THAILAND DIARIES – VOLUME 3 – THAILAND IN PERSPECTIVE
Thailand in Perspective is the Third Volume of my Thailand Diaries and is now almost complete. But before I publish it as an e-book I have decided to post a selection of excerpts which I hope will encourage you to download and enjoy the whole book.
Excerpt 4 – Culture & Customs
“I do not want my house to be walled in on all sides and my windows to be stuffed. I want the cultures of all the lands to be blown about my house as freely as possible. But I refuse to be blown off my feet by any”. Mahatma Ghandi (1869 – 1948)
Ancient Thai culture is still accepted today as an integral part of everyday life practiced by the majority but, in my view, is becoming increasingly watered down and distorted by the pressures of the modern world and a new generation eager to explore.
Historically, Thais are not widely travelled which is something of a surprise considering the migration of the Tai people started way back in the 1st century BC. It is difficult to believe that after the exodus from China to the South-East Asian peninsula they would have considered that the world ended there! In rural Thailand many older people have little experience of travel outside their villages. Even with the advent and accessibility of 21st century communications, to most of the population, their view of the world is still narrow. However, lots of young people come to Bangkok, Pattaya and Phuket from the country areas to make money which they send home to their families. They work in hotels, restaurants, massage shops and some other more dubious establishments. Most of them do not make much money of course and find, like Dick Whittington when he went to London, that the streets are not paved with gold. But their sense of duty to family is more important than personal gain. Others, who are better educated are pursuing careers in commerce, politics, and industry or displaying entrepreneurial skills and travelling. They are definitely questioning old values and influencing cultural change.
Thailand is a stronghold of Buddhism, which dates back 2556 years to the time of Buddha, and Buddhists believe that life does not begin with birth and end with death, but that every person has several lives based upon the lessons of life not yet learned and acts committed (karma) in previous lives. The History of Buddhism started with the birth of Buddha Siddhartha Gautama on the Indian subcontinent, in Lumbini Nepal. It is one of the oldest religions (if you consider it to be a religion) practiced today evolving as it spread from the north-east of the Indian subcontinent through Central, East and South-East Asia. At one time or another, it influenced most of the Asian continent.
The Five Precepts constitute the basic Buddhist code of ethics, undertaken by lay followers of the Buddha Gautama in the Theravada as well as in Mahayana traditions. The precepts in both traditions are essentially identical and are commitments to abstain from harming living beings, stealing, sexual misconduct, lying and intoxication. Undertaking the five precepts is part of both lay Buddhist initiation and regular lay Buddhist devotional practices.
Buddhism in Thailand is represented primarily by the presence of Buddhist monks, who serve as officiates on ceremonial occasions, as well as being responsible for preserving and conveying the teachings of the Buddha. Prior to the creation of state-run primary schools in Thailand, village temples served as the primary form of education for most Thai boys. During the latter half of the 20th century, most monks in Thailand began their careers by serving as dek wat (literally, children of the wat). Dek wat are traditionally no younger than eight, and do minor housework around the temple. Service in a temple as a dek wat was a necessary prerequisite for attaining any higher education, and was the only learning available to most Thai peasants. Since the creation of a government-run educational apparatus in Thailand, the number of children living as dek wat has declined significantly. However, many government-run schools continue to operate on the premise of the local village temple.
Temporary ordination is the norm among Thai Buddhists. Most young men traditionally ordain for the term of a single rainy season known in Thai as phansa. Those who remain monks beyond their first vassa typically remain monks for between one and three years, officiating at religious ceremonies in surrounding villages and possibly receiving further education in reading and writing After this period of one to three years, most young monks return to lay life, going on to marry and begin a family. Young men in Thailand who have undergone ordination are seen as being more suitable partners for marriage; unordained men are euphemistically called ‘unripe’, while those who have been ordained are said to be ‘ripe’. A period as a monk is a prerequisite for many positions of leadership within the village hierarchy. Most village elders or headmen were once monks.
Buddhists believe that selfishness and craving result in suffering and that compassion and love bring happiness and well-being. The true path to peace is to eliminate all desire, a condition which Buddhists define as ‘nirvana’, an indescribable state free of desire, suffering, or further rebirth, in which a person simply is, and is completely at one with his surroundings. Buddhism is practised in Thailand by over 90% of the population but I often wonder how seriously many people take the teachings. You will no doubt form your own opinions in time, like I have, and will understand later why I make this statement.
Life centres on the temples, particularly in the villages and small towns which all have one. Nearly every home will have a small shrine either inside the house or in the garden where the family will burn incense sticks and give offerings to Buddha. These offerings will usually consist of fruit, flowers, cigarettes and whiskey. On special occasions such as during festivals people will offer a couple of cooked chickens as well. A boiled pig’s head is for a very special occasion. Monks walk the streets most days, with their alms bowls, at dawn, when people will bring them an offering of rice and or a little food. This is a symbolic gesture intended to make the giver feel good and not because the monks are starving. The monk will say a prayer by the roadside after each offering has been made and continue on his way. Many people visit the temples to be blessed by the monks individually or in small groups and take gifts of food and other things which are brightly gift wrapped, on a fairly regular basis. What happens to these gifts? Well, visit a temple and you will see them all stacked gathering dust. No-one seems to question this but I have heard that in some temples the monks sell them at a big discount to the local shopkeepers who then make their living by selling again. I have found it difficult to get a straight answer on this one.
(Main source of background information: Wikipedia)
Thailand in Perspective (excerpt 5) – To be posted next week.