Introduction... Customs and Behavior

by Terri Cotta

Most Thais are devout Buddhists, and it is important not to do or say anything that might be interpreted as disrespectful of their religion. It is specially important to dress modestly in the precincts of a Buddhist monastery and to remove your shoes as you enter. For this reason, it is advisable to wear sandals or shoes without laces that can easily be slipped on and off when you are visiting monasteries or other Buddhist monuments. You should also remove your shoes if you are invited into a Thai home and as a general rule avoid displays of nudity in all public places.  Monks are treated with great respect. Women should take care never to

touch a monk or even to stand near him, and never to hand anything to him directly Monks are always given seats on buses, usually at the back. Many people also give up their seats on buses to children. Images of the Buddha, whatever their condition, are sacred objects and you should not pose for a photograph in front of one, place it in an inferior position, treat it purely as an ornament, or show it any lack of respect. The export of Buddha images from the kingdom is prohibited without a special permit.  The Thai monarchy is held in great reverence, and any criticism of any member of the royal family should be avoided. Always stand up and remain silent whenever you hear the national anthem played (e.g. in cinemas or over a public address system). Take care never to step on a coin or banknote or a postage stamp with the king's head on it, always hand over banknotes with the king's head uppermost and place postage stamps on envelopes the right way up.

Thais believe that the feet are spiritually as well as physically the lowest part of the body and consider it extremely rude to point at anyone or anything with the foot, or even to sit with legs crossed and foot pointed. When sitting on the floor in a temple facing a Buddha image, you should always keep your feet to one side or beneath you.  The left hand is considered unclean and you should therefore try to avoid using it in such a manner as shaking hands, and should refrain from touching a person on the top of the head with the left hand, as the head is considered the highest point to god.

Various ways of draping the monistic robes (tricivara): {1, 2 } Antaravasaka  {3, 4 } Uttarasanga  {6, 7 } Sanghati.

About 566 BC a prince named Siddhartha or Sarvarthasidda ('He whose Purpose is Accomplished'), later to be known as Gautama and the Buddha ('Enlightened One') was born, a prince of the Shakya clan of Kapilavastu, who ruled a small state in the foothills of the Himalayas near the borders of modern Nepal, The name Shakya accounts for his also being known as Shakyamuni ('Sage of the Shakya's'). His conception took place miraculously when his mother, Queen Mahamaya (whose name is also an epithet of Devi) saw in a dream a white elephant holding a white lotus in its trunk enter her right side.
After a ten months' pregnancy, she went into the Lumpinni Garden, where she grasped a Sal tree, which bent down and caused her child to emerge painlessly. She died seven days later. The miracles and prophecies surrounding the birth convinced Siddhartha's father that his son was destined to be a great leader. He therefore kept him in the palace and carefully shielded him from all unpleasant influences and experiences. One day, however, the prince escaped and had four symbolic encounters, with a beggar (personifying poverty), an old man (old age), a sick man (illness) and a corpse (death).

He was so disillusioned by this experience that, then aged 30, he abandoned the court, left his wife and child and went into the rest to lead the life of a mendicant. He exchanged his clothes with a huntsman, his horse died of grief. He became a wandering ascetic and subjected himself to many fasts and privations in order to exterminate all desire and so achieve complete liberation from suffering. In the course of his wanderings he attracted to himself five disciples, who practiced the same austerities as he.

After five years he realized that such extremes of asceticism could not provide him with the solution he sought and that he was about to die, so he ate a meal. This so horrified his five disciples that they abandoned him. Now entirely alone, Gautama went to Bodh Gaya and there on the night of the May full moon, seated beneath a peepul tree, henceforth to be known as bodli ('enlightenment tree'), he finally understood that his true self was not bound to the endless cycle of suffering and rebirth, but existed outside it, beyond pain and pleasure, space and time, life and death, and so attained Enlightenment. He was then aged 35. Shorty after this, he went to the Deer Park at Sarnath near Benares, where he found the five disciples who had previously deserted him, and preached his First Sermon to them. These five became the first members of the Samgha, Sangha or Buddhist monkhood. The Buddha himself laid down a set of rules for a monk's daily life, his spiritual exercises and other duties.

There followed a ministry of 45 years, during which the Buddha wandered throughout the kingdoms of Magadha and Kosala preaching and performing  many miracles, some of which are favourite subjects in Thai art. About 486 BC at Kushinagara in Bihar he died aged eighty of food poisoning. Having already at his Enlightenment eliminated all the causes of rebirth, he had become an arahat ('worthy one') and so passed into iirvaiia (Mahaparinirvana), a blissful state of non-existence or re-absorption into the Absolute, similar to the Hindu moksa. The Thais, among others, date this event and consequently the beginning of the Buddhist era to the year 5 4 3 BC.

After achieving Enlightenment, the Buddha had ceased to exist in the strict sense of that word, and had become omniscient and transcendental, and in this respect there is clearly a similarity between the Buddhist concept of nirvana and the Hindu concept of brahman. However, whereas Hinduism teaches that humans have a permanent essence (atman), which will ultimately be reunited with the Absolute, Buddhism denies this permanent reality and teaches that nirvana means literally what it says, a blowing out or extinction, like the snuffing out of a candle flame and that, before the attainment of this state, there are six states that may  follow samsara-god, demi-god or titan, human, wandering ghost, animal or dweller in hell. Buddhism also rejects the Hindu idea of caste, and, like Jainism, may be seen as essentially a reformist movement within Hinduism, in which all human beings are enjoined to show compassion to one another and to help each other obtain merit.

Below: (1) Padmasana, vajrasana (2) Tribhanga, (3) Paryankasana, virasana, (4) Pralambapadasana, bhadrasana
A corollary of the belief in the Mahaparinrvana of the historical Buddha was the belief that he was one of an infinite number of previous and future Buddha's, omniscient and transcendent, who had appeared on earth to preach the true doctrine, and that he had either never been born or had always existed.

In other words, he was transformed from being simply a great spiritual teacher into a god. Although images of the Buddha theoretically do not represent a god or a transcendental being, but a human being who embodies Buddhist doctrine, with time the honoring, the commissioning and the making of Buddha images have all come to be seen as important ways of making merit (Thai, than bun), only exceeded by building and endowing an entire monastery.

Even today the casting of bronze images of the Buddha is generally only carried out in monasteries and is accompanied by elaborate rituals, spiritual exercises and meditations carried out by the monks, while the bronze smith pays homage to the spirit of his teachers, makes offerings to the guardian deities of the place, and exorcises evil influences from his tools, the moulds and the metal by sprinkling them with holy water.


.Above: (1) Vitarka mudra (2) Abhaya mudra (3) Dharmacakra mudra (4) Bhumisparsa (maravijaya) (5) Dhyana mudra (6) Vara mudra
Theravada, Mahayaiia and Vajrayana: After the death of the Buddha, his teachings were spread by the Sangha, committed to memory and gradually systematized in a series of four great councils. At length there emerged a definitive body of doctrine, and this was written down in the first century AD in Pali, one of the Prakritic or popular languages derived from Sanskrit, in Sri Lanka, which had been in the 3rd century BC the first country outside India to adopt Buddhism.
This Pali canon forms the basis of the Theravada ('Doctrine of the Elders'), the form of Buddhism practiced today in Sri Lanka and in Burma, Thailand, Laos and Cambodia. It is called the Three Baskets (Sanskrit, Tripitaka; Pali, Tipitaka) because it is divided into three sections, dealing respectively with discipline and the monastic code of rules, the discourses of the Buddha, and the ideas and concepts implicit in his teachings. The fundamentals of Buddhist teaching are embodied in the Four Noble Truths: that all human life is suffering, that this suffering is caused by desire for unreal, transitory things, that the suppression of desire brings an end of suffering and the attainment of nirvana; and that this suppression can be achieved by following the Noble Eightfold Path or Middle Way-right speech, right livelihood, right action, right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration, right opinion and right intention through various spiritual exercises designed to bring about control over the mind and a capacity for deep meditation. The Noble Eightfold Path can best be followed within the discipline of the monastic life.

Probably as early as the IC AD, a form of Buddhism known as the Mahayana or Greater Vehicle developed in southern India. The Mahayana Buddhists rejected the Theravada ideal of withdrawing from the world and living as a monk in order to attain nirvana in as short a time as possible and they used the pejorative term Hinayana ('Lesser Vehicle') to describe the Theravada doctrine and the teachings of other sects that continued to follow earlier Buddhist traditions.

Instead, they postulated the existence of bodhisattvas, beings 'whose essence is enlightenment' or 'intended for enlightenment', in other words who have achieved enlightenment, but have foregone the bliss of nirvana and stayed behind in order to help others to achieve it. The mediation of the bodhisattvas, not unlike that of the Christian saints, is believed to help the individual to circumvent the inexorable law of cause and effect and thereby to achieve nirvana. which thus ceases to be thought of simply as extinction and is transformed into a kind of paradise.

Among the most popular bodhisattvas in Southeast Asian Buddhism are Avalokiteshvara ('the Lord who looks down with Compassion'), also known as Lokeshvara ('Lord of the World'), who carries an image of Amitabha, the transcendental Buddha of the northern region of the universe, in his headdress:

Sukhothai seated Buddha, 14th century

Prajnaparamita ('Perfection of Wisdom'), a feminine bodhisattva who is sometimes thought of as the spiritual mother of all Buddhas and is the philosophical aspect of Avalokiteshvara's assistant, Tara, the Saviour; and Maitreya ('the Benevolent One'), who dwells in the Tushita Heaven and is the Buddha of the future.  The historical Buddha himself was believed to have been a bodhisattva in his 550 previous existences, and it is these that provide the subject matter for the jatakas or birth tales, which are frequently illustrated in the wall paintings in Thai temples.
The last ten lives, known in Thai as Thotsachat or Sip chat, are the most often illustrated, and of these the last of all, the Vessantara jataka (Thai, Mahachat, 'Great Life'), the life of the supremely charitable Prince Vessantara is the most popular. Contemporaneously with the Mahayana doctrine, a form of Buddhist practice developed that took its ideas from a group of texts known as tantras, which explain various esoteric religious rites, and meditational and yogic techniques, some of them of an erotic nature, and describe the incantations (dharanis or mantras), ritual gestures (mudras) and magical diagrams used to assist visualization (mandalas) with which they were linked.

These practices, like the disciplines of the monastic life on which the Theravada places such emphasis, are thought by their adepts to be a means of attaining nirvana more rapidly. Tantrism had long been a feature of early Indic religious beliefs and practices; in its Buddhist manifestation it is known as Vajrayana, because its practitioners have adopted as their symbol the vajra, the thunderbolt of Indra, a source of elemental energy that destroys all delusions and opens the way to enlightenment.

In Tantric Buddhism the Supreme or Adi Buddha, who, as a result of religious practices has attained complete emptiness (sunyata), is known as Vajrasattva ('Being of the Thunderbolt'). From his meditations sprang the five jinas or Conqueror Buddha's, each of whom represents a direction: Akshobya (east), Ratnasambhava (south), Amitabha (west), Amoghasiddhi (north) and Vairocana (centre or zenith). From the rive jinas in turn emanated other deities, who personify certain aspects, some of them terrifying, of the Buddha and his Dharma. That there were Tantric elements in early Khmer Mahayana Buddhism is shown by the presence of relief carvings of the Buddha Vajrasattva and of the jina Buddha's in some Khmer temples in Cambodia and Thailand, notably at Phimai.

The first Buddhist missionaries in Southeast Asia are traditionally believed to have been sent by the Emperor Ashoka. who ruled over the powerful Maurya empire in northern and central India from  273 to   232 BC, but the first reliable evidence for the presence of either Buddhism or Hinduism anywhere in Southeast Asia is no earlier than the 2nd century AD. It was during this period that Indian religions, Indian moral concepts, Indian ideas of government and statecraft and  Indian art forms spread into Southeast Asia. The Khmers of Angkor adopted Hinduism and to a lesser extent Mahayana Buddhism, which in the reign of the fervently Buddhist Jayavarman VII (1181 - 1220) was the state religion.

  By this time Buddhism was virtually extinct in the land of its origin, and the Buddha had become identified as the ninth avatara of Vishnu. By the time of the Thai conquest of Angkor in 1431/ 32 they seem to have become chiefly Theravada. Mahayana Buddhism was the predominant religion practiced in Sri X'ijaya, while the Mons in the Chao Phraya basin and Lower Burma and the Burmese of Pagan for the most part adopted the Theravada doctrine.

Lan Na seated Buddha, 13th century

It was chiefly from the Mons and the Burmese rather than directly from India that the Thais took their Theravada Buddhism and the other Indian elements in their culture as they moved southwards into mainland Southeast Asia. After the foundation of the Thai kingdom of Sukhothai and the establishment of Theravada Buddhism as its state religion, successive Thai rulers in Sukhothai and Ayutthaya looked to Sri Lanka as the land where Theravada Buddhism represented most nearly the teachings of the Buddha himself, although it is from the Khmers that the Thais have taken most of their concepts of kingship.

Thai influence was largely responsible for the introduction of Theravada Buddhism into Laos and Cambodia. Today over 90 per cent of the people of Thailand consider themselves to be Theravada Buddhists, and the Sangha occupies an important place in Thai society and education. There are small minorities of Christians (about 100,000), chiefly confined to Thais of Chinese or Vietnamese origin, and of Muslims (about 1 million), particularly in the southern provinces. where many of the population are Malays.

Copyright 1998 USMTA Inc.  All rights reserved. Revised: October 16, 2004.