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Theravada Buddhism is the professed religion of about 95% of all Thais and casts strong influences on daily life. Buddhism first appeared in The Golden Peninsular during the 3rd Century B.C. (before Siam or Thailand was founded) at Nakorn Pathom, site of the world's tallest Buddhist pagoda, after the India Buddhist Emperor Asoka or Ashoke (267-227 B.C.) despatched missionaries.

Theravada refers to only the earliest form of Buddhism practiced during or after the lifetime of that emperor. Another term of Theravada Buddhism is Hinayana, "the less or small vehicle", which preserves or limits the Buddhist doctrines to only those canons codified in the early Buddhist era. Meanwhile Mahayana, "the greater vehicle" built upon the earlier teachings but was expanded in such a way so as to respond more to the needs of lay people.

Besides molding morality, providing social cohesion and offering spiritual succour, Buddhism provided artistic impetus. In common with medieval cathedrals, Thailand's innumerable multi-colored roofed temples have inspired major artistic creation.

In addition to sustaining monastic communities, Thai temples have traditionally served other purposes such as schools, village news, the village hostelry, hospital dispensary, employment and information agency, community center giving the temples a vital role in Thai society.

Thais have always subscribed to the ideal of religious freedom and sizeable minorities of Muslims, Christians, Hindus and Sikhs pursue their respective faiths without harassment in Thailand.

Buddhism grew out of a philosophy of life as conceived by a person over 2,539 years ago, or 543 years B.C. and is today a major world religion. He was Siddhartha Gautama, the crown prince of Sakyas Kingdom with Kapilavastu (Kabilpasdu) as the capital, at the front of the Himalayan Mountains near Nepal. His parents were King Suddhodana and Queen Sirimahamaya. He was born on the 15th day of the waxing moon (full moon) in the 6th lunar month 2,620 years ago and later married Princess Pimpa who bore him a son, Rahula. However, he was not happy to see problems and sufferings of mankind. He then gave up his wealth, palaces, wife and son, and went into the forest to seek knowledge from several famous teachers at that time. He subjected himself to many years of severe austerity. No teacher could satisfy his quest and therefore he went to live alone in a forest and sat under a Bhodi tree to meditate.

On his 36th birthday he arrived at his vision of the world and was given the title Buddha, "the Enlightened" the Awakened. Gautama Buddha spoke of four noble truths which had the power to liberate and human beings who could realize them. These four noble truths are:

  1. The Truth of Suffering "Existence is Suffering"
  2. The Truth of the Cause of Suffering "Suffering is caused by Desire"
  3. The Truth of the Cessation of Suffering "Eliminate the Cause of Suffering (desire) and Suffering will Cease to Arise"
  4. The Truth of the Path "The Eight-fold path is the way to Eliminate desire / extinguish suffering" which consists of:

    1. right understanding, right ideas
    2. right mindedness, right thought, right resolution
    3. right speech

    1. right bodily conduct, right action, right behavior
    2. right livelihood, right vocation
    3. right effort

    1. right attentiveness, right mindfulness
    2. right concentration
The Eight-fold path is arranged in accordance with the three group: virtue, concentration and wisdom. These three are not isolated divisions but integral parts of the one path.

The five disciples of Lord Buddha lost faith in him after he realized torturing himself was not the way to find enlightenment. Once he was enlightened, Lord Buddha searched for his five former disciples in the forest for two months. And so, on the full moon day of the eight lunar month, around early July, Lord Buddha found them in the deer park at Varayasi (Baranares) in the present-day Northern India. He then preached his First Sermon to them, and this occasion has been regarded as ASARAHA BUCHA day

During the early part of his 44 years of preaching, a farmer once complained to Lord Buddha about monks who trampled all over his crops and destroyed them during the rainy season. Another story was that people criticized the monks because while travelling on foot during the rainy season, they caused suffering to small living creatures, e.g. insects, crabs, etc.

After hearing these complaints, Lord Buddha made a rule that all of his monks must remain within their own wiharn or abode during the rainy season, and temporarily refrain their outside activities of travelling and teaching.

Lord Buddha designated this 3 month period, as the Lent season, 'WAN KHOW PAHNSA'. (Wan = day; Khow = in, enter; Pahnsa = residence period), on the first day of the waning moon (i.e. the next day after the full moon = Raem 1 Khum) of the 8th lunar month. This rule still applies and means that monks must remain in residence. They must spend every night within their own temple and must not travel, except in urgent cases with the temple's permission of not more than 7 days away.

preparing for Khow Pahnsa

Traditionally, the beginning of 'Pahnsa' is celebrated in the Kingdom in many ways. One of the most important ceremonies is to present special Lent candles ranging in size from as small as 10 in diameter to over 6 feet high. Certainly, these huge candles remain alight in the temple chapel (Bhote) throughout the three PAHNSA months, instead of having to light fresh candles daily. The giving of Lent candles, a symbol or 'Gift of Light', is supposed to bring special merit. Lighted candles have been of daily necessity for Buddhist monks especially in the olden days when electricity wasn't available. These candles are given by the King, government agencies, and ordinary people in all walk of life.

On this occasion, in addition to merit-making at temples throughout the country, various kinds of 'merry-making' can be seen among the people (of course, the monks do not participate in these activities)

One reason for Buddhism's strength is that in the majority of Buddhist families at least one member has studied the Buddha's teachings in monastic surroundings. After discharging their worldly duties and family obligations, many Thai men spend the remainder of their lives as Buddhist monks. And it has long been a custom for Buddhist males over twenty, once in their lifetimes, to be temporarily ordained for a period of 3 to 4 months. This usually occurs during the annual Rains Retreat, or Khao Pahnsa, a 3-month period during the rainy season when all monks stay inside their monasteries to study, teach and meditate.

As a matter of fact, before the first day of 'KHOW PAHNSA', a large number of bachelor men (over 21 years old) all over the country enter the monkhood. Therefore ordination ceremonies take place at various temples (wats) throughout the country approximately 1-60 days before Wan Khow Pahnsa.

Just by coincidence, Asaraha Bucha Day is followed by Khow Pahnsa Day. The former was established 2,584 years ago while the latter was designated years later. In 1999, the dates of observation are July 27 and July 28.

In view of traditional practice in observing the lent retreat, Buddhist monks take a vow not to stay overnight outside that particular temple. During this period they should not spend a night at another place, unless they have permissible duties such as an invitation, visiting sick parents and teachers, going to deliver sermons, etc. In such duties monks are allowed to spend at most seven nights outside their confinement.

Theoretically, the Khow Pahnsa itself is not associated with lay devotees; it is exclusively meant for monks. But, on a reciprocal basis, lay Buddhists regard monks as a field of merit or na boon. The lay people can earn merit mainly through providing the monks with food, housing, clothing, medicine, etc. That is why the Prapaynee Khow Pahnsa is called "Boon Khow Pahnsa," which means the "boon or merit associated with entering the lent retreat." As world renouncers, monks have no occupation to support themselves and they are not supposed to be engaged in any business. They have to depend on lay Buddhists for their subsistence, thereby the latter, out of their faith, regard it as an opportunity to make merit. Consequently, lay followers make a special offering to the community of monks on the occasion of the wan Khow Pahnsa or on the day monks enter the lent retreat.

Five Lenten Observations for Northern Thai Buddhists.

  1. Refrain from travelling in the rainy season. In early times the household head had an important role in the family and traveled often in the summer as a merchant selling knives, tobacco, ornaments, etc. So when the rainy season began, he had to stay home and perform household work such as woodcarving.
  2. Growing rice. Because of abundant rainfall during Lenten, rice production was (and still is) the main occupation of rural people in Thailand as well as in other parts of Southeast Asia. The people in these regions spend the months of June, and July, and another two months, November and December, harvesting it.
  3. Ceasing to do bad deeds. Thai men are often fond of activities such as gambling. Thus, when the Khow Pahnsa comes round, they usually make a resolution to refrain from drinking, gambling, lying, etc. Some are able to abstain for the whole Pahnsa period; some are able to give up these vices forever.
  4. Trying to do good. During the lent retreat, lay people go to the monastery in larger numbers than during other periods. This is especially true of the elders who observe the eight precepts, to listen to sermons, and to practice meditation on every wan pra or Buddhist Sabbath day for three months.
  5. Taking the opportunity to instruct children and grandchildren. All members of the family stay together during this season, especially household leaders who are more learned. In early times children were taught informal education, such as story telling, transmitting experiences, giving advice about good and evil, etc. Furthermore, parents or grandparents in those days brought children with them when they went to the Wat on wan pra.

The Hae Thian Pahnsa has become a popular attraction for tourists in the North. This festival consists of about forty carriages in procession which takes place on the Thapae Road, each carrying a big beeswax candle artificially carved into different shapes, depicting regional religious monuments. Every year this festival can attract thousands of local people as well as foreigners from all parts of the world to watch.

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