Buddhism In Thailand: The Necessary Vocabulary

Buddhism in Thailand has played an important role in the development of its culture. In fact, one of the very first images people have when they think of Thailand is the temples. There are temples all across the country, ranging from big to small, beautiful to magnificent.

A lot of my time traveling the country involves me walking through the temples and admiring their art and design. I am sure this is true for many people who come to Thailand, especially those interested in the culture. Buddhism plays a large part in many people’s lives here, so I thought it would be good to delve into some vocabulary related to Buddhism in Thailand.

Buddhism In Thailand

Buddhism is known in Thai as either ‘phootha satsana’ (พุทธศาสนา) or ‘satsana phoot’ (ศาสนาพุทธ), where ‘satsana’ (ศาสนา) means religion and ‘phootha’ (พุทธ) means Buddha.

It is the most popular religion in Thailand, with over 94% of the population following its principles. Specifically, it is the Theravada school of Buddhism that is most often practiced in the country.

You can find whole markets dedicated to the selling of Buddhist charms and amulets. They are believed to offer protection and bring good luck to whoever wears them. You will often see people wearing multiple, large amulets around their neck too.

As well as amulets, you may notice that some people have similar ‘tattoos’ on their bodies. These are known as ‘sak yan’ (สักยันต์) and are believed to be sacred. Some temples are home to monks who use a special type of stick made of bamboo and poke the designs into the skin. Afterward, they say a prayer. After the ritual is complete, you are then said to have powers that can be re-empowered each year at a special ritual.

Buddhist Monks In Thailand

Monks are referred to as ‘phra sohng’ (พระสงฆ์), and can be easily identified by their shaved heads and the bright orange robes they must wear. All males are expected to spend some time as a monk before turning 20. While this can just be for a few weeks, some may choose to stay for a few years or even longer. However long they decide to do it, they must follow the strict set of rules that are in place, such as avoiding alcohol.

If you wake up early enough, you will find the streets near monasteries and temples filled with monks walking around and receiving alms from the locals. This is known as ‘bin tha baat’ (บิณฑบาต), or the seeking or alms. The process of presenting food to the monks is called ‘dtak baat’ (ตักบาตร). Just so you know, the alms bowl itself is referred to as ‘baat’ (บาตร).

Thai Buddhist Temples

Thai buddhism

Some temples in Thailand are very colorful and elaborate

The Buddhist temples in Thailand are very beautiful. They come in so many varieties, though they are often these large, gold structures with tall stupas and traditional art and statues on display. There are some notable examples, including what is likely the most famous temple called ‘Wat Phra Kaew’ (วัดพระแก้ว) or ‘Temple of the Emerald Buddha’. It is located within the Royal Palace in Bangkok.

Temples are called a ‘wat’ (วัด) in Thai, with the word usually being the first part of the name of the temple. Stupas, also known as ‘chedi’ (เจดีย์) in Thai are the tall, round, or bell-shaped buildings, usually with some sort of pillar coming out of the top. These generally contain relics or symbols of Buddha.

The Impact Of Buddhism On Thai Culture

Buddhism has had a clear impact on Thai culture and the way of life for many people. If the temples and shrines were not proof enough, then seeing the people pray every time they walk past or the respect they show to the monks should make that obvious.

The Thai language has even been impacted. There is a certain vocabulary that is reserved for use with religious figures. If you want to be polite, then you will need to use these words when addressing someone.

There are many holidays in Thailand related to religion. Everything from the Thai new year (Songkran) to Visaka Puja (the day of the Buddha’s birth) contains some sort of relation to Buddhism or its traditions.

So how would this affect a visitor to Thailand? Unless you are actively getting involved with the religion, then there are just some basic things to consider. When visiting a temple, take off your shoes. There should be signs telling you this. If not, then you will likely see a pile of shoes on the first step anyway. 

As a side note, if you are planning to visit some temples, you should probably wear sandals or flip-flops as they are much easier to take off and put back on. You can make a donation if you want to inside, or you if you want to pray and make merit, there are usually things like incense or candles you can buy.

If you are using public transport, be courteous to any monks and offer your seat if there are none available. Otherwise, just basic manners will go a long way in showing respect.

Interesting Insights

It can be very interesting to see what impacts certain things have on the local way of life. Buddhism is very important to a lot of people. It has played a large role in shaping Thailand and what it has become today. There are so many beautiful temples to see and explore. Just make sure you are being respectful and wearing flip-flops if you plan to visit multiple temples in one day.

Try out the Ling Thai app to learn more vocabulary for a variety of topics. Put some fun into your learning and test your skills to improve your Thai ability.

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