Moving into a different country is an exciting experience. Moving into a country where its people profess another religion, adds to that experience an interesting, insightful side. Moving into Thailand , a Buddhist country, could be an unexpected exciting experience, but very soon you will see that there is much more than Buddhism in the Thai beliefs.
Visiting Wat Po, or Marble Temple in Bangkok, or any other temple that we can find in Pattaya, we cannot but to admire their amazing green and orange- glazed tiles sweeping roofs, their exquisitely – detailed mural paintings that convey so strong messages. But this is not all, because while walking along a street, you will find in front of every house , commercial local or government office, a small Thai house or shrine sitting on a pillar so beautifully ornate and always you will see incense sticks, flowers, food and drinks , that give you the mistaken idea that they are small Thai temples only to learn that are houses for the spirits. All this put together, increases our desire to learn more about the beliefs of the Thai people.
As we understand that, because we experienced it ourselves, we will help you giving a short summary of Thai beliefs, based on our own learning experience and research. And then, if you were interested in knowing more, we had listed some bibliography were you could get further information.
What to know about Thai Beliefs
One of the most common sights in Thailand must be the spirit house. Regardless where you go in Thailand, you will see them. Spirit houses could be found outside houses, shopping malls, apartments or pubic buildings, factories, hotels and government buildings.So, which is the role of them in Thai believes because until we arrived, we knew that was a Buddhism country…
The presence of the spirit house in Thailand, a strongly Buddhist country, may be sound strange for the newcomer, but we should remember at all times that Thai Buddhism is a practical blend of Buddhism, Hinduism, Brahmanism, which is still used for many of the royal rituals and ceremonies, and… Animism.
If Only I’d known…
As a clear example of how Brahmanism is deeply assimilated in Thai Buddhism, all kings of the Chakri Dynasty are called Rama, and can be considered to represent Vishnu, a Hindu god, of whom Rama is an earthly manifestation. The image of Vishnu’s mount, the Garuda, also, it is the national emblem of Thailand, and is present wherever His majesty goes: on the royal car, on the prow of a royal boat or the palace) ..
Animism is the belief that spirits live in all things, or wander on earth.They can be found in trees, rocks,rivers, land, and even in illness. Some of these spirits are ghost-like and could became violent if not shown the due respect to them. Clearly a superstitious practice that sounds quite contradictory with the simple message of the Buddha.
But only a scholar might see that contradiction because Thais have woven them together and the fabric of rituals and beliefs thus created, will provide endless fascination for us, ex-pats, especially when we just moved into Thailand.
Although genuine adherents to Buddhism,Thais have inherited from their ancestors these animists practices which interact with ordinary life.These include beliefs in charms, amulets, magical tattoos, fortune-telling, exorcism and other shamanistic rituals, as well as in spirits.
If only I’d known…
So, one might ask why it is that these animist beliefs are so interwoven with Thai Buddhism, in such an intricate way that, sometimes, it is difficult to know where is the line , if any, of division between them.
And the answer is simple.These animist beliefs were originated as a result of people’s attempt to cope with the uncontrollable crisis of daily life, as accidents, natural disasters, disease and other sources of fear and insecurity, because Buddhism places ultimate responsibility for salvation on each individual and doesn’t address any day-to-day fear that people could face…so, people looked for refuge in the spiritus.
So, this is why we talk about Thai Beliefs, and not only Thai Buddhism. So ,as matter of organisation, as Thailand is a majoritarian a Buddhist country, we will start this page with Buddhism, then we will talk about other religions to finalize with The Supernatural and Superstition in Thailand.
We would like to clarify that we tried to summarize in a simple way, giving the basic elements of this vast theme as a general idea, just a start. If you were interested in in going further you could always check the bibliography that we give at the end of the page, or visit any book retailer and buy another books.
Millions of people throughout the world follow the teachings of the Buddha, which are as relevant today as they were 2500 years ago. Buddhism spread gradually from its origin in India through Asia by land and sea along the trade routes and in modern times, it travel to the West where is a popular alternative to people who are searching for meaning and peace in their lives. Essentially Buddhism is a way of life, a rational philosophy based on seeing, knowing, understanding and accepting worldly reality, and It derives from the teaching of the Buddha.
But before going into the main subject, Buddhism, we will introduce you into a few topics that will help to put in context, Buddha’s life and teachings, especially for us, non Buddhist western ex-pats.
Buddhist cosmology , which is highly influenced by Hinduism, as we will see, defines the universe as a continent divided into regions with Mount Meru, ruled by the god Indra, as the centre. Spheres of heavens spiral above and layers of hells descend below. The concentric chains of alternating mountains and oceans that surround Mount Meru, are inhabited by wild animals and strange creatures, and this is a popular theme for Thai painting and decorative art.
According to Buddhist cosmology, all human being pass through various lives in a continuos cycle of birth, death and rebirth, the ultimate goal being nirvana or enlightenment. In each life time, one accumulates karma meaning ” action of conduct”, the results of which will be carried to the next life. Therefore, depending of one’s karma, this person could be reborn as another person, a god, demon, ghost or animal. Bad karma is punished and good karma is rewarded, taking on further along the path toward nirvana.
The Traiphum meaning ” Three Worlds” is a mid-14th century treatise on the universe according to Buddhist cosmology. The three worlds or realms of existence of the universe are: heaven above , mount Menu with its concentric oceans and continents in the centre, and below, hell, and their habitants.
Elements of the Traiphum are represented symbolically in sacred Thai architecture ( see in our page Thai Architecture) and mural paintings, especially in Thai temples.
Before Siddhartha Gautama attained enlightenment, he passed through many lives as a bodhisattva ( Buddha- to be). He was reborn in numerous human and animals forms and in each life he perfected a fundamental virtue and gained greater strength. Siddhartha’s moral evolution in his previous lives is recalled in the jatakas or “Birth stories”, a series of some 550 tales, each one is placed in a historical setting and illustrates a virtue.
According to the legend, the Buddha used these stories to teach people the consequences of good and evil.The mural paintings is a religious art, and so, its objective is purely didactic. As we have seen in our page Thai architecture the mural paintings were supposed to lead the laity in the temple to a better understanding of the Buddhist stories and to put them into the right mood for receiving better the Buddha’s teachings.
The last ten Jatakas
The last ten Jatakas, called the Thosachat meaning ” Ten births” in Thai, are favorite themes in Buddhist literature and art and are depicted in a lively, spirited style in mural paintings on the side temple walls and also in woodcarvings and Buddhist manuscripts. Morality is the dominant theme , which recall ten principal virtues or perfections that a bodhisattva must practice in order to attain enlightenment and become a Buddha.
The Vessantara jataka, is the longest and most important of Buddhist art, illustrating the Bodhisattva perfection in compassion. The story goes saying that the bodhisattva is born into a royal family as Prince Vessantara, marries a princess and had two children. They live in luxury an prosperity which abounds in the kingdom which is attributed to Vessantara’s royal white elephant.
The neighboring kingdom has recently suffered a devastating drought, so they ask Vessantara for the white elephant and he gave it , but when his own kingdom suffered a torrential storm followed by a severe drought, people blame they misfortune on the loss of the white elephant, so Vessantara and his family are exiled to the forest.
Showing his supreme generosity, Vessantara progressively gave away first his chariot, then allows his children became slaves of a poor family and finally gives away his wife. Eventually, Vessantara’s father reunites the family who return to the palace in a magnificent procession. Vessantara ascends the throne and is known ever after as a generous king.
The essence of Buddhism is based on the story of the Buddha’s life, from birth to enlightenment to death, and his teachings. The Buddha’s doctrine was not written down in his lifetime, but the principal events are reiterated through images, narrative, paintings, carvings and sculpture…
Therefore, we will trace his life story through artworks, and explaining which episode are related to, so , hopefully, you would be able to recognise them when visiting any Thai Buddhist temple…
Prince Siddhartha Gautama
The Buddha (the “Enlightened or Awakened One), was born as Prince Siddhartha Gautama of the Sakya people of Kapilavastu, a small Himalayan kingdom that straddled the borders of present-day Nepal and northeast India. One chronology tells that the Buddha was born in 566 BCE and died in 486 BCE, while the other places his birth in 623 BCE and his death in 543 BCE. Thailand has accepted the latter, so the Thai calendar begins at the year of the Buddha’s death. As an example, the year 2017 (CE: Common Era) is 2560 Buddhist era ( BE: Before Enlightenment).
Siddhartha grew up in his father’s palace amid easy and luxury. One day, curiosity led him outside the palace where he was shocked when facing , for first time in his life, examples of disease, old age and death. Prince Gautama’s exposure to misery made him determined to find the way to save mankind from suffering. At the age of twenty nine, he left his wife and child, renounced the riches of his birth and became an ascetic. He sought out gurus, examined their teachings, and explored any imaginable approach to remedy humanity’s ills.
So, Buddha learnt advanced meditation techniques and made them a central component of his philosophy, useful for calming the mind, gaining heightened insights into the causes of suffering. One day, after six years of these efforts, he sat down, began meditating beneath a bodhy tree (fig tree) and vowed himself not to move until he found a solution to suffering and death.
The Buddha meditating under the Boddhi Tree
If only I’d known…
How do we recognize the image of the Buddha meditating ?
You will recognize easily the image of the Buddha meditating because it has folded legs, right on the top of left and hands hold together on his laps with palms upward, again right on the top of left; sometimes in full- lotus (legs bent and crossed so that both feet rest on the opposite tight and soles upward and visible) and sometimes in half-lotus( left leg is crossed and rest on the surface, the right leg is crossed over the left).
Siddhartha Gautama sat meditating, in a classical yoga position, focussing his concentration on the roots of human suffering, until he reached a vivid understanding of samsara, the continuos and infinite cycle of birth, death and rebirth : everything that comes into existence must also decay and die. Nothing is permanent. All material possessions and physical pleasures are transient and must eventually perish or pass, so craving them is pointless.
Siddhartha sat under the boddhi tree until he achieved enlightenment , nirvana in this world, a pure and total detachment from all forms of craving. This would unquestionably be his final life, and when it came to and end he would pass to parinirvana, complete and final nirvana, from which there is no rebirth. Sometimes, his enlightenment is described as an “awakening” to the true nature of things.
The Buddha told his disciples that while meditating a revelation came to him showing him a way to eliminate suffering and attain supreme peace. He called it ” Middle Path”, a path between the extremes of material indulgence and profuse austerity.
One of Buddhism’s defining acts, the story of Siddharhta conquering all aspects of craving and attaining enlightenment has been immortalized as a legend in which he is challenged by Mara, lord of the realm of desire and, in Buddhism mythology, a personification of evil.
The Buddha Subduing Mara legend
This legend tells that Mara was determined to foil Siddhartha’s attempt to cast away human weakness as greed, anger, ignorance, which Mara uses to dominate sentient beings. So, first, Mara sent his three voluptuous daughters to tempt Siddhartha with sensual pleasures and material wealth but Siddhartha ignored them. Mara then conjured up an army of Demons, warriors and ferocious beasts to attack Siddhartha and interrupt his concentration, but they fell back, powerless against him.
When Mara’s tactics had failed, as a final resort, he proclaimed that Siddhartha’s efforts were in vain because no one has witnessed them, so no one could give testament that Siddhartha has reached the spiritual purity and supreme wisdom needed to gain enlightenment. Siddhartha, still in meditation, extended his right hand out over the top of his right leg, palms against the knee, and touched the ground with his fingers to call Thorany, the beautiful Goddess of the Earth to be his witness.
The ground shook, the Earth Goddess emerged , affirming that Siddhartha has conquered Mara and wrings the water from her long, black hair, which raises a torrential flood that drowns Mara and his army of demons. This episode is often depicted in a mural painting on the east wall ( entrance wall) of a main temple building reminding devotees that good can triumph over evil.
This event, particularly touching the ground with his fingers of his outstretched right hand to summon the Earth Goddess as his witness, symbolizes Prince Siddhartha Gautama´s achieving enlightenment and becoming The Buddha or Sakyamuni Buddha, what means: ” Sage of the Sakya Clan”
If only I’d known…
How do we recognise the scene of The Buddha Subduing Mara ?
This event is represented on a mural painting on the east wall, the entrance wall, of Thai Buddhist temples.
And also :
How do we recognize “The enlightenment of Sakyamuni Buddha” image?
In this posture of Buddha, often called “The enlightenment of Sakyamuni Buddha”, “Buddha Calling the Earth to Witness”, or “Buddha Subduing Mara” , which has become Buddhism’s principal icon, the Buddha sits with folded legs, right on the top of left. Right arm is pendant over the knee, palm inward . The left hand is on the lap, palm upward. In this image, fingers are even in length straight across or uneven in length, as on a normal hand .This is the most popular mudra in Thailand from the 13th century.
Episode of Muchalinda covering the Buddha
After attaining enlightenment, the Buddha continued meditating for seven weeks, this period and then events that occurred then are often called ” Seven Stations of Enlightenment”. During the sixth week, the Buddha attained an state of deep concentration, unaware of a fierce rainstorm that was flooding the place.
Muchalinda, a benevolent naga , a serpent – like being, who lived nearby, feared for the Buddha’ s safety and lifted him atop his own coiled body above the rising flood waters while spreading his seven-headed hood overhead as a protective canopy to divert the rain. When the great storm had cleared, the serpent king assumed his human form, bowed before the Buddha, and returned in joy to his palace.
If only I’d known…
How do we recognize the image of the Buddha being covered by Muchalinda?
In this posture, the Buddha sits meditating over the coiled serpent Muchalinda which covers him with its hood, protecting the Buddha from the rain.
The Buddha’s First Sermon
At this point, the Buddha pondered whether he should reveal what he had just learnt to the rest of the world, knowing that some underlying concepts might be difficult for ordinary people to grasp. When the god Brahma encouraged him to spread his knowledge, the Buddha went to the vicinity of Sarnath looking for the five monks who had been his companions and disciples during his times as an ascetic, finding them in a deer Park near the town. When the Buddha told them his newly acquired knowledge, they recognized it as the ultimate, irrefutable truth and accepted him as their teacher.
The foundation of the Buddha’s teachings is built upon the “Four Noble Truths” which define suffering, its causes and the “Noble Eightfold Path” that describes the steps to follow to eliminate suffering and to attain nirvana.
The Four Noble Truths are: all humans experience suffering ; the cause of suffering is desire; suffering must cease and this can be accomplished by following the Eightfold Noble Path.
Now, the Eightfold Noble Path to eliminate desire and doing so, suffering are: Morality ( Right Speech, Action and Livelihood ); Meditation ( Right effort, Mindfulness and Concentration), and Wisdom ( Right Views and Intention). These truths and this path are the fundamentals of Buddhism, as told by the Buddha when he set “The Wheel of Law in Motion”.
The Buddha’s teachings are referred as the Dharma, a Sanskrit word whose interpretation depends on the context and can apply to topics as law, doctrine, justice, and truth. In Thailand, is used Dhamma , of Pali origin.
The Buddha giving his First sermon to his Five disciples
The Wheel of Law, or Dharmachakra
In Buddhism, the wheel symbolizes the Dharma, the Buddha’s doctrine, that proclaims that all existence is part of an endless circle of cause and effect, that each individual is at a particular place on the wheel, which is determined by his-her merits earned or lost in prior existences, whose goal is to escape of this endless cycle of existence entering nirvana.
If only I’d known…
How do we recognise a wheel of Law ?
Among the most renowned examples of the wheel are the large, free-standing stone sculptures made by the Mon speaking Dvaravati culture, between the 7th and 11th centuries CE. A typical Dvaravati wheel comprises a central hole bound by a band of stylised lotus petals with deeply carved spokes radiating from it and a rim with a floral scroll.
Some wheels have a flat base that provides stability and may be adorned with different figures, or a crouching deer with its head turned as if listening to the Buddha’s words often appear at the base, recalling the Deer Park, at Sarnath, near Varanasi, the location of the Buddha’s first sermon.
Other examples, as the ones found in the old city of U-Thong, have a pedestal so the wheel functioned as a capital on a pillar.
If only I’d known…
How do we recognize the image of the Buddha giving his First Sermon ?
- We should remember that sculptures or images of the Lord Buddha were not made during the first centuries of Buddhism, so the Buddha’s first sermon after he attained enlightenment was represented by the Wheel of Law or Dharmachakra.
- When the Buddha started to be represented in human form, The Buddha’s first sermon in Deer Park at Sarnath was depicted by the Buddha’s hands in Dharmachakra Mudra . The image is either sitting or standing. Both hands are held in front of the chest with palms facing each other and the thumbs and forefingers of each hand join to form a circle. This gesture is called “Tuning the Wheel of the Law” , or ” Seting the wheel of Law in Motion“. Please, note that this mudra is very rare in Thai art.
The Teachings of the Buddha
After that first sermon, from Sarnath the Buddha and his disciples, who were ordained by him as the first Buddhist monks ( Sanskrit: bhikshu; Pali: bhikkhu) in what came to be the Sangha, the community of monks, nuns and novices, traveled to other areas, initiating new followers to the Dharma, ordaining those who wished to become monks and sending them on to spread the doctrine. Some of his precepts could be termed revolutionary, because he opposed slavery in India’s caste system and all other kinds of injustice and oppression, as well as repudiating magical rites and animal sacrifices practiced by Brahmin priests of the time.
If only I’d known…
How do we recognize the image of the Buddha teaching his message?
The teaching of the Buddha’s message, is symbolized by images in the Vitarka Mudra or teaching gesture . It is shown on a standing , walking or sitting image , with a bent right forearm held close to the body with the palm facing outward, fingers together except the thumb and index finger, which form a circle touching each other. The left hand of standing images often holds a flap of the Buddha’s garment or it may be in the same position as the right hand.
Spreading the Buddha’s message
The Buddha led his monks into his former city, after accepting his father’s invitation, with their alms bowls, receiving offerings of food from the townsfolk. Therefore, upsetting the king who couldn’t understand why his princely son born of royal linage was taking charity as a beggar. While the Buddha stayed in his town, Nanda, his half brother after hearing the Buddha´s teachings , was also ordained as a monk, as well as Rahula, the Budha’s son, who was ordained as the first novice.
News of Rahula’s admission to the monkshood troubled the king, because he was left with no heir.The Buddha, hearing this, sympathized with his father and established a rule which still stands today in the Sangha: every young man desiring to join the order of monks must have the consent of his parents ( or wife if he is married) before he can ask to be ordained.
“Stopping the Buddha ‘s relatives from Quarrelling ” episode
After five years of walking from village to village on the dusty roads of northern India accompanied by his disciples and followers teaching his message, news of his father death reached the Buddha. Soon afterward, the Sakya ( Buddha’s) clan became embroiled with a neighboring city over the waters rights to the Rohini River, which irrigated farmlands in both territories. The Buddha was trusted and respected by all concerned, so he met with the leaders of both clans and counseled them that although the water was valuable, it wasn’t close to the worth of human life, so both sides accepted his solution of sharing the river equally and settled the feud.
If only I’d known…
How we do recognise the image of the Buddha with his hands in “Stopping his Relatives from Quarreling over Water” gesture?
- First, we need to know that Abhaya actually means freedom from fear. In Thai art this mudra is depicted with the right, left or both hands raised, (which represent different events in the Buddha’s life) the palm outward and the fingers pointing up. The Buddha is usually standing when performing this mudra. If the left hand is down, the palm faces the body.
- So, images of the Buddha performing Abhaya mudra raising his right hand, are often associated with this event and are referred as ” Stopping his Relatives from Quarreling over Water”.
Stopping the Flood or Calming the Waters episode
Another famous episode in the Buddha’s life occurred when he went to visit three bothers, leaders of a cult of fire worshipping ascetics. In the course of his time with them, the Buddha performed various miracles, but the most notable was stopping the raising waters of the nearby river, which had flooded the village during a heavy rainstorm. Witnessing this marvels and listening the Buddha’ s preaching, the three brothers and their followers asked to be ordained.
If only I’d known…
How we do recognize the Buddha images with his hands in ” Stopping the Flood’ or “Calming the Waters” gesture?
Now, images of the Buddha performing Abhaya mudra raising both hands, are often associated with this event and are referred as ” Stopping the Flood’ or “Calming the Waters”.
The Buddha visits his mother in Tavatimsa Heaven episode
After a while preaching and performing various miracles, the Buddha applied supernatural powers to ascend into the Tavatimsa Heaven, to visit his mother, Queen Maya, who has died when he was only seven days old, and remained there for the three months of the rainy season, explaining the Dharma to her.
“Forbidding the sandalwood statue from leaving his chair” Episode
During the Buddha’s stay in heaven, king Udayana of Kausambi was saddened by his absence, therefore assigned a renewed artist to make a sandalwood statue of him, which he did. After the Buddha’s return, the statue wished to leave his seat to greet him, but the Buddha forgave that . This is represented in images with his left hand in Abaya Mudra, instead of the right, as it in the event of “Forbidding the sandalwood statue from leaving his chair”
If Only I’d known…
How do we recognize a image of the Buddha with his hands in “Forbidding the sandalwood statue from leaving his chair” gesture?
Now, images of the Buddha performing Abhaya mudra raising his left hand, are often associated with this event and are referred as “Forbidding the sandalwood statue from leaving his chair”
The Buddha enters Paranirvana
The Buddha continued teaching the Dharma into his eightieth year, by which his health had declined considerably. He became seriously ill while walking with Ananda, his loyal disciple, and a group of monks so paused to rest amid a grove of trees belonging to the Malla clan of the northeastern town of Kushinagara. Ananda prepared a bed for him between two trees. The Buddha lied on his right side, draws his last breath and enters parinirvana, the final and perfect nirvana.
He passed away on the full moon day of the fifth lunar month ( corresponding to April-May), entering paranirvana, the nirvana-after-death, a final nirvana from which one is never reborn.This calendar date is now observed worldwide as the holy day Vesak, commemorating his birth, enlightenment and paranirvana.The year of his passing is recorded in Theravada Buddhism as 543 or 544 BCE. Others biographies place it between 483 and 486 BCE.
If Only I’d known…
How do we recognize a image of The Buddha entering paranirvana?
In this posture, the historical Buddha is depicted in the last moments of his life on earth, prior to dying one last time before entering Paranirvana. In this pose, the Buddha is always depicted lying on the right side on top of a resting table. This posture of the image is referred to as sihasaiyas, the posture of a sleeping or reclining lion. The right arm of the Buddha supports the head .
The Tripitaka ( Three Baskets) – First Buddhist Canon
After the cremation of the Buddha and the distribution of his relics among the clan and tribes of followers, the monk Mahakasyapa convened and presided over the First Council , a meeting of five hundred seniors monks who recited and systematized the Buddha’s teachings in an oral compilation that became the original Buddhist Canon.
Its first section, the Vitaya Mitaka ( “Rules of Discipline Basket”), guides de behavior of members of the Sangha. Its second section, the Sutra Pitaka ( “Sutras Basket”), is a compilation of the Buddha’s sermons, as recited by his chief attendant, Ananda. Each sutra begins with Anada’s words: ‘Thus have I heard..”. A third section, the Abhidarma Pitaka ( “Higher Dharma Basket”), comprising commentaries, sub commentaries, and analysis on the doctrine, was added later and the three completed the Tripitaka (” The Three Baskets”), as the canon became to be called.
The use of the word pitaka, basket, is likely to stem for a customs of that time of keeping or caring books in baskets, even though the canon began as an oral compilation that was written down in Sri Lanka around 83 BCE.
Spreading of Buddhism: Theravada, Mahayana and Vajrayana Schools
With the passing of time, some groups of followers developed different interpretations of the Buddha’s teachings, and separated into schools and sects with a diversity of beliefs, rituals and artistic traditions. Still, all Buddhist schools share common roots in the Four Noble Truth, The Eightfold Noble Path, and the Triratma ( “Triple Gem”): The Buddha, The Dharma and the Sangha.
Theravada branch or “School of the Elders” arose in the fourth century BCE and adheres closely to the teachings of the Buddha. Two centuries later it was transmitted from India to Sri lanka and then, gradually, spread to mainland Southeast Asia, where is firmly implanted by the beginning of the CE, Common Era. Today, Theravada Buddhism is practiced in Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar ( Burma) and south of Vietnam.
The Mahayana branch or “The Great Vehicle” evolved sightly later than Theravada and differs mainly in the addition of bodhisattvas, compassionate beings who postpone their own attainment of Buddhahood to help others achieve enlightenment. Mahayana Buddhism expanded into north to China in the third century CE, then east to Korea, Japan and north of Vietnam.
Vajrayana Buddhism , or “Thunderbolt Vehicle” is a development of Mahayana school that became prominent in the 7th century CE. It supports an esoteric worship of Tantric Buddhism and flourishes today in Nepal, Mongolia and Bhutan.
Images of the Buddha through time and civilizations
The Buddha was not depicted in human form until around the first century BCE, some five hundred years after his death. When artists of the Indian subcontinent began reproducing the first images showing his earthly form, they probably followed descriptions of the Buddha from the Buddhist scriptures and folk legends. When his teachings spread across frontiers and oceans, native craftsmen created new depictions of the great sage closely patterned after the postures, gestures an proportions of Indian artworks, but very often, they incorporated artistic motifs based on their own physical characteristics, aesthetic ideals and concepts of the spirit world.
It was so, that stone cutters in Gandhara ( ancient state that included parts of today’s Pakistan , India and Afghanistan) reflected their own strong stylistic heritage from Greece and Rome by producing Buddha statues with an European face or seated in a western fashion. In the same way, sculptors in East Asia depicted him with their own Chinese, Korean or Japanese features. Burmese and Thai artists represented him with their physical traits, and so on.
We would like to share with you pictures of representation of the Buddha trough time, countries and civilizations…
Evolution of the Buddha image in Thailand
Throughout history, Thailand has produced images that transcend reality and capture the Buddha’s essence, an idealized beauty that conveys a sublimely spiritual nature, but with particular traits that identify each period of Thai history.
So, we would like to share with you several Buddha images that we were fortunate to see in different trips that we have done through our stay in Thailand. Hopefully you will able to appreciate the particular features that identify each historical period in this , so spiritually rich culture.
We thought that it would be interesting to start with a gallery that we created just to see how the same event in the life of the Buddha, Muchalinda covering and protecting the Lord from the flood waters, was represented in the three early civilizations ( see our page Thai History) : Srivijaya , Dvaravati and Khemer.
Mon style, Davarati period, 6th to 11th century
Khmer Style, 7th to 14th century
Sukhothai style, 13th to 15th century
Lan Na style, 13th to 18th century
Ayutthaya style 14th to 18th century (1350 to 1767CE)
A votive table is a miniature Buddhist icon with narrative scenes that has widespread appeal as a talisman from the earliest times to the present. Some magnificent ones made of gold, silver, pewter or bronze were found in sacred containers, relic chambers and temple crypts. Above all, a votive tablet is a personal , devotional object.
A typical example is triangular shape, made of terracotta, moulded and either fired in a shallow pit or dried in the sun. A variety of themes draw on the life of the Buddha and cosmology. Portrays of the Buddha in any one of the four standard postures surrounded by Buddhist emblems are popular. The Buddha meditating under the boddhi tree with disciples kneeling on each side is a favourite.
Buddhism in Thailand
Throughout the kingdom’s 700 years history, Buddhism has been the national religion. It was the faith under which people were first united, and ever since, it has served, together with the monarchy, as the most important cohesive force in Thai society, underpinning the entire culture. Today, Buddhism remains vital and visible in daily life, not only professed, but practiced by more than 90 % of the population.
According to the tradition, Buddhism was first introduced to the region that is now Thailand in the 3rd century CE when king Asoke, an Indian emperor of the Maurya Dynasty who ruled almost all of the Indian subcontinent from c. 268 to 232 BCE, sent two missionaries to the “Land of Gold”, which has been tentatively identified as the Dvaravati kingdom of the Mon people centred in modern Nakhom Pathom, west of Bangkok. It was from this period that the first creation of the famous pagoda design becomes obviously evident.
By the time of the founding of the first Thai sovereign state at Sukhothai in the early 13th century, Buddhist monks in the southern part of the country had made contact with Sri Lanka. From there came the doctrine of Therevada Buddhism based on Pali texts, as opposed to the Sanskrit scriptures of Mahayana.
Today, Thailand supports a religious community, Shanga, of some 200,000 monks and 85,000 novices at most times of the year, who reside at an estimated 27,000 temples (or monasteries) throughout the country. However, these numbers increase during the Buddhist “lent” to 300,000 and 100,000 novices. Young boys may become novices at any age, but a man cannot become a monk until he reaches the age of twenty.
The monastic system is central to Theravada Buddhism and, aside from a core religious community, most monks are ordained for only a short spell, perhaps just a few days but more usually the three months during the Buddhist rain retreat. As in the past, young Thai men became monks temporarily to earn merit for their parents and for their own spiritual development.
In trying to lead a good life, the layman, too, has the opportunity to accrue merits which will ensure rebirth under more favourable conditions in the next incarnation. Ways in which lay people may earn merit are many and various. Most typical and most visible is giving food and other offerings to monks who make early morning alms rounds in cities, towns and villages all around the country.
Other beliefs in Thailand
Although Thais are overwhelmingly Buddhists, they are tolerant people and others religions coexist with the main national faith. Muslims comprise Thailand’s largest religious minority, about 4% of the population. Islam was introduced into the region in the 13th century by Arab traders calling at ports along the Malay peninsula and most Thai Muslims are of Malay descent, living primarily in the southernmost provinces of Narathiwat, Pattani, Yala and Surat.
A further 1% of Thailand’s population is made up by Christians, Taoists, Mahayana Buddhists, Confucianists, Hindus and Sikhs. While other minorities owe their presence due to migration, Christianity was brought to Thailand by missionaries. First, in the 16th and 17th centuries, came Dominicans, Franciscans and Jesuits from Spain and Portugal, later were joined by their Protestants counterparts, Presbyterians, Baptists and Seventh-Day Adventists.
In spite of making few converts among the Thais, Christianity has had a significant impact in education and medicine. Many local schools and hospitals are Christian affiliated, as well as Western surgery, vaccination and other medical practices.
The Supernatural and Superstition in Thailand
Perhaps the most widespread and easily seen manifestations of supernatural beliefs are spirit houses. Found in compounds of virtually every home, business premises, government office and public building, these are ornate model dwellings designed in the form of temples of traditional-style Thai houses.
Spirit houses allow Phra Phum or spirit of the land, to inhabit a house of their own after being displaced by the people who have built on their lands. In this way, Phra Phum as being properly treated, will be the guardian spirit of the people who live on the land and will protect them from evil spirits.
Spirit houses mustn’t be erected by anyone, anyway or anywhere in the land… Monks or Brahmin priests give blessings on the auspicious day they are erected, near the owner’s house, but …far enough to avoid the house to cast a shadow over the spirit house. Orientation and positioning are of prime importance, and a holy man has the knowledge for positioning them.
Commonly placed on top of a pole, at eye level, the spirit house might be of almost any architectural style or material. However, it nearly always has an inner room where the Phra Phum can reside, represented by a figure placed inside, and an outer platform where offering of food, drinks , flowers and incense are placed. Generally, the size and style of the spirit house has a relation with the building being built, thus, ones erected next to major international hotels, shopping malls or companies will mostly be of a great size, and have a gilded Hindu deity in their midst.
These little houses apart of the figure representing Phra Phum in their inner room, you will see that around it, on the same platform where it sits, there are a profusions of figurines, icons, flowers and many more offerings, which might include bottles of water, Coke or Fanta with a straw placed in them…just in case the land spirit get lonely and thirsty.
We would like to share with you some of the many spirit houses that we see everyday. In this gallery, they are spirit houses of hotels and restaurants. You will see that the size and style is variable and deepens of the size and style of the building. Enjoy the tour…
High on the list of these animist practices is the cult of amulets, which are believed to protect its owner from all sorts of bad luck and harm, what might include …bullets. To become effective, amulets must be consecrated, usually by a monk who utters special incantations from sacred texts.
The amulet’s power is fragile and it shouldn’t be lost by his – her owner. The wearer puts it whit great care, first invoking the protection of the Buddha. The amulet must never be put in a low position where it might be steps on, so they are worn around the neck.
Some of these amulets, usually carved with the image of an old sage or holy monk, can fetch very high prices, which vary according they origin, rarity and the power believed to reside in them.
Amulets are not necessarily material objects, tattoos also hold amulet power and will also protect the bearer from bad luck and anything capable of penetrating the skin. Here, we should differentiate between the tattoo that are embedded with supernatural powers and those offered to foreigns in tourist resorts or shops.
Buddhist monks originally engraved Sak Yant ( tattoo) into warriors seeking protection and strength in battle. Often covering their entire bodies from head to toe in magic symbols to prevent knives and arrows from piecing their skin.
Tattooing is a common practice among villagers, but you wouldn’t be surprised to know that businessmen might sport them, very hidden beneath their perfectly tailored suits, of course. Tattoos could cover a part, a whole limb, the entire back or the whole body. In that cases, it might take weeks for the tattoo masters to finish those magical tattoo, and a quite endurable pain.
Tatto masters could be both monks and laymen, each getting powers from the great teachers under whom they have studied. The tattoo master is an intermediary between the human and the divine, and he will pay homage to his teacher, before beginning a tattoo to invoke divine protection.
The designs, lines of script, geometric patterns and animal shapes, are deeply interwoven with Buddhist and animist imagery, that, being a westerner we easily might fail to appreciate. Many of the magical tattoo performed these days carry the mark of foreign influences, including Hindu , Brahmanic designs and Khmer scripts.
Thailand is known as the place to attain the most refined ritual tattoos, and it is the country in Southeast Asia with the highest number of devotees, including foreigner that come to Thailand only for getting a tattoo. One of the most famous temples in present day for tattooing is Wat Bang Phra in Nakhon Pathom province.
As we have already said, the content of this page is the result of our research plus some comments of our own. We gathered and put together interesting information that we thought it would be of help, which we had found while reading the books listed below . So, you could find all this information and more, reading:
- Writing from Asia. Treasures, Myths and traditions. Publication of National Museum Volunteers Bangkok
- This is Thailand, by John Hoskin and Gerald Cubbit
- Thai Buddhas, by Dawn F.Rooney
- Buddhist Art, by Charles F. Chicarelli
We just hope that you had enjoyed this page, and that we would had being of help. If you have some comment, please, lets know. In this way, we would be able to keep linking Pattaya together.