THERAVADA BUDDHISM is the professed religion of approximately 92% of the Thai people, exerting a strong influence on daily life throughout the country. Buddhism appeared in the peninsular region of the country in about the 3rd century B.C., prior to the founding of the Kingdom of Siam at Nakhon Pathom. (Nakorn Pathom in Central Thailand is the site of the world’s tallest Buddhist pagoda.) The Indian Buddhist emperor Asoka or Ashoke, who lived from 267-227 B.C., dispatched missionaries to spread the religion throughout the area. The term Theravada, or Hinayana which means lesser vehicle, refers only to the earliest form of Buddhism practiced during the reign of Emperor Ashoke, in keeping the practice of the religion to canonical forms codified in the early Buddhist era. This is not to be confused with Mahayana Buddhism, meaning the greater vehicle, where local or later religious traditions have been grafted onto Buddhist practice in keeping with the needs of the laity.
Thai Buddhists celebrate three major holy days each year which commemorate events in the Buddha’s lifetime having to do with the formulation of his teachings, which are the basis of Theravada Buddhism. One of these, called Makha Bucha, is celebrated on night of the full moon of the third lunar month, which usually corresponds to February, and is an observance of two unexpected events in the Buddha’s forty-four years of teaching which occurred on the same day. In 2007, Makha Bucha day will be celebrated on February 16th.
The first event occurred nine months after the Buddha had been expounding his doctrine for seven months only. Of his 1,340 disciples, 1,250 of them the Buddha laid down the three main principles of his religion in the Patimokka, of the ‘monk way’, which crystallize the wisdom of all the Buddhas that came before. These are
He also admonished his disciples to be good teachers to the laity based on the following precepts:
The second unusual event occurred on the same day forty-five years later. The Buddha foresaw that due to the state of his health his attainment of Nirvana, or escape from the cycle of rebirths, was approaching within three months. On that day he formulated and preached his Dhamma about the responsibility of an individual or organization. These are that a person should:
The Magha Puja Day of the second event is also known as the day of the Four Fold Assembly. This was a special assembly which took place at the Bamboo Grove (Veluvana Vihara in Rajgaha, the Capital of Magaha State, India ) and contained four extraordinary features, namely:
On the three lunar holy days which include Makha Bucha Thai Buddhists gather at the temple at sunset to Wian Tian, or to circumambulate the Bhot, or the major religious structure in the temple complex where monks are ordained, while holding a lighted candle, temple building are people’s way of showing respect to what is called the “triple gem”, which is the Buddha himself, his teachings and doctrines, and the monkhood he founded.
Buddhism stems from a philosophy the was propounded more than 2,500 years ago in 543 B.C. by a crown prince in the Sakayas kingdom who was named Siddhartha Gautama. Oppressed by the suffering he saw among his people, he gave up his title and his family. He went into the forest to seek a solution meditate, on his thirty-sixth birthday he arrived at his vision that would free the world which let people to give him the title of Buddha, or the Enlightened one, the Awakened.
The Buddha propounded the doctrine of the four noble truths which had the power to liberate who could understand them from the endless cycle of rebirths. These are:
He then preached the doctrine of the eightfold path as the way to eliminate suffering. The eightfold path described in the 4th truth is the way to eliminate desire/extinguish suffering which consists of:
The Buddha was the only contemporary teacher who endeavored to alleviate the suffering of low caste individuals at the hands of their higher caste oppressors. He also elevated the status of women in India, treating them with consideration and civility. He promulgated the teaching that women could attain nirvana and preached the paths of peace, purity, and sanctity.
The Buddha never encouraged any animosity or strife. He once said while addressing his disciples, “I quarrel not with the world, monks, it is the world which quarrels with me. An exponent of the Dhamma quarrels not with anyone in the world.” A Buddhist inscription says that, “There was never an occasion when the Buddha flamed forth in anger, never an incident when an unkind word escaped his lips.”
The Buddha never said his was the only way, and a strength of Thai religious practice is the essential freedom of religious practice granted to all. Muslims, Christians, Hindus, and Sikhs have all practiced their faiths without any form of religious harassment or discrimination in Thailand.
So if you happen to be anywhere near a temple on the evening of a Buddhist holy day when the people are circling the Bhot for Wian Tian, you are welcome to join in as well.
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