A History of Buddhism in Thailand

The Doctrine of The Elders: Everything You Need to Know About Buddhism in Thailand

Just as the sun does not need to motivate itself to radiate light and heat but does so simply because light and heat are its very nature, so a Buddha does not need to motivate himself to benefit others but does so simply because being beneficial is his very nature.” – Geshe Kelsang Gyatso

It is astounding that the actions of a single person at one point in time would go on to influence the lives of millions of people millennia after they have been performed. Siddhartha Gautama was such a person. His enlightenment, as well as a set of specific teachings, created one of the biggest religions* in human history – Buddhism.

In this post we cover the following bases:


  • Who was the Buddha?
  • The Major Schools of Buddhism
  • What Makes Theravada Buddhism Different?
  • Buddhism in the Everyday Life of Thais
  • What Does it Mean for Backpackers and Tourists?


With knowledge comes a deeper understanding, which, in turn, makes your stay in Thailand more fulfilled and memorable.

So, strap in, grab yourself another beer, and get ready to learn!

*Whether Buddhism is a religion, a philosophy, or both is a whole different discussion.

Who was the Buddha? A (Very) Brief History

First off, when we speak of the Buddha, we refer to Shakyamuni Buddha, the one who created Buddhism. Translated “Buddha” simply means “The Enlightened One”. Since more than one person has reached Enlightenment we, hence, have more than one Buddha.

But before Shakyamuni Buddha, there was Siddhartha Gautama, a prince of the Shakya clan born in Lumbini – now in modern-day Nepal – during the 6th Century B.C. Due to his heritage, he enjoyed all the privileges someone can ask for – education, food and drink, women, a palace and much more. Everyone in his personal circle envisioned him as a great King; a powerful ruler. But as Siddharta soon realized, all those things would merely satisfy his body, but could not free his mind from worry, anxiety, and suffering. While wandering through the streets of his Kingdom he saw the same poor conditions afflicting his people and this sight changed the trajectory of his life.

The young Prince was looking for everlasting happiness and he could not find it here. He left Kapilavastu, the capital of Shakya, and started his spiritual journey by learning about meditation and various teachings from the wisest of teachers. None of them, however, were able to provide him with an acceptable solution for his afflictions. This, in the end, caused him to meditate for a long time (the sources vary from three days to seven weeks) under a sacred fig tree, what is now the Bodhi tree in Bodh Gaya, India. After his deep meditation, he was no longer Siddhartha Gautama but Shakyamuni Buddha; the Enlightened One; the Awakened One; the one who knew and became everything. He finally freed himself from all mental obstacles and attachments and attained everlasting happiness.

The Buddha, then, dedicated the rest of his life to his teachings (Dharma or Dhamma) and, thus, creating Buddhism.

The Major Schools of Buddhism

As is the case with all world religions, there are many different branches of Buddhism. They follow the basic principles but with their own minor or even major changes. Generally speaking, though, the major schools are Mahayana (“Great Vehicle”) and Theravada (“Doctrine of the Elders”), sometimes called Northern Buddhism and Southern Buddhism, respectively. Mahayana is dominant in countries such as Tibet, China, Mongolia, Japan, and Nepal. Theravada is prevalent in Sri Lanka, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, and, of course, Thailand.

In Thailand, Theravada Buddhism is also referred to as Lankavamsa. This is because, in the 13th Century, King Ramkhamhaeng invited Sri Lankan Buddhists to teach in the back-then capital of Sukhothai. Lankavamsa means “Sri Lankan or Singhalese lineage”.

What Makes Theravada Buddhism Different?

Many say that the teachings of Theravada Buddhism are the closest to the ones that the Buddha himself once taught. This is because the first companions of him called the Elders – hence the name – collected his exact teachings and they have been following them ever since. Through extensive studies and analysis’ of these ancient scriptures, Theravadins long to attain a complete understanding of the doctrines. Throughout time, the followers of Mahayana Buddhists expanded upon the original scriptures with the inclusion of various Buddhas and Bodhisattvas. Theravadins reject this expansion.

The basic principles of Theravada Buddhism revolve around three characteristics of this world – Anicca, Dukkha, and Anatta. In layman’s terms, they explain that we can’t keep or maintain anything that satisfies us – it is fleeting (Annica). If we desperately try to keep what can’t be kept, for example, our looks or youth, we become stressed and we suffer (Dukkha). We are, essentially, continuously grasping for something that is not there, like fog, because everything – including our body and mind – is in a state of constant flux and there is nothing of “real” substance (Anatta).

Do you feel like tumbling deeper down the rabbit hole? Then check out the article on Pure Dhamma about wrong interpretations of the three characteristics.

Buddhism in the Everyday Life of Thais

buddhism in thailand making merit praying

Buddhism is, unsurprisingly, the dominant religion in Thailand with 93,6 % of the population following it. Throughout the day, Thais perform good deeds in the hope of gaining merit and, in turn, living a longer and happier life. They also believe that it will help them to improve their standing in the next life. One of the daily rituals involves the offerings of either food or money to the monks early in the morning. In general, it is all about doing as much good as possible and to abstain from anything that is evil. You will see the more pious Buddhist wear certain amulets to protect them from such evil as well.

monks buddhism in thailand

We can’t talk about Buddhism without also mentioning the respective monks in their orange robes. It is a tradition for every male Thai to become a monk once in their life, even if it’s just for a few days or a week. This must happen before their 20th birthday. For the duration of their monastic life, the monks live in one of the 30,000 temples. We have written about some of the major ones such as Wat Arun in Bangkok or Wat Doi Suthep in Chiang Mai. It is interesting to know that despite Buddhism being the dominant religion, there is a lot of influence from Hinduism and Animism. So, if you pay close attention inside temples, you will find plenty of Hindu gods and iconography.

The temples are also the main gathering places for Buddhist holidays, of which there are quite a lot. Besides the popularity and fun for us farangs of Songkran, the most important holiday might be Visakah Puja, since it has even been recognized by the UNESCO as a “World Heritage Day”. Here the Buddhists celebrate the birth, enlightenment, and death of the Buddha. The date falls on the first full moon day in May, so this year it was on the 29. May. Other important holidays include Makha Bucha (establishment of the monastic community called Sangha; February), Asanha Puja (the Buddha’s first sermon; July) and Khao Phansa (the beginning of a three-month retreat for the monks; July – October).

During Buddhist holidays the sale of alcohol is strictly prohibited as you may or may not have shockingly realized. Do you think you can manage for one day?

And Finally, What Does This Mean for Backpackers and Tourists?

buddhism in thailand backpackers guide

What we can do, first and foremost, is to be respectful. We have written an extensive guide on how to behave accordingly when you visit temples, so this is a good place to start. Despite what you might think, though, monks are quite friendly and in some temples, you can even chat with them. They love to share their beliefs and knowledge with those who are interested. And as we mentioned in the beginning, doesn’t this make your experience in Thailand so much more exciting and memorable?

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