When Did Buddhism Come To Thailand?
Written by The Venerable Phrakru Lom
Thailand (or formerly Siam) is believed to have been the only country on the globe that a king is constitutionally stated quite clearly and firmly to be Buddhist. Although His Majesty the King is Buddhist he is the just supporter of other faiths that are followed by non-Buddhists. It should be made it quite clear here that since time immemorial the seed of Buddhism was planted in Siam or Thailand and as the Buddha-Dharma has regularly supported this country many centuries there are no religious crisis so far touch wood. Needless to say, if Buddhism does not support Thailand it would not be stable like today. On the whole, Buddhism exerts the noble tolerance, loving-kindness, compassion and contentment upon the mind and heart of Thai people so they are almost always friendly with all good foreigners and tourists. As a result Thailand is regarded as the Land of smile. The truth speaks for itself.
Usually the devout Thai Buddhists are content with what they have. Most of them can hardly try to keep up with the Joneses. It has been recently reported by the newspaper that one these days a small group of American businessmen and tourists visited the paddy field not far from Bangkok. It is also reported that they were very happy with the fresh air in the paddy field. They kept walking and chatting happily. Soon they found two Thai men sitting together in the sun on the edge of the paddy field. ‘Good Morning’, said an American tourist asked them why they did not reply with Good Morning ‘well, well my dear chap’, one of Thai men said. ‘You know in Thailand, we don’t need to say Good Morning to one another because the morning in this country is always good. Actually it’s too good punctually from 6 am to the official time. In fact the weather here is almost good all the day. It isn’t like in the West. I learn that in your country in the West people say Good morning to each other; sometimes it isn’t a good morning at all. As the weather is always good all day, so we should say ‘Good Day’ to each other instead of saying Good Morning. Would you agree?’ ‘All right!’ said and American tourist. ‘But why don’t you get up and doing something useful?’ What should I do?’ asked the Thai man. ‘To make much more money’ replied the American tourist. ‘What can I do with my money when I’ve made it more? Asked the Thai man. Hey, common! Don’t be silly’ said the American tourist. ‘You can buy all things you like, car, a TV set, a mobile phone, a computer set, etc. For sure, you’ll improve your standard of living a lot, will you not?’ That Thai man felt a bit confused and asked, ‘And after having had all that stuff, then what will I do?’ Well, well my friend!’ exclaimed the American tourist with a little pause and less convince. ‘Then you can enjoy yourself, sitting in the sunshine and doing nothing!’ ‘No, thank you’, replied the Thai man. ‘That‘s what I’m doing now, instead of working to death making the skin of my back broken’.
You may well wonder if there is any Dharma impact it that news paper report. Indeed it is non-greed, non-attachment, self-respect, self-sufficiency and selfconfidenc, especially one does not let oneself be a slave of money. So spiritually friendly and considerate is the mind and heart of Thai people that Thailand has never stooped so low to wage a war upon any situation, whereas the West may want to campaign so as to raise a higher standard of living, or even declare war onto maintain the country.
With regard to the news above reported, one may see that while some people may want to wage a war or campaign for something to raise an maintain a high standard of living, we, the Thais, may mindfully sit in the sunshine, and cultivate a moral standard of living with spiritual contentment and being more at peace. As life itself has enough suffering in one way or other so there is unnecessarily need to add more suffering to life. There is no need to become workaholic at all, unless we are extremely absurd. Buddhism teacher ‘if one is not greedy and feels content and satisfied with what one legally has is the highest wealth and the best happiness of all’.
Although Buddhism has been well established in Thailand for many centuries, it is not so easy to find and answer to this quenry because both scholars and so called scholars have different opinions upon who first brought Buddhism to Thailand,(formerly) known as Siam), and when it was brought into this country. I think to find an accurate answer to this question might have been as hard as to look for a needle at the bottom of an ocean.
How difficult to get accurate sources for the good answer to this question may be, so let me try to do my best.
Some scholars say the first person that introduced Buddhism to Thailand was Emperor Asoka. He had done it after the 3rd Council of several hundred enlightened monks revised and compiled the correct teachings of the Buddha. This was done 218 years after the death of Buddha. When meeting of the 3rd Council was over Asoka helped the elderly monk named Moggallitissa to select competent monks to be the Dharma ambassadors (Buddhist missionary monks) and sent them into the neighbouring countries such as Burma, Siam, Himalayan regions, etc, to introduce the Dharma (Buddhism) to all people there. The two enlightened monks whose names were Sona and Uttara were sent to Siam to spread the Dharma. On the whole Siamese were happy to accept it. On the other hand, judging from archaeological objects such as the Wheel of Law, sculptures, that have been remained up to these days and from the point of fact of the historical evidence it might be, as it were, ascertained that the Theravada Buddhism (formerly Hinayana) was introduced into Siam when it was occupied by the tribe named lawa people whose capital city was Davaravadi, today known as Nakhonpathom. Both the large pagoda (known as Phra Pathom Jedi) and other Buddhist monuments that still remain in this place may be also a good witness to help us to decide who brought Buddhism into Siam, and when it was done. There are too other remains such as the Seat of the Buddha, His footprint, which are the objects of paying homage to the Buddha before the casting of the Buddha statue. All of these imply that Theravada Buddhism was introduce into Thailand prior to the Buddhist era 500, and so that Theravada Buddhism has been well established in Thailand ever since.
Some time later when the Buddha image became very popular in India, the Indians introduced the special style of the Buddha statue to Thai people. This was well accepted. Whatever the fact one should notice that the style of such a Buddha image in Thailand i.e. the Buddha statue on the chair was the imitation of the sculptor from Magadha (today Bihar state) when the Gupta dynasty was very prosperous in 900 BE. This is a furthermore evidence to support the fact that the Indians, whoever they very, who first introduced Theravada they were, who first introduced Theravada Buddhism to Thailand were from Bihar state. We are told that at that time Davaravadi was prosperous and progressive region. Archaeological remains similar to those discovered at Nakonpathom are also found in Rajaburi, Supanburi, Lopburi and Nakonrajasima.
About 1000 years after the Buddha’s death the Mahayana Buddhism became popular in India, so some Mahayanist Indians wanted to introduce this school of Buddhism to Southeast Asian countries, where Theravada Buddhism was still popular. The first region to which the Mahayana school of Buddhism was introduced was Sumatra, then Java and Campodia respectively. We are told that there might possibly be another group of Magadha Indians who tried to introduce Mahayana Buddhism to Burma, Mon, and then to Davaravadi ( Siam). But the teaching of Mahayana Buddhism was not popurlar and soon ceased. Hence there’s no clear evidence that Mahayana Buddhism was prosperous in Davaravadi.
It ‘s believed that about 1,300 BE, King Srivijaya of Sumatra became more powerful and so he extended his boundaries in many parts of the Malayan peninsular starting from Surajdhani down to Pattani near Malaysia. The people of Srivijaya adhered to Mahayana Buddhism. They often taught Mahayana Buddhism to people whenever the occupied any places. The Buddhist monuments in styles or types of Mahayana erected by people of Srivejaya monarch still exist in many places. Take the Great relic pagoda in Jaiya district and the ancient relic pagoda in Nakonsridhammaraj for example. Sculptures of the Buddha and Bodhisattvas in bronze and clay-works are still seen even in these days of ages. They have been hidden in some caves in Nakonsridhammaraja, Trang, Pattalung and pattani. Those images of the Buddha and Bodhisattava hidden such places as Nakonsridhammaraj are the type of Mahayana school of Buddhism. They are the same types of those found in Jawa, Indonesia. It is believed that Buddhist missionaries made the Buddha statues and Bodhisattva images as they might hope that in the future whoever happened to discover them would be attracted to Buddhism by such images.
As far as the fact is concerned, the stronghold of Mahayan Buddhism was only in Malay Peninsula, not in Siam. There may be some remains of Mahayana in some places. As always people in the North regions of Siam were still under the influence of the Theravada Buddhism in those days known in Sanskrit as Sathavira. There may be some remains of Mahayana styles such as Buddha images of Mahayana and the statues of Bodhisattva in some places.Whatever the case the images and the statuses of Bodhisatta in some places. Whatever the case the images of Buddha and Bodhisattva cast in Mahayanist types wdere not popular in Nakhonpathom in Siam.
It is known that about 1,550 BE a King of Srivijaya monarch made atrip to Nakonsridhammaraj in hope to occupy Lopburi – a province far north of Siam. A son of that king, we are told, became a ruler of Cambodia. As a result Siam and Cambodia were inevitably under the pressure of the same dynasty. We’ve learnt that from the onwards for some centuries Siam was ruled by some kings of Combodia. Therefore religion and art of Cambodia had imperceptibly and unavoidably influenced people of Siam. A stone-inscription of that time at Lopburi pointed out that there were monks both of Sathavira and of Mahayana school of Buddhism. This is not quite clear where those monks lived. Some believe that Buddhist monks of Sathavira tradition might follow Buddhism from Maghada and were popular in Siam.
Whatever the fact, Mahayanist school of Buddhim was firstly well established in Cambodia. Having looked at some stonebuildings in Cambodia one can see that those buildings especially of Buddhist monasteries were typical Mahayana forms. Only when Siam was under the sovereingnty of a Cambodian king, did the Mahayana Buddhism spread its influence in Siam. Presumably however Hinduism might take its roots on Siamese soil at this period too. Suppose it’s at this period that Mahayana seemed to have its good place in Siam for the time being
In 1,600 BE King Anuruddha was the great of Burma. He ruled the country and Pagan was the capital city. He conquenred the Mon cit-states, so he extended his territory to Lanna right down to Lopburi and Davaradi. Whatever the fact, Lanna is nowadays the Northwest provinces of Thailand. S king Anuruddha was himself a devout Buddhist so he helped to spread Theravada Buddhism. By this time Buddhism in its birthplace almost ceased. Pagans like Siamese took Theravada Buddhism seriously from Magadha. However Pagans seemed to develop Buddhist doctrin in their own view and understanding. We are told when Pagans became so powerful that they ruled over Siam. They tried to teach Siamese on their form of Buddhism. As a result this kind of Buddhism became popular in the North of Siam.
It is noticeable there are no statues of Bodhisattva that may be scattered here and there in the North of Thailand as one may see them in the South. No doubt, the Pagans ruled the most Northern region of Siam because it was quite convenient for them to travel to and from their capital city. The South of Siam was left in mercy of Khmers who ruled the country at Lopburi, which might be as a protectorate of Pagan. That is why Mahayana belief still exists much more in the South of Thailand.
We have learnt that Siamese or Thai had their original hometown located between China and Tibet. When the Chinese wanted to extend their territory they invaded the hometown of the Thais during 400 BE. After years and years of defending against the Chinese, Thais could no longer withstand the Chinese power; gradually they lost their territory to China. But the Thais who did not want to be under the Chinese yoke so they sadly left the hometown at last. Some of them setted down along the River Salawin. This group is known as Thai Yai or the Great Thais. But the West calls them Ngews or Shans. Other Thais founded their new city-state along the River Thai and Mekhong. Some time later they moved into the valley of River Chaophaya, which is their today hometown. These Thais are regarded as Thai-Noi or the little Thais. But they are known in the other name as the Pu Thais, Thai Leus. Sometimes they are called them Laos by mistake as they are taken to be elder Lawa. When the Thais decided to move into somewhere they often traveled in small group. Whenever the Thais wanted to settle down in a new place, they obey those who ruled the place; they were unwilling the break the laws of the land. Sometimes the others think they rather have weakness but they don’t actually.
As time passed there was of course a large increase in the number of Thais everywhere they went. From generation to the next he Thais became so strong that they themselves were able to set up the self-government. It is said that in Sibsong Chawthai near Tonkin the Thais declared their independent State. Then they invaded the Khmer kingdom and founded another independent state in Lanna. We are told that Lanchang, (now known as Luang Phrabang and Vientiane in Lao), was another independent state of Thais. Soon the Thais founded Sukhotai province to be their capital city and during 1,800 BE they spread all of the power over Thailand.
When King Anuruddha ruled over Thailand there were a lot more Thais in Lanchang and Lanna, in fact more Thais in the North than in the South. As the Thais had been following Theravada Buddhism so they wholeheartedly accept Buddhism from Pagan to which they were introduced. After the sovereignty of King Anuruddha of Mynmar, the power of Pagan began to decline, but the Thais became more and more powerful. During this time, the Laotians had inter-married to Khmers seemed to treat the Laotians with inferiority complex. Hence the Laotians more or less became Khmer citizens. The Original Laos only existed far from town but on the mountains. When the Thais increased in numbers in the North of Thailand, the Lao civilization likewise became Thais. The origins of these Thais existed in a small group in the mountains are known in the North as Thai Leu, but in the South as Lawa. Today these people are to be found in many provinces of Thailand.
When the Thais ruled over Thailand and Sukhotai (formerly founded by Khmers) was their capital city, there was the practice of both Mahayana Buddhism and Hinduism in Sukhotai. The language spoken in Sukhotai was Cambodain. As the Thais seemed to well suited with the Khmer tradition, so the majority of Thais, who knew how to select the good things, did not dismiss all the Khmer civilization. So whatever the good and the best which was not against their interests the Thais accepted/adapted them to their own advantages. Take the language as an example. The Thais based the Thai script upon the original Khmer. On the other hand, the Thais from Sukhotai downwards took the religious practices, traditions, language and arts from the Khmers and adapted them to suit their lives. This had shown their difference from other Thais who lived in Lanna and Lanchang.
There was another period during 1,696s when King Prarakkama Pahu ruled over Ceylon (today Sri Lanka) that he introduced Buddhism to Thailand. Actually this monarch must have been regarded as the Great king in the history of Sri Lanka. He was so powerful that he conquered the southern state occupied by the Tamils. He did support Buddhism as a religion of the nation, following the footstep of Emperor Asoka, the Great of India. His Majesty invited the Elder monk named Kassapa to preside over the Buddhist Council aiming edited and corrected the Doctrin and corrected the Doctrine and Discipline (Dharma and Vinaya) of the Buddha. This is to put the Buddhist practice of various sects to become accurately and authentically standardized for the truthseekers from Buddhism. As a result the Buddhist Order (of monks) was once again united into the good one. Thus Buddhism became well flourished in Sri Lanka since then.
As soon as this very good news reached Myanmar, Mon and Siam, Buddhist monks from these countries made a religious trip to Sri Lanka to see the truth. Those monks were of course moved by the Buddhist practices of Ceylonese monks. Not only did they feel happy to see the correct practice and behaviour there, but they also wanted to establish the type of such a correct practice of Buddhism in their own countries. Whatever the fact, the Ceylonese monks pointed out that those monks in foreign countries had been practising Buddhism in different ways and forms for many decades. So it should be good, the Ceylonese monks said, if the foreign monks were first of all re-ordained themselves to the united Sri Lanka sect.
Therefore the first re-ordination of those foreign monks took place in the Buddhist history in Ceylon. Once the foreign monks had studied the Dharma and Discipline in Sri Lanka, they then returned to their own countries. We are told that some foreign monks invited the Ceylones brethren to go with them to their own countries too. The native monks were very delighted to see that the Ceylones monks were very conscientious with the Buddha’s words and they wholeheartedly supported them. The lay people encouraged their sons to ordain to follow this kind of Buddhist sect-in Thailand it’s known as Lanka – Wong. Hence this is the history of the establishment of Ceylonese Order of Buddhist monks in Myanmar and Siam or Thailand.(To be continued)