Home CultureReligions Theravada Buddhism in Thailand, the country's main religion

Theravada Buddhism in Thailand, the country's main religion

by Pierre To
13 minutes to read
Theravada Buddhism in Thailand, the country's main religion

Theravada Buddhism is the dominant form of Buddhism in Thailand and is the heir to the original doctrine of Bouddha Shākyamouni.

This form of Buddhism, also called the The "doctrine of the Ancients". is based on a canon written in Pāli called Triple basket or Tipitaka.

It includes many texts based on the words of the Buddha, collected by his contemporaries and transcribed some centuries later.

Controversy over the different forms of Buddhism

There are two main streams in Buddhism, one based on the original teaching of the Buddha, the Theravada, and the other which has taken a different path, the Mahāyāna.

Mahāyāna Buddhism redefined the original Buddhism, of which the present Theravāda is the heir, as hīnayāna, 'small vehicle', a somewhat patronising term intended to emphasise the practitioner's focus on self-liberation.

So Buddhism as taught by Buddha and which aims at self-liberation is called the "small vehicle" and they call their new form of Buddhism, which focuses on liberating all beings (even those who do not want it) the "great vehicle"...

I once explained to some Thai friends that I was studying Buddhism, but that I did not practise like them, that I did not know the specific customs practised in the country, and they mistakenly thought that I was following the Mahayana current and made me aware of this controversy.

History of Theravada Buddhism

Buddhist monks Thailand

Buddhist monks in Thailand. Photo: Hergeux.

The term sthaviravāda (Teaching of the Ancients) appears early in the history of Buddhism.

It refers to a group of monks opposed to the reforms proposed by another group of practitioners called mahasanghika, "great assembly", probably because of the large number of its members or perhaps to distinguish itself from the original Buddhism.

It is difficult, however, to determine the exact date on which they opposed each other, since depending on the source, it may have been the first, second or third Buddhist council, i.e. from a few months to three hundred years after the death of the Buddha.

On the other hand, the sthaviravādin mentioned in the history of Buddhist councils are not necessarily the direct ancestors of present-day Theravada Buddhism, even though they share a similar name and have in common the attachment to the original teachings.

Similarly, the dates given for the writing of the Pali canon vary according to tradition, with proposed periods ranging from the first council to the first century BC.

The latter hypothesis is generally accepted by modern historians for the early texts of the Sutta Pitaka and the Vinaya Pitaka, the Abhidhamma Pitaka probably being later.

What seems certain is that theEmperor Ashoka (273-232 BC) contributed greatly to the spread of Buddhism in general and Theravada in particular, since the history of this tradition begins with the establishment of the doctrine in Sri Lanka during and just after his reign.

See : Ashoka, the great Buddhist emperor.

The Mahayana (Great Vehicle), which appeared around the beginning of our era, also spread widely in South Asia, but gradually faded away between the 7th and 14th centuries following the expansion of Islam and the "reconquest" of the Indian world by Hinduism.

From the 11th century onwards, Sri Lanka, the land of Theravada Buddhism, became the main source of Buddhist influence in South Asia.

The Mon, who lived mainly in Burma and whose archaeology reveals their early presence in parts of Thailand and Laos, may also have played a role in its transmission, as they are known to have adopted it long before the others, although the exact date is uncertain.

Converted by the Mon monk Shin Arahan, the Burmese emperor Anawrahta (1044-1077) officially introduced the Buddhism of the ancients into his country, and many temples were built in Pagan between the 11th and 13th centuries.

Theravada Buddhism was also introduced around 1260 in the Thai kingdom of Sukhothai and saw its influence grow during theAyutthaya (14th-18th century).

The doctrine of the elders continued to spread to Laos and Cambodia in the 13th century.

More recently, there has been a resurgence of Buddhism since the mid-twentieth century, in which Theravada plays an important role, among Malays and Indonesians of Chinese origin.

Philosophy of Theravada Buddhism

The Theravada doctrine explains how to attain deliverance oneself by becoming :

  • a arahant (a person who is delivered because he or she has followed the path taught by the Buddha without the benefit of omniscience),
  • a bodhisattva (a person who seeks to become a Buddha to teach by practising the virtues known as pāramita) or
  • a sambuddha ("perfect Buddha", a person who, possessing a perfect understanding of the Buddha's teachings, attains enlightenment and can teach).

It categorically rejects the idea of an all-powerful creator god, as well as the idea of salvation obtained through devotion and the worship of relics alone.

Indeed according to the pāli canon, the Buddha is said to have said:

"One is one's own refuge, who else could be the refuge" (Dhammapada, XII, 4).

This means that one cannot expect to obtain enlightenment from anyone, one must seek the truth within oneself and to achieve this goal follow the Noble Eightfold Path.

See also : Buddhism and politics

Lives of the layman and the monk in Theravada Buddhism

Buddhist monks in a rice fieldAccording to the doctrine of the elders, the best way to salvation is to adopt the monastic way of life, but it is available to all.

It is therefore mainly aimed at men and women who renounce secular life, it does not deify the Buddha and it does not believe in intercession through bodhisattva saviours.

Nevertheless, in the popular forms of Theravada Buddhism, in Sri Lanka as in Cambodia, the Buddha is the object of a veneration close to that of a god, so there is a distinction between popular worship and monastic speculation.

The proponents of the Mahâyâna sometimes describe the practice of Theravada as egoistic.

This view is based on soteriological considerations: while the goal of the Mahâyâna practitioner, whether monk or layman, is to become a bodhisattva in order to save all beings, the Theravada practitioner concentrates on his own salvation, abandoning efforts towards universal salvation to Maitreya, the next Buddha.

However, Theravada Buddhism advocates universal love for all creatures.

Moreover, its practitioners believe that becoming a bodhisattva is only possible for a very few people, so it is more effective to aim for individual liberation in order to be able to help others to do the same.

Finally, it is absurd to call the arahant selfish, since he no longer has an ego.

Meditation in Theravada Buddhism

Buddhist monk meditation

Monk in meditation.

Theravadin meditation includes two practices: samatha bhavana and vipassana bhavana.


The development of tranquillity leads to the achievement of the jhanasThis is the first time that a person has had the opportunity to experience deep levels of concentration.

It also aims to develop benevolence, compassion and detachment.

Thus, Metta is the development of a feeling of detached love for each being.

Anapanasati is the concentration based on the breath.

Anapanasati However, it is sometimes used for the practice of vipassana.

Vipassana bhavana

The formal practice of introspection is sometimes described in terms of a set of 18 contemplations, such as the contemplation of impermanence.

It leads to the realisation of the state of arahant.

These two types of meditation are considered to be complementary: mental tranquillity gives the greatest effectiveness to contemplation, and contemplation removes obstacles to mental tranquillity.

See also : Learn to meditate: complete meditation course

Realisation in Theravada Buddhism

According to Theravada, the practitioner can attain four levels of spiritual realization:

The sotapanna

He is the first of the noble beings, will not be reborn again in the lower worlds, and will be reborn a maximum of six times in the world of men (which is therefore a maximum of seven lives).

The sakadagami

He will be reborn at most once in the world of men.

The anagami

It will only be reborn as devaand will then reach the nibbana.

The arahanta

Having achieved the goal, he definitely freed from the cycle of rebirths.

Festivals and practices in Theravada Buddhism

Songkran Buddhist monks

Buddhists show respect to monks by pouring scented water on their hands during Songkran. Photo: aleenta.com

Asahna Bucha

Commemorating the Buddha's first sermon, it takes place on the full moon of the eighth lunar month.

See : Asahna Bucha: Buddhist festival and public holiday

Vesak or Visakha Busha

Commemoration of the birth, enlightenment and death of the Buddha.

See : Visakha Bucha, Buddhist festival


Regular reaffirmation of devotion to the dharma and recitation of the monastic rules.

Vassa or Khao Phansa

Annual rainy season retreat.

See : Khao Phansa: The Buddhist Lent of Thailand


Annual offering of cloth by the laity and making of new robes by the monks.

Temporary ordination

Ordination is often practised according to a different philosophy from Western religious ordination.

It can be temporary; a man can become a monk several times in his life or receive it without counting the cost, remaining a bhikkhu for life.

It is even a socially valued practice: men fulfil their duty by becoming monks for a time, before returning to lay life, precisely to get married.

Theravalin orders

Different orders, called nikayas, are developed - they do not, however, correspond to different conceptions. The title of Supreme Patriarch of the Sangha, the highest possible, can be given to a monk from any country, and from each of the following nikayas:

Sri Lanka Siam Nikaya, Amarupa Nikaya and Ramana Nikaya;

Thailand Thammayut Nikaya and Maha Nikaya;

Burma Thudamma Nikaya and Shwekyin Nikaya;

Cambodia Dhammayutitka Nikaya


A recommended book to learn more

Today, there are many currents in Buddhism and different teachings that sometimes deviate greatly from the original teaching.

If you want to know more about the true teaching of Buddha I advise you to read this book, the essentials are there and the most courageous or the wisest can certainly reach enlightenment with :

"The Buddha's teaching from the most ancient texts" by Walpola Rahula

"The reThe Buddha's teaching according to the most ancient textsVerend Rahula received the traditional training of a Buddhist monk in Ceylon.

[...] The book he has kindly asked me to present to the Western public is a luminous and accessible exposition of the fundamental principles of Buddhist doctrine, as found in the most ancient texts, those called in Sanskrit 'the Tradition' (Agama) and in Pali 'the Canonical Corpus' (Nikdya), and to which Reverend Rahula, who possesses an incomparable knowledge of them, refers constantly and almost exclusively.

Paul Demiéville

Find it on Amazon.co.uk

Encyclopædia Universalis / Dictionary of Buddhism (collection of articles from Encyclopædia Universalis) - "Theravada by Jean Varenne. See on Amazon

Buddhism and rebirths in the Theravāda tradition - Didier Treutenaere, Asia, Librairie d'Amérique et 'ient-Adrien Maisonneuve, Paris, May 2009, (ISBN:9782953405606). Through the central question of rebirths, a reference work on Therā Buddhism: 600 pages, 1000 quotations translated from the pāli canon, a glossary and an annotated bibliography. See on Amazon

Photos: Theravāda Buddhist monks: Allie Caulfield; Buddhist Temple: Pierreto ; Source: wikipedia.org

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