Cultural heritage in Thai Buddhism

As with most belief systems, tradition and cultural heritage in Buddhism influence an adherents way of life, by providing guidelines for correct living. The future of Buddhism is determined by the adherence to Buddhist tradition and the continuation of its particular cultural heritage. For the purpose of this essay, tradition is defined as a long established or inherited way of thinking or acting, and cultural heritage is defined as is an expression of the ways of living developed by a community and passed on from generation to generation.

In this essay I will focus on the role of Buddhism in Thailand, and how the absence of pure Buddhism has led to a compromise of both Buddhist and traditional Thai ideology. The place of gender roles in Buddhism and how Thai roles continue or challenge tradition will be evaluated, as well as how changing Thai ideology in relation to modernisation will affect many aspects of Buddhism and its cultural heritage.

Before analysing a particular society, one must understand the principles of Buddhism itself.

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Buddhism has its origins in India, sending out many missionaries into parts of Asia during the second and first centuries BCE. Buddhism was firmly established in the southern and central provinces of Thailand by the sixth century AD. Thai Buddhists have adopted the school of Theravada (often referred to as the Southern tradition), based on the Pali canon. It is thought that this school was developed in Thailand during the thirteenth century AD, sponsored by King Ramkham-haeng.

Theravada Buddhism translates to teaching of the elders, and aim to practice the original form of Buddhism handed down by Buddha.

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This form of Buddhism was established during the third century BCE in order to purify the religion, and developed the Pali canon, which contains the Tripitaka (Hooker, 1996). Advocates of Theravada Buddhism adhere to the Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path, and emphasises monastic life and meditation. The ultimate goal of Theravada is freedom from suffering, and eventually attainment of nirvana, a state of enlightenment that frees one from the cycle of reincarnation.

As Buddhism is a belief system not confined to one nation, the pre-existing traditions of a society will impact on interpretations and practices. As H. Leedom Jefferts asserts, Buddhism cannot be abstracted from its cultural context as if it existed alone (Banks Findly 2000, p.63). It is estimated that currently about 95 per cent of Thai people claim adherence to Buddhism (CIA World Factbook, 2007). There have been recent attempts to install Buddhism as the state religion, which will be discussed in more detail later. Although this number is significantly high, the observance of pure Buddhism is uncommon. In this sense, it is important to understand how long sustained Thai tradition differs to that of Buddhism.

The ways in which the ideology of the greater Thai community differs to that of the devout Buddhist can be seen by assessing gender roles in both these societies. Although women and men have supposedly equal status in Thai society, many Thai still holdfast the belief that women should be domestic, and family should take priority in their lives. Women who do not uphold societys expectations in this respect could lose inheritance. The Thai hold the belief that the way to maturity for a woman is through marriage and the raising of children. Men, however, achieve this maturity through becoming novice monks and renouncing the world. It has been noted that as a consequence of this traditional Thai belief, there has been a lack of a prescribed role for women in Thai religion (Falk in Banks Findly, p.38), and with no established and legally recognised womens monastic order, the place of women in Thai Buddhism is rather ambiguous.

One can see the compromise between Buddhist tradition and Thai values through the role of family in the life of the Buddhist nuns. Traditionally, to renounce the world and enter the monastery permanently requires a significant abandonment of family, and almost certainly a cessation of supporting them financially such was modelled by the Buddha himself. On the contrary, the Thai people place great importance on the womans role as protector of the family unit.

Women who become ordained as mae chi abandon their families and all the social expectation of lay life. Because traditional Thai cultural values hold that daughters should care for their parents in all ways possible, a woman violates societys sense of order when she becomes an ascetic. (Falk, p.44)Consequently, a compromise has been reached to maintain the cultural heritage of both Buddhism and Thai society itself. Many mae chi keep contact with their families, and it is not uncommon for aging mothers to be cared for in nunneries.

Women who choose to renounce the world and become nuns are called mae chi, as opposed to the traditional bhikkunis, of which only two reside in Thailand today (Falk, p. 59) with neither recognised by the Sangha, and a bhikkunis order has never existed in Thailand. The mae chi observe the eight precepts whilst living in monasteries, or increasingly in nunneries. Nevertheless, the mae chi are not unalike to the bhikkunis. The Buddha believed that there was no reason why both men and women could not achieve enlightenment, and thus, after persuasion from others around him, allows the establishment of the female monastic order. However, the bhikkunis were to be subordinate to the monks, and this tradition remains in Thai Buddhism today, with the mae chi unrecognised as part of the monastic community, merely lay women.

One can conclude that the bhikkuni tradition of Buddhism has not been upheld due to its location in Thailand, and this is unlikely to change. Many mae chi are content with their role and do not wish to be part of a bhikkuni establishment (Falk, p.59). In this essence, it could be said that in Thailand the mae chi have replaced the Buddhist tradition of bhikkunis. It is plausible that in the future the mae chi will have more support, both from the Thai community and government. Furthermore, it is suggested that the Thai government should recognise the mae chi as ordained women, by which they would acquire formal religious status and therefore be more accepted by the community (Queen and King, 1996, p.258).

As Buddhist tradition dictates that the mae chi cannot be officially recognised under the Sangha, a distinct female world view has been lacking from this institution. Seeing that south-east Asia is increasingly becoming modernised, there has been more social awareness in regards to problems that have not been part of the male monastic order due to gender barriers. Taviat Puntarigavivat, of the World Buddhist University in Bangkok, explains that nuns and female monks can, for instance, address social issues that male monks often have difficulty with, such as sexual abuse, prostitution and abortion (Poonyarat, 2002).

Seeing that cultural heritage is an expression of the ways of living developed by the community, it is evident that the mae chi are challenging the notion of the old ways of living for females in Thai Buddhism, that is, to be considered a lay Buddhist and only to hope to be reincarnated as a male. The mae chi have developed their own observance of the precepts and nunnery institutions in order to establish a way of living that is parallel to that of the monks, and it is most likely that the acceptance of this new order of female renunciants will be handed down to younger generations of both male and female Thais, both through the attitude of the lay people (who, as Falk notes, believe that giving to the mae chi makes just as much merit as giving to the monks) and through promotion from the Thai government.

Furthermore, the mae chi are developing their own cultural heritage for renunciant women in the future to adhere to, by the creation of the nunneries themselves. Previously, the only residence of a mae chi was in a temple, however in a separate community (samnak chi) from the men, in accordance with Theravada practices. In more recent times, about 850 nunneries have been established to provide the mae chi with a more comfortable and respectable living arrangement, where they are not encouraged to be subordinate to the male monastery (Falk, p.40). Falk explains how mae chi from a nunnery in central Thailand find it more appropriate to live in such an institution, as monks and nuns should have separate practices. Here, the nuns have the opportunity to practice things restricted in mae chi temple life, such as study, teaching, chanting and administration (Suanmokkh, 2006)

The nunnery also provides educational opportunities for the mae chi, with schools beginning to be attached to the nunnery, and the university Mahidol allowing both monks and nuns to study, along with two Buddhist universities in Bangkok (Geller and LeVine, 2005, p.158). Such an access to this education will develop the mae chis understanding of the Buddhist texts, and ascertain the same degree of religious wisdom that their male counterparts hold. The Mae Chi Institute, which was established in 1972 under the patronage of the Queen, aims to encourage intellectual and spiritual development. Such an organisation can be seen as defying the patriarchal tradition of education, previously encouraged in Thai Buddhism, and creates a new cultural heritage for future nuns wishing to undertake study.

Gender roles in Thai Buddhism are not the exclusive aspect that will determine the future of tradition and cultural heritage in Buddhism, they are merely a mechanism of showing how tradition can be altered by the society it exists in. Recent movements in Thailand have strongly pushed for Buddhism to be inaugurated as the state religion, which would enshrine it in Thai cultural heritage and preserve Buddhist traditions under the protection of the constitution.

While such a move would possibly conserve the role of Buddhism in Thai life for years to come, politicians are wary of adopting such a policy due to the increasing conflict between Muslims and Buddhists in the southern states, as articulated by Kairsak Choonhavan, who stated that they succeeded in Sri Lanka in making Buddhism the national religion and look at where Sri Lanka is – it’s a total civil war (Mydans, 2007). Furthermore, the Thai constitution often holds little substance, continually revised or abused. Consequently, the Constiution Drafting Committee rejected the proposal for state religion on June 4 of this year.

Despite not officially being instated as a national religion, Buddhisms traditions and cultural heritage are maintained through the constitutional monarchy. The royal family is highly venerated by most of the Thai population, and tradition is reflected in the constitution that all Thai kings must be Buddhist. From this information, it would be fair to evaluate that as long as the royal family hold influence over the persons of Thailand, and their authority is unchallenged, Thai people will be influenced by Buddhist ideology and its promotion, and that the tradition of Buddhism being the prominent religion will be chiefly unchallenged.

In summation, it could be said that although tradition will be challenged and new cultural heritage developed, Buddhism in Thailand will continue to be a strong influence over the lives of the people and will remain the most popular belief system in the country for years to come, and the people will continue to uphold much of its tradition. Buddhism traditionally has a strong support base, through the power and influence of the royal family, who are still esteemed by many. The nature of womens practice is likely to change, as the mae chi become a more prolific group, and an increasingly modernised Thai society, enlightened to the ideas of gender equality and anti-discrimination will support the religious legality of this institution. Therefore, the new development of cultural heritage for the female monastic community in Thailand will challenge the traditional patriarchal nature of Thai Buddhism, and create a new role for women in this institution.


Rebuilding Buddhism: The Theravada Movement in 20th Century Nepal / David N. Geller/Sarah LeVine, December 2005, Harvard University Press, USAEngaged Buddhism: Buddhist Liberation Movements in Asia / Christopher S. Queen/Sallie B. King, April 1996, State University of New York Press, New York, USAWomen’s Buddhism, Buddhism’s women : tradition, revision, renewal / edited by Ellison Banks Findly, 2000, Wisdom Publications, Boston, USAThai Buddhism, its Rites and Activies / Kenneth Wells, 1975, Suriyabun Publishers, Bangkok, ThailandNEWSPAPER/JOURNALThailand set to make Buddhism state religion / Seth Mydans. June 4, 2007 (International Herald Tribune)Thai nuns fight for rights / Chayanit Poonyarat, September 2002 (The Urban Dharma Newsletter)WEBSITESTheravada Buddhism / Richard Hooker, 1996 Mae Chi Institute / Suanmokkh, 2006 in Theravada Buddhism / Karen Andrews, 1999 The World Factbook Thailand / CIA, 2007 in Thailand: Its Past and Present / Karuna Kusalasaya, 2006

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Cultural heritage in Thai Buddhism. (2016, Jul 08). Retrieved from

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