permanent ‘soul’). These three concepts, when ‘discovered’ by Siddhartha Gautama in the 6th century BC, were in direct contrast to the Hindu belief in paramatman, an eternal, blissful self. Hence Buddhism was originally a ‘heresy’ against India’s Brahmanic religion. Gautama, an Indian princeturned- ascetic, subjected himself to many years of severe austerity before he realised that this was not the way to reach the end of suffering. He became known as Buddha, ‘the enlightened’ or ‘the awakened’ and as Gautama Buddha he spoke of four noble truths that had the power to liberate any human being who could realise them. The ultimate end of Theravada Buddhism is nibbana (‘nirvana’ in Sanskrit), which literally means the ‘blowing out’ or extinction of all grasping and thus of all suffering (dukkha). Effectively, nibbana is also an end to the cycle of rebirths (both moment-to-moment and life-to-life) that is existence. In reality, most Thai Buddhists aim for rebirth in a ‘better’ existence rather than the supramundane goal of nibbana. By feeding monks, giving donations to temples and performing regular worship at the local wat they hope to improve their lot, acquiring enough merit (puñña in Pali; bun in
Thai) to prevent or at least reduce their number of rebirths. The concept of rebirth is almost universally accepted in Thailand, even by non-Buddhists, and the Buddhist theory of karma is well expressed in the Thai proverb tham dii, dâi dii; tham chûa, dâi chûa (good actions bring good results; bad actions bring bad results).
All the Tiratana (Triple Gems) revered by Thai Buddhists – the Buddha, the dhamma (the teachings) and the sangha (the Buddhist community) – are quite visible in Thailand. The Buddha, in his myriad sculptural forms, is found on a high shelf in the lowliest roadside restaurants as well as in the lounges of expensive Bangkok hotels. The dhamma is chanted morning and evening in every wat and taught to every Thai citizen in primary school. The sangha is seen everywhere in the presence of orange-robed monks, especially in the early morning hours when they perform their alms rounds. Thai Buddhism has no particular ‘Sabbath’ or day of the week when Thais are supposed to make temple visits. Instead, Thai Buddhists visit the wat whenever they feel like it, most often on wan phrá (excellent days), which occur every 7th or 8th day depending on phases of the moon. On such visits typical activities include: the traditional offering of lotus buds, incense and candles at various altars, and bone reliquaries around the wat compound; the offering of food to the temple sangha (monks always eat first); meditating (individually or in groups); listening to monks chanting suttas or Buddhist discourse; and attending a thêt or dhamma talk by the abbot or some other respected teacher.
MONKS & NUNS
Socially, every Thai male is expected to become a monk (bhikkhu in Pali; phrá or phrá phíksù in Thai) for a short period in his life,optimally between the time he finishes school and the time he starts a career or marries. Men or boys under 20 years of age may enter the sangha as novices (samanera in Pali; naen in Thai) – this is not unusual since a family earns great merit when one of its sons ‘takes robe and bowl’. Traditionally, the length of time spent in the wat is three months, during the phansăa (Buddhist lent), which begins in July and coincides with the rainy season. However, nowadays men may spend as little as a week to accrue merit as monks. There are about 32,000 monasteries in Thailand and 460,000 monks; many of these monks are ordained for a lifetime. Monks who live in the city usually emphasise study of the Buddhist scriptures, while those living in the forest tend to emphasise meditation. At one time India had a separate Buddhist monastic lineage for females. The fully ordained nuns were called bhikkhuni and observed more vows than monks did – 311 precepts as opposed to the 227 followed by monks. The bhikkhuni sangha travelled from its birthplace in India to Sri Lanka around two centuries after the Buddha’s lifetime, taken there by the daughter of King Ashoka, Sanghamitta Theri. However, the tradition died out there following the Hindu Chola invasion in the 13th century. Monks from Siam later travelled to Sri Lanka to restore the male sangha, but because there were no ordained bhikkhuni in Thailand at the time, Sri Lanka’s bhikkhuni sangha wasn’t restored until recent years.
In Thailand, the modern equivalent is the mâe chii (mother priest) – women who live the monastic life as atthasila (eight-precept) nuns.
They are largely outnumbered by male monastics (by 46 to one). Thai nuns shave their heads, wear white robes and take vows in an ordination procedure similar to that of the monks. Generally speaking, mâe chii nunhood in Thailand isn’t considered as ‘prestigious’ as monkhood. The average Thai Buddhist makes a great show of offering new robes and household items to the monks at the local wat but pays much less attention to the nuns. This is mainly due to the fact that nuns generally don’t perform ceremonies on behalf of lay people, so there is often less incentive for people to make offerings to them. Furthermore, many Thais equate the number of precepts observed with the total merit achieved; hence nunhood is seen as less ‘meritorious’ than monkhood because mâe chii keep only eight precepts.
A movement to ordain bhikkhuni in Sri Lanka, however, has provided new opportunities, and in 2002 a Thai woman was fully ordained in Thailand for the first time.