is widely believed by Thais, that Emperor Ashoka sent Buddhist
missionaries to Thailand in the 3rd century B.C. While this is
quite possible, there is at present no evidence to support this
belief. In the main, however, it came with Indian traders and
settlers who for seven hundred years, frequented the shores of
Burma, Malaya, Indonesia, Thailand and Cambodia. The early settlers
brought both Hinduism and Buddhism, as evidenced by numerous images
of Vishnu, Shiva and Buddha found in early sites in Thailand.
Animism antedated both Hinduism and Buddhism in Thailand and has
persisted to the present day, chiefly in the form of spirit shrines
in doors, yards and business premises. By the 6th century A.D.
Buddhism was well established in south and central areas of what
is now Thailand. Later Mahayana and Tantra together with Hinduism
became the predominant religions.
Pathom Chedi in Nakhon Pathom, Thailand. King Mongkut (Rama IV)
surmised that it probably was the first stupa to be built in Thailand.
King Asoka distributed Buddha's relics among various Buddhist
countries including Suwannaphumi. Nakhon Pathom was possibly the
capital of Suwannaphumi (approx. 139 B.C -457 A.D.) King Asoka
sent to two missionaries, Sona Dhera and Uttara Dhera to Suwannaphumi
as recorded in the Mahavamsa.
The Mons of southern
Burma adopted Theravada Buddhism at an early date and thereafter
influenced the religious history of Thailand by invading the central
valley of the Menam Chao Phya and setting up the Kingdom of Dvaravati
which lasted from the third to the seventh centuries. They left
numerous stupas and a distinctive style of Buddhist image. Theravada
Buddhism in Thailand was further strengthened after King Anawrahta
of Burma captured Thanton in 1057 A.D. From there he carried to
his capital at Pagan a number of Theravadin monks together with
the Pali canon, and being an ardent Theravadin he spread his religion
along with his conquests in northern Thailand. Later as the Thai
moved south from Yuman in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries
they came in contact with this form of Buddhism. When they set
up the Thai Kingdom of Sukhothai, about 1238 A.D. it was with
Theravada Buddhism as the state religion.
The history of Thailand begins with
the rise of the Sukhothai Kingdom in the thirteenth century, a
State whose people were one in blood and language with the present
Thais. Under devout kings of Ayudhya, Buddhism flourished, and
by 1750 must have accumulated great quantities of sacred writings
and valuable chronicles connected with the Monastic Order. Practically
all such writings were destroyed in the devastation that attended
the Burmese invasion of 1766-1767. Ayudhaya, the capital, fell
after a siege of fourteen months during which fires and epidemics
ravaged the city. However, by the 13th and 14th centuries monks
from Sri Lanka succeeded in establishing Theravada Buddhism and
it has remained the state religion ever since.
Wat Haripunchai (pictured
above ) is one of the oldest Buddhist monasteries in the Chiang
Mai valley. This was the capital of a Mon kingdom about 1,000
first two kings of the present Chakri dynasty, who reigned from
1782 to 1824, are known by the names of Phra Buddha Yod Fa and
Phra Buddha Loet la. While the third king, Phra Nang Klao, did
not possess the name "Buddha" he was known for his devotion
to the Order and his aid in temple building and scriptural revision.
The son of King Mongkut, the fourth ruler, Prince Vajirayanvaroros
was virtually head of the Buddhist Monastic Order from 1892 to
1910; until his death in 1921 he was Prince Patriarch. Thereafter
a grandson of Rama 111 became Prince Patriarch and filled this
high position until his death in 1937. It has been the custom
of all the Thai kings to serve a novitiate in the temple of their
youth, thus the Throne has been closely bound to the Buddhist
Order by ties of experience as well as by personal interest.
Never having been conquered
by the colonial powers, Thailand was never subjected to assaults
by Christian missionaries or imposed Western influence, and today
some 94% of Thais call themselves Buddhists. In the 19th century
King Mongkut, himself a former monk, conducted a campaign to reform
and modernise the monkhood, a movement that has continued in the
present century under the inspiration of several great ascetic
monks from the northeast of the country. The Western disciples
of one of these monks, Ajhan Cha, have successfully founded thriving
monasteries in the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand and
several other countries.