Wat Yai Chai Mongkon, Ayutthaya, Thailand

Thailand is the world's most heavily Buddhist country. About 93.6 percent of all the people in Thailand are Buddhists (nearly all of them Theravada Buddhists). You will see Wats (Buddhist temples) and saffron robed monks everywhere. About 4.6 percent of the population is Muslim. They are mostly Malays who live in southern Thailand but there are also some in the north and other parts of Thailand. Many hill tribe members are animists or relatively recent converts to Christianity. Christians make up 0.9 percent of the population; Hindus, 0.1 percent; and Sikhs, Baha’i Faith, and others, 0.6 percent.

While the vast majority of Thai people are practitioners of Theravada Buddhism, the official religion of Thailand, religious tolerance is both customary in Thailand and protected by the constitution. The tolerant philosophy of Buddhism and the constitutional guarantees of religious freedom have provided a fertile ground for adoption and admixing new religious beliefs with traditional beliefs. In the Thai eyes, the superstition and metaphysics in animism, demonology, and Hinduist cosmology are not at odds with the Buddhist cosmology depicted in the Buddhist canon and religious folk tales. These strands of belief systems maintain peaceful coexistence, and many Thais follow some of these practices to a certain degree during different parts of their lives.

By its very nature however, Buddhism is a compassionate and tolerant religion, the aim of which is the alleviation of suffering. Consequently, Thai people are very respectful of the religious beliefs of others and are very open toward discussing their Buddhist values with visitors. In fact, there are many opportunities in Thailand to visit Buddhist temples to learn about or study Buddhism and perhaps to learn to meditate. [Source: Tourist Authority of Thailand]

In Thailand there is no conflict between the worship of Buddhism and the pacification of hostile spirits. Section 73 of the Thai constitution states that the state shall patronize and protect Buddhism and other religions, promote harmony among the followers of all religions, and encourage the application of religious principles “to create virtue and develop the quality of life.” Religious instruction is required in public schools at both the primary and secondary education levels. Historical evidence—mostly temple reliefs—suggests that Thais have embraced different schools of Buddhism (Theravada, Mahayana and Mantarayanas) as well as Hinduism and beliefs of spirits and ghosts since they have been in Thailand beginning around the A.D. 13th century.

Islam is the second largest religion in Thailand. The majority of Thai Muslims live in the most southerly provinces near the Malaysian border. Other religions in Thailand include Hinduism, Confucianism, Taoism, and Christianity, which are generally practiced by those living in Bangkok, where a multi-cultural population includes citizens of Indian, Chinese, Japanese, and European descent.

Thailand has a Religious Affairs Department.

Buddhism and Theravada Buddhism, See Buddhism Under Religion factsanddetails.com

Websites and Resources on Buddhism: Buddha Net buddhanet.net/e-learning/basic-guide ; Religious Tolerance Page religioustolerance.org/buddhism ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Internet Sacred Texts Archive sacred-texts.com/bud/index ; Introduction to Buddhism webspace.ship.edu/cgboer/buddhaintro ; Early Buddhist texts, translations, and parallels, SuttaCentral suttacentral.net ; East Asian Buddhist Studies: A Reference Guide, UCLA web.archive.org ; View on Buddhism viewonbuddhism.org ; Tricycle: The Buddhist Review tricycle.org ; BBC - Religion: Buddhism bbc.co.uk/religion ; Buddhist Centre thebuddhistcentre.com; A sketch of the Buddha's Life accesstoinsight.org ; What Was The Buddha Like? by Ven S. Dhammika buddhanet.net ; Jataka Tales (Stories About Buddha) sacred-texts.com ; Illustrated Jataka Tales and Buddhist stories ignca.nic.in/jatak ; Buddhist Tales buddhanet.net ; Arahants, Buddhas and Bodhisattvas by Bhikkhu Bodhi accesstoinsight.org ; Victoria and Albert Museum vam.ac.uk/collections/asia/asia_features/buddhism/index ;

Theravada Buddhism: Readings in Theravada Buddhism, Access to Insight accesstoinsight.org/ ; Readings in Buddhism, Vipassana Research Institute (English, Southeast Asian and Indian Languages) tipitaka.org ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Encyclopædia Britannica britannica.com ; Pali Canon Online palicanon.org ; Vipassanā (Theravada Buddhist Meditation) Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Pali Canon - Access to Insight accesstoinsight.org ; Forest monk tradition abhayagiri.org/about/thai-forest-tradition ; BBC Theravada Buddhism bbc.co.uk/religion

Christianity and Religious Minorities in Thailand

old Thai church

According to the Library of Congress: “Defining Thai minority religions was as complex as defining Thai ethnic minorities. This problem was further compounded by the number of Thai whose Buddhism was a combination of differing beliefs. In the 1980s, the religious affiliation of the Chinese minority was particularly difficult to identify. Some adopted the Theravada beliefs of the Thai, and many participated in the activities of the local wat. Most Chinese, however, consciously retained the mixture of Confucian social ethics, formal veneration of ancestors, Mahayana Buddhist doctrine, and Taoist supernaturalism that was characteristic of the popular religious tradition in China. To the Chinese community as a whole, neither organized religion nor theological speculation had strong appeal. There were some Chinese members of the sangha, and most large Chinese temples had active lay associations attached to them. It was estimated in the 1980s that there were about twenty-one Chinese monasteries and thirteen major Vietnamese monasteries in Thailand. Other religions represented in Thailand included Hinduism and Sikhism, both associated with small ethnic groups of Indian origin. Most of the Hindus and Sikhs lived in Bangkok. [Source: Library of Congress]

Christianity has become steadily more popular, and over a century of work by the missionaries can be seen in many schools which offer good education to Thai children without seeking to convert them. Catholics make up 0.5 percent of the population. Most are Vietnamese immigrants, Chinese or members of hill tribes or other ethnic minorities. Many Protestants are members of ethnic minorities such as the Karen and Shan that have been targeted by Evangelical missionaries.

During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, Portuguese and Spanish Dominicans and other missionaries introduced Christianity to Siam. Christian missions have had only modest success in winning converts among the Thai, and the Christian community, estimated at 260,000 in the 1980s, was proportionately the smallest in any Asian country. The missions played an important role, however, as agents for the transmission of Western ideas to the Thai. Missionaries opened hospitals, introduced Western medical knowledge, and sponsored some excellent private elementary and secondary schools. Many of the Thai urban elite who planned to have their children complete their studies in European or North American universities sent them first to the mission-sponsored schools. [Source: Library of Congress]

A high percentage of the Christian community was Chinese, although there were several Lao and Vietnamese Roman Catholic communities, the latter in southeastern Thailand. About half the total Christian population lived in the Center. The remainder were located in almost equal numbers in the North and Northeast. More than half the total Christian community in Thailand was Roman Catholic. Some of the Protestant groups had banded together in the mid-1930s to form the Church of Christ in Thailand, and nearly half of the more than 300 Protestant congregations in the country were part of that association.

Muslims and Islam in Thailand

Thai Muslims

There are 6.3 million Muslims in Thailand (about 10 percent of the population). About half of all Thai Muslims live in the southern Thai provinces of Narathiwat, Yala, Satun and Pattani and some districts of Songkhla.. Ninety-nine percent of these Sunnis and one percent are Shi’ite.

Although the majority of Thailand’s Muslims are ethnically Malay, the Muslim community also includes the Thai Muslims in rural areas of central Thailand , who are either hereditary Muslims, Muslims by intermarriage, or recent converts; Cham Muslims originally from Cambodia; West Asians, including both Sunni and Shias; South Asians, including Tamils, Punjabis and Bengalis; Pakistani immigrants in the urban centers; Indonesians, especially Javanese and Minangkabau; Thai-Malay or people of Malay ethnicity who have accepted many aspects of Thai language and culture, except Buddhism, and have intermarried with Thais; and Chinese Muslims, who were mostly Haw living in the North. Education and maintenance of their own cultural traditions is often seen as of vital interests to these groups. [Source: Library of Congress]

Islam is the second largest faith in Thailand after Buddhism. Except in the small circle of theologically trained believers, the Islamic faith in Thailand, like Buddhism, had become integrated with many beliefs and practices not integral to Islam. It would be difficult to draw a line between animistic practices indigenous to Malay culture that were used to drive off evil spirits and local Islamic ceremonies because each contained aspects of the other.

According to statistics compiled by the Internal Security Affairs Bureau, Department of Provincial Administration, there were 3,610 mosques registered in Thailand in 2008: 1) 42 mosques in the North (13 provinces); 2) 486 mosques in the central region (24 provinces); 3) 24 mosques in the Northeast (15 provinces); 4) 3,058 mosques in the South (14 provinces). The central mosque of Yala province is the largest in Thailand, while the one in Pattani is considered the most magnificent in the country. The wooden Wadi al-Hussain Mosque, built in 1624 in Narathiwat, is one of the oldest Islamic structures in Thailand.

In the mid-1980s, the country had more than 2,000 mosques in 38 Thai provinces, with the largest number (434) in Narathiwat Province. All but a very small number of the mosques were associated with the Sunni branch of Islam; the remainder were of the Shia branch. Each mosque had an imam (prayer leader), a muezzin (who issued the call to prayer), and perhaps other functionaries.

The National Council for Muslims, consisting of at least five persons (all Muslims) and appointed by royal proclamation, advises the ministries of education and interior on Islamic matters. Its presiding officer, the state counselor for Muslim affairs, is appointed by the king and holds the office of division chief in the Department of Religious Affairs in the Ministry of Education. Provincial councils for Muslim affairs exist in the provinces that have substantial Muslim minorities. There are other links between the government and the Muslim community, including government financial assistance to Islamic education institutions, assistance with construction of some of the larger mosques, and the funding of pilgrimages by Thai Muslims to Mecca. Thailand also maintains several hundred Islamic schools at the primary and secondary levels.

See Minorities.

Theravada Buddhism in Thailand

Theravada Buddhist monks in Thailand

While Theravada Buddhism may technically be considered a philosophy rather than a religion, Thai Buddhism is infused with many spiritual beliefs which are likely the result of lingering animist and Hindu beliefs from centuries earlier. Most Thai homes and places of business feature a ‘spirit house’ just outside the building, where offerings are made to appease spirits that might otherwise inhabit their homes or workplaces. Furthermore, Buddhist monks are often brought to new homes and businesses to ‘bless them’, and Thai people frequently light incense and make prayers to both Buddha images and a host of Hindu gods whose shrines are located throughout Bangkok and the countryside.

Thais refer to Theravada Buddhism as Lankavama (Sinhalese lineage) on reference to the fact the belief made its way to Thailand from Sri Lanka. Joe Cummings wrote in the Lonely Planet guide for Thailand: “Since the Sukhothai period (13th to 15 centuries), Thailand has maintained an unbroken canonical tradition and ‘pure’ ordination lineage, the only country among the Theravadin countries to have done so. Ironically when the ordination lineage of Sri Lanka broke down during the 18th century under Dutch persecution, it was Thailand that restored the Sangha (Buddhist brotherhood) there. [Source: Joe Cummings, Lonely Planet guide for Thailand]

Associated with Theravada Buddhism is a traditional system of complex values and behaviors that the majority of Thai share. Complementing the religion are beliefs and practices assuming the existence of several types of spirits (phi) whose behavior is supposed to affect human welfare. The Buddhism of the Thai villagers, and even of poorly educated monks, often differs substantially from the canonical religion.

In Thailand in 1995, there were 32,000 wats (Buddhist monasteries and temples), 340,000 monks and novices. In 1982, there 24,000 monasteries, 175,000 monks and nuns, 100,0000 novices. Numbers fluctuate because many become monks and nuns only in the rainy season (July-October).

History of Buddhism in Thailand

The details of the history of Buddhism in Thailand from the thirteenth to the nineteenth century are obscure, in part because few historical records or religious texts survived the Burmese destruction of Ayutthaya, the capital city of the kingdom, in 1767. The anthropologist-historian S.J. Tambiah, however, has suggested a general pattern for that era, at least with respect to the relations between Buddhism and the sangha on the one hand and the king on the other hand. In Thailand, as in other Theravada Buddhist kingdoms, the king was in principle thought of as patron and protector of the religion (sasana) and the sangha, while sasana and the sangha were considered in turn the treasures of the polity and the signs of its legitimacy. Religion and polity, however, remained separate domains, and in ordinary times the organizational links between the sangha and the king were not close. [Source: Library of Congress]

spread of Buddhism to Southeast Asia and elsewhere

Among the chief characteristics of Thai kingdoms and principalities in the centuries before 1800 were the tendency to expand and contract, problems of succession, and the changing scope of the king's authority. In effect, some Thai kings had greater power over larger territories, others less, and almost invariably a king who sought successfully to expand his power also exercised greater control over the sangha. That control was coupled with greater support and patronage of the ecclesiastical hierarchy. When a king was weak, however, protection and supervision of the sangha also weakened, and the sangha declined. This fluctuating pattern appears to have continued until the emergence of the Chakkri Dynasty in the last quarter of the eighteenth century.

By the nineteenth century, and especially with the coming to power in 1851 of King Mongkut, who had been a monk himself for twenty-seven years, the sangha, like the kingdom, became steadily more centralized and hierarchical in nature and its links to the state more institutionalized. As a monk, Mongkut was a distinguished scholar of Pali Buddhist scripture. Moreover, at that time the immigration of numbers of Mon from Burma was introducing the more rigorous discipline characteristic of the Mon sangha. Influenced by the Mon and guided by his own understanding of the Tipitaka, Mongkut began a reform movement that later became the basis for the Dhammayuttika order of monks. Under the reform, all practices having no authority other than custom were to be abandoned, canonical regulations were to be followed not mechanically but in spirit, and acts intended to improve an individual's standing on the road to nirvana but having no social value were rejected. This more rigorous discipline was adopted in its entirety by only a small minority of monasteries and monks. In any case, Mongkut was in a position to regularize and tighten the relations between monarchy and sangha at a time when the monarchy was expanding its control over the country in general and developing the kind of bureaucracy necessary to such control.

The administrative and sangha reforms that Mongkut started were continued by his successor. In 1902 King Chulalongkorn (Rama V, 1868-1910) made the new sangha hierarchy formal and permanent through the Sangha Law of 1902, which remained the foundation of sangha administration in modern Thailand.

Article 73 of the That constitution states: “The State shall patronize and protect Buddhism” Thailand has a Religious Affairs Department. The Sangha Supreme Council is Thailand’s highest religious governing body.

Buddhism and Life in Thailand

Buddhism makes its way into everyday life in Thailand in various ways. One Thai man told National Geographic that while stranded in traffic jams, 'we meditate. It is the Buddhist way." In Bangkok, there are two Buddhists universities with several thousand monk students. On newsstands you can see piles of books with Buddha on the cover and more than a dozen Buddhist weekly and monthly magazines, Hotel rooms often have a copy of “The Teachings of Buddha” rather than Gideon's Bible. Once, as a tribute to the king, 99 policeman were ordained as Buddhist monks.

students praying to Buddha

Most Thais uphold Buddhist principles as a guide to daily life. Senior monks are highly revered. It is not uncommon to see their images adorning walls of businesses or homes or upon ornaments inside of taxi cabs. Buddhist holidays occur regularly throughout the year (particularly on days with full moons) and many Thai people go to the wat on these and other important days to pay homage to the Buddha and give alms to monks in order to make merit for themselves. [Source: Tourist Authority of Thailand]

Meditation, one of the primary practices of Buddhism, is a means of self reflection in order to identify the causes of individual desire and ultimately alleviate ones suffering. Visitors can learn the fundamentals of this practice at a number of wats across the kingdom. Some temples, particularly in Chiang Mai, allow visitors to chat with monks in order to gain general knowledge about Buddhism or to study Buddhism more seriously.

Thai dishes have traditionally been served in bite-size pieces in accordance with a Buddhist custom that no whole animal be cooked and served. Thais eat meat—mostly pork, chicken, fish and seafood—in many of their dishes even though Buddhism discourages the taking of life. To get around this they have come up with some rather clever excuses and rationalizations such as: 1) “I just pulled the fish out of the water, and it died on its own;” 2) “the chicken was already dead when I bought it;” and 3) “the pig was fulfilling its destiny to be a provider of pork.”

Buddhism, Politics, and Values in Thailand

The organizational links between the sangha (monk establishment) and the government are an indication of their interdependence, although the fine points of that relationship may have changed over time. The traditional interdependence was between religion and the monarchy. The king was, in theory, a righteous ruler, a bodhisattva (an enlightened being who, out of compassion, foregoes nirvana in order to aid others), and the protector of the religion. Because succession to the throne was problematic and the position of any king in many respects unstable, each ruler sought legitimation from the sangha. In return, he offered the religion his support. [Source: Library of Congress]

After the king became a constitutional monarch in 1932, actual power lay in the hands of the elites, primarily the military but also the higher levels of the bureaucracy. Regardless of the political complexion of the specific persons in power (who, more often than not, had rightist views), the significance of Buddhism to the nation was never attacked. In the late 1980s, the king remained an important symbol, and public ideology insisted that religion, king, and nation were inextricably intertwined. Opposition groups have rarely attacked this set of related symbols. Some observers have argued that the acceptance of religion, king, and nation as ultimate symbols of Thai political values was misleading in that the great bulk of the population--the Thai villagers--although attached to Buddhism and respectful of the king, often resented the particular manifestations of government in local communities and situations. It seemed, however, that whatever discontent there was with the political, social, and economic orders, most Thai remained at least passively committed to a national identity symbolized by the king and Buddhism.

Thai Prime Minister giving a robe to a monk during Kathina

Puey Ungphakorn, a former rector of Thammasat University and human rights advocate, viewed the ethical precepts of Buddhism as insurance against oppressive national development. Although the fundamental role of development was to improve the welfare of the villagers, in a number of nations without the protection of religion the rights of the villager were often abused. In Thailand, according to Puey, the peasant, like the urban dweller, has an individual identity protected by the shared belief in Buddhism.

The support given the king (and whatever political regime was in power) by the sangha was coupled with a prohibition on the direct intervention of monks in politics, particularly in party, political, and ideological conflicts. It was taken for granted that members of the sangha would oppose a communist regime, and available evidence suggested that virtually all Thai monks found Marxist thought alien, although monks elsewhere in Southeast Asia have been influenced by socialist, if not explicitly communist, ideas. Historically, monks occasionally have been involved in politics, but this involvement was not the norm. In the second half of the twentieth century, however, monks became aware of the political and ideological ferment in Southeast Asia and in a few cases engaged in political propaganda, if not in direct action. A few were accused of doing so from a position on the left, but the most explicit instance of political propaganda in the 1970s was that of a highly influential monk, Kittivuddha Bikkhu, who preached that it was meritorious to kill communists. Although not supported by the religious and political establishments, he provided right-wing militants with a Buddhist ideological justification for their extremist activities.

That doesn’t mean monks have totally kept their hands out of politics. In April 2007, hundreds of Buddhist monks, accompanied by at least nine elephants, marched on the parliament building in Bangkok demanding that Buddhism be enshrined as Thailand’s national religion. One of the leaders of the protests told AP, “Buddhism is increasingly coming under threat” and could gradually be phased out, citing attacks on Buddhists in the Muslim south

Buddhism Losing Ground in Changing Thailand

Reporting from Baan Pa Chi in northern Thailand, Thomas Fullerwrote in the New York Times: “The gilded roofs of Buddhist temples are as much a part of Thailand’s landscape as rice paddies and palm trees. The temples were once the heart of village life, serving as meeting places, guesthouses and community centers. But many have become little more than ornaments of the past, marginalized by a shortage of monks and an increasingly secular society. “Consumerism is now the Thai religion,” said Phra Paisan Visalo, one of the country’s most respected monks. “In the past, people went to temple on every holy day. Now, they go to shopping malls.” [Source: Thomas Fuller, New York Times , December 18, 2012]

Buddhist monk in the late 1880s

“Many societies have witnessed a gradual shift from the sacred toward the profane as they have modernized. What is striking in Thailand is the compressed time frame, a vertiginous pace of change brought on by the country’s rapid economic rise. In a relatively short time, the local Buddhist monk has gone from being a moral authority, teacher and community leader fulfilling important spiritual and secular roles to someone whose job is often limited to presiding over periodic ceremonies.

“Phra Anil Sakya, the assistant secretary to the Supreme Patriarch of Thailand, the country’s governing body of Buddhism, said that Thai Buddhism needed “new packaging” to match the country’s fast-paced lifestyle. “People today love high-speed things,” he told te New York Times. “We didn’t have instant noodles in the past, but now people love them. For the sake of presentation, we have to change the way we teach Buddhism and make it easy and digestible like instant noodles.” He says Buddhist leaders should make Buddhism more relevant by emphasizing the importance of meditation as a salve for stressful urban lifestyles. The teaching of Buddhism, or dharma, does not need to be tethered to the temple, he said. “You can get dharma in department stores, or even over the Internet,” he said.

But Phra Paisan [a forest monk] is markedly more pessimistic about what is sometimes called “fast-food Buddhism.” He is encouraged by the embrace of meditation among many affluent Thais and the healthy sales of Buddhist books, but he sees basic incompatibilities between modern life and Buddhism. His life is a portrait of traditional Buddhist asceticism. He lives in a remote part of central Thailand in a stilt house on a lake, connected to the shore by a rickety wooden bridge. He has no furniture, sleeps on the floor and is surrounded by books. He requested that a reporter meet him for an interview at 6 a.m., before he led his fellow monks in prayer, when mist on the lake was still evaporating.

Here in Baan Pa Chi, about an hour’s drive from the northern city of Chiang Mai, villagers describe a paradox. The monastery now has plenty of money, unlike decades ago, because locals and villagers who have moved to cities donate cash for new buildings, ornaments and statues, believing that they can “make merit” and improve their karmic status. But the monastery feels empty on most days. “People used to leave their children here,” said Anand Buchanet, a 54-year-old construction worker who as a boy was a novice in the temple. “Now, they just leave stray pets.”

Also See Buddhist Monks in Thailand

Buddhism and Its Battle with Modern Culture in Thailand

POP House Meditation Center in Khlong Luange, Thailand

James Hookway wrote in the Wall Street Journal: “The Buddhist faith practiced by more than 90 percent of Thailand's population is going through something like culture shock as the country quickly modernizes alongside East Asia's other booming economies. With more Thais going online, often through mobile phones, some of the country's novice monks are becoming online media stars, jarring an older generation that doesn't quite know what to make of it all. "Technology is advancing very quickly and we can't keep up," said Phra Kasem Sanyato, secretary of the Buddhism Protection Center of Thailand, a watchdog for religious affairs. "The younger generation is losing respect," added 48-year-old Pornpun Kaewbundit, as she emerged from a temple in Bangkok's historic old town recently. [Source: James Hookway, Wall Street Journal, August 14, 2012]

Some Thais, though, fear that the Buddhist clergy's standards are slipping. They are urging Thais to be a little less tolerant than the country's image as a magnet for night-clubbers and sun-seekers might suggest. Bangkok jeweler Acharavadee Wongsakon, for instance, on June 30 led a procession of several hundred protesters through the city's famous Chatuchak weekend market and the Khao San Road backpacker district to persuade Thais and foreign tourists to show more respect. That includes avoiding getting inked up with Buddhist tattoos. Accompanied by ornate floats and banners saying "No" to the Disney movie "Snow Buddies," which features a dog named Buddha, Ms. Acharavadee silenced the normally raucous backpackers who frequent the area as she and her followers made their way past bars with names such as Lucky Beer and the Lava Lounge.

"I think they have a point," whispered 23-year-old Carla Bennett from Canada, who was getting her hair braided at a street stall at the side of the road. "Maybe they are tired of people stomping over what they believe in." During a breather between parades, Ms. Acharavadee complained that some Thais regard Buddhism as little more than a detail listed on their national identity cards. "The Internet is compounding the problem. People are spending less time studying Buddhism, and they are missing its message," she said.

Some Buddhists are fighting fire with fire by turning to reality television shows and the Internet to revive interest in Buddhist teachings. Thai cable network True Corp. this year began airing a live, rolling documentary about the lives of nine novice monks ordained at a temple in eastern Bangkok. Snappily titled "Novice Monks Cultivate Dharma Wisdom," it was a surprise hit. One fan, 64-year-old Wallapa Chairat, says she gets up at 5:30 each morning to watch the young monks go around collecting alms. One day she got out of bed at 4 a.m. and left her house in Nonthaburi province near Bangkok to offer food to the young monks herself. "The news programs and soap operas are full of angry people who are jealous and fighting," Ms. Wallapa says. "But the little monks provide peace and happiness." The young monks seemed to enjoy it, too. "I think living in the monkhood is the best thing I've ever done in my life," 9-year-old Theerapath Suthipatharapan told the show after his stint in the temple was up. Unlike other reality shows, the monks aren't voted out by the audience.

Another source of worry in religious circles is the fact that Thais are having fewer children than they used to as more families move from farms to the country's cities. Thai women now have an average of 1.5 children, down from more than six in the 1960s. That means fewer teenagers are ordained as novices. All Thai Buddhist males generally get ordained at some point in their lives, though most often in their teenage years and sometimes earlier.

Also See Buddhist Monks in Thailand

Alms to Go

Kamonwan Makarun wrote in The Nation: “Down from the catwalks, one of Thailand's top models, Natasha Coffman, is enjoying a new business venture based on a unique idea that she calls "Sung Ka Tarn (offering to monks) Delivery". Such a service has never been offered before, with all the personal items for monks wrapped in a modern, artistic way and delivered to customers. [Source: Kamonwan Makarun, The Nation, June 5, 2007]

“Natasha, or Ple, has long been known in the world of high fashion, but few people know that after her busy on-stage schedules, she enjoys practising dhamma and making merit. This has led to the opening of her Sala Dharma shop in Patanakarn with the new Sung Ka Tarn service offered as a unique additional feature. "I have been giving alms since I was young," she says. "I hop in and out of Sung Ka Tarn shops very often. It has always been on my mind that I should own this kind of shop one day, so when the chance came, with a good business location, I decided to try it."

monks receiving alms the usual way

Under her concept, Sala Dharma is a shopping place for merit-making. "From my own experience, ready-to-buy Sung Ka Tarn items are not okay. Most of them are cheap and of low quality. I would rather buy and wrap the items up by myself." As a result, all items from Sala Dharma are of premium quality and are clearly marked with expiry dates "If any items are near expiry, we won't offer them for sale. It is not like purchasing ready-to-buy packages from other shops. Sala Dharma also offers a wider variety of packages, to suit the objectives of customers' merit-making."

Currently, the shop has a range of 20 to 30 Sung Ka Tarn packages covering almost all religious ceremonies from New Year to birthdays, as well as the Songkran festival. The higher quality brings a higher price, but Natasha is confident that her customers will be willing to buy. The prices range from hundreds to thousands of baht. Personal items for monks aside, Sala Dharma also sells dhamma-related CDs and books. The shop also has a dhamma corner to serve the needs of all customers.

Looking ahead, Natasha says Sala Dharma may also serve Thais living abroad. "We are not officially open for foreign markets yet, but we've received some phone calls and e-mails from this group. Some have already placed orders with us," she says. Using her organising experience to supplement the business concept of Sala Dharma, Natasha says the shop now offers to organise all religious ceremonies. "We offer a full-fledged service from inviting monks and preparing food to Sung Ka Tarn, fresh flowers and souvenirs," she explains. The organising service is currently offered only in Bangkok and its peripheral areas but will be expanded to provincial areas in the future.

Natasha is not worried about rivals, as her business is based on faith and not on commercial purposes. "Whoever wants to do this business, they might need to ask themselves first whether or not they 'click' with dhamma," she says. "I love practising dhamma and meditation whenever I am free from my regular work. I have been with dhamma since I was young. "I will do my best to offer a greater variety of all items for monks. I will also try to build brand awareness. We are now ready to go, as all marketing plans are already sketched out."

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Tourist Authority of Thailand, Thailand Foreign Office, The Government Public Relations Department, CIA World Factbook, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, NBC News, Fox News and various books and other publications.

Last updated March 2019

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