Religious beliefs in Thailand
Thailand is a very ethnically, culturally and religiously homogenous nation. According to the last census, roughly 95 percent of the population adheres to the Theravada variety of Buddhism, the most popular religion of Thailand.1 Although the majority of the Thai people practice Buddhism, the constitution of the country gives all citizens the right to choose the religion of their choice, without any fear of persecution. Religious tolerance, one of the tenets of the Buddhist faith, has afforded foreign born citizens a measure of peace and security to practice the religious of their choice, and feel at ease while working and living in the country. The only person in Thailand that is required to follow the Buddhist faith is the King of Thailand, as outlined in the Thai constitution.2
By its very nature, the practice of Buddhism stresses compassion and tolerance, as per the teachings of nee Siddhartha Gautama, known as the “enlightened one.” In fact, one of the major goals of Buddhism is to alleviate suffering in all people, regardless of their religious affiliation and beliefs. As a result, the people of Thailand are exceedingly respectful of the religious beliefs of others and are very open-minded toward discussing their Buddhist principles and values with foreign visitors. People who come to Thailand, whether to work, study, or even take up permanent residence, are provided countless opportunities to learn about the Buddhist faith, to visit the various Buddhist temples and even learn how to meditate under the guidance of expert practitioners.
Religion in Thailand is very important in the lives of its people, and long-time senior monks are highly revered. In fact, it is not uncommon to witness the images of these monks adorning the walls of various homes and businesses as a show of respect. In many of Thailand’s cities, towns and villages, the community temple (wat) serves as the heart of both religious life and social interaction. Holidays in the Buddhist calendar, particularly those in which the moon is full, bring thousands of people together to pay homage to Buddha and give alms to monks as a way to merit and bring favor on them.3
In the following article we will outline the various religious beliefs in Thailand, beginning with an in-depth discussion on the practice of Theravada Buddhism, by far the largest religious faith in the country. We will also provide some very brief information about the various religious minorities in the country—minorities that complete the religious landscape of this sovereign and extremely tolerant nation. These religions include: Islam, Christianity, Hinduism, Judaism and Sikhism.
Buddhism in ThailandThe practice of Buddhism in Thailand is largely of the Theravada school. According to the latest available census data, approximately 94.6 percent of the population self-identifies as Theravada Buddhist. 4 In recent years, the ancient practices of this faith have also been integrated with a number of local folk beliefs, such as ancestor worship, as well as Chinese beliefs from the large Thai-Chinese population.
Buddhism originally appeared in Thailand during the 3rd century B.C. in the region of the present day provincial capital: Nakhon Pathom. Once the religion took root, it proved to be a very powerful and binding force, a force so pervasive that it caused many of the ethnic groups who migrated to this area during the Dvaravati period to adopt it as their state religion.5
In a nutshell, the teachings of Buddhism are based on the fact that one’s life does not begin with birth and end with death. Instead those events are merely seen as links in a chain of our lives, each conditioned by volitional acts (karma) that were committed in previous existences. The very concept of karma (the law of cause and effect) in the Buddhist tradition suggests that self-serving acts, such as selfishness, gluttony, greed and craving, will ultimately lead to pain and suffering. On the other side of the coin, positive acts, such as love, tolerance and compassion, will eventually lead to happiness and well-being. The enlightened one teaches that it is only by eliminating desire that one can reach the penultimate goal of Buddhism: peace of mind.6
The highest and most revered ideal in Theravada Buddhism is the attainment of self-perfection through Nirvana (Nibbhana), an inexpressible and incontrovertible state unconditioned by desire, suffering, or further rebirth, in which an individual is completely at peace with his or her surroundings.
Following its introduction to Thailand, Buddhism rapidly gained strength and acceptance in the country. This was due in large part to its emphasis on tolerance and individual initiative. In other words, Buddhism acted as a complement to Thailand’s already strong and cherished sense of freedom—inner freedom. From a fundamental standpoint, Buddhism is an experiential way of life; a way of life free of dogma. Buddhism is based on a flexible moral, ethical and philosophical framework, within which people are given the freedom to pursue their own form of salvation.7
Although Buddhism was present in what it is now known as Thailand for centuries, it wasn’t until the reign of Sukhothai’s King Ramkhamhaeng (1275-1317 A.D.) that Theravada Buddhism was established as Thailand’s dominant religion. The faith reached its pinnacle under King Ramkhamhaeng’s grandson, King Li Thai (1347-1368). It was during his reign that about 30 volumes of Buddhist scriptures were pored over and gradually rewritten by the king, resulting with one volume of scripture, called the Tribhumikatha, a dissertation on Buddhist cosmology and the three planes of existence: Sensuous, Corporeal, and Incorporeal. 8 Not only did this volume represent the first Buddhist treatise by a Thai native, it was also the first known Thai Buddhist literary work. Even today, the Tribhumikatha’s impact on religious arts, such as mural paintings, can be seen and admired at many of the country’s monasteries.
Throughout the history of Thailand, Buddhism has played a key role in the cultural development of the nation. This is very evident in much of the classic Thai art in the county, from sculptures to paintings to architecture to early literature, which can actually be classified as Buddhist art. In other words, Buddhism tends to lend a significant hand in enriching the cultural life for the Thai population.
While Buddhism was rapidly accepted, and continues to be the primary and [unofficial] state religion, the population of Thailand has consistently subscribed to the ideal of religious freedom. Each of Thailand’s constitutions throughout the years has stipulated that the Thai king must be a Buddhist, although the monarchs are seen as the "Upholder of All Religions," protecting the citizen’s religious freedoms. Because of this, each year the government of Thailand, through the Religious Affairs Department, annually allocates funds to finance religious education and to construct, maintain, and restore monasteries, mosques, and churches.9
Meditation is one of the key practices among Thailand’s Buddhist population. Meditation is a means of self reflection, with the goal of identifying the causes of individual desire and ultimately alleviating one’s suffering. Visitors to Thailand can learn and take part in this practice by visiting one of the approximately 27,000 wats (temples) spread throughout the various provinces of the Kingdom. Certain temples, including those in the Chiang Mai province, allow guests to speak with monks at length as a way to obtain a fundamental understanding about Buddhism and its practices.10
Although many experts consider Theravada Buddhism a philosophy rather than a religion (there is no ‘God’), there can be no doubt that the Thai form of Buddhism is heavily infused with many spiritual beliefs which are likely the result of lingering animist and Hindu beliefs from centuries earlier. Most Thai residences and places of business feature a Spirit House not far from the building, where offerings are made in an attempt to appease spirits that might otherwise inhabit their homes or workplaces.11 Moreover, Buddhist monks are often brought to new homes and businesses to bless them before they are inhabited, and the Thai population is known to frequently light incense and make prayers to both Buddha images and a host of Hindu gods, whose shrines are located throughout Bangkok and the countryside.
Islam in ThailandIslam is the second largest religion in Thailand; the largest religious minority practiced by approximately 4 percent of the Thai Population.12 The majority of Thai Muslims are concentrated in the most southerly provinces of the country; the provinces nearest the Malaysian border. According to census data, the heaviest concentrations of Muslims can be found in the provinces of Pattani, Yala, Narathiwat and a portion of Songkhla Chumphon, where Islam is considered the dominant religion. Those who practice this religion are of both Thai and Malay descent.13
Although the greatest concentrations of Thai Muslims can be found in the country’s southern provinces, there are actually practitioners of Islam located throughout the country. According to the Thai Ministry of Foreign Affairs, only about 18 percent of the country’s Muslims live in the southern border provinces. The rest, they say, are scattered throughout Thailand, with the largest concentrations found in the city of Bangkok, the nation’s capital, and throughout the southern provinces. In 2005, statistics show that Muslims in Southern Thailand accounted for approximately 30 percent of the population over the age of 15, while constituting less than 3 percent of the population in other regions of the country. After the Thai census of 2005, it was determined there were approximately 2.8 million Muslims living in Thailand.14
The Muslim population in Thai is extremely diverse, with several different ethnic groups represented, including the Chinese, Pakistani, Cambodian, Malaysian, Indonesian and immigrants from Bangladesh. There are also many ethnic Thais who have converted to the religion. Statistics show that about two-thirds of the Muslims in Thailand are of Malay descent, although very few of these immigrants still speak the Malaysian language.
Approximately 99 percent of the Muslim population in Thailand practices the Sunni variety of the religion, while the remaining 1 percent practices the Shi’ite variety. Muslims receive financial and inspirational support from the monarchy, which provides money for translating the Koran into the Thai language. Additionally, each year the King of Thailand presides over a ceremony and celebration commemorating the Islamic Prophet Muhammad’s birthday. His Majesty also appoints a respected Muslim religious representative as Chularajamontri, or State Counselor for Islamic Affairs. The government also allocates funds for building and renovating the country’s mosques.15
Christianity in ThailandThailand has a long history of Christianity. The religion was originally introduced to Thailand as early as the mid-sixteenth century by European missionaries. Portuguese mercenaries, with a chaplain in tow, first arrived in the city of Ayutthaya, and their efforts have played a key role in the modernization of Thailand, most notably in the country’s educational and social affairs (missionaries built a number of orphanages, schools and colleges in the country). Today, followers of Christianity in Thailand represent approximately 0.7 percent of the population.16
According to Thailand’s Department of Religion, a body under the Ministry of Culture, five major Christian denominations are formally recognized in the country: The Roman Catholic Church, Church of Christ in Thailand, Southern Baptists, Evangelical Fellowship of Thailand and Seventh Day Adventists. Although most of the country’s religious budget is centered on the majority religion in the country (Buddhism), since 1980 the government has provided token donations to each of the aforementioned Christian churches.
Christians have made many contributions in Thailand. The country’s first printing press, for example, was introduced by Christians, and King Mongkut (RAMA IV) learned English and Latin from Christian ministries.17 Although King Mongkut is reportedly to have said to one of his Christian ministry friends “What you teach us to do is admirable, but what you teach us to believe is foolish,” during his monkhood, before ascending to the throne, he nevertheless allowed Christian missionaries to orate lectures aimed at conversion, even in his own monastery. Christians were the first to introduce surgery to Thailand, made the first smallpox vaccinations (saving thousands of lives), trained the first Thai doctors in Western medicine, and wrote the first Thai-English dictionaries.18
Hinduism in ThailandIn the larger cities of Thailand there are several thousand adherents of Hinduism. In Thailand’s earlier days, the country was under the rule of the Khmer Empire; an empire with strong Hindu roots. Consequently, the Hindu influence in the country still remains strong today.
There are approximately 20,000 people of Indian descent residing in Thailand today. These immigrants are equally divided between Hindus and Sikhs. The Hindu community is mostly concentrated in Bangkok, where it worships at four main Hindu temples. There are also several Brahman shrines at which Hindus and Buddhists worship together. The Hindus operate their own school where the curriculum is based on the Thai education system, though in addition to Thai it teaches Hindi, Sanskrit, and English.19
Hindu deities are worshiped by many of Thai’s Buddhists, and statues of Ganesh, Indra and Shiva are common sights in the country. The Samudra manthan, where Devas and Asuras “churn the ocean of milk, with Lord Vishnu’s Kurma Avatar carrying a mountain as a pivot,” is showcased at the Suvarnabhumi Airport in Bangkok.20 Additionally, a relic of Hinduism—the mythical Garuda—is now a symbol of the Thai monarchy.
Judaism in ThailandThe practice of Judaism in Thailand can be traced back to the 17th century, with the arrival of a few Baghdadi Jewish families. Thailand’s current community of Jews is primarily Ashkenazi, descendants of refugees from Imperial Russia and later the Soviet Union. Adding to this small Jewish community were Jews of Persian descendant, who fled persecution for their beliefs in Iran in the mid to late 20th century.21 The majority of Thailand’s Jewish community, who total about 1,000 in number, now reside in the city of Bangkok, although smaller Jewish communities can also be found in Phuket, Koh Samui and Chiang Mai (the home of Rabbi Levi Tzeitlin), where synagogues have been erected.
Sikhism in ThailandLike the Hindus, the majority of Thailand’s Sikh population can be found in Bangkok. Sikhs are divided into two sects and they worship at two different temples in the capital city. As a group, the Sikhs operate a free school for poor children, regardless of their caste, creed, or religion. In addition, they support many of the city’s aged and sick via a number of charitable associations. 22 The first Sikh known to come to Thailand was a man named Ladha Singh, who arrived in the country in 1890. More Sikhs joined him in the early part of the 20th century, and by 1911 more than a hundred Sikh practitioners and their families had settled in Thailand, primarily in the Thonburo Region. At that time, all religious prayers were held in private homes, usually in rotation every Sunday and on the holy Gurpurab days.
6. “Buddhist Studies: Theravada Buddhism in Thailand.” buddhanet.net. Retrieved 13 September 2013.
7. “Buddhism in Thailand: Its Past and Its Present.” accesstoinsight.org. Retrieved 13 September 2013.
8. “Buddhism in Thailand: Its Past and Its Present.” accesstoinsight.org. Retrieved 13 September 2013.
10. “Buddhist Studies: Theravada Buddhism in Thailand.” buddhanet.net. Retrieved 13 September 2013.
13. Barmania, Sima. “Islam in Thailand: A New Way Forward.” blogs.independent.co.uk. Retrieved 13 September 2013.
15. Barmania, Sima. “Islam in Thailand: A New Way Forward.” Blogs.independent.co.uk. Retrieved 13 September 2013.
17. Swanson, Herb. “Bibliography of Thai Christianity.” herbswanson.com. Retrieved 13 September 2013.