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Doctrinal vs. popular Buddhism in modern Thailand.

Buddhism has been an integral part of the life and society of Thai Buddhists, it is the root of Thai culture and way of life for the people. In order to appreciate the importance, role, and influence of Theravada Buddhism on the life of the Buddhist populace, it is necessary to understand other structures or fabrics that are integral parts of Buddhism. Important components are the Buddha, Dhamma (San: Dharma; teachings and methods of the Buddha that lead to Enlightenment), Sangha (community of monks), wat (monastery), and upasaka (lay disciples). (1)


Dhamma has always been the most influential teachings for guiding the life of Buddhists. The teachings are found not only in the Pali Canon or the Tipitaka (San: Tripitaka; "Three Baskets," the entire collection of Buddhist writings and scriptures) and Sutta Pitaka (Discourses of the Buddha), but also in such religious literatures as the Jataka Tales (chronicles and myths of the Buddha's previous incarnations). The Dhamma component is an abstract aspect and serves as the heart of Buddhism. The Sangha and the wat are in close proximity with the people and interact with society in daily life. (2)

The close association and continuous relationship between Buddhism and society is based on the concept that a society is a conglomeration of tangible composition and such abstract elements as virtue, goodness, morality, and ethics. (3) There are continuous interactions between the tangible and intangible components. In order to maintain the society's functionality and structure, there must be an interdependent and supportive relationship of different compositions of Buddhism. (4) Lacking any of them would cause imbalance in society. For example, the village community without a monastery and monks to teach the people would result in low morality and spirit of the inhabitants. Similarly, if the monks in the community do not strictly adhere to the Dhamma and keep to their duties and to the Code of Disciplines (Vinaya), the people's morality and spirit will become lax. (5)

Social relationships in the community would also become weak, unstable, and in conflict if there was no religious institution to instruct and guide them. Social relationships are not always in harmony and conflicts may arise from time to time. Resolution of such conflicts is achieved by means of adaptation and adjustment of the existing social structure and function in order to maintain society. Alternatively, there might be a replacement of the structure and function of the old society by a new one.

Interaction and the interdependent relationship of the Sangha and lay society is another aspect of the relationship between society and religion. The Sangha is the most important and traditional Buddhist institution that is closely interacts with the people; it plays an essential role, both religious and secular, in the life of the people. It provides spiritual sanctuary for the people when they need comfort. (6) In the secular sphere, monks render services to rural and remote communities. They help in teaching the children, healing the sick by traditional methods, and leading the villagers in various development efforts.


Reciprocally, the lay community provides the monks with necessities for their well being so that the monks do not worry about earning a living. Such an interdependent and mutual relationship contributes to a situation in which each party has to be flexible and adaptable to change. An accommodating and adaptive ability is an indispensable quality of the structures within a society that makes possible maintenance of the society. The structural and functional definition of Thai social order is maintained through the regulation of official governmental bodies such as the Sangha, Ministry of Religious Affairs, and Ministry of Education (to an extent.) Every component of Thai society is inter-reliant, interacting, and contributing to the system maintenance in a given situation.

Following Robert Redfield's concept of "Great and Little Tradition," (7) Thai society's appreciation of Buddhism can be divided into two broad categories: Doctrinal and Popular Buddhism. (8)

* Doctrinal Buddhism refers to the teachings of the Buddha and practices contained in the Pali Canon sutta (San: sutra; "discourses") and related literatures. Doctrinal Buddhism is thus believed to be original. Its followers will refuse principles, practices, and teachings that are not contained in the Pali Canon. They perceive belief in magic, supernaturalism, spirits, deities, and other forms of animism including beliefs and practices adopted from other faiths, as heresy. The followers of Doctrinal Buddhism are few but generally highly educated.

* Popular Buddhism refers to a Buddhism that is permeated by other religions and belief systems. It includes animism, Brahmanism, and beliefs in ghosts and spirits. The practices and teachings of Buddhism and other belief systems are so well interwoven that only the highly educated among the faithful can distinguish Buddhism from the others.

Despite the conviction among several scholars that Redfield's concept is antiquated and too basic for modern analytical application to the academic study of Thailand and Southeast Asian in general, it is nevertheless quite relevant to the interpretation and discussion of modern Thai society, specifically the social structures found in large cities and urban communities which exhibit a unique form of Buddhist beliefs and practices known as "Popular Thai Buddhism." (9) This form of Buddhism indicates the ever-changing domestic economic, religious, and social environment in modern democratically ruled Thailand while still maintaining deep-rooted beliefs and practices that in the past, was common only among villages and small rural communities.

Religious rites, an important structure and function of a religion, can differentiate between the complexity of Doctrinal and Popular Buddhism. Followers of Popular Buddhism tend to rank rituals high. Their rituals are a combination of Buddhistic, animistic, and Brahmanical elements. On the contrary, followers of Doctrinal Buddhism are more concerned with Buddhist ritual and less with the importance of non-Buddhistic ones. (10)

The majority of Buddhists in Thailand follow Popular Buddhism to some extent. This phenomenon can be explained in the context of the belief system at every level of society. Even in the most primitive societies, human beings could hold on to a belief system. Such a belief system may be animism in various forms, including beliefs regarding natural occurrences. By the time that Theravada Buddhism was introduced to Southeast Asia, there already existed indigenous belief systems and religions among the people. When they accepted Buddhism, they also kept their old beliefs and practices. Because of its flexible quality and liberalism, Buddhism easily absorbed certain elements of existing belief systems into its mainstream practice. What developed from this process is known as Popular Buddhism. (11)

The teachings of the Buddha display variety in their levels of sophistication, purpose, content, and specialties. For example, the Cattari Ariya Saccani (Four Noble Truths) explain natural phenomena that will be with every person from birth to death. It describes the nature of dukkha (suffering), including sorrow and frustration of every kind; the origin of problems and suffering by way of paticca samuppada (causality); the extinction of suffering (Nibbana, San: Nirvana); and the path leading to the extinction of suffering (Ariyo Atthangiko Maggo; the Noble Eightfold Path). (12) There is even a teaching that guides people to live comfortably without sacrificing the accumulation of wealth and success called the Dittdhammikattha Samvattanika Dhamma (virtues conducive to benefits in the present). It teaches the people to be energetic, industrious, and "watchful" concerning their properties, to associate with good people and live efficiently. (13) The Buddha also encouraged people to follow the path to success. This appears in a particular teaching called the Iddhipada (basis for success). (14)

However, the overall purpose of the teachings of the Buddha can be summarized as follows:

* To enlighten the lay[man] about the nature of life from birth and existence to death. This includes an explanation of the origin of life, existence after birth, and survival until death. The teachings also deal with ways to lead one's life happily in harmony with nature and how to minimize and cope with suffering arising from illness, death, disappointment, separation [anxiety], and other misfortunes one could encounter.

* To explain and prescribe ways for people to live together mutually on the individual level, as well as on national and global levels. The teachings to achieve this purpose deal with the prescriptions for social relationships between individual and individual, social relationship within the family, between teacher and students, between employer and employee, between religious personnel and the people, between government and subjects, and between state and state.

* To give guidance as how to apply the teachings of the Buddha to improve daily life. The prescriptions are designed to be understood and workable according to the nature of problems, including the level of appreciation of the people's individual needs. Therefore, there are levels in the teachings of the Buddha, (i.e. basic truth, middle and sophisticated truth, both in everyday and supermundane states.) (15)


The dissemination of the teachings of the Buddha to people at different levels of appreciation requires specialized methods to suit each group. Preaching Dhamma to intellectuals and educated people who are keen on Buddhism and wanting to apply Dhamma to improve their lives, the monks and propagators have to select and transmit a sophisticated Dhamma. (16) The Dhamma for the followers of Popular Buddhism was simplified and made easy to understand. Simplified laws of Kamma (San; Karma; the law of cause and effect) and stories from the Jataka Tales and sutta are an effective means to educate them. However, Phra Rajavoramuni points out that "whatever the teaching methods are, all teachings are related, for [the essence of] the teachings derives from the same truth and the ultimate purpose is identical. In fact these teachings are identical in purpose but given different labels. The truth is disseminated selectively and in different forms." (17)

While the future of Buddhism depends on the good and proper education of the monks and novices, currently most of the Thai monks and novices, the great majority of whom are in rural areas, count among the less overall educated people in the country. Moreover, the traditional system of monastic education under charge of the Sangha has been in a state of rapid decline. Many large Pali language schools have closed, while those that continue, suffer from sharply decreasing numbers of students, a majority of which are Western. By contrast, modern schools for monks and novices, both those unrecognized and those passively recognized by the Sangha, including those which teach exclusively secular subjects and those run by outsiders, lay parties, and even businessmen, enjoy a rapidly increasing number of monks and novices as their students to the dissatisfaction and out of the control of the Sangha. (18)

The Sangha in Thailand, in comparison with ecclesiastical institutions in other countries, is well organized. Thousands of monasteries and over a quarter of a million monks and novices are unified under the same administration. With this national organization of the Sangha, the Thai monkhood enjoys the full recognition and official support of the state and the uniformity of all ecclesiastical affairs and religious activities including education, rituals, and observances. With a religious organization and hierarchy paralleling that of the secular government, full cooperation and agreement between the Sangha and the state are secured. Under these circumstances, the monks have been able to play several important and necessary roles that contribute to the unity of the people.

Thai Buddhism is increasingly individualized; everyone practices and adapts it arbitrarily for his/ her own benefit with less and less intervention from the state, Sangha, or even one's family and community, as was previously the norm. With such an attitude, Buddhism is easily used to please oneself or dissolve one's personal desire without concerns for others, nature, and the spiritual dimension. (19)

It is highly likely that Buddhism will continue to be reduced to a personal level of teaching, particularly in Thailand. However, this is nothing new. In the past, the benefits of the Five Precepts (Pancha Sila), for example, were always explained only on the personal level, contributing to a peaceful and happy individual life, while the benefits to society were rarely mentioned. (20) Though there are several teachings on one's obligation to society, they were less emphasized than teachings on person-to-person practice.


(1.) Somdet Phra Nyanasamvara, What Did The Buddha Teach? (Bangkok: Mahachulalongkornrajavidyalaya University, 2000), 6-7.

(2.) This study was conducted partially through informal discussions and interviews beginning in 2002 initially with Phra Sanong Taew (Wat Chakkawat) and Phra Sugandha (Wat Bovornives), but has extended to random subject questioned in Bangkok. They, and the resident monks at their temples, provided all discussions and translations of Buddhist commentaries, texts, and canon in Pali and Thai. Additional information was provided by B.J. Terwiel, Ph.D., Donald K. Swearer, Ph.D., Steven Heine, Ph.D., and Erik Cohen, Ph.D. in 2002 and 2003-2004 respectively.

(3.) Samsopheap Preap, A Comparative Study of Thai and Khmer Buddhism, unpublished MA Thesis in Buddhist Studies at Mahachulalongkornrajavidyalaya University, (Bangkok: Mahachulalongkornrajavidyalaya University, 2005), 10.

(4.) Phra Rajavoramuni, Buddhism and Thai Society (Bangkok: Komol Kreamthong Foundation Press, 1982), 21-22.

(5.) Samsopheap Preap, 10.

(6.) Ibid., 11.

(7.) Robert Redfield, Peasant Society and Culture (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1956), 41.

(8.) Samsopheap Preap, 12.

(9.) Donald K. Swearer, The Buddhist World of Southeast Asia (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1995), 5-7.

(10.) Samsopheap Preap, 13.

(11.) Ibid.

(12.) Conversation with Phra Sanong Taew, Wat Chakkawat (Bangkok, Thailand), August 2002. Also see Melford Spiro, Buddhism and Society: A Great Tradition and Its Burmese Vicissitudes (London: George Allen and Unwin Ltd., 1977) 37-42.

(13.) A.T. Ariyaratne, "A Buddhist Approach to Social and Economic Development: An Experience from Sri Lanka." Socially Engaged Buddhism for the New Millennium (Bangkok: The Sathirakoses-Nagapradipa Foundation and The Foundation For Children, 1999), 22-24.

(14.) Phra Rajavoramuni, Buddha Dhamma: Law of Nature and Virtues for Life (Bangkok: Sukapharbjai Press, 1983), 11-2 and Paul Carus, The Gospel of the Buddha (New Delhi: National Book Trust, 1971), 155-156.

(15.) Somboon Suksamram, Buddhism and Political Legitimacy (Bangkok: Chulalongkorn University Printing House, 1993), 20-21.

(16.) Samsopheap Preap, 14.

(17.) Phra Rajavoramuni, Buddha Dhamma, 11-12.

(18.) Phra Dhammapitaka, Thai Buddhism in the Buddhist World (Bangkok: Buddhadhamma Foundation, 2001), 152-154.

(19.) Conversation with Phra Paisal Visalo, Wat Pak Sukato, Chaiyaphum, Thailand, September 2005.

(20.) B. J. Terwiel, Monks and Magic: An Analysis of Religious Ceremonies in Central Thailand (Bangkok: White Lotus Press, Ltd., 1994), 161-171.

Yale M. Needel is a Training Specialist and member of the PACOM Team for the TRADOC Culture Center at Fort Huachuca, Arizona. He is also an Adjunct Instructor of Anthropology and Sociology at University of Maryland University College. He has conducted research throughout South and Southeast Asia. His recent publications include a study on the Indian-Jewish communities of Bombay, India as well as several literature reviews. His current research involves an in-depth ethnographic study of Buddhist-related amulets, charms, votive tablets, and tattoos and the roles they play among a group of motorbike taxi drivers in Bangkok's Klong Toey market and slum district. The study will explain the current trend towards the commodification of religion as observed in Thailand.
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Author:Needel, Yale M.
Publication:Military Intelligence Professional Bulletin
Geographic Code:9THAI
Date:Jan 1, 2011
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