Thai culture cannot be fully appreciated without some understanding of Buddhism, which is practiced by 95% of the population. The Buddha was a great Indian sage who lived in the 6th century B.C. He was born Siddhartha Gautama, a prince who was carefully sheltered from the outside world. When he ventured beyond the palace walls, he encountered an old man, a sick man, a corpse, and a wandering monk. He concluded that a never-ending cycle of suffering and relief exists everywhere. Sensing that the pleasures of the physical world were impermanent and the cause of pain, he shed his noble life and went into the forest to live as a solitary ascetic. Nearing starvation, however, he soon realized this was not the path to happiness, so he turned instead to the "Middle Way," a more moderate practice of meditation, compassion, and understanding. One night, while mediating under a Bodhi (fig) tree after being tormented by Mara, the goddess of death, Siddhartha Gautama became enlightened. With his mind free of delusion, he gained insight into the nature of the universe and viewed the world without defilement, craving, or attachment but as unified and complete. He explained his newfound ideology, The Dhamma, to his first five disciples, at Deer Park in India, in a sermon now known as "The Discourse on Setting into Motion the Wheel of the Law."

After the death of Buddha, two schools were formed. The oldest, Theravada (Doctrine of the Elders), is sometimes referred to, less accurately, as Hinayana (the Lesser Vehicle). This school of thought prevails in Sri Lanka, Myanmar (Burma), Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia. It focuses on the enlightenment of the individual with emphasis on the monastic community and the monks who achieve nirvana in this lifetime. The other methodology, Mahayana (the Greater Vehicle), is practiced in China, Korea, and Japan, and subscribes to a notion of all of mankind attaining enlightenment at the same time.

The basic document of Thai, or Theravada, Buddhism is the Pali canon, which was documented in writing for the first time in the 1st century A.D. The doctrine is essentially an ethical and psychological system in which no deity plays a role in the mystical search for the intuitive realization of the oneness of the universe. While it is a religion without a god, Theravada traditions follow a certain hierarchy based on age among monks and practitioners. The practice requires individuals to find truth for themselves through an inward-looking practice cultivated by meditation and self-examination. Although interpretation varies, the Buddha's final words are said to be "strive on with diligence."

If there is no deity to worship, then what, you might ask, are people doing in temples prostrating themselves before images or statues of the Buddha? Worshipers bow three times before the image: once for the Buddha himself, once for the sangha (the order of monks), and once for the dhamma (truth). Prostrations at the temple are also a way to honor Buddhist teachers and those who pass on the tradition, to show respect for the Buddha's meditative repose and equanimity, and to offer reverence for relics (most temples house important artifacts, especially in the stupa).

Buddhism has one aim only: to abolish suffering. Buddhist practice offers a path to rid oneself of the causes of suffering, which are desire, malice, and delusion. Practitioners eliminate craving and ill will by exercising self-restraint and showing kindness to all sentient beings. Monks and members of the Buddhist Sangha, or community, are revered as those most diligently working toward enlightenment and the attainment of wisdom.

Other aspects of the philosophy include the law of karma, whereby every action has an effect and the energy of past action, good or evil, continues forever and is "reborn." (Some argue, though, that the Buddha took transmigration quite literally.) As a consequence, tam bun (merit making) -- basically performing any act of kindness no matter how small -- is taken very seriously.

Merit can be gained by entering the monkhood, which most Thai males do for a few days or months to study Buddhist scriptures and practice meditation. But these days it can equally be gained by transferring Frequent Flyer points to a charity.

When monks in Thailand go on their alms round each dawn, they are not begging, but are giving Buddhist devotees an opportunity to make merit; similarly, those who sell caged birds, which people purchase and then set free, are allowing them to gain merit by freeing the birds. When making merit, it is the motive that is important -- the intention in the mind at the time of action -- which determines the karmic outcome, not the action itself. Buddhism calls for self-reliance; the individual embarks alone on the Noble Eightfold Path to Nirvana with the aim "to cease to do evil, learn to do good, cleanse your own heart."

Theravada Buddhism does not seek converts, nor does it ask practitioners to believe in any truths but those they learn themselves through experience and meditation. Opportunities to study Buddhism or practice meditation in Thailand are abundant. There are a number of programs designed particularly for foreigners, as practicing, in fact, is the best way to understand the heart of Buddhism.

Most Chinese and Vietnamese living in Thailand follow Mahayana Buddhism, and several temples and monasteries in the country support this tradition as well. Other religions and philosophies are also followed in Thailand, including Islam, Christianity, Hinduism, and Sikhism. Sunni Islam is followed by more than two million Thais, mostly in the south. Most are of Malay origin and are descendants of the Muslim traders and missionaries who spread their teachings in the southern peninsula in the early 13th century. There are approximately 2,000 mosques in Thailand.

Christianity was first introduced in the 16th century by generations of Jesuit, Dominican, and Franciscan missionaries from Europe and later Protestant missionaries from America, yet even after centuries of evangelism, there are only a quarter of a million Christians living in the country, suggesting that most Buddhists have no interest in changing their belief system. Nevertheless, Thais have accepted much that has come from Christian missionaries, particularly ideas on education, health, and science.

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