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Introduction to Buddhism

Dr. Sunthorn Plamintr

Buddhism: some salient features

Religions, it is often observed, are products of fear. This fear is in turn based on ignorance. With the dawn of wisdom and the ever-expanding horizons of knowledge, faith and confidence in religions begin to evaporate, like morning mist under the rising sun. As William Macquitty puts it, “With the advance of science and psychology many of the older faiths have suffered. Their beliefs went against the new knowledge and the new knowledge won.”

Not so with Buddhism. Buddhism is a result of the human quest for the ultimate truth, an aspiration for that which is the highest and noblest in life. It is based on the Buddha’s wisdom, on his enlightenment, attained through the complete eradication of ignorance, fear and all other defilements from his mind. His teachings, called the Dhamma (Sanskrit: Dharma), have stood the test of time for more than twenty-five centuries. It is with deep faith and conviction in the Buddha’s teachings that Francis Story, a British scholar, asserts:

“The doctrines of Buddha Dhamma stand today, as unaffected by the march of time and the expansion of knowledge as when they were first enunciated. No matter to what lengths increased scientific knowledge can extend man’s mental horizon, within the framework of the Dhamma there is room for the acceptance and assimilation of further discovery.”

One of the most outstanding features of Buddhism is its total independence of divine elements. It is a religion of self-help. According to Buddhism, human beings should learn to be self-reliant and to have faith in their own ability. Buddhist philosophy is anthropocentric in its outlook and practical implementation, placing man at the center of its metaphysical and ethical systems. It is a religion that insists primarily on man’s own effort and perseverance to achieve his goals, be they material or spiritual, rather than prayer or wishful thinking.

As Venerable Dr. H. Gunaratana points out, “Buddhism as a whole is quite different from the theological religions with which Westerners are most familiar. It is a direct entrance to a spiritual or divine realm without addressing deities or other agents. Its flavor is intensely clinical, much more akin to what we would call psychology than to what we would usually call religion. It is an ever-ongoing investigation of reality, a microscopic examination of the very process of perception. Its intention is to pick apart the screen of lies and delusions through which we normally view the world, and thus to reveal the face of ultimate reality.”

Those who have studied Buddhism often claim, with some justification, that Buddhism is scientific in nature. It is certainly the most scientific of all religions. Its teachings are logical and its methods are compatible with scientific methods. That is why many modern scientists and thinkers believe that the teachings of the Buddha are still valid and practical in spite of their great age. The Dhamma is an ancient spiritual legacy that can benefit mankind as much today as it did more than twenty-five centuries ago.

Blind faith is anathema to Buddhism, which clearly urges us to think freely and not to accept things blindly. In Buddhism, free thought is upheld, questions are welcome, and positive doubt is considered the first stepping stone to wisdom. Buddhism believes in human potential. It also asserts human equality, emphasizing personal and social responsibilities, based on the doctrine ofkamma (Sanskrit: karma — action and result).

Kindness, compassion, and tolerance are some of the virtues that Buddhism strongly encourages. This explains why Buddhists are generally peace-loving people and why religious war is unknown in the long history of Buddhism. Much of the suffering in the world today is a direct result of the lack of these qualities. Religions that should be serving to unite people and maintain harmony are instead being used to divide and alienate them from each other. The history of some religions is full of bloodshed and violence. Against this unfortunate background, Buddhism stands out as the most tolerant religion in the annals of human civilization. “Alone of all the great world religions,” observes Aldous Huxley, “Buddhism made its way without persecution, censorship or inquisition.”

The Buddhist attitude

In Buddhism, right attitude is closely connected with understanding and knowledge. It is founded on wisdom. With right attitude we see Buddhism not simply as a system of beliefs, but a teaching that offers an effective system for exploring reality and the deeper levels of mind, one that leads to the very foundation of consciousness itself. This naturally entails an element of penetrative insight and constant awareness. In addition to these more profound teachings, Buddhism also presents us with a system of rituals which are the natural result of over twenty-five centuries of cultural growth and development.

Because Buddhism is a religion of self-help, the first and foremost duty of a Buddhist is to understand the supreme position of the human being and one’s responsibility toward both oneself and fellow sentient beings. The Buddha did not claim any divine affinity. His enlightenment was a result of his own efforts, unaided by teachers or divine providence. There was no need for him to base his teachings on divine revelation, as is usually done by religious teachers and prophets. The Dhamma that he expounded is the Truth itself — to introduce divine elements into it would be a superfluous exercise. His realization of the Dhamma and the validity of the teaching itself are the strength of his teachings, and this has rendered so-called divine inspiration or intervention irrelevant in the Buddhist context.

According to Buddhism, humanity’s position is supreme. Human beings are their own masters, endowed with great potential, from mundane material concerns up to the highest spiritual achievements. This position is clearly exemplified by the Buddha’s own struggles and successes. He attributed his enlightenment and all his achievements to human effort, not to divine grace. It is encouraging to know that, according to the Buddha, only a human being can become a Buddha, a position to which even gods and deities cannot aspire. Every human being possesses the seed of Buddha-nature, the potential to become a Buddha, and that potential can only be actualized through human endeavor.

The Buddha’s assertion, unique and unparalleled in the history of religions, presupposes the principle of individual responsibility. Because man is supreme, a master of his own destiny, it follows that he must also be responsible for his own action and inaction. “You must walk the path yourself,” says the Buddha, “the Tathagata (Buddha) only points the way.”

Sometimes this statement is misconstrued to imply the Buddha’s inability, or unwillingness, to be of real assistance to his followers. It is pointed out that in contrast with other religious teachers, prophets, or even deities, whose alleged role is that of a ‘savior,’ the function of the Buddha is merely that of a teacher, giving instruction and little else. This criticism is based on ignorance of the real personality and powers of the Buddha on the one hand, and blind faith in the so-called savior on the other. Even in so simple a matter as quenching thirst or hunger, one has to consume drinks or food oneself: is it not curious that one would look to an outside savior to fulfill one’s larger and more profound needs? The problem becomes more complex when the savior has to respond to millions of prayers all at once, many of which are locked in conflicting interests. The Buddha was too honest and straightforward to suggest that anyone other than oneself, even a God (if one does exist), could be of real assistance if one fails to take responsibility for one’s own actions. “You are your own refuge, who else could be your refuge?” These are the Buddha’s words, as true and valid today as when they were pronounced by the Master more than 2,500 years ago.

Right attitude is possible only in a framework of freedom of thought, another prominent feature of Buddhist philosophy, and freedom of thought is possible only in the context of trust and confidence. The extent that freedom of thought is encouraged by the Buddha is uniquely characteristic of both the religion and its founder: not only did he insist that his disciples examine and reexamine his teachings, but he was willing even to subject himself and his character to their close scrutiny. Only a teacher of the highest impeccability could allow such an investigation.

Freedom of thought should therefore be considered an integral ingredient of the Buddhist attitude. This quality is essential in the context of Buddhism, which is known for its scientific approach. Like a good scientist, a Buddhist should constantly examine the Dhamma and experiment with its principles through practical application, by rationalizing and investigating them with an open mind. It is through such a process that faith and conviction, based on wisdom, will grow and become strengthened. To blindly believe, without exercising one’s own reasoning faculties and without attempting at a direct experience, is, according to Buddhism, counterproductive to the development of wisdom.

Since freedom of thought occupies an important place in the Buddhist system, this naturally leads to another essential characteristic of the religion. A religious attitude rooted in freedom of thought points to religious tolerance, or tolerance with regard to the views and opinions of others. This explains why Buddhists are usually very tolerant people and why their religion has spread peacefully through the ages.

The Dhamma is like a raft, says the Buddha. It is used for crossing the river of pain, suffering, and conflict. Once the crossing has been accomplished, it is not necessary to cling onto the raft or carry it around. With such broad minded attitudes and intellectual maturity, Buddhists can share room on the ‘raft’ of Dhamma with others, without stubbornly holding on to it and arguing with one another as to the quality and the beauty of different ‘rafts.’

Buddhism views all phenomena in terms of causal relationship. This means that all phenomena, all occurrences, whether empirically perceivable or otherwise, are subject to the law of cause and effect. Everything is conditioned by causal factors, and all things are themselves conditioning factors for other occurrences. Nothing is absolutely independent, for, according to the Buddhist philosophy, absolute existence is not possible.

Based on this principle of causal relationship, it naturally follows that all phenomena are interrelated and interdependent. One single event, trifling and insignificant as it may seem, may in fact be related to thousands of other events, and this relationship may extend, in the final analysis, to all other conceivable phenomena, even though they may seem as remote as the wildest imagination can stretch. Thus, Buddhism perceives all lives, human as well as nonhuman, and all things and events, not as independent entities, but rather as part and parcel of the whole cosmic order, interconnected in an infinitely complex relationship by the common law of conditionality.

Buddhist attitude allows for the growth of mutual understanding, trust and a deep sense of altruistic consideration. Selfishness and greed are the usual negative ramifications of a narrow world view, based on the philosophy of narcissistic hedonism. Buddhist philosophy is an antidote to this. It poses universal compassion as the foundation and driving motivation for social responsibility and action.

Buddhists regard the Buddha as the greatest teacher, the Dhamma, his great teachings, and the Sangha, his well-trained followers. The Buddha has shown the way, having himself gone before, but it is up to us to walk that way ourselves. This is a responsibility that each and every person must undertake individually. A Buddhist should maintain a scientific attitude, questioning, investigating, and experimenting with the Dhamma to develop full understanding of the Buddha’s teachings. Practice of the Dhamma should be properly grounded on wisdom and supported by a conviction that all that is noble and good can be achieved by one’s own efforts. Even the highest level of spiritual attainment, Buddhahood, is not beyond reach of those who persevere in their efforts.

Objects of worship

There is a Pali term tiratana, which means ‘three gems’ or ‘three treasures.’ This word tiratana is used to designate the three objects of highest respect in the Buddhist religion: they are the Buddha, the Dhamma, and the Sangha. Usually, they are collectively referred to in English as the Triple Gem. Buddhists in all traditions regard the Triple Gem with great devotion and respect.

Buddha means the Enlightened One. He is the embodiment of virtues and goodness and the founder of the religion of Buddhism. Endowed with the three qualities of infinite wisdom, perfect purity, and universal compassion, he bequeathed to mankind a teaching that is unequaled in history. This is the Dhamma, the Universal Law of Truth, which the Buddha had discovered and which forms the basis of the Buddhist way of life and spiritual practice. The Sangha is the community of those noble disciples, the Holy Order, who have realized the Truth after the Buddha and who have attained a high degree of spiritual discipline.

The Buddha, the Dhamma, and the Sangha are our true refuges. They are so closely related that from the practical perspective they essentially form a unified principle rather than three separate entities. The arising of a Buddha is dependent upon the realization of the Dhamma, which is both an absolute condition and the essence of Buddhahood. The Buddha in the ultimate sense is therefore none other than the Dhamma itself. However, without a Buddha, the Dhamma would remain undiscovered and untaught; it would remain an abstract quality without any practical value as far as human beings are concerned.

It is through a Buddha that the Dhamma is made manifest and its existence becomes meaningful, just as the fragrance of a flower becomes manifest when there is someone to smell it. When the Buddha realized the Truth, the Dhamma acquired a meaningful character; when he expounded it, the Dhamma came to life and transformed into practical teachings. Thus the teachings of the Buddha are the Dhamma in its truest expression, intelligible, concrete, and practical.

The Sangha in turn depends on the Buddha and the Dhamma for its arising and existence. Members of the Sangha are ‘born’ through the realization of the Dhamma, following the Buddha’s example. Thus the Sangha stands as the most crucial testimony to Buddhahood. Without the Sangha, Buddhahood would lack concrete and objective evidence in the eyes of the world and would therefore fall short of any practical purpose. As realization of the Truth constitutes being the Sangha, it therefore follows that without the Sangha, both Buddhahood and the Dhamma, which in the ultimate sense are one and the same, would lose much of their meaning and value. It is the Sangha that preserves and spreads the Dhamma. Since the Dhamma is the essence of Buddhism as revealed by the Buddha, and the Sangha provides it with a definite form, it is not difficult to see that without the Sangha the religion would not have been established in the first place, or if it were founded, it would not have continued for long after the historical Buddha was gone.

Buddhists regard the Triple Gem with the highest veneration. We pay respect to the Triple Gem by practicing the Dhamma and conducting ourselves in accordance with the Buddha’s teachings. We also support the Sangha so that the Dhamma will be further preserved and promoted for the welfare and benefit of the world.

Buddhist practice and goal

Buddhists believe in the cycle of birth and death, called Samsara in Pali. This belief is based on the recognition of the continuity of a series of lives from the past to the present and from the present to the future. The present life is not the only one, and it does not dissolve into nothingness at death. Samsara means that there existed lives prior to this one, and other existences will continue after its termination. The process and the continuity of life are sustained by the force of kamma, willful action based on desire, attachment and ignorance. This instinctive clinging to life, which is a universal attribute, is a determining factor for the continuation of existence.

Samsara also implies a plurality of different realms of existence, in which rebirth takes place according to the nature of kammic energy. Some planes of existence are painful, and are a result of evil and unwholesome kamma, while others are filled with happiness and pleasurable experiences, and are attained through the positive energy of wholesome kamma. The human realm is one which contains a mixture of experiences, both pleasurable and painful, and this realm is shared by animals of different kinds.

Samsara can be also interpreted to refer to the changing states of consciousness within the mind. Some scholars construe Samsara to signify the stream of experiences that come within the sphere of perception. Thus, according to these interpretations, Samsara may either be viewed simply as a state of consciousness, or the many experiences with which an individual becomes involved. It follows then that there may be many births and deaths occurring from moment to moment in different planes of thought or experience.

The ultimate goal in Buddhist practice is to be free from this cycle of birth and death. Samsara is considered undesirable as it lacks security and is liable to the vicissitudes and uncertainties of existence, such as old age, disease, death, pain, and suffering. Freedom from Samsara is calledNibbana (Sanskrit: nirvana), metaphorically described as the other shore, or the transcendental state beyond the confusion of worldly existence. It is the state which is completely free from conditionalities and limitations and is therefore not subject to all the conditions in mundane existence. Nibbana is a transcendent state, unconditioned and absolute.

The cycle of birth and death is perpetuated by the force of kamma-producing defilements (kilesa), chiefly by ignorance, craving and attachment. To achieve Nibbana, these defilements must be eliminated from the mind. This is by no means an easy task. The Buddha himself, even after his enlightenment, hesitated over teaching the Dhamma for some time, for he knew how his teachings went against the current of deluded thinking. He later said, “Few are those who have gone to the other shore, the rest are running up and down on this side.” Thus, despite all the lofty ideals and exaltation of Nibbana, not all Buddhists feel inclined to strive for it in this life. Many are content to follow some basic ethical principles, such as generosity and moral precepts, to accumulate positivekamma in the hope of being reborn in a happy realm of existence.

The Buddha mentions three desirable existential attainments (sampatti):

1. The attainment of a human state of existence (manussa-sampatti): The Buddha praised this kind of attainment as having the highest potential for spiritual growth and development.

2. The attainment of heavenly existence as a god or goddess (deva-sampatti): Although the heavenly planes of existence are endowed with all manner of pleasurable experiences and are relatively unaffected by sorrow and pain, yet as far as spiritual development is concerned this proves to be a disadvantage. Heavenly beings are likely to become intoxicated with the sensual pleasures constantly at their disposal. In such an atmosphere, training in spiritual practice is simply an improbable aspiration.

3. Attainment of Nibbana (Nibbana-sampatti): This is the noblest and most exalted of all attainments and is the ultimate goal in Buddhism.

Both human and heavenly realms are still within the sphere of mundane existence and are therefore subject to impermanence, change, and unsatisfactoriness. Nibbana is transcendent and free from the attributes that characterize mundane states.

To achieve any of these attainments, it is necessary to follow the threefold training of morality (sila), concentration (samadhi), and wisdom (pa~n~na).

Buddhist morality refers to training in ethical conduct, entailing conscious restraint of bodily and verbal actions so that they cause harm neither to oneself nor to others. This is a fundamental level of training in Buddhism, especially for those who have dedicated themselves to a religious life. For laity the Buddha often recommended beginning the practice with generosity (dana) as a means of acquiring a proper mental foundation for higher ethical discipline.

The main objectives of morality, according to Buddhism, are self-restraint, purity in personal conduct, and benevolent social interaction. Man is intrinsically wholesome, being of a noble-minded nature. The practice in Buddhist morality aims at preserving that natural state of humanity and wholesomeness. This is accomplished through the observance of certain sets of precepts that are graded into different levels according to different stages of moral maturity. Basically, lay Buddhists follow five precepts: not to kill, not to steal, to refrain from sexual misconduct, not to resort to falsehood, and to refrain from taking intoxicants. The essence of these precepts is moral responsibility to oneself and other beings.

Concentration or samadhi refers to mental discipline. This is a higher training than morality and generosity, as it deals directly with the mind and the deeper levels of consciousness. It entails control and mastery of the mind, which requires more intensive application of effort. Not many people nowadays are interested enough to commit themselves to the serious practice of concentration, although in recent times more and more have come to realize its benefits and have started to take part in the training.

Training in concentration involves one form of meditative discipline, while the development of wisdom concerns another. The Pali term for wisdom is pañña. It is the penetrative insight into reality, understanding things as they really are. This is the understanding of the Four Noble Truths, which is the highest wisdom, and which comprehends Truth in its totality. It is a higher knowledge, one which eliminates mental impurities at their very roots.

Metaphorically, defilements are compared to weeds, which are harmful to flowering plants. If the weeds overgrow them, the flowers will be suffocated. Practicing morality (sila) is comparable to keeping the weeds trimmed down and under control. Training in concentration (samadhi) is like keeping the weeds under a big rock, so that they have no chance to grow further. However, if one neglects trimming, or if the rock is removed, the weeds will grow back to their former verdant abundance. The development of wisdom (pañña) is like rooting out the weeds of defilements, chopping them up, and burning them to ashes so that they have no chance to bother the beautiful plant of the mind again.

According to Buddhism, Nibbana is the highest goal of the religious life, the most complete security and the ultimate bliss. The Buddha defines this state of summum bonum as “the extinction of desire, the extinction of hatred, and the extinction of delusion.” Individual worldlings wandering through Samsara may have other objectives or aspirations in life, and may even perceive Nibbanaas irrelevant, but ultimately the journey will culminate in Nibbana, even though it may take countless births and deaths and an unimaginable length of time. The Buddha referred to Nibbanaas “the complete destruction of that very ‘thirst’ (tanha), giving it up, renouncing it, being free from it, detaching from it,” and as “the calming of all conditioned things, giving up of all defilements, cessation of craving, and detachment.”

A glimpse at early Buddhism

Buddhism evolved and developed around the teachings of the Buddha. During his lifetime, the religion prospered and spread rapidly through the great personality of the founder himself, and he was assisted by a large and fast-growing community of noble disciples who drew inspiration from his example of renunciation and self-sacrifice. Before the Buddha passed away, the religion had become well established in India, the land of its birth, and the Master had the satisfaction of realizing that his teachings would continue to benefit the world after he was gone. After his death, his disciples took upon themselves the responsibility of carrying his message of love and wisdom to even farther corners of the earth. Through the centuries that followed, Buddhism emerged as the largest world religion and one of the most important civilizing forces in the history of mankind.

Originally, the Buddha’s teachings were preserved and handed down through oral tradition from one generation of monks to another, until they were committed into writing in Sri Lanka some five hundred years after the Great Demise. Councils were held from time to time, attended by large numbers of eminent and learned monks, to verify and confirm those teachings in order that their purity be preserved. Earlier councils were held in India, but as Buddhism spread to other countries and flourished, monks in those lands also took the initiative to keep up the tradition. The shift from oral tradition to literary format, which took place for the first time in Sri Lanka, made it possible for monks, as guardians of the religion, to ensure the authenticity of the Buddha’s teachings through the subsequent centuries of its troubled history.

The fourth century BC saw India being invaded by a Western power. Alexander the Great (356-323 BC), having conquered part of the subcontinent, established Greek control in the country where Buddhism was flourishing and widespread. The Greek rule, however, was short lived. Chandragupta of the Mauryan dynasty vanquished the Greek power in India and largely expanded the Magadha empire. He was the grandfather of the mighty Emperor Ashoka, who ascended the Magadha throne in the year 218 after the passing away of the Buddha and ruled over the vast empire for forty-one years.

Ashoka was not born a Buddhist. He had been a ruthless King, known for his cruelty, whose insatiable ambition was to conquer more and more territories and expand his powers. His empire extended northeastward as far as Kamarupa (Assam), and included Kashmir as well as Nepal. On the northwest it stretched to include the lands of Paropanisadae (Kabul), Arachosia (Kandahar), Aria (Herat), and parts of Gedrosia (Baluchistan). In the south it covered almost the whole peninsular, down to the Penner river.

After his conversion to Buddhism, Ashoka became a changed man. He renounced the policy of Conquest by War (yuddhavijaya), which necessarily involved killing and destruction, and embarked upon the policy of Conquest by Dhamma (dhammavijaya), which subsequently became his lifelong passion and mission. Under his patronage, Buddhism prospered as never before. His stone inscriptions eloquently speak of the religious activities during his time, both within his empire as well as in other countries, with which he maintained a close diplomatic relationship. Thus, we have clear evidence today of the ‘mission of piety’ that he sent to many foreign lands, including five Greek countries, whose kings have been identified as Magas of Cyrene (300-258 BC), Ptolemy II of Egypt (285-247 BC), Antigonas Gonatas of Macedonia (276-246 BC), Alexander of Epirus (272-258 BC), and Antiochus II of Syria (261-246 BC).

It was under the auspices of Ashoka that the third Buddhist Council was held, presided over by his spiritual master, Venerable Moggalliputta Tissa, and attended by one thousand Arahants(enlightened beings). After the successful conclusion of the council, nine missions of elders were dispatched to spread the Dhamma in various states and foreign countries. It was the first recorded instance of state-sponsored missionary activities in the history of religions. One of the missions, led by Venerables Sona and Uttara, arrived in Suvannabhumi, a country to the west of India. The administrative center of Suvannabhumi has been identified as the province of Nakhon Pathom in central Thailand. The establishment of the religion there thus dates back as far as some twenty-three centuries ago.

The emergence of Mahayana and Theravada

With the passage of time there arose certain developments within the Buddhist Order that finally led to the formation of different sects. The Mahasanghikas came into existence toward the end of the first century after the Buddha’s death. The other major school, which claimed to be orthodox and conservative, became known as Theravada. The school of the Mahasanghikas was later called Mahayana. Out of these two sects, eighteen schools had evolved by the time Ashoka was crowned emperor of Magadha. Most of these were short-lived, and finally only the two schools Theravada and Mahayana survived and prospered, although they were again divided into numerous sub-sects in later times. It was the latter that was in due course introduced into Tibet, acquiring its own distinct flavor and characteristics as the Vajrayana school.

Questions are often asked as to differences between the two major traditions. To be sure, most of the differences are rather superficial, and can be observed in the way monks put on their monastic garments, the way ceremonies are conducted, the languages used to record the Buddha’s teachings (Theravada adheres to the original Pali, while Mahayana uses Sanskrit), and all those cultural elements that have come to be associated with each denomination. On a deeper level, there are differences in the emphasis being placed on certain aspects of the Buddha’s teachings and in the methods of religious training. Thus, while Theravada stresses the importance of monastic discipline as the preliminary requisite for higher spiritual development, Mahayana saw the need to modify and adapt it in accordance with the changing circumstances. The Bodhisattva ideals, though accepted and taught in the Theravada tradition, are much more strongly emphasized in the Mahayana system and are considered central to their religious practice.

But generally speaking, both Theravada and Mahayana traditions have more things in common than meets the eye, especially from the doctrinal perspective. Both agree on the teachings which are fundamental in the Buddhist system, such as the four Noble Truths, the Noble Eightfold Path, the ten Perfections (six in Mahayana), the four Foundations of Mindfulness, the twelve links of Dependent Origination, the Law of Conditionality, the nature of enlightenment, Nibbana as the summum bonum of religious training, the doctrines of kamma and rebirth, etc. Both accept the roles of compassion and wisdom as crucial in any aspiration to enlightenment. Both uphold the cultivation of such virtues as kindness, gratitude, respect to elders, humility, altruism, generosity, morality, mindfulness, non-attachment, universal compassion, and so forth. It is therefore proper to conclude that all the different schools of Buddhism uniformly correspond with one another in essential doctrines, objectives, practice, and goals.

Theravada Buddhism flourished in southern countries such as Sri Lanka, Myanmar (Burma), Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia, while the Mahayana school spread northward to Nepal, China, Tibet, Mongolia, Korea, Japan and Vietnam. The former is thus sometimes referred to as the Southern School, and the latter as the Northern School. Tibet’s Vajrayana is currently so widespread in the West that it has come to be recognized in its own right as a separate denomination, distinct from Mahayana to which it was earlier closely affiliated.

Buddhism in Thailand

Buddhism was introduced into Thailand some twenty-three centuries ago when the region was still populated by Mons and Lawas. Nakhon Pathom was then the administrative center and, after the advent of the religion, became an active seat of Buddhist propagation. Later the region was occupied by the Thais, also followers of Buddhism; Khun Luang Mao, who ruled over the Ailao Kingdom about two thousand years ago, was the first Thai Buddhist king and the professed upholder of the religion.

Mahayana Buddhism spread to Thailand in the 9th century during the reign of the Srivijaya kings, who ruled from Sumatra and whose territories extended over some southern provinces of Thailand. Meanwhile the Khmer authority and influence also spread over the whole of central and northeastern Thailand. The Khmer kings were adherents of Mahayana Buddhism, which had by then absorbed much of the Brahmanistic elements into its system. It was around this time that Mahayana Buddhism and Brahmanism began to exert deep influence on the Thai culture. Although neither of them came to replace Theravada Buddhism, their cultural influences were considerable, and can be readily observed even today.

Another stream of cultural and religious influences began to flow into Thailand from Myanmar (Burma) around the 11th century when King Anuruddha ascended the Myanmar throne. His territorial conquests stretched as far as the Thai kingdoms of Lanna and Lanchang. Another form of Theravada Buddhism, called Pukam or Pagan Buddhism, which was practiced by the Myanmar people, spread into these lands. Following the decline of the Khmer and Myanmar influences, there emerged in the 13th century the kingdoms of Lanna in the north and Sukhothai in north-central Thailand. At the height of its glory Lanna became an important seat of Buddhist learning, where numerous scholarly works in Pali were produced. The most famous king of Sukhothai was Ramkamhaeng the Great, who unified the Thai people under one single rule and whose territories extended far and wide. He strongly supported the form of Theravada Buddhism prevalent in Sri Lanka, which by then had spread to Thailand following a general reform under the auspices of King Parakramabahu the Great. Lanka Buddhism, as it was called, became highly popular in Thailand and virtually replaced other forms of Buddhism in the country. This is the form of Buddhism preserved and practiced in the present time. Later, during the Ayutthaya period, when religious conditions in Sri Lanka deteriorated so much that not a single monk could be found on the island, Thailand had the opportunity to more than repay this spiritual debt. A delegation of monks, headed by Venerable Upali, was dispatched to Sri Lanka to help revive the monastic order in that country. The ecclesiastical lineage so reestablished became known as the Siam Sect, the country’s largest denomination today.

Thus the history of Thai Buddhism may be divided into four periods. The first was Theravada Buddhism as introduced by Ashoka’s mission; the second was Mahayana Buddhism under the Srivijaya and Khmer influences; the third was Pukam Buddhism introduced from Myanmar, and the fourth, Theravada Buddhism from Sri Lanka.


[Originally published in Sunthorn Plamintr’s Getting to Know Buddhism (Bangkok: Buddhadhamma Foundation, 1994), pp. 3-22.]