, Burmese, and even Vietnamese forces in the fifteenth, sixteenth, and seventeenth centuries, Ayutthya’s economy grew considerably as did its population. There were many Europeans also living in the city at this time from places such as Portugual, Greece, Italy, the Netherlands, and later Great Britain, France, Turkey, Japan, China, and the Arabian Peninsula. These traders, mercenaries, and missionaries brought religious, technological, and cultural influences. For example, the royal palace shows Persian architectural influence. However, they also took Siamese/Thai cloth, spices, crafts, and ideas back to Asia, including black pepper, silk, and water management techniques.
In 1767, after the Burmese burnt the city of Ayutthya nearly to the ground the Siamese capital moved to Thonburi (across the Chao Phraya river from present-day Bangkok and about 50 kilometers south of Ayutthya). The importance of Buddhism is attested by the fact that some of the first buildings established were monasteries like Wat Rakhang Khositaram and Wat Suwannaram (Thonburi/Bangkok Noi), Wat Chetuphon (Pho), Wat Mahathat, and Wat Phra Kaeo (both on the Ratanakosin or Bangkok side). In fact, the first king of the Chakri Dynasty, which started after the fall of Ayutthya and the interregnal rule of General Taksin, built his palace at Wat Rakhang before moving to the Grand Palace which was built after the Siamese military, court, and trade connections were re-established. Wat Rakhang was also the monastery of Somdet Phutthachan Si who was brought from Southern Thailand to help collect Buddhist manuscripts, begin administering Buddhist education, and organizing the Sangha. He was the first Sanghar a ja of the Thonburi, Ratanakosin, Bangkok eras. His work was supported later by a group of scholar monks like Somdet Khon, Luang Pho Nak, Somdet Suk, Somdet To, Phra Achan Horathibodhi, Phra Achan Kaeo, Luang Phu Wichian, among others. They started formalizing Buddhist education, ordaining lay men, and encouraged the building of new monasteries.
The Emerald Buddha, stolen by Siamese armies from the Lao kingdom of Lan Xang in the late eighteenth century, along with thousands of forcibly relocated Lao farmers, monks, and artisans, were brought to Bangkok and surrounding towns. The Emerald Buddha was placed in the newly built Wat Phra Kaeo in 1784 and it became the Buddhist center of the new city adjacent to the Lak Muang (City Pillar) which marked the place of worship for the local land spirit. This animist and Buddhist beliefs were coupled with the persistent place of Brahmanic rituals and Indic influenced literature and art in the new city, represented by the Sanskrit deity names for the kings and the murals depicting scenes from the Indian epic, the R a may a na on the walls of Wat Phra Kaeo. Perhaps the greatest place to see all of these influences which were constantly informing each other is on the grounds of Wat Chetuphon where Buddhist, Brahmanic, and even European and Chinese architecture and art sit comfortably together.
Monasteries sprouted up throughout the city. The greatest of the kings to support this building was King Rama III (1824-1850), who through profits, often referred to as “red bag money” made from increased Chinese trade, patronized the building of what many consider to be the most beautiful monasteries in the city: Wat Ratchaorot, Wat Indraram, Wat Boworniwet, Wat Nang Chi, Wat Thepdhitaram, Wat Kalyanamit, among others. Architecturally and artistically there is much evidence of Chinese influence. Wat Arun, perhaps the most recognizable monastery in the city was built during the reigns of Kings Rama II and III and reveals Angkorian, Chinese, European, and local styles.
King Mongkut (1851- 1868) who spent 27 years of his life as a Buddhist priest before he came to the throne, is often lauded in the West as the king who opened up Thailand to the West. While, Thai society had had much contact with Europeans since the early sixteenth century, King Mongkut (Rama IV) was one of the first members of the Thai elite to learn European languages (French, English, Greek, Latin), test European scientific theories (especially astrological techniques), and have regular meetings with European tutors, missionaries, travelers, and dignitaries like D.B.Bradley, Anna Leowens, and Biship Pallegoix. He actively promoted printing and even developed his own script, the Ariyaka, for writing Pali. While his reign is often classified as one of Buddhist reform and a “return” to Vinaya orthodoxy and canonical purity, this has been over-emphasized by scholars. In fact, he was interested in Thai magic and local customs as well as older “Indic” or Sri Lankan forms of Theravada Buddhism. However, he did, along with Prince Wachirayan, Prince Damrong, and others, instituted a number of changes in Thai Buddhism. First, he started a new sect or, more accurately, “ordination lineage,” known as the Thammayut (Dhammayuttika Nik a ya) which emphasize a strict following of the Vinaya, a “Mon” pronunciation of Pali (in liturgies), and a greater emphasis on Pali texts (not necessarily only canonical texts though). King Mongkut also was active in supporting the building of new monasteries and the repair of older ones. He ordered the massive renovation of the Phra Pathom Chedi in Nakhon Pathom (the largest and oldest stupa in the kingdom), as well as the renovation of murals and monasteries at places like Wat Indrawihan and Wat Sommanat in Bangkok, and the Chantara Phaisan Royal Sala (Pavillion) in Lopburi. Craig Reynolds, Stephen Zack, B.J. Terwiel, David Wyatt, Prince Damrong, and many others have written much in this period and the Buddhist reforms of King Mongkut.
As I have described in greater detail in “Buddhism in Modern Thailand, in Buddhism in World Cultures Comparative Perspectives . Ed. by Steven Berkwitz. (New York: ABC-CLIO, 2006): 101-128, in the later nineteenth century, King Rama V (Chulalongkorn) made great efforts to formalize the Buddhist ecclesiastical system and educational practices in Siam and in their spheres of influence (or vassal states) in the North, Northeast and South. This was part of the nation-building and social control process to suppress regionalism, strengthen the country against foreign missionary influence, formalize the curriculum , and “modernize” the entire education system. Siamese ecclesiastical ranks, printed textbooks in Siamese script, monastic examinations, the Pali Buddhist canon, and approved teachers from Bangkok and Central Siam were disseminated to the rural and urban areas in Siam and its holdings. Monks from the recently pacified North, Northeast and South were brought to Bangkok to study in two new monastic universities (Mahachulalongkon and Mahamakut). Local expression, language, curricula, script were considered irrelevant to this formalization and centralization. One of the most significant features of Buddhism in modern Thailand is that it is seemingly institutionally extremely well organized and centralized. Since Siam (later Thailand) is the only country in Southeast Asia that was never colonized the nation-building project in which religious reform played a major part could be considered a success. Royal reform of Buddhism is not particularly modern. Consistently from the earliest thirteenth century records to 1902 Siamese kings and high ranking monks had seen it as their duty to collect and edit Buddhist texts, rewrite Buddhist history, purge the community of monks ( Sangha ) of corrupt persons, and reign in renegade independent minded practitioners. By 1902 these techniques had become more efficient and widespread. In 1902, King Chulalongkorn and Prince Wachirayan, who was an ordained monk and who had become the supreme patriarch of the entire Thai Buddhist Sangha, had removed the role of educator to the Thai people from the Buddhist Sangha and regulated the organization of monastic education. Those two working with another half-brother, Prince Damrong (the Minister of the Interior) released the Act on the Administration of the Sangha. Before this Sangha Act formal monastic education and administration was not formal or centralized. It depended largely on the aims of the monks of each monastery (in practice, this is often the way it still works). The Sangha Act was designed to make those residing in a monastery a “service to the nation” and to deflect criticism from European missionaries who oft-lamented on the poor and idiosyncratic state of Thai Buddhist education and organization. The details of the Sangha Act are largely administrative rules dividing the Buddhist ecclesia into formal ranks and assigning national, provincial and district heads of the Sangha. They are still in effect today. Each of the regions (North, South, Central, Northeast) has a formal hierarchy of monks and they all reported to the Mahathera Samakom (Council of Elder Teachers) headed by the supreme patriarch. Individual monasteries are still run by abbots ( cao awat ) and deputy abbots ( rong chao awat ), but after 1902 they had to report regularly to their district and regional heads. All monks had to be registered with a particular monastery and were issued identification numbers and cards ( nang seu sutthi ). Prince Wachirayan considered the canon (although it is hazy as to what he considered the canon) the most important source of Buddhist ethics, law and history. Therefore, he wanted to make their study of the canon more prominent. He also wanted to improve accessibility to the study of Pali grammar. He composed six volumes of Pali grammar (discussed in chapter five), as well as several guidebooks for students, including the still standard Navakowat outlining what he saw as basic Buddhist ethics, the Buddhasasana Subhasit , a selection of short pithy Buddhist proverbs from the canon, a Buddha biography and a guide to the Vinaya . These textbooks, all in simple and straightforward Thai, began to form, ideally, the standard curriculum for monks in Siam. This curriculum can be interpreted as the practical canon of formal Buddhist in Thailand. Monks is both monastic universities were encouraged to take examinations in Pali and Thai designed by the prince and based on these and other anthologized Buddhist texts. Interestingly enough, most of the examinations were on commentarial texts, not on canonical texts themselves. It was not until 1913 that Prince Wachirayan’s system was standard for all monks in the kingdom. Generally, after 1902, Siamese/Thai Buddhism became reified, formalized, and intertwined with nation building.
Siam changed its name to Thailand in 1939 several years after the change from an absolute monarchy to a constitutional monarchy in 1932. Since 1932 the state has sought to gain more direct control over the Sangha than even the absolute monarchy. In 1934 an independent government committee was established to examine Sangha finances and 1941 the new Sangha Act effectively gave the government control over internal Sangha organization and executive offices. The various military and elected governments over the past 60 years have generally asserted that the Sangha should play a more “practical” role in modern Thai society and become more “socially engaged.” This social engagement promoted by many Thammayut monks, the government, Christian missionaries and Western critics of the Sangha led the two major monastic universities to institute programs in which urban educated monks would provide social services for the poor, especially in the North, Northeast and South. Eventually, these “Thammadhut” monks were working side-by-side with anti-communist government policies and the U.S. military which had thousands of troops stationed in the region. Monks were also involved in helping the government pacify and incorporate hill tribes and Muslim populations in the North and South of the country. One well known monk who led he anti-red brigade, Phra Kittivuddho, resided at the famous Wat Paknam in Thonburi across the Chao Phraya River from Bangkok and later moved to teach at the Monastic University on the grounds of Wat Mahathat. He argued for the greater social engagement of monks and novices. He also called for an aggressive conversion campaign to increase the moral coffers of the country.
Probably the most politically, economically, educationally, and socially “engaged” of monks in the modern period has been Phra Dhammajayo. Dhammajayo is the head of the well known Dhammakaya movement in Thailand. Born as Chaiboon Sutipol in 1944, he was heavily influenced by the teachings of the nun, Khun Yai, who herself was the primary student of the founder of the Dhammakaya movement — Luang Po Sod (1906-1959). Luang Po Sod (or Mongkolthepamuni/Sod Mikaeonoi) was the abbot of Wat Pak Nam, a large and well stocked Bangkok monastery. He started instructing his students, both lay and ordained, in a new type of meditation which he called Dhammakaya. He believed that if meditators concentrated with the proper intention and repeated the mantra ” samma arahan ” (right attainment) they would see in their mind’s eye a luminescent Buddha figure growing in their stomach. This figure could grow up to 20 centimeters tall and could be seen by anyone in only 20-30 minutes. Although criticized by some who see this form of meditation as psychological manipulation or implantation, the movement under Luang Po Sod and Khun Yai grew quickly, especially after Dhammajayo started encouraging college students in Bangkok to attend classes with Khun Yai in 1969. Up until today these meetings, as well as weekend meditation retreats, have grown even larger despite charges that the movement oversimplifies spiritual attainment. At these retreats which are attended by up to 10,000 people a week participants are asked to meditate for two 30 minutes sessions and develop self-confidence to help them succeed in family and business matters. Dhammakaya adherents emphasize that magic, amulets, and even ordination, are arbitrary in the path to personal well being and financial and spiritual security. Thais need to return to the original body of the Buddha and cast off the accoutrements that have polluted his body and message over the centuries. The irridescent Dhammakaya body growing in a person’s belly was the true body of the Buddha. This message has attracted the growing well educated and entrepreneurial middle class who lacked the time to ordain, study large tomes of Buddhist scripture, or mediate for hours a day in the forest.
Not all Buddhist intellectuals and reformers in the modern period have supported the centralizing capitalist national power structure of the Thai government. Resistance both to consumerism and centralization came from both urban and rural monks, as well as the lay intellectual class. However, like the movements supportive of the State, they generally saw their movements as a return to an ideal time of purity and true Buddhism of the past. Like Kittivuddho, Prince Vajiranan, King Chulalongkorn, and Dhammajayo they called for a re-form and a re-turn to a more innocent and coherent Buddhism. Moreover they see the practice of protective magic and prognostication as representative of corruption in Buddhism.
The Santi Asok movement, founded by Bodhiraksa (or Mongkol Rakpong) in 1973, calls for a return to the original religion of the Buddha. Bodhiraksa holds that the two major sects of Thai Buddhism, the Thammayut and the Mahanikaya, exploit the laity by accepting lavish gifts, encouraging attachment to material goods, condoning or even encouraging the practice of astrology and magic, and ignoring the fundamental ills of society for their own profit. He refers the Sangha council as an illegal and divisive organization and calls for a return to the “fundamental teachings and practices of ancient times” which preached monastic simplicity, poverty, dedicated social engagement, and sincere meditation. For these vituperatives and for the fact that he ordained monks under his own sect before he himself had been ordained for ten years and does not shave his eyebrows (both “illegal” according to Sangha law), he was forcibly disrobed on 19 June 1989. His ordained followers who had grown to sixty monks and twenty nuns were also charged with impersonating genuine monks and nuns. Forty-six other Santi Asok monks were allowed to remain in robes since they had been ordained before joining Bodhiraksa’a group.
This “low-impact” ideology also is prevalent among so-called “development monks” in modern Thailand. A small minority of monks in recent years have asserted that Buddhism naturally supports environmental preservation and protection. James Taylor has followed the work of these monks and their resistance to forest degradation, industrial pollution, and habitat destruction. He provides a few case studies. For example, Phra Ajahn Thui Chanthakaro held a “tree-planting day” at his monastery in Northeastern Thailand (although monks are barred in the Vinaya from digging holes in the ground or planting in general) and argued against the government sponsored project of the monocultural planting of eucalyptus trees in place of natural diverse forests.
Buddhadasa (1906-1993) was one of the most prolific writers in modern Buddhist history. Many of his writings have been translated into foreign languages and his meditation center, Suan Mokh, in Southern Thailand, has attracted thousands of foreign and Thai practitioners. Buddhadasa while studying Pali and the official Buddhist university curriculum in Bangkok for a short period left the city to become a rural preacher and advocate for social justice. He believed that Buddhism could be paid simple and accessible to the masses. His concept of “Dhammic Socialism” is perhaps the most influential to activists like Sulak Sivaraksa. Buddhadasa rejected Marxian calls for the “revenge of the worker” and Leninist belief in the need for an elite ruling class that spoke for the rights of the worker, but he did believe that a society based on communal peace and prosperity over individual achievement and capitalistic competition was in line with Buddhist ethics.
One major Thai voice that has protested the industry in Chatsumarn Kabilsingh, a foreign educated associate professor of philosophy at Thailand’s elite Thammasat University. She believes that the lack of concern to the problem of human trafficking and prostitution is partly due to a generally myopic view in Thailand that prostitution is a free choice, the long history of the industry sanctioned by the royalty, as well as the lower classes, and the general lack of female voices of authority in the Thai Sangha. Her protest is part of a larger project to open up the opportunity for women in Thailand to be fully ordained nuns ( bhikkhuni ) and to bring a French/American type of women’s rights movement to her country. Kabilsingh is part scholar part activist and part serious Buddhist practitioner. She promotes the ordination of women as nuns, the training of mae chee (a special status of women who lead a religious life, take the first eight-ten precepts, shave their head, wear white robes, and live a monastic lives) at the Dhammajarinee Wittaya (the first Buddhist school specifically for women in Thailand), and the end to the prostitution industry.
The vast majority of monks and nuns ( mae chee ) who are not attending years of formal monastic schooling nor sitting for state sponsored examinations are not simply retreating to a hermetic forest practice, resisting the state/urban/elite control of Buddhism by founding alternative social protest movements, meditation retreats, nor ordaining trees. The vast majority of serious practitioners (whether laity or monastic in the city or countryside) are developing and re-imagining their place as Buddhist in Thailand through the daily practice of merit making, magical practice, and problem solving.
Not only are Thai Buddhist teachers influenced by Theravada Buddhism. Two of the most dynamic modern Thai Buddhist teachers are Maechee Sansanee Sathirasut and, the late, Luang Po Tien. They have a great interest in Japanese, Tibetan, and Chinese schools of Buddhism. Maechee Sansanee Sathirasut is a wealthy Bangkok woman who recently began her own monastery and meditation center in Northern Bangkok. This center hosts its own television program and discusses ways in which meditation, physical exercise, a healthy cuisine, and active study of Buddhist texts can help reduce stress and lead to a productive and altruistic life. She does not claim that this is the way ancient Buddhists lived, that she is the practitioner of the true Thai Buddhism, or that she feels victimized by the male Thai Sangha. She promotes the reading of Buddhist teachers throughout Asia. Women and men practice together at the center, and she maintains the medium between social activist and ascetic/scholarly recluse as most monks and nuns in Thailand do. Luang Po Tien, who passed away in 1988 developed a new meditation practice, called “sati” meditation, which neither claimed to be the original or purest from of concentration development nor truly Thai. Instead, Luang Po Tien developed this meditation under the tutorlidge of Luang Po Pan, a Lao monk in Vientiane, a Zen Roshi named Yamada in Singapore and by reading the teachings of Hui Neng, a seventh century Ch’an Chinese monk. One of his first students and later popularizer of the practice was lay woman named Anchalee Thaiyanond.. He also saw it as a way to incorporate aspects of Mahayana and Theravada Buddhist meditation. The popular worship of the Bodhisattva, Kwan Yin (Avalokitesvara in India and Tibet), especially among the Sino-Thai communities of Thailand For visitors to Thailand, three most visible features of modern Thai Buddhism reveals that the appeal of East Asian Buddhism is not a new phenomena in Thailand.
It is no surprise that Brahmanic influence has been significant in Thai Buddhism. Different forms of Brahmanism was the first non-native religious influence in the region (especially in Java, Angkor, lower Burma, the Malay Peninsula, Sumantra, and Southern Thailand). Art, architecture, script, urban planning, poetics, magic, ritual, and language have been significantly influenced by Sanskrit literary culture and Hindu ritual. Today this influence is ubiquitous and seen in things as basic as street names, ritual implements, and royal titles and deep as literary plot structure, heroic values, and symbolic archetypes. Today, Thai shrines often have both Hindu and Buddhist images sitting side by side. Thai “Buddhists” often visit and give offerings to “Brahmanic” shrines that have images of the gods Ganesha, Brahma, Shiva, or Uma as the main image. Royal rituals involve Brahmins and occasionally Sanskrit chanting. There is a Brahmanic training center in Bangkok and Hindu temples throughout the country. The Sri Mariamman (i.e. Wat Khaek) on Silom Street, the Sri Vishnu Temple in the Yannawa district, and the Vishnu shrine and Brahmanic training center adjacent to Wat Suthat are well-known ritual centers for both Hindus and Buddhists (although this division is often unclear). Nathan McGovern has recently researched this subject.
It has been argued by a number of scholars that the actual religion of most Thai people is not Theravada Buddhism, but “ghost” (phi) worship. Phi come in various types and have been discussed extensively by Pattana Kitiarsa, Charles Keyes, Stanley Tambiah, Rosiland Morris, Andrew Turton, Michael Rhum, B.J. Terwiel, among others. Phi can be connected to deceased people including royal family members and monks. They can be the spirits of people who died violent or unnatural deaths. There are many types of ghosts, some only are popular in certain regions, but some that seems to be part of the narrative and ritual life of most Thai communities include: 1) Phi Am which causes pain to internal organs; 2) Phi Krasi which likes to eat entrails and is associated with dirty floors and the night; 3) Phi Ka which possess women and can be warded off with the gifts of eggs; 4) Phi Phrai who are the spirits of women who have died in childbirth and who enchant men; 5) Phi Pop which are extremely violent female ghosts which devour men and haunt whole villages; 6) Phi Tai Ha which spreads malaria (from the spirit of person who died of malaria); and 7) Phi Nangtani which is benevolent and feeds monks. There are many other types, many associated with the forest. They can even be linked to legendary characters from epic poems or historical events. Propitiating these phi is usually done at small “spirit houses” (san phra phum) located outside homes and businesses. They can be contacted through specially trained “mediums” or propitiated by “wizards” ( mo phi or mo wiset ). They are also represented by amulets (amulets also represent famous monks, kings, queens, and Brahmanic deities). There are also phi that guard whole villages and cities, called chao pho and chao muang. These phi are also connected to the spirits of trees, rivers, ponds. It is sometimes difficult to determine (even by dedicated devotees of these phi) if the phi is a deceased human being or a deity connected to a local myth or a Hindu god or goddess. Sometimes the identity of a phi can change overtime and have multiple identities. Gods that represent planets and astrological signs are also treated as phi. Phi can torment a family or a village, but if given gifts (candles, rice, fruit, incense, chanting, flowers, and occasionally liquor, cigarettes, and betal nut). Pali liturgical texts are often chanted to appease phi or request their protection. The worship of phi is part of Buddhist monastic life in big cities as well as small villages. The educated elite in Bangkok wear protective amulets as do farmers. In fact, the most popular amulets in the country are often sponsored by the royal family and distributed at major urban monasteries. It is not restricted to rural “folk” practices as has often been suggested. One fact that is just beginning to be studied is that most Thai ghosts are gendered female. Pattana Kitiarsa, Alan Klima, Arnika Fuhrman, Rosiland Morris, and others have worked on the gender politics of ghost stories and films in Thailand. Another problematic aspect about the study of Thai ghosts is that there is often confusion among Thai ritualists and believers of what separates a phi (ghost) from a thewada (deity) from a khwan (inner spirit of a living being), and other denizens of the supernatural realms. Thewada (from Sanskrit Devata) are usually seen as not connected simply to one place like a ghost, but there are local thewada. Moreover, some thewada are clearly connected to Brahmanic and Chinese gods and goddesses like Indra, Tu Di, Shiva, Yen-Lo Wang, Uma, and Ganesha, but others have no translocal association. Phi sometimes are connected to local land guardians, as are thewada. In this way, it is difficult to make a general theory for the beliefs about the supernatural in Thailand. Each ghost, each thewada have to be studied in their local context. There have been numerous attempts to form a general theory about Thai “animism” by Paul Mus, Kenneth Wells, William Irving, among others, and while there are certainly similarities in the way phi and thewada are described, like Thai Religion in general, there are always exceptions.
See the primary and secondary reference source section of this website for further reading lists, as well as the Internet Reference Resources section for further reading.
This short essay is simply meant to be an introduction and a work-in-progress. Please send additions and corrections, and suggestions. I will incorporate them into the essay. Please send them to [email protected]
Resources for further reading:
Chatsumarn Kabilsingh. Thai Women in Buddhism . Berkeley: Parallax Press, 1991.
Darlington, Susan. “The Ordination of A Tree: the Buddhist Ecology Movement in Thailand” Ethnology, Vol. 37, No. (Winter, 1998): 1-15.
Essen, Juliana. “Santi Asoke Buddhist Reform Movement: Building Individuals, Community, and (Thai) Society.” Journal of Buddhist Ethics , Vol. 11 (2004).
Hanks, L.M. “Merit and Power in the Thai Social Order.” American Anthropologist , Vol. 64 No. 6 (Dec., 1962): 1247-1261.
Hayashi Yukio. Practical Buddhism among the Thai-Lao. Kyoto: Kyoto University Press, 2003.
Jackson, Peter. “Thai Buddhist Identity: Debates on the Traiphum.” Craig Reynolds ed. Chiang Mai: Silkworm Books, 2002.
Peter Jackson: Buddhism, Legitimation, and Conflict: The Political Functions of Urban Thai Buddhism . Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 1989.
Jit Phoumisak. “The Spirit of the Yellow Leaves: City Slave.” C. J. Reynolds (trans.). Sydney: University of Sydney Press, 1993.
Kamala Tiyavanich. Forest Recollections: Wandering Monks in Twentieth-Century Thailand . Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1997.
Keyes, Charles. “Buddhism and National Integration in Thailand.” Journal of Asian Studies , Vol. 30 No. 3 (May, 1971): 551-567.
Keyes, Charles. Thailand: Buddhist Kingdom as Modern Nation-State . Boulder and London: Westview Press, 1987.
Kirsch, Thomas. “Complexity in the Thai Religious System: An Interpretation.” Journal of Asian Studies , vol. 36 No. 2 (Feb., 1977): 241-266.
Kirsch, Thomas. “Text and Context: Buddhist Sex Roles/Culture of Gender Revisited.” American Ethnologist , Vol. 12, No. 2 (May, 1985): 302-320.
Maha Boowa Nanasampanno. Patipada or the Mode of Practice of Venerable Acharn Mun . Pannavaddho Bhikkhu (tran.) Udorn Thani: Ruen Kaew Press, 1997.
Nithi Ieosiwong. Kanmuang Thai samai Phra Narai. Krungthp: Matichon, 2537 (1994).
Reynolds, Frank and Mani B. Reynolds. Three Worlds According to King Ruang: A Thai Buddhist Cosmology . Berkeley Buddhist studies series, 1982.
Reynolds, Craig. “Buddhist Cosmography in Thai History, with Special Reference to Nineteenth-Century Culture Change.” The Journal of Asian Studies , Vol. 35, No. 2 (Feb., 1976): 203-220.
Reynolds, Frank. “Civic Religion and National Community in Thailand.” Journal of Asian Studies , Vol. 26, No 2 (Feb.,1977): 267-282.
Smith, Bardwell L. (ed.). Religion and Legitimation of Power in Thailand, Laos, and Burma . Chambersburg: ANIMA Books, 1978.
Somboon Suksamran. Political Buddhism in Southeast Asia: The Role of the Sangha in the Modernization of Thailand . London: C. Hurst & Co., 1977.
Somboon Suksamran. Buddhism and Politics in Thailand . Singapore: Institute for Southeast Asian Studies, 1982.
Sunait Chutintaranond: “Mandala, Segmentary and the politics of centralization in medieval Ayudhya.” Journal of the Siam Society , Vol. 78 (1990): 89-100.
Suwanna Satha-Anand. “Religious Movements in Contemporary Thailand: Buddhist Struggles for Modern Relevance,” Asian Survey , Vol. 3 No. 4 (Apr.,1990): 395-408.
Swearer, Donald. Becoming the Buddha: The Ritual of Image Consecration in Thailand . Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004.
Swearer, Donald. Buddhist World of Southeast Asia . Albany: SUNY Press, 1995.
Tambiah, Stanley Jeyaraja. The Buddhist Saints of the Forest and the Cults of Amulets: A Study in Charisma, Hagiography, Sectarianism, and Millennial Buddhism . Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984.
Tambiah, Stanley Jeyaraja. Buddhism and the Spirit Cults in North-East Thailand . Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1970.
Taylor, J.L. Forest Monks and the Nation-State: An Anthropological and Historical Study in Northeastern Thailand . Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 1993.
Terwiel, B.J. “A Model for the Study of Thai Buddhism”. Journal of Asian Studies 35 (1976) : 391–403.
Yoneo Ishii. Sangha, State, and Society: Thai Buddhism in History . Translated by Peter Hawkes. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 1986.