Thai Beliefs

 

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Photo Credit: Silvia Muda

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…

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Honoring the dead. Buddhist festival held at Wat Phra Mahathat Woramahawihan in Nakhon Si Thamarat. The event, held for first time in 1923, originates from local belief that the ancestors’ spirits will be released temporarily from the world after death between the 1st and the 15th day of the waning moon in the 10th lunar month. Therefore, people make merit by giving foods to the  Buddhist monks and dedicate the merit to the dead . Photo Credit: Chamlong Boozing, Bangkok Post.

 

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.

 

Buddhism

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Sunset in the Historical Park of Sukhothai. Photo Credit: Silvia Muda

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

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.

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Amazing Buddhist cosmology represented in the wall opposite the presiding Buddha in Wat Ko Keaew Suttharam, Petchaburi. This temple and its murals painting dates from Ayutthaya period. Photo Credit: Silvia Muda

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Buddhist cosmology represented on the mural paintings of the west wall of a small chapel of Wat Baang Phra , behind the presiding Buddha image, surrounded by smaller standing and seated images of the Buddha and also there are some of devotees , recognizable for their hands in paying respect mudra. Nakhon Pathom province. Photo Credit: Silvia Muda

Jatakas

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.

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The tenth Jataka, is about compassion and generosity, personified in the prince Vessantara. This tale is related in different banners hanging in a small sala- museum in grounds of Wat Pongsanuk, Lampang. In this one, Prince Vessantara, marries a  princess with whom had two children and they live in luxury an prosperity which abounds in the kingdom, and is attributed to Vessantara’s royal white elephant. Photo Credit: Silvia Muda

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Continuing with the tale, the neighboring kingdom has recently suffered a devastating drought, so they ask Vessantara for the white elephant and he gave it , but when his 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. Wat Pongsanuk, Lampang. Photo Credit: Silvia Muda

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In this banner, another episode of the Vessantara Jataka, we can see Jujaka in his home, talking with his wife, and then, her among other women of the village. Wat Pongsanuk, Lampang. Photo Credit: Silvia Muda

 Buddhism

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The Dharmachakra or wheel of Law, and the Buddha images, symbols o Buddhism. National Museum Bangkok. Photo Credit: Denise del Barto

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

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The Viharn Phra Chao Phan Ong , a unique structure that is a mix of Lanna and Burmese styles, is open on all sides and has a cruciform floor plan. At its the center, on a high pedestal are four seated Buddha images sitting back to back, facing all four  cardinal directions. The images that were cast in the 16th century sit with their back to a metal Bodhi tree, the tree that sheltered the Buddha while meditating. Wat Pongsanuk, Lampang. Photo Credit: Silvia Muda

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Golden symbolic leaves of the Boddhi tree hugging from the bells attached to the border of the roof of the cloister of Wat Phra That Doi Suthep. In the background, we can see a symbolic Bodhi tree. Chiang Mai. Photo Credit: Silvia Muda

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Picture taken to a boddhy tree, where we can observe the shape of its leaves, imitated by those artificial leaves that we found in many temples, which symbolize the Boddhi tree, under which the Buddha attained enlightenment. Chiang Mai. Photo Credit: Margot Weinmann

 

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).

Made from jade, as an exact replica of the most revered Budda image in Thailand, this Emerald Buddha's image is enshrined in Wat Phra Sing, Chiang Mai. Photo Credit: Silvia Muda

The Buddha meditating. Made from jade, as an exact replica of the most revered Budda image in Thailand, this Emerald Buddha’s image is enshrined in Wat Phra Sing, Chiang Mai. Photo Credit: Silvia Muda

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The Buddha statues siting in meditation. Wat Phra Singh, Chiang Rai. Photo Credit: Margot Weimann

Enlightenment

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”

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The Enlightenment of the Buddha, in the bottom row, the Buddha meditating, while in the upper row, when the Buddha has already attained nirvana, represented by his hands in Calling The Earth Goddess as Witness mudra. Small ubosot in Wat Ang Sila, Chonburi province. Photo Credit: Margot Weimann.

 

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.

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The Enlightenment of the Buddha.This impressive mural painting on the west wall, contrary to all traditions, of Wat Ko Keaw Suttharam, Petchaburi, portraits Siddhartha’s enlightenment in three scenes. On the right, is Mara leading his army of demons, archers attacking Siddhartha in attempt to destroy his concentration. In the center, the Buddha  meditating and Thorany, the Earth Goddess wringling her long black hair to unleash a flood of water that sweeps away mara and his hordes. They are shown again, in the final scene, on the left , beaten back, with their arrows and spears now transformed into flowers by Siddhartha’s purity. This mural painting dates from the 1730s (Ayutthaya period) and remains in a very good condition. Photo Credit: Silvia Muda

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The Enlightenment of the Buddha, represented in this magnificent mural painting on the east wall of the chapel of Wat Mahathat, Petchaburi.Photo Credit: Silvia Muda

 

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.

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The Enlightenment of Sakyamuni Buddha. Wat Thewarat, Bangkok. Photo Credit: Silvia Muda

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The Enlightenment of the Buddha. Buddha seats in Bhumispara Mudra( Calling the Earth to Witness), or Mara Vitaya Mudra ( Victory over Mara) . Right arm is pendant over the knee, palm inward, touching the earth. The Left hand is on the lap, palm upward.Fingers are uneven in length, as on a normal hand. Chao Sam Phraya National Museum, Ayutthaya. Photo Credit: Silvia Muda

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The Enlightenment of Sukyamuni Buddha. Phra Buddhajinaraja is a Sukhothai-style Buddha statue , cast in Subduing Mara posture, in 1920, after the original located in Wat Mahathat in Phitsanulok. In this image, his fingers are even in length. Wat Benchamabophit or Marble Temple, Bangkok. Photo Credit: Silvia Muda

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The Enlightenment of Sakyamuni Buddha. Phra Si Sakyamuni, sits with folded legs, right on the top of left. Right arm is pendant over the knee, palm inward touching earth . The left hand is on the lap, palm upward. in this image, fingers are even in length straight across. Wat Suthat, Bangkok. Photo Credit: Margot Weinmann

 

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.

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The serpent Muchalinda covering with his hood the Buddha who was meditating when a heavy rain and flood occurred. Wat Chedi Chet Taew , Sri Satchanalai . Photo Credit: Margot Weinmann

 

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 SpeechAction 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

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Stone carving of the scene of the Buddha, seated in so-called ‘European’ fashion, explains to his five disciples what he had learnt. Dvaravati art 7th-11th century A.D. Phra Pathom Chedi National Museum (Nakhon Pathom). Found at Wat Sai, Nakhon Pathom.Photo Credit : Silvia Muda

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Part of the same stone carving. The Five disciples listening to the Buddha. Para Chedi Nakhon Pathon National Museum. Photo Credit :Silvia Muda

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The third part of the stone carving. Ascetics listening to the preaching of the Buddha. Para Chedi Nakhon Pathon National Museum. Photo Credit: Silvia Muda[/caption

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.

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Dharmachakra found at Site no.2, U-Thong district, Suphan Buri. The rim is carved in low relief with a pattern of lotus flowers in full bloom, interspersed with lozenge motifs. End of the 7th century CE. U-Thong National Museum. Photo Credit: Silvia Muda

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In the first half of the 8th century a great number of Dhatmachakra were created. They were placed on square base of the wheel. The most complete example , with both the base and the column intact , was found at site no 11, Old city of U-thong, U-Thong district. In this picture we can appreciate the wheel, in perfect state .  Its pedestal , not in the photo, it is also  intact  . U-thong National Museum. Photo Credit: Silvia Muda

 

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.
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A sitting Buddha image with hands in “Tuning the Wheel of the Law” , or ” Seting the wheel of Law in Motion” mudra. One of the emblematic images of Borobudur temple, built during 9th century CE in Java, Srivijaya kingdom. Photo Credit: Silvia Muda

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.

A large stone seated in European style Buddha image , of the Dvaravati period (6-11th century) once enshrined at Wat Phra Men in Nakhon Pathom province, with His Hands in the teaching "mudra"..Chao Sam Phraya National Museum Ayutthaya. Photo Credit: Silvia Muda

Teaching of the Buddha’s message. A large stone seated in European style Buddha image , of the Dvaravati period (6th-11th century) once enshrined at Wat Phra Men in Nakhon Pathom province, with both hands in the Vitara Mudra (Teaching gesture).Chao Sam Phraya National Museum Ayutthaya. Photo Credit: Silvia Muda

The Teaching " mudra", one of the most represented gesture of Buddha's hands. Buddha image located at the entrance of Phra Pathon Chedi. Nakhon Pathom. Photo Credit: Silvia Muda

Teaching of the Buddha’s message. The Vitarka Mudra (Teaching gesture), one of the most represented gesture of Buddha’s hands. Buddha image located at the entrance of Phra Pathon Chedi. Nakhon Pathom. Photo Credit: Silvia Muda

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.

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Image of the Buddha carrying the alms bowl. Wat Naphamera, Ayuthaya. Photo Credit: Silvia Muda

“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”.
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Image of the Buddha performing Abhaya mudra raising his right hand, are often associated with the event of ” Stopping his Relatives from Quarreling over Water”. Cloister of Wat Benchamabophit, Bangkok. Photo Credit: Silvia Muda

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Images of the Buddha performing Abhaya mudra raising his right hand, are often associated with the referred as ” Stopping his Relatives from Quarreling over Water”. Cloister of Wat Pho, Bangkok. Photo Credit: Silvia Muda

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Amazing view of images of the Buddha performing Abhaya mudra raising his right hand, associated with the event referred as ” Stopping his Relatives from Quarreling over Water”. Cloister of Wat Pho, Bangkok. Photo Credit: Silvia Muda

 

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”.

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Images of the Buddha performing Abhaya mudra raising both hands, are often associated with the event referred as ” Stopping the Flood’ or “Calming the Waters”. Cloister of Wat Benchamabophit, or Marble Temple, Bangkok. Photo Credit: Silvia Muda

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.

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Buddha coming down from Tavatimsa Heaven, after visiting his mother. Wat Mixai, Vientiane, Laos. Photo Credit: Silvia Muda

“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”

Wat Sa Si, Sukhothai Historical park, replica of walking Buddha's image. Photo Credit: Silvia Muda

Images of the Buddha performing Abhaya mudra raising his left hand, are often associated with the event referred as “Forbidding the sandalwood statue from leaving his chair” . Wat Sa Si, Historical Park. Sukhothai. Photo Credit: Silvia Muda

 

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 .

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The Buddha enters paranirvana. This bronze and gold image of the Reclining Buddha was transported from Wat Phra Pai Luang, Sukhothai, to Bangkok in the mid- 19th century by king Mongut or Rama IV. Wat Bowornniwet, Bangkok. .Photo Credit: Margot Weinmann

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The Buddha enters paranirvana. One of the most well-known examples of this image is enshrined at Wat Pho in Bangkok. Photo Credit: Silvia Muda

 

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.

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Guan Yin, the bodhisattva of compassion. Mahayana Buddhism. Chinese temple , China Town Bangkok. Photo Credit: Silvia Muda

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.

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The Enlightenment of the Buddha.Vajrayana Buddhism art. Patan city, Nepal. Photo Credit: Silvia Muda

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Putting in Motion the Wheel of Law mudra .Vajrayana Buddhism .Boudhanath stupa, Katmandu. Nepal. Photo Credit: Silvia Muda

 

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…

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The Buddha in meditation posture. Srivijaya kingdom. Borobudur temple. 9th century CE , Java, Indonesia. Photo Credit: Silvia Muda

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Amitayus Buddha made of copper. Qin Dynasty ( 1644-1912) Sishuan-Museum. South China. Photo Credit: Silvia Muda

 

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The Enlightenment of the Buddha. Sacred Nepali art. Patan Museum, Patan Dubar Square. Photo Credit: Yvonne Meijboom

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Sacred Nepali  Buddhist art . Patan Museum, Patan Dubar Square. Photo Credit: Yvonne Meijboom

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The Enlightenment of Buddha. Sichuan Museum, South China . Photo Credit: Silvia Muda

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Buddha passing into Paranirvana, Bagan, Myanmar. Photo Credit: Denise del Barto

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Enlightenment of Buddha, Bagan, Myanmar. Photo Credit: Denise del Barto

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Buddha’s face, Myanmar. Photo Credit: Denise del Barto

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West-facing standing Buddha, titled Gautama with his hands outstretched in the gesture of fearlessness, or the abhaya mudra. Ananda pagoda, Bagan, Myanmar. Photo Credit: Denise del Barto

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Enlightenment of Buddha. Dancing Cats temple, Inle Lake, Myanmar. Photo Credit: Denise del Barto

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Standing Buddha images. Cats temple, Inle Lake, Myanmar. Photo Credit: Denise del Barto

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Meditating Buddha protected by Naga. Wat Si Saket, Vietiane, laos. Photo Credit: Silvia Muda

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Standing Buddha. Wat Si Saket, Vientiane,Laos. Photo Credit: Silvia Muda

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Standing Buddha with their hands in calming the waters gesture. Wat Haw Phra Knew, Vientiane, Laos. Photo Credit: Silvia Muda

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Meditating Buddha. That Luang, Vientiane, Laos. Photo Credit: Silvia Muda

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Seated Buddha image ,with his torso carved. Wat Mai Suwannaphumaham, Luang Prabang, Laos. Photo Credit: Silvia Muda

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Buddha attaining Paranirvana. Wat Xieng Thong, Luang Prabang, Laos. Photo Credit: Silvia Muda

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One of the four Buddha images in the stupa at Wat Phra Maha That Rajbovorati, Luang Prabang, Laos. Photo Credit: Silvia Muda

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Standing Buddhas with their hands outstretched in the gesture of fearlessness, or the abhaya mudra. Wat Visounaratth or Visunalat, or Vixoun. Luang Prabang, Laos. Photo Credit: Silvia Muda

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

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Bronze image of The Buddha giving a sermon. Dvaravati art. found in U-Thong Sanctuary, U-Thong District. U-Thong National Museum. Photo credit: Silvia Muda

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One of the last surviving examples of Mon Dvaravati architecture in Thailand, the Mahabol Chedi in Wat Ku Kut, Lamphung. The images casted in molds in 1218, are in the Abhaya mudra (dispelling fear) gesture, the right hand raised. The arches over the niches contain intricate stuccoed decorations. Wat Ku Kut, or Wat Chama Thewi, Wat Chama Devi. Lamphun, north of Thailand . Photo Credit: Silvia Muda

“Phra Khantharat” or also called Phra Sri Ariamet Trai, was carved in green stone , is believed to be made in the Dvaravati style dating from 707 - 757 AD.It is the largest figure of a seated Buddha originally displaying the dharmachakra mudra with his feet placed on a lotus pedestal in a western style manner, legs apart, with both hands of the image rest on the knees, which is different from the postures known in Thailand, but apparently this was arranged at a later stage. Other remarkable features :the halo around the image's head has tongue flames indicating Chinese influence; The short hemline exposing the left knee, looks different from those of other images in Thailand but this is similar to the images of Maitreya created during the Tang dynasty in China. Wat Wat Na Phra Men, Ayutthaya . Photo Credit: Silvia Muda

“Phra Khantharat” or also called Phra Sri Ariamet Trai, carved in green stone , is believed to have been made in the Dvaravati style dating from 707 – 757 AD. It is the largest figure of a seated Buddha originally displaying the dharmachakra mudra with his feet placed on a lotus pedestal. It likely represents the Buddha of the future. The pendant legs and the hands of the lap, is a feature of the Chinese Maitreya images from the Sui dynasty , first half of 8th century. Wat Wat Na Phra Men, Ayutthaya . Photo Credit: Silvia Muda

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A closer view of “Phra Khantharat” or also called Phra Sri Ariamet Trai, . We can see typical Dvaravati traits in his face features ( rounded ushnisha tending toward a cone, hair presented in large curls, large face, broad cheekbones, curved eyebrows in a continuos line above the bulging,downcast eyes, broad nose, thick full lips , gently curved and softly smiling). But one of its remarkable features , is the halo around the image’s head which has tongue flames , that might indicate Chinese influence. Wat Wat Na Phra Men, Ayutthaya . Photo Credit: Silvia Muda

Khmer Style, 7th to 14th century

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Buddha statue at Pimai, San, Thailand. Photo Credit: Margot Weinmann

 

Sukhothai style, 13th to 15th century

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Perhaps the finest achievement in Thai artistic history was reached in Sukhothai period. Thai sculptors were innovators of the freestanding form. Characteristic facial features of this period are: rounded ushnisha topped by a flame finial, medium- size curls, hairline dips in the centre of forehead, highly arched eyebrows meeting at the bridge of a hooked nose, slightly bulging, downcast eyes, curving up at corners; round chin, delineated by a thin line, lips fairly thin, curving and thinly outlined , oval or egg-shaped head with oval face. While that body and limbs are elongated, in a highly stylized form, with the robe flap end in a fish-tail with a note in the waist. Distinctive of this period are images of walking Buddha. Wat Traimit, Bangkok. Photo Credit: Silvia Muda

Although the origins of Phra Phuttha Maha Suwan Patimakon are uncertain, its egg - shaped head indicates a Sukhothai style, so that might point out toward His origin. Photo Credit: Silvia Muda

Although the origins of Phra Phuttha Maha Suwan Patimakon are uncertain, it is made in the Sukhothai period style of the 13th-14th centuries, though it could have been made after that time. The head of the statue is egg-shaped, the ushnisha is topped by a flame finial, has medium- size curls,the hairline dips in the centre of forehead, it also has highly arched eyebrows meeting at the bridge of a hooked nose, and his eyes are slightly bulging and downcast curving up at corners; The statue was probably moved from Sukhothai to Ayutthaya, about 1403, and in 1801, the Thai King Buddha Yodfa Chulaloke (Rama I), after establishing Bangkok as a new capital city of the Kingdom, commissioned the construction of many temples , ordered that various old Buddha images should be brought to the new capital from the ruined temples around the country. So it was in this way that this stunning image of 5 tons of pure gold, which its true identity had been forgotten  and hidden for almost 200 years covered in plaster, reached the capital of the kingdom. Today, it is housed in Wat Traimit, China Town, Bangkok. Photo Credit: Silvia Muda

 

Lan Na style, 13th to 18th century

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Phra Buddha Sing, a magnificent bronze statue that is Chiang Mais most sacred image. We can appreciate that this image is in Lan Na style due to characterize traits typical of the style: conical ushnisha topped by a knob-like finial, thick, fat curls of hair, hairline dips sightly in centre of forehead, arched but separated eyebrows over small straight nose , downcast eyes but staring ahead, fleshy, but small lips a little bit pursed and rounded face with full cheeks. Well developed chest, slim waist, shape rather square. Seated in full lotus position, legs crossed with both feet resting on the opposite tights, sole of feeds facing upwards in Calling The Earth Witness or Subduing Mara posture. Presented on a base with beaded motif on rim of the plinth. Wat Phra Sing , Chiang Mai. Photo Credit: Margot Weinmann

Lanna art is not as well known as Sukhothai's but its style is unique and appealing, and like the latter, bronze was the favorite medium. Wat Phra That Harinphuchai, Lamphun . Photo Credit: Silvia Muda

Lan Na art is not as well known as Sukhothai’s but its style is unique and appealing, and like the latter, bronze was the favorite medium. Looking at the face features, we can appreciate some Sukhothai influences blended in this Lan Na style images, as the flame finial, not so rounded face, but still , full cheeks, fat curls of hair, hairline dips sightly in centre of forehead, arched but separated eyebrows over small straight nose , downcast eyes but staring ahead, fleshy, but small lips a little bit pursed Wat Phra That Harinphuchai, Lamphun . Photo Credit: Silvia Muda

 

Ayutthaya style  14th to 18th century (1350 to 1767CE)

Early Ayutthaya Buddha images were influenced by the bronze forms of the U-Thong style, showing facial characters recalling Khmer features, as it is is with this image. Chao Sam Phraya National Museum Ayutthaya. Photo Credit: Silvia Muda

Early Ayutthaya Buddha images were influenced by the bronze forms of the U-Thong style, showing facial characters recalling Khmer features, austere square faces, hair in tight curls with a band separating hairline from forehead, as it is is with this image. Chao Sam Phraya National Museum Ayutthaya. Photo Credit: Silvia Muda

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Luang Pho Tho is an immense gilded 19 meter high seated Buddha from 1334 CE, so it is previous to the official foundation of the city of Ayutthaya. This highly revered Buddha statue is housed in the main viharn of Wat Phanan Choeng,Ayutthaya. Being cast in early Ayutthaya period, it shows characteristic facial features of that time, a blend between Mon ( large face, thick lips) and Khmer (straigth eyebrows with natural facial features, hair in tight curls with a band separating hairline from forehead) styles. Photo Credit: Silvia Muda

 

Modern Times

Buddha imagine in Bangkok Sculpture Center. Photo Credit: Silvia Muda

Modern representation of the Buddha. Bangkok Sculpture Center. Photo Credit: Silvia Muda

Votive Tablets

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.

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Terracotta votive tablet with image of the Buddha meditating in a very unusual posture: the left hand is on the left and the left leg is on the right one. Found in U-Thong ancient city. U-Thong National Museum. Photo Credit: Silvia Muda

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Terracotta votive table, Dvaravat style. The Buddha is meditating under the boddhi tree, with his disciples at his sides, and celestial beings on the top. Found in the ancient city of U-Thong. U-Thong National Museum. Photo Credit: Silvia Muda

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Votive tablet , Dvaravati style. Image of the Buddha meditating with disciples at his sides. Found in the ancient city of U-Thong. U-thong National Museum. Photo Credit: Silvia Muda

Buddhism in Thailand

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A family trip to the temple, holding in their hands a lotus flower, symbol of the Buddha or, as is the case in this picture, three incense sticks which represent the Buddha,the Dharma and the Sangha . Wat Phra That Doi Suthep. Chinag Mai. Photo Credit: Silvia Muda

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.

A common way of making merits is have small stupas built in temples, in some cases, the name of the person or people are written on it. There are several cases in which the grown children do it in behalf on their parents, for them to make merits. Photo Credit: Silvia Muda

A common way of making merits is to have  small stupas built in temples, where entire families’ ashe’s are kept . There are several cases in which the grown children do it in behalf on their dead parents, for them to make merits. Photo Credit: Silvia Muda

It is very common to see young men, sometimes in their teen years, to enter a monastery for a period of time as a way to earn merits for their parents. Wat Phra Kaew Don Tao Sucha Daram - Lampang Credit: Silvia Muda

It is very common to see young men, sometimes in their teen years, to enter a monastery for a period of time as a way to earn merits for their parents. Wat Phra Kaew Don Tao Sucha Daram – Lampang Credit: Silvia Muda

 

Other beliefs in Thailand

A mosque along side a Catholic Church, in this Buddhist country. Sign of the deep tolerance that Thais have for other religions. Pattaya. Photo Credit: Silvia Muda

A mosque along side a Catholic Church, in this Buddhist country. Sign of the deep tolerance that Thais have for other religions. Pattaya. Photo Credit: Silvia Muda

A Hindu God, Brahma, the turrets of a muslim mosque ,in the background and not so far. Religious tolerance, deep respect for all religions that characterized Thai people. Pattaya. Photo Credit: Silvia Muda

A Hindu God, Brahma presiding a spirit house, the turrets of a muslim mosque ,in the background , in this Buddhist country. Religious tolerance, deep respect for all religions that characterized Thai people. Pattaya. Photo Credit: Silvia Muda

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.

Guan Yin Wat Phanan Choeng Ayutthaya July1st 2015

The lower floor of the Chinese shrine of Lady Mother Soi Dok Mak is dedicated to Mae Kuan Yin, the bodhisattva of compassion, in Mahayana Buddhism, in grounds of the Buddhist Wat Phanan Choeng . Ayutthaya Photo Credit: Silvia Muda

Sikh Temple in Phutat Market area little India

In the core of the Sikh community, Phurat area, or Little India, as it is known, is a six story Sikh temple, Gurdwara Siri Guru Singh Sabha, a white building trimmed in gold and topped with a glittering golden dome. The temple was built in 1932 and it’s reputed to be one of the largest Sikh temples outside India. Photo Credit: Silvia Muda

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Assumption Cathedral , Bangkok. Photo Credit: Silvia Muda

The Supernatural and Superstition in Thailand

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Spirit House on a beach in Koh Chang. Photo Credit: Silvia Muda

 

Spirit Houses

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…

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Another example of how the spirit house is built following the design and style of the main building. Glass, steel, curved lines, in the background, we can see the glass front and curved lines of the main building. Nana area, Bangkok. Photo Credit: Silvia Muda

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Here, we can see that a Ganesha’s image replaces the traditional spirit house. Sukhumvit Rd, Nana area, Bangkok.Photo Credit: Silvia Muda

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The main building is a newly built – modern design – International Chain Hotel, so it is the spirit house locate in the premises. Soi 11 Nana area, Bangkok. Photo Credit: Silvia Muda

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A Beautifully simple spirit house located in the garden of a two storey house. Na Jomtien. Photo Credit: Silvia Muda

 

Amulets

Amulets and may be, votive tablets being sold in stalls around the Grand Palace. Photo Credit: Silvia Muda

Amulets and may be, votive tablets being sold in stalls around the Grand Palace. Photo Credit: Silvia Muda

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Amulets and, why not, votive tables on sale in Bangkok’s streets. Stalls around the Grand Palace, Bangkok. Photo Credit: Silvia Muda

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.

Thai Amulets

Sweeping the pavement of his shop, protected by his amulet. Grand Palace area. Photo Credit: Silvia Muda

 

Tattoos

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.

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The Tattoo master is performing his work, with the help of two assistants. Wat Baan Phra, Nakhon Pathom province. Photo Credit: Silvia Muda

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The tattoo master holds the long needle, helped by his two assistants .Wat Baan Phra, Nakhon Pathom province. Photo Credit: Silvia Muda

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The long needle, used by the tattoo master, is crosscut at the base to hold the ink, and the design is stippled in small dots set together. Wat Baan Phra, Nakhon Pathom province. Photo Credit: Silvia Muda

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The Tatto master has finished the protective tattoo on the back of this man. We can see that his skin is still irritated after hours of the Master’ work, but it will o after a few hours. Wat Baan Phra, Nakhon Pathom province. Photo Credit: Silvia Muda

 

Note:

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.

 

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