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The diverse ethnic groups in the region, from socialite city dwellers to remote enclaves of subsistence farmers, have unique histories, cultural practices, and religions. The region is a cornucopia of cultures that have intertwined and adopted various elements, beliefs, and practices from one another.

Buddha & Buddhism in Southeast Asia

Born Siddhartha Gautama Buddha in the year 563 B.C., the historical Buddha was an Indian prince. A passing sage predicted the child's future as a great holy man, and his father, who wanted him to be a great king, kept him sheltered from suffering behind palace walls. As a child, he knew nothing of sickness and death. He married, had children, and lived a carefree life, though one plagued by a certain soul sickness and discontent. His journey began when he first spied a sick man and a corpse. Renouncing his princely cloaks, he concluded that life is suffering. Resolving to search for relief from earthly pain, he went into the forest and lived there for many years as a solitary ascetic, ultimately following his moderate "middle way" and achieving enlightenment and nirvana (escape from the cycle of reincarnation) while in meditation under the Bodhi tree.

Buddha's peripatetic teaching is the basis of all Buddhism. Upon his death, two schools arose and spread throughout Asia. The oldest and probably closest to the original practice is Theravada (Doctrine of the Elders), sometimes referred to as Hinayana (the Small Vehicle), which prevails in Sri Lanka, Laos, Thailand, and Cambodia and posits the enlightenment of individuals in this life, one at a time. The other school is Mahayana (the Large Vehicle), practiced in eastern Asia and Vietnam, which speaks of group enlightenment (we all go at once).

Buddhism has one aim only: to abolish suffering. To do so, according to Buddhism, one must transcend the ego, the "self," and attachment to the fleeting pleasures in an ever-changing material world, in order to see things clearly -- with wisdom -- and find peace.

There is no god in Buddhism; the Buddha is but an example. Buddhist practices, particularly Theravada, center on meditation and require that individuals, according to Buddha himself, look within and come to understand the Four Noble Truths: the existence of suffering; its arising; the path to eliminating suffering; and its ultimate passing by practice of the Eightfold Path, a road map to right living and good conduct.

Buddhist philosophy pervades every aspect of life, morality, and thought in the countries of Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia. The monastic community, called the sangha, is supported by local people and serves as the cultural touchstone and often an important avenue of education. Monks live in the "supramundane," free from the usual human concerns of finding food, clothing, and shelter. Instead, they focus on the rigorous practice of meditation, study, and austerities prescribed by the Theravada tradition. Mahayana traditions from China hold important sway over life in parts of the Malay Peninsula, Thailand, and Vietnam.

Lay practitioners adopt the law of karma, in which every action has effects and the energy of past action, good or evil, continues forever and is "reborn." Merit is gained by entering the monkhood (which most males do for a few days or months), helping in the construction of a monastery or a stupa, contributing to education, giving alms, or performing any act of kindness, no matter how small. When monks go with their alms bowls from house to house, they are not begging, but offering laypersons an opportunity to "make merit" by supporting them.

Buddha images are honored and revered in the Eastern tradition and are said to radiate the essence of Buddha, ideals that we should revere and struggle to achieve; but the images themselves are not holy or spiritually charged, per se. Buddhism does not seek converts, and, as long as they follow some simple rules of conduct, tourists are welcome guests at most Buddhist fetes and festivals.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.