A central part of the Thai culture and identity is Buddhism. How the religion crossed land and sea to spread like wildfire in Thailand is a story that has been etched in the annals of history.
Historians believe that between the 5th and 13th century, the Southeast Asian empires were influenced directly from India. As a result, these empires followed traditions of Mahayana Buddhism. Hundreds of temples were built in Cambodia and neighbouring Thailand. Following the decline of Buddhism in India, missions of Sri Lankan monks gradually converted Burmese Buddhism into Theravada, and in the next two centuries, brought Buddhism to Thailand.
With the establishment of the Thai Kingdom in the 13th century, Therevada Buddhism became the official state religion. Various archaeological remains unearthed in Nakon Pathom, such as the Dharma Chakra or “Wheel of Law”, the Buddha footprints, and the inscriptions in the Pali language, all of which are in rocks, are also indicative of the fact that Buddhism was introduced to Thailand in the Theravada form. This form of Buddhism is the oldest surviving branch of the religion, relatively conservative, and closer to early Buddhism than any other form.
However, for a religion to survive without faltering through the ages is a testimony to its influences, which in Thai Buddhism’s case, is three-fold. First, the Theravada school of thought which encompasses vast texts and teachings was long studied by Thai monks and passed on from generation to generation. Second, Hindu beliefs permeating from Cambodia exerted a certain influence on the creation of Thai laws, which are followed today. The third great influence is that of folk religion, which attracts the favour of local spirits. In rural areas of Thailand, spiritual powers derived from observing Buddhist doctrines are used to attempt to appease nature spirits.
Today, nearly 95% of Thailand’s population is Buddhist. Buddhism in Thailand receives plenty of support from the country’s constitutional monarchy. The government grants Buddhist institutions and clergy are granted special benefits, while a secular government ministry is in charge of supervising Buddhist monks and temples. Thai Buddhism is very much ingrained into the lives of the Thai people and their daily lives.
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