The vast majority of the Thai population, 93.6%, identify as Buddhist (2010 est.). Public signs of reverence for the religion are evident throughout the culture. However, Buddhism is commonly thought of as ‘a way of life’ rather than a religion by many Thai. Although it is the dominant religion in Thailand, freedom of religious choice and expression is protected by law. Of the remaining population, 4.9% identify as Muslim, 1.2% identify with Christianity, and 0.3% either associate with some other or no religion. Amongst the Thai-born Australian population, 73.6% identified as Buddhist, 8.9% identified as either Baptist or Catholic, 10.6% chose ‘Other’ and 6.9% selected ‘no religion’ (2011 est.).
The prominent form of Buddhism practised in Thailand is Theravāda Buddhism. Followers of Theravāda Buddhism take refuge in the ‘Triple Gem’: the teacher (Buddha), the teaching (dharma) and the monastic community (the Sangha).
In Theravāda Buddhism, the Buddha is not considered a ‘God’ as understood in the Judeo-Christian sense of the term. Devotion towards the Buddha is more akin to the respect a student has for a teacher. Veneration towards the Buddha is an important principle for followers of Buddhism in Thailand and is institutionalised through law, whereby insulting or defacing the Buddha is prohibited.
The core teaching (dharma) of Buddhism is the ‘Four Noble Truths’, which dictates that underpinning all existence is suffering, which one can be liberated from through practising the ‘Eightfold Path’. For many Thai people, Buddhism is considered a philosophy for how to live one’s life and numerous Buddhist principles – such as tolerance, calmness and merit – are values found throughout Thai culture.
The Sangha (the Buddhist monastic order that includes ordained monks, nuns and/or novices) is an important institution in Thailand. Traditionally, it was the Sangha that offered education for the population. While Buddhist educational bodies exist in contemporary society, they are usually designed for people seeking to be a part of the monastic community.
The Sangha also provides a way for laypeople to accrue good karma, also thought of as ‘merit’. For example, a common daily routine for Thai people is almsgiving to monks, which in turn reflects a reciprocity between the alms giver (who receives merit) and the monk (who receives food and is thus able to continue their ascetic practices). Moreover, it is common to find families with a son, typically the youngest, studying to become an ordained monk due to the belief that it will bring merit to the family. Most Thais visit their local temple during special holidays and ask for blessings from monks in the event of a wedding, birth or funeral.
However, Buddhism in Thailand also serves to strengthen the national ‘Thai identity’. As described above, Buddhist practices are embedded in the everyday routines of Thai people. Just as the king’s image pervades Thailand (see The King in ‘Core Concepts’), Buddhist iconography is also ubiquitous. Besides Buddhist temples and spirit homes, government buildings showcase images of the Buddha, and many homes display an image or statue of the Buddha. For the younger generation, social media has become an outlet to express their devotion towards Buddhism. Ultimately, Buddhism in Thailand has long been intertwined with various institutions, and provides a sense of stability by offering a structure for people to base their everyday routines around.
An important feature of Buddhism in Thailand is its fusion with other faiths. Buddhism, as practiced in Thailand, borrows elements from Animism (or ‘Spirit Worship’) and Hinduism. Noticeable manifestations of Animism in Thai Buddhism are the spirit houses throughout Thailand. Often resembling Buddhist temples, spirit houses are small model houses and serve as homes for the spirits associated with the site. It is common for Thais to offer considerations for spirits and ghosts they believe to be present. For example, Thai homes will often have spirit houses to appease the spirits that were disturbed in the building of the house, and daily offerings of food and flowers will be made to these spirits.