Thailand is 94% Buddhist – 94% – and it shows.
Temples are everywhere, monks in their bright orange robes can be seen walking down the street at all times of the day and people regularly tum boon, or make merit, by giving donations, food and flowers. Every week in connection with the moon cycle there is a special ‘Buddha Day’ where people will often make a special effort to visit a temple or tum boon.
Many of the religious rituals in Thailand are a mix of traditional Theravada Buddhism and traditional Thai beliefs, practices and customs. For example, the Buddhist teachings focus on, very practically, ending suffering and knowing yourself. Yet everywhere you’ll see spirit houses, a miniature temple-looking building, in front of homes, businesses and schools where people religiously make offerings (flowers, incense, bits of food or water) to the ‘spirit’ of the place to keep them happy. This isn’t straight Buddhism, but a representation of Thai traditions and the widespread belief in spirits. Amulets are another example where Buddhist foundations and Thai beliefs have become intertwined.
It’s more than just the temples and symbols of belief that tell you you’re in a Buddhist country however. Often people here are incredibly patient, calm, accepting of the things that pass through their lives. They’re also usually pretty tolerant of others, as Buddhism is accepting of other religions, beliefs and customs (notice how wars have not been fought in the name of Buddhism?). It can be thought of more as a philosophy, or way of life, than a religion. The Buddha was not a god and, instead of emphasizing blind faith, taught people to understand themselves and their world by observing it and then believing what they observed as true. He gave advice on how to find these ultimate truths, but in the end it’s up to the individual to figure it out for themselves.
The recommended path to knowing life’s truth, or dhamma, and leading you toward ‘enlightenment’ is through meditation, a word and a concept that is often misunderstood by those not familiar with Buddhism or meditation. Here meditation, specifically vipassana, is commonly practiced, or if not practiced then at least understood and accepted. It’s not new age-y or hippie-ish or drug-induced (although some forms can be), it’s just a good thing for you to do for yourself. Almost everyone I know living here – Thai and Western, Buddhist and Christian, experienced and complete beginner – has participated in a meditation retreat or temple stay. Everyone seems to support it as just what you do. Even at the high school I taught at, where the students would never come to class and bring pets to school, they would hold a few minutes of silent meditation in the mornings. More than a thousand 12- to 18-year-olds would sit cross-legged outside on the paved courtyard with their hands resting in their laps and eyes closed to reflect inward. It was shocking actually. Imagine trying to get an entire high school in the U.S. or England to silently sit still and focus on their breath?
There’s also a strong sense that everyone and everything is connected. While many people believe in kamma (karma in Sanskrit, another concept that many Westerners, including myself, don’t fully understand or misconstrue), Buddhism emphasizes feeling compassion and respect for all beings. All things really. You are patient and help people because that is the right thing to do. It will help them, and you and the entire situation. I’m not saying people do not help each other elsewhere, there just seems to be a stronger sense of connection and responsibility.
Living here has been the first time I haven’t lived in a Christian country, though I never thought about how incredibly Christian of a country America is until I was away from it. I wasn’t raised going to church and went to public schools where we weren’t allowed to celebrate any holiday for what it really was in case it went against someone’s beliefs – having a class Halloween party became a ‘fall harvest’ party so no one could claim offense. All in all, my understanding of Christianity is fairly limited.
What I didn’t realize before living in Thailand though was, even though I didn’t grow up ‘Christian’, Christian-based beliefs, habits and language have worked their way into my head. I couldn’t tell you a single story from the Buddha’s life, but I could easily explain the basic premise of a half dozen stories from the Bible even though I was never directly taught them. While I’m still figuring out what I believe in, my mind automatically goes toward ‘God’ instead of ‘Buddha’. I can say the Lord’s Prayer, but can now only barely recognize a few, short Pali verses of Buddhist chanting. I understand what to do if I go to a church, but step into a Thai temple and I don’t know what any of the figures or decorations mean. I know ministers at home, but am still trying to understand how the system of monks works out.
I wonder what I’ll take away from living in Buddhist country whenever I return to a Christian one – what ways of thinking or behaving will carry over when the beliefs and way of life don’t surround me anymore? Will I still be interested in the practice and potential power of meditation? Will I forget the little rituals of bowing three times before the Buddha or monk in a temple?
What have you learned from living in a country with the dominant religion was different from your own or where you were from? How did it make an impact or change your way of thinking?
Hey! I'm Alana and I've spent nearly the past decade living in Chiang Mai, Thailand, working as a writer and photographer. I started Paper Planes as a place to share local insight, special places, and how to travel well through a range of experiences — from hostels to high-end hotels, street meat to multi-course meals.
New places are always calling my name...
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