The Ultimate Guide to Theravāda Buddhism

Theravāda Buddhism in Thailand; Close-up of the face of a smiling Buddha image
Table of Contents

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The Origin of Theravāda

The origins of Theravada Buddhism can be traced back to the ancient Indian subcontinent, during the time of the Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama, in the 6th century BCE. Born into a noble family in what is now modern-day Nepal, Siddhartha embarked on a spiritual quest to understand the nature of suffering and attain enlightenment. After years of rigorous ascetic practices, he ultimately found enlightenment under the Bodhi tree in Bodh Gaya, India.

Theravada, which translates to “the doctrine of the elders,” is considered one of the oldest surviving schools of Buddhism. It follows the Pali Canon, a vast collection of scriptures known as the Tripitaka, which were orally transmitted by the Buddha’s disciples and later written down in the Pali language. These sacred texts encompass teachings on ethics, philosophy, and meditation, forming the foundation of Theravada Buddhism.

Following the Buddha’s parinirvana (passing away), his teachings were propagated across various regions of India, and Theravada gradually spread to Sri Lanka. A defining moment in Theravada’s history occurred during the reign of King Ashoka in the 3rd century BCE. The Indian emperor embraced Buddhism and sent missionary monks to disseminate its teachings throughout Southeast Asia, including Sri Lanka and parts of present-day Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia, and Laos.

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The Spread of Theravāda

Theravada Buddhism was first introduced to Thailand in the 13th century during the reign of King Ramkhamhaeng. As the first ruler of the Sukhothai Kingdom, King Ramkhamhaeng established Theravada as the state religion and played a pivotal role in its propagation throughout the region.

Under King Ramkhamhaeng’s patronage, Buddhist monasteries, known as “wats,” were built and became centers of learning and spiritual practice. The king himself was known for his deep devotion to Buddhism and sought to cultivate a virtuous and enlightened society through the dissemination of Buddhist teachings.

Theravada Buddhism spread throughout Sukhothai and the surrounding areas through the efforts of both royal patronage and dedicated monastic communities. Monks, well-versed in the Pali Canon and the teachings of the Buddha, played a crucial role in transmitting the Dhamma (Buddha’s teachings) to the local population.

The core beliefs of Theravada Buddhism emphasized in Sukhothai revolved around the Four Noble Truths, which presented a profound understanding of human suffering and its cessation.

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The Four Noble Truths

The Four Noble Truths serve as the bedrock of Theravada Buddhist philosophy, offering profound insights into the human condition and providing a roadmap for achieving inner transformation and freedom from suffering. As the cornerstone of Buddhist teachings, they continue to guide countless practitioners on their spiritual journey towards awakening and the discovery of true peace and wisdom.

The Truth of Suffering (Dukkha): The first noble truth acknowledges the existence of suffering or unsatisfactoriness in life. It encompasses not only physical pain and mental anguish but also the inherent dissatisfaction and impermanence that pervade all aspects of existence. Birth, aging, sickness, and death are part of the natural cycle of life, and clinging to impermanent phenomena leads to suffering.

The Truth of the Origin of Suffering (Samudaya): The second noble truth identifies the root cause of suffering, known as craving (tanha) and attachment. It is the insatiable desire for pleasure, material possessions, and worldly pursuits that bind individuals to the cycle of birth and rebirth. Craving stems from ignorance (avijja) of the true nature of reality, perpetuating a sense of self (ego) and the illusion of permanence.

The Truth of the Cessation of Suffering (Nirodha): The third noble truth offers hope and liberation by revealing that suffering can be extinguished and transcended. By letting go of craving and attaining a state of freedom from attachment, individuals can experience the cessation of suffering. 

The Truth of the Path to the Cessation of Suffering (Magga): The fourth noble truth outlines the Noble Eightfold Path, which serves as the practical guide to end suffering and attain liberation. This path encompasses eight interconnected factors, including right view, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration. These factors form a holistic approach to cultivating wisdom, ethical conduct, and mental discipline, leading individuals towards the realization of enlightenment.

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The Noble Eightfold Path

The Noble Eightfold Path encapsulates the core principles and guidelines for leading a virtuous and enlightened life. Its divided into three main categories known as the Threefold Training: Wisdom (panna), Ethical Conduct (sila), and Mental Discipline (samadhi). Within each category, there are specific factors that practitioners cultivate to develop a balanced and wholesome way of living.

Wisdom: This aspect of the path involves developing the right understanding and view of reality. It consists of two factors:

    • Right View: Understanding the Four Noble Truths, impermanence, interdependence, and the law of karma.
    • Right Intention: Cultivating wholesome intentions, such as renunciation, goodwill, and compassion.

Ethical Conduct: This category pertains to living a moral and ethical life, encompassing three factors:

    • Right Speech: Abstaining from lying, harsh speech, divisive speech, and idle chatter.
    • Right Action: Refraining from killing, stealing, and sexual misconduct.
    • Right Livelihood: Engaging in a livelihood that does not harm others or involve dishonesty.

Mental Discipline: This aspect involves cultivating mental qualities that lead to concentration and clarity. It consists of three factors:

    • Right Effort: Striving to abandon unwholesome mental states and cultivate wholesome ones.
    • Right Mindfulness: Being mindful and fully aware of one’s thoughts, feelings, and actions in the present moment.
    • Right Concentration: Developing deep states of concentration through meditation, leading to tranquil and focused mind states.

The Noble Eightfold Path is not a linear progression but an interconnected web of practices that support each other. By following this path, individuals can gradually overcome ignorance, craving, and aversion, leading to the cessation of suffering and the realization of enlightenment.

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Understanding Nirvana

Nirvana encompasses the cessation of suffering and the extinguishing of the fires of desire, aversion, and ignorance. It is the culmination of the Four Noble Truths, the timeless teachings that illuminate the nature of suffering, its origins, and the path to its cessation.

At its core, nirvana is a state of perfect bliss, serenity, and profound peace, akin to the extinguishing of a burning flame. It is the realization of the inherent impermanence and insubstantiality of all phenomena, liberating the mind from the relentless cycle of craving and attachment. In this transcendental state, the fetters of ego and self-identity dissolve, paving the way for the full blossoming of wisdom and compassion.

While the concept of nirvana transcends human language and description, the Pali Canon offers glimpses of this sublime state through metaphorical expressions. It is likened to an ocean of profound serenity, a cool refuge from the sweltering heat of worldly desires. For the ardent seekers, it is an island of solace amidst the turbulent waters of samsara.

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The Pali Canon's Influence

The Pali Canon, revered as one of the most ancient and authoritative scriptures in Buddhism, holds a profound influence on the practice and preservation of Theravada Buddhism. Also known as the Tipitaka, which translates to “Three Baskets,” it is a vast collection of discourses, rules, and philosophical analysis that form the core of the Theravada tradition.

Comprising three primary sections, the Pali Canon encompasses the Vinaya Pitaka, the Sutta Pitaka, and the Abhidhamma Pitaka. The Vinaya Pitaka outlines the rules and regulations governing the monastic community, offering detailed guidelines on monastic conduct, discipline, and organization. This section provides the framework for the Sangha, the community of monks and nuns, ensuring its continuity and fostering harmonious living within the monastic order.

The Sutta Pitaka contains the teachings of the historical Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama. These discourses cover a wide range of topics, including ethics, meditation, and the nature of reality. Scholars meticulously preserved these teachings through an oral tradition before eventually committing them to writing, safeguarding the essence of the Buddha’s wisdom for future generations.

The Abhidhamma Pitaka delves into profound philosophical and doctrinal analysis, further expanding on the teachings found in the Sutta Pitaka. It presents intricate explanations of Buddhist concepts, such as the nature of consciousness, the aggregates of existence, and the law of cause and effect. This section is valued for its intellectual depth, allowing scholars and practitioners to engage in profound contemplation and gain a deeper understanding of the Buddhist teachings.

The Pali Canon’s influence extends beyond the monastic community, shaping the cultural and spiritual fabric of Theravada Buddhist societies. Temples and monasteries serve as repositories of the Pali Canon, where devoted practitioners study and recite its teachings. These scriptures are often chanted in Pali, the ancient language of the Buddha’s time, fostering a sense of connection to the tradition’s roots.

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The Theravāda's Dhamma

At the heart of Theravada Buddhism lies a profound set of teachings that encompass various aspects of life, ethics, philosophy, and the path to liberation. Rooted in the Pali Canon, these teachings, known as the Dhamma, form the foundation of Theravada practice, providing insights into the nature of reality and offering guidance for leading a wholesome and enlightened life.

Central to the Dhamma is the concept of impermanence (anicca) and insubstantiality (anatta) of all phenomena. Understanding these qualities leads to wisdom and liberation, as practitioners learn to let go of attachments and realize the transient nature of existence. Insight meditation (Vipassana) plays a pivotal role in cultivating this wisdom, encouraging introspection and mindfulness to observe the arising and passing away of sensations and mental states.

The practice of metta (loving-kindness) is a cherished aspect of Theravada Buddhism, promoting benevolence and compassion towards all beings. By cultivating a boundless, altruistic love, individuals dissolve the barriers of self-centeredness and embrace interconnectedness, fostering harmony and understanding among diverse communities.

Last but not least, the teaching of karma (the law of cause and effect), emphasizes the ethical consequences of actions. Actions rooted in intention, whether positive or negative, have repercussions that shape one’s future experiences. By cultivating virtuous conduct, practitioners seek to create positive karmic imprints that lead to more favorable outcomes in this life and future rebirths.

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Understanding Karma's Role

According to Theravada teachings, karma arises from the volitional nature of human deeds. Every action, whether physical, verbal, or mental, is accompanied by an intention or mental state. These intentions generate karmic imprints that shape an individual’s future experiences, both in this life and subsequent rebirths.

The principle of karma encompasses both positive and negative actions. Wholesome deeds rooted in generosity, compassion, and moral virtue create “good” karma, leading to favorable outcomes and a sense of well-being. Conversely, unwholesome actions arising from greed, hatred, and delusion generate “bad” karma, resulting in suffering and unfavorable circumstances.

Karma operates through a complex network of interconnected causes and effects, ripening over time. This temporal aspect of karma highlights that the results of actions might not manifest immediately but can bear fruit in this or future lifetimes. Consequently, karma reinforces the notion of continuity beyond a single lifetime, emphasizing the cycle of birth and rebirth (samsara) until the ultimate goal of liberation (nirvana) is attained.

Theravada Buddhism encourages practitioners to be mindful of their thoughts, words, and deeds, as the intentional nature of these actions determines their karmic consequences. Engaging in ethical conduct (sila) and cultivating virtuous qualities nourish positive karma, paving the way for spiritual growth and eventual liberation from the cycle of suffering.

While karma governs the individual’s trajectory, it also extends beyond the realm of personal experience. Collective karma arises from the collective actions and intentions of societies and communities, shaping the social fabric and influencing the unfolding of events on a broader scale.

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Karma's Role In The Afterlife

According to Theravada teachings, the journey of consciousness does not culminate with the end of physical life. Instead, it continues the cycle of samsara. The destination in this cycle is influenced by the accumulated karma, the moral consequences of intentional actions, both positive and negative, carried forth from one life to the next.

Upon physical death, the consciousness departs from its current embodiment to seek a new dwelling in accordance with its karmic imprints. The nature of this new existence depends on the balance of wholesome and unwholesome actions in the previous life. Positive karma may lead to rebirth in higher realms, where beings experience greater happiness and spiritual progress. Conversely, negative karma may direct one towards lower realms, characterized by suffering and pain.

In the celestial realms, such as the Deva (heavenly) realms, beings enjoy heavenly delights and celestial bliss, fueled by their meritorious deeds. Yet, these realms are also impermanent, and once the effects of positive karma wane, beings may descend to lower planes or be reborn as humans.

For beings trapped in the cycle of samsara, the ultimate aspiration is to break free from this relentless cycle and attain nirvana. The pursuit of nirvana lies at the heart of the Buddha’s teachings, offering a path to transcend the suffering inherent in worldly existence.

While Theravada Buddhism does not postulate a specific heaven or hell in the Western sense, various cultural interpretations have given rise to depictions of heavenly realms and realms of unfortunate existence, known as the Apaya realms, where beings experience immense suffering due to their negative karma.

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Karma's Role In Samsara

At the core of samsara lies the principle of dependent origination (paticca-samuppada), an intricate web of interdependence that governs the perpetuation of life. This principle asserts that all phenomena arise in dependence on multiple causes and conditions, creating an intricate network of karmic forces that shape the trajectory of each sentient being.

The cycle of samsara is propelled by the force of karma, the inexorable law of cause and effect that governs the consequences of one’s actions, intentions, and volitions. Positive actions lead to positive outcomes, nurturing wholesome states of existence, while negative actions give rise to negative consequences, perpetuating the cycle of suffering.

Through the process of death and rebirth, sentient beings traverse various realms of existence, from heavenly abodes to realms of human and animal existence, and even to lower realms of suffering. The trajectory of one’s rebirth is intricately entwined with the accumulated karma, shaped by one’s actions and intentions throughout countless lifetimes.

In the sacred texts of the Pali Canon, the Buddha expounds on the Four Noble Truths, a fundamental framework that elucidates the nature of suffering and its origins. The cycle of samsara is depicted as a vast ocean of suffering, entangled with desire, aversion, and ignorance. The Buddha’s teachings illuminate the path to liberation from this cycle, guiding sentient beings towards the blissful shores of nirvana – the ultimate release from suffering and the cessation of samsara.

For the devout adherents of Theravada Buddhism, the concept of samsara serves as a profound reminder of the impermanence of existence and the boundless potential for spiritual growth. Through the pursuit of wisdom, ethical conduct, and mental purification, individuals embark on a transformative journey to break free from the clutches of samsara, transcending the cycle of birth and death to attain the timeless realm of enlightenment.

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Understanding Merit

Merit-making is a fundamental aspect of Theravada Buddhism, intricately tied to the concept of karma. In this ancient tradition, the accumulation of merit is believed to have a transformative impact on an individual’s present and future lives.

Merit, or “punna” in Pali, refers to the positive energy generated through virtuous deeds and intentions, which can lead to favorable outcomes in this life and future incarnations.

Merit-making acts are diverse, ranging from simple gestures to grand altruistic deeds. Offering food, robes, or other necessities to monks, also known as “tambun,” is a common form of merit-making, symbolizing generosity and support for those pursuing the monastic path. Constructing or contributing to the maintenance of temples and religious structures is another meritorious act, as it fosters an environment for spiritual practice and community gathering.

Other meritorious acts include observing precepts and moral codes, performing acts of kindness to fellow beings, helping the disadvantaged, engaging in charitable works, and participating in religious ceremonies and festivals. Devotional practices, such as making offerings to Buddha images and chanting scriptures, are also regarded as meritorious, as they express reverence and gratitude to the Buddha and his teachings.

The motivation behind the act is crucial in determining its merit. Merit is believed to be more potent when performed with a heart of genuine compassion, selflessness, and pure intentions, rather than seeking personal gain or recognition.

In Thailand, merit-making is an integral part of daily life, shaping cultural practices, social norms, and religious observances. Communities actively engage in collective merit-making, which fosters a sense of cohesion and spiritual bonding.

The accumulation of merit is seen as a transformative force, shaping the course of one’s existence in the cycle of samsara, or rebirth. It is believed that the positive karmic energy from merit-making can pave the way to favorable circumstances, good health, prosperity, and even lead to a favorable rebirth in higher realms.

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The Role of the Sangha

Within Buddhism, the Sangha refers to the monastic community, comprising monks (bhikkhus) and nuns (bhikkhunis), who have devoted their lives to the pursuit of enlightenment and the propagation of the Dhamma. For over two millennia, the Sangha has served as a bastion of wisdom, guidance, and preservation of the Buddha’s teachings, fostering a sacred bond between the spiritual and secular realms.

At the heart of the Sangha’s significance lies the Buddha’s vision of a monastic order, established to nurture the inner journey of spiritual awakening and provide a refuge for those seeking liberation from the cycle of samsara. According to the Vinaya Pitaka, the ancient monastic code of conduct, the Sangha is guided by a set of rules known as the Patimokkha, designed to uphold ethical conduct and foster harmony within the monastic community.

The role of the Sangha extends beyond its immediate members, as it also acts as a source of inspiration and spiritual guidance for laypeople. Devotees often seek the guidance of monks and nuns for counsel, blessings, and meditation instruction. The Sangha serves as a beacon of wisdom, offering insights into the complexities of life and illuminating the path to liberation and inner peace.

In Thailand, the Sangha holds a particularly revered position, with monasteries and temples dotting the landscape and serving as centers of learning and meditation. Monks clad in saffron robes are a common sight, their disciplined lifestyle embodying the principles of simplicity, renunciation, and compassion.

The Sangha also plays a pivotal role in preserving and passing down the Buddha’s teachings to future generations. Through the process of memorization and oral transmission, monks have diligently safeguarded the sacred texts, such as the Pali Canon, for centuries, ensuring the continuity of the Dhamma.

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Choosing the Monastic Life

The monk ordination process in Thailand is a sacred and revered rite of passage, steeped in tradition and spiritual significance. Aspiring monks, often young novices or men seeking to deepen their spiritual commitment, embark on a profound journey of self-discovery and dedication to the Buddhist path.

The process begins with a series of preliminary steps, involving the selection of a suitable temple, often under the guidance of a respected mentor or family elders. The aspiring monk, known as a “nak,” then enters a period of pre-ordination preparation, typically lasting several weeks, during which they cultivate humility, practice meditation, and learn the monastic rules and disciplines.

On the day of the ordination, a grand ceremony takes place within the temple grounds, drawing the community together to witness and celebrate the momentous occasion. The aspiring monk undergoes a symbolic act of renunciation, symbolizing detachment from worldly desires, by shaving off their eyebrows and head hair, signaling a profound commitment to simplicity and detachment.

During the ordination ceremony, the nak is clad in traditional robes, receiving blessings and guidance from ordained monks. In a ritual known as “bai sri su khwan,” the nak respectfully circles the temple three times, accompanied by friends and family, signifying the departure from the mundane world and embracing the monastic path.

The ordination concludes with a special alms-giving ceremony, where the newly ordained monk receives alms bowls and offerings from the community. The entire process reflects the belief in merit-making, as the community participates in the sacred event, generating goodwill and spiritual blessings.

After the ordination, the newly ordained monk undertakes a rigorous monastic life, dedicating themselves to the study of Buddhist scriptures, meditation, and service to the community. The journey of a monk is one of self-discipline, contemplation, and compassionate service to others, embodying the core teachings of Theravada Buddhism.

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The Role of Alms-Giving

At the heart of the monastic diet lies the practice of alms-giving (pindapata), a daily ritual wherein monks walk barefoot through the streets, silently collecting food offerings from the lay community. These alms, usually consisting of rice, vegetables, and occasionally fruits, are gathered in their alms bowls and later consumed in moderation.

While the offerings may vary depending on the region and availability, Theravada Buddhist monks typically partake in a single meal per day, referred to as the “noontime meal” or “alms meal.” This meal, which is consumed before noon, follows a strict set of guidelines to foster mindfulness and moderation. Monks are encouraged to eat mindfully, savoring each morsel with gratitude and awareness of the impermanence of material possessions.

In adherence to the Vinaya Pitaka, the monastic code of conduct, the monks refrain from consuming solid foods outside of the designated mealtime. Additionally, they avoid indulging in delicacies, spices, and strong flavors, embracing a frugal and plain diet as a means of cultivating contentment and detachment.

Herbal tea or plain water may be consumed outside of the mealtime, providing nourishment and hydration during the day. However, monks typically abstain from consuming food or beverages after midday until the following morning, engaging in a form of intermittent fasting that aligns with the principles of self-discipline and restraint.

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The Impact of Theravāda

Theravada Buddhism, like a mighty river flowing through the heart of Southeast Asia, has left an indelible mark on the cultural, social, and spiritual landscape of the region. With roots tracing back over two millennia, this ancient tradition has blossomed into one of the most significant religious and philosophical systems in Southeast Asia, particularly in Thailand, where it has woven itself intricately into the fabric of daily life.

In Thailand, Theravada Buddhism reigns as the state religion and holds a deeply cherished place in the hearts of its people. The faith’s arrival in the region can be traced to the 3rd century BCE when it reached the shores of Sri Lanka, then known as Ceylon, via maritime trade routes. From Sri Lanka, the teachings of the historical Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama, spread like a gentle breeze across the Southeast Asian mainland, taking root in modern-day Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, and parts of Vietnam.

The significance of Theravada Buddhism in Thailand lies in its profound influence on the nation’s culture, traditions, and values. From the intricate temple architecture and the artistry of Buddhist statues to the rhythmic chants of monks and the vibrant festivities of religious ceremonies, the teachings of the Buddha are palpably present in daily life. The monastic community plays a vital role in preserving the tradition and transmitting the Dhamma to subsequent generations.

In Southeast Asia as a whole, Theravada Buddhism has acted as an adhesive force, fostering cultural exchanges and shared spiritual heritage among the countries where it thrives. Its emphasis on meditation, self-discipline, and the Four Noble Truths resonates with the region’s cultural values, creating a harmonious blend between the secular and spiritual realms.

Moreover, Theravada Buddhism has been instrumental in shaping the region’s art, architecture, and literature. Exquisite murals depicting Jataka tales adorn temple walls, while majestic pagodas and stupas punctuate the landscape, offering a glimpse into the spiritual journey of its people.

Theravada Buddhism’s influence is perhaps most evident during religious festivals and ceremonies, where the air is filled with devotion, colors, and a sense of unity. Iconic events like the Songkran Water Festival in Thailand, the Water Festival in Myanmar, and the Bun Pi Mai (Lao New Year) in Laos draw locals and visitors alike, symbolizing the cultural bond fostered by the shared practice of Buddhist teachings.

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The Importance of Nagas

Nagas are mythical serpent-like beings believed to inhabit the natural world, particularly bodies of water such as rivers, lakes, and seas. These creatures are considered powerful and often associated with water-related deities or spirits.

The belief in Nagas predates Buddhism and is deeply ingrained in the cultural and spiritual fabric of Southeast Asian societies, including Thailand. These serpent deities are believed to possess supernatural powers and are seen as guardians of certain territories, especially bodies of water, which are crucial for agricultural and societal well-being.

In Theravada Buddhist cosmology, Nagas are also depicted as one of the creatures that inhabit the lower realms of existence, known as “asura” realms. In this context, they are viewed as sentient beings with their own karmic paths, subject to the cycle of birth and rebirth.

Nagas are often depicted in various forms of art and architecture, including temple murals, statues, and decorative elements on buildings throughout Thailand. They are revered through ceremonies and rituals performed to seek their protection and blessings, particularly during important events or celebrations.

The belief in Nagas reflects the deep-rooted connection between religion, mythology, and nature in Theravada Buddhism. It serves as a reminder of the interconnectedness of all living beings and the harmonious coexistence with the natural world.

Theravāda Buddhism

Supplementary Insights

In Thailand, several types of Buddhism are practiced, but the dominant and official form is Theravada. This branch of Buddhism emphasizes the path of individual enlightenment and the pursuit of nirvana through meditation, ethical living, and the study of the Buddha’s teachings.

Apart from Theravada Buddhism, there are also small communities of Mahayana Buddhism in Thailand, particularly among Chinese-Thais. Mahayana Buddhism is another major branch of Buddhism that includes diverse traditions, such as Zen, Pure Land, and Tibetan Buddhism. These Mahayana traditions emphasize the bodhisattva path, which focuses on the compassionate intention to attain enlightenment for the benefit of all beings.

Additionally, there are some smaller and lesser-known sects of Buddhism practiced in Thailand, like Vajrayana Buddhism, a form of Buddhism prominent in Tibet and parts of the Himalayas, and Thai Forest Tradition, a lineage of Theravada Buddhism known for its emphasis on meditation and strict adherence to monastic rules.

Theravada and Mahayana are two major branches of Buddhism that emerged after the passing of the Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama. While they share many fundamental teachings, there are significant differences in their beliefs, practices, and approach to the path of enlightenment:

Scripture and Canon: One of the primary differences lies in the religious texts they consider authoritative. Theravada Buddhism follows the Pali Canon, also known as the Tipitaka, which contains the earliest recorded teachings of the Buddha in the Pali language. On the other hand, Mahayana Buddhism relies on a broader set of scriptures written in Sanskrit and other languages, known as the Mahayana Sutras, which were composed later and emphasize the concept of the bodhisattva path.

Goal of Practice: In Theravada Buddhism, the primary goal of practice is to attain individual enlightenment and liberation from the cycle of samsara. This state is known as Arhat, a fully enlightened being. In contrast, Mahayana Buddhism emphasizes the aspiration to become a bodhisattva, a being who seeks enlightenment not only for themselves but also for the liberation and benefit of all sentient beings. The ultimate goal is to attain Buddhahood and become a fully awakened Buddha.

Bodhisattva Ideal: The concept of the bodhisattva is central to Mahayana Buddhism and not emphasized in Theravada. Bodhisattvas are considered compassionate beings who postpone their own liberation to guide others towards enlightenment. This altruistic path contrasts with the individual pursuit of liberation in Theravada.

Meditation and Rituals: Both branches practice meditation, but there are some variations in techniques and emphasis. Theravada often emphasizes Vipassana or insight meditation, while Mahayana includes various meditation practices like Zen and Pure Land. Additionally, Mahayana Buddhism incorporates more elaborate rituals and ceremonies, especially in East Asian countries where it is prevalent.

View of the Buddha: In Theravada Buddhism, the Buddha is venerated as a historical figure and revered for achieving enlightenment through his own efforts. In Mahayana, the Buddha is seen as a cosmic and transcendent figure who embodies the principle of compassion and wisdom, with the potential to manifest in various forms to benefit sentient beings.

These differences, while significant, reflect the diverse paths that Buddhist practitioners have taken throughout history. It is essential to remember that both Theravada and Mahayana Buddhism share the core teachings of the Buddha and strive towards the noble goals of wisdom, compassion, and liberation from suffering.

The three key features of Theravada Buddhism are as follows:

Pali Canon: The Pali Canon, also known as the Tipitaka, is the sacred scripture of Theravada Buddhism. It is considered the oldest and most complete collection of the Buddha’s teachings and is written in the Pali language. The Pali Canon is divided into three “baskets” or “pitakas”: the Vinaya Pitaka (rules for monastic life), the Sutta Pitaka (teachings of the Buddha), and the Abhidhamma Pitaka (philosophical and doctrinal analysis). These texts form the foundation of Theravada Buddhist doctrine and practice.

Monastic Sangha: The monastic community, or Sangha, is a vital aspect of Theravada Buddhism. Monks and nuns follow a strict code of conduct known as the Vinaya, which outlines rules and guidelines for monastic life. Monasticism is highly revered in Theravada countries, and people often support the Sangha through offerings of food, robes, and other necessities. Monks play a crucial role in preserving and disseminating the Buddha’s teachings, and their practice is centered around meditation, study, and the pursuit of enlightenment.

Focus on Individual Liberation: Theravada Buddhism places a strong emphasis on personal effort and individual liberation from suffering. The ultimate goal of a Theravada practitioner is to attain enlightenment and become an Arhat, a fully awakened being who has transcended the cycle of samsara. While lay practitioners are encouraged to follow ethical precepts and cultivate wholesome qualities, the highest aspiration is often associated with monastic life and the pursuit of nirvana, the state of ultimate liberation.

These three features distinguish Theravada Buddhism from other Buddhist traditions, such as Mahayana and Vajrayana, and highlight its focus on the early teachings of the Buddha and the path of individual liberation.

The founder of Theravada Buddhism is not a single individual, but rather the tradition is based on the teachings of Siddhartha Gautama, who is also known as the Buddha. Siddhartha Gautama was an Indian prince who lived around the 6th century BCE and renounced his royal life to seek spiritual enlightenment. After years of rigorous meditation and contemplation, he attained enlightenment under the Bodhi tree in Bodh Gaya, India. Following his awakening, the Buddha spent the rest of his life traveling and teaching his insights and wisdom to others, gathering a community of followers.

The early disciples of the Buddha preserved his teachings through oral transmission and later recorded them in the Pali language, which became the basis for the Pali Canon, the sacred scriptures of Theravada Buddhism. The term “Theravada” means “Doctrine of the Elders,” referring to the belief that this tradition adheres closely to the original teachings of the Buddha as passed down by the early monastic elders.

Thus, while the Buddha is not the “founder” of Theravada Buddhism in the sense of creating a distinct religious tradition, his teachings form the core principles and basis of the Theravada tradition as it exists today.

Luang Phu Thuat, also known as Luang Pu Thuad, is a revered figure in Theravada Buddhism, and his significance extends beyond just Thailand, where he is highly venerated. Born in the southern Thailand in the 16th century, Luang Phu Thuat was a legendary monk known for his exceptional spiritual abilities and miraculous powers.

Legend has it that Luang Phu Thuat possessed a profound understanding of Buddhist teachings and was revered for his skill in performing supernatural feats. His reputation for possessing supernatural powers and his ability to protect and bless those who sought his help spread far and wide, making him a highly respected and influential figure in Thai Buddhism.

Throughout history, countless miraculous stories have been attributed to Luang Phu Thuat, ranging from his ability to walk on water to miraculously enlarging a piece of land to provide shelter for his followers during a storm. His benevolent nature and the belief in his ability to provide protection and good fortune have earned him a devoted following among both Thai Buddhists and followers of other faiths.

Temples dedicated to Luang Phu Thuat can be found throughout Thailand, often adorned with statues and images depicting him performing miraculous acts. Pilgrims from all walks of life visit these temples to seek his blessings and protection, particularly during times of crisis or when facing challenges in life.

Theravada Buddhism is primarily practiced in several Southeast Asian countries, including Thailand, Myanmar (Burma), Sri Lanka, Cambodia, and Laos. It is the dominant form of Buddhism in these nations and plays a significant role in shaping their cultures, traditions, and daily lives.

Despite the absence of a supreme god, local customs and beliefs have given rise to the veneration of deities in various forms. These deities are often associated with celestial realms, embodying qualities such as compassion, protection, and benevolence. They serve as sources of inspiration, guidance, and comfort to devotees, who may seek their blessings or assistance in times of need.

One prominent example is the worship of Bodhisattvas, enlightened beings who, out of compassion, have chosen to remain in the cycle of samsara to aid others in their spiritual journey. Bodhisattvas such as Avalokiteshvara (Guanyin), revered for compassion, and Maitreya, associated with future enlightenment, hold a significant place in the hearts of many Buddhists.

Moreover, local and indigenous traditions have contributed to the diversity of deities in Theravada Buddhism. In countries like Thailand, Cambodia, and Laos, folk deities and spirit worship are interwoven with Buddhist practices, reflecting the cultural syncretism of these regions.

In Thailand, women cannot become fully ordained monks in the traditional Theravada monastic system. The Theravada tradition reserves full ordination for men only, and women are limited to the status of “nuns” or “mae chi” (laywomen dedicated to a religious life). The mae chi have a role in supporting the monastic community and engaging in religious practices, but they do not have the same level of recognition and privileges as fully ordained monks.

However, it’s important to note that there have been efforts in recent years to advocate for greater gender equality within Buddhism. Some women in Thailand and other Theravada Buddhist countries have sought higher ordination through other Buddhist traditions that do allow full ordination for women, such as the Mahayana tradition practiced in countries like Sri Lanka and Taiwan.

The issue of women’s ordination remains a subject of debate and discussion within the Thai monastic community and the broader Buddhist world. While progress has been made in recognizing the important role of women in religious practice, the full ordination of women as monks in Thailand’s Theravada tradition remains a topic of ongoing exploration and dialogue.

Thai monks, like many other Buddhist monks, walk barefoot as part of their monastic discipline and spiritual practice. The act of walking barefoot is symbolic and carries significant meaning in Buddhism. It represents simplicity, humility, and detachment from material possessions. By walking barefoot, monks demonstrate their commitment to leading a simple and unburdened life, free from unnecessary attachments to the material world.

In addition to its symbolic significance, walking barefoot is also a practical aspect of the monastic lifestyle. Monks renounce worldly comforts and possessions, and this includes wearing minimal footwear. Walking barefoot helps them stay grounded and connected to the earth, fostering mindfulness and awareness of their surroundings.

Furthermore, walking barefoot aligns with the Buddhist principle of non-harming (ahimsa). By not wearing shoes, monks avoid causing harm to living beings, such as insects or small creatures that might be inadvertently crushed underfoot.

Overall, walking barefoot is an integral part of the monastic tradition in Thai Buddhism, symbolizing the commitment to simplicity, humility, and the pursuit of spiritual growth.

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Welcome to North of Known! We’re Alan and May, a married couple who have embraced digital nomadism while calling Bangkok, Thailand, our current home base. Over the past 7 years, our shared passion for exploration and adventure has fueled our journey across the globe. Join us as we continue to embark on our nomadic adventures, sharing our insights, discoveries, and travel tales along the way.

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