Buddhism gained wide acceptance because its emphasis on tolerance and individual initiative complemented the Thais’ cherished inner freedom. Fundamentally, Buddhism is an empirical way of life. Free of dogma, it is a flexible moral, ethical and philosophical framework within which people find room to fashion their own salvations.
Sukhothai’s King Ramkamhaeng (1275-1317) established Theravada Buddhism as Thailand’s dominant religion. The elder of two major Buddhist schools and closest to the Buddha’s original teachings, it was practised then much as it is today. Ramkamhaeng’s grandson, King Lu Thai (1347-1368) wrote the Tribhumikotha, a treatise on Buddhist cosmology, a spectacular eschatology of heavens, hells and hungry ghosts. Not only was it the first Thai-authored Buddhist treatise, it was also the first known Thai literary work.
Through the centuries Buddhism has been the main driving force in Thai cultural development. Much of classical Thai art, particularly architecture, sculpture, painting and early literature, is really Buddhist art.
Then as now, Buddhism coloured everyday Thai life.
As Buddhism’s benign influence spread countrywide, Thais of all classes submitted to its moral authority. Thai monarchs subscribed to the Buddhist ideals of kingship found in the original Theravada scriptures, while farmers serenely accepted their station and fortune, or misfortune, as logical karmic consequences of previous lives.
With its emphasis on accepting human foibles and shortcomings as inevitable, Buddhism helped forge and crystalize the Thais’ remarkable tolerance and lack of prejudice, a major factor which was to allow smooth, peaceful assimilation of captives during medieval Thailand’s almost perpetual conflicts with neighbouring countries. It also allowed the Thais to embrace diverse cultural influences regardless of origin.
Responding to this openness to new ideas, European missionaries could propagate their faiths in Thailand. Because Buddhism answered so many of the people’s needs, they found few converts.
Although Buddhism became the primary religion, Thais have always subscribed to the ideal of religious freedom. While Thai constitutions have stipulated that Thai kings must be Buddhist, monarchs are invariably titled ‘Protectors of All Religions’. Consequently, the government, through the Religious Affairs Department, annually allocates funds to finance religious education and construct, maintain and restore temples, mosques and churches.
The temple and the village
The majority of Thailand’s 27,000 Buddhist temples are in the countryside.
Usually located on the village outskirts, a temple is comprised of a tree-shaded, walled compound enclosing a cluster of simple, steeply sloping, multi-roofed buildings. Although the temple’s prime function
is to aid aspirants in their search for Nirvana, it has traditionally served as the village hotel, a village news, employment and information agency, a school, hospital, dispensary or community centre, and a recreation centre, place of safe deposit and refuge for the mentally disturbed and the aged.
In large towns, the temple offers hostel accommodation for students from the out-lying villages. In others, orphans and children from poor families are admitted for free board, lodging and basic education and,
occasionally, juvenile delinquents are sent to live in monasteries to be reformed under the benevolent influence of elderly monks.
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