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Thai Buddhism

According to the legend, Hinayana was very popular in ancient Funan from about the first or 2nd century AD, but used the Sanskrit Canon. The traditional belief is that Mahadhammarakkhita and Maharakhita introduced Buddhism to Thailand during the reign of Emperor Asoka in the 3rd century BC.

From the 6th century onwards Theravada Buddhism flourished in the lower Menam valley and it continued to be the dominant religion there. But when the lower Menam valley came under the control of the Khmer rulers who were ardent patrons of Brahmanism and Mahayana Buddhism, but Theravada still continued to flourish there.

Dvaravati was a flourishing kingdom of Mon people in the 7th century. The political influence of the Dvaravati kingdom extended as far as Northern Thailand. The Haripunjaya kingdom of the upper Menam valley was an important kingdom in northern Thailand. Towards the second half of the 7th century AD Theravada Buddhism was introduced into Haripunjaya.

About the 8th or 9th century AD, both Thailand and Laos formed part of Kambuja (Cambodia). Both the Brahmanical religion and Buddhism can be found flourishing side by side in all these regions.

Theravada Buddhism flourished in the lower Menam valley under the patronage of the rulers of the Dvaravati kingdom. Both Mahayanism and Brahmanism existed at the lower Menam valley under the patronage of the Khmer rulers. Towards the beginning of the 13th century AD, the Haripunjaya kingdom had become a center of Theravada Buddhism. Thus, before the Thais established their contact with Sri Lanka.

About the middle of the 13th century AD, the Thais made themselves masters of Siam and Laos and put an end to the political supremacy of the Cambodian over them. Sukhodaya was established in central Thailand as the capital of Thai kingdom in the second half of the 13th century. A king named Rocaraja of Sukhodaya sent an embassy to the king of Sri Lanka requesting him to send the miraculous Sihala Buddha image to Sukhodaya. The king's request was granted and Sukhodaya received its first Buddha image from Sri Lanka.

Around 1317-1347 AD Burma acted as an intermediary between Sri Lanka and Thailand in the religious intercourse. At the request of Lothai, the king of Sukhodaya, Udumbara Mahasami sent the Elder Sumana to establish the Sinhalese form of the monastic discipline and in order to reorganize and model the Buddhist Sangha of Thailand on that of Sri Lanka. In his reign a Thai prince assumed the yellow robe and made a journey to India and Sri Lanka, from which countries he claims to have brought back miraculous relics. A few years later, Kilana, the king of Nabbisipura requested Udumbara Mahasami to send a monk capable of performing all religious acts. As a consequence Ananda thera was sent to Nabbisipura. At the advice of Ananda thera, the king of Nabbisipura then requested the king of Sukhodaya and invited Elder Sumana to his kingdom. In this way, king Kilana and Sumana contributed to the establishment of the Sihala Sangha in northern Thailand.

King Luthai /Lo Thai (1347 AD, son of king Lothai) was not only a great patron of Buddhism, but himself adopted the life of a buddhist monk, preaching the doctrines of the Buddha all over his kingdom. About 1361 AD he sent some learned monks and scholars to Sri Lanka and induced the great monk called Mahasami Samgharaja to come to Thailand. Under his inspiration and the active efforts of the king, Buddhism and Pali literature spread to a number of small Hinduized states in the territories now called Laos. One of his inscriptions, which gives him the tittle of Sri Suryavamsa Rama Mahadharma Rajadhiraja furnishes a long account of the reception accorded to a hierarchy from Sri Lanka invited to Thailand to reorganize the religious institutions there. As a result, Sukhodaya became a great center of Buddhist studies in the middle of the 14th century AD. From the second half of the 14th century onwards Buddhism flourished in Thailand and the neighboring regions, and Brahmanism declined until it almost disappeared. A sacred and authentic relic of the Buddha was brought to Thailand from Sri Lanka and it was installed with great solemnity by the king at Nagara Jum. A branch of the sacred Bo-tree was brought to Thailand from Sri Lanka and was planted near this sacred relic at Nagara Jum.

The establishment of the new kingdom of Ayuthia in the middle of the 14th century and the change of the political center of Thai power from Sukhodaya to Ayuthia marked the beginning of a new era of great cultural prosperity. Under royal patronage Buddhism flourished and Ayuthia became an important Buddhist center. Strong religious ties existed between Sri Lanka and Thailand.

During the reign of Tissaraja (1401-1442 AD) 25 monks went from Nabbisipura together with 8 monks from Cambodia went to Sri Lanka to receive the upasampada ordination and over there they were joined by six monks from the Ramanna country. These 39 monks studied the sacred texts thoroughly and also learned the correct manner of recital of the sacred texts from the Buddhist monks in Sri Lanka. They also took with them the sacred relic of the Buddha. After their arrival at Ayuthia in southern Thailand, the king received them, and they ordained the local monks and established the Sihala Sangha in Thailand. The Sihala fraternity of the monks also introduced to Thailand a higher standard of Pali scholarship.

Tissaraja's son, Tilokaraja / Tilakaraja (1442-1487 AD) himself entered the Sangha in 1447 AD for sometime and with the permission of his teacher he assumed office again as king. In 1455 AD a seedling grown from the southern branch of the Mahabodhi at Anuradhapura was planted by King Tilakaraja at Nabbisipura (Chieng Mai). It is said that Tilakaraja convoked a great council in the Mahabodhi Arama at Nabbisipura in 1475 AD to revise the Pali scriptures. This council is known as the Eighth Buddhist Council in the history of Buddhism in Thailand.

Emperor Tilakapanattu (1495-1525 AD) is regarded as one of the greatest kings of Thailand. He also installed a great Buddha statue in the uposatha hall at the Pubbarama. At the time of the installation important ceremonies were held and he gave dana to several thousand monks who belonged to the Sihala sect, the Nagaravasigana, and the Puppharamavasigana. Among the three fraternities, the Sihala sect became very prominent in Thailand and it took the leading part in all the ecclesiastical acts and performed the acts before as well as after the other fraternities participated in them. In 1515 AD the king conferred the title of Rajaguru (Royal Teacher) on the Mahasami of the Rattavanamahavihara, which is another indication of the importance of the Sihala sect in Thailand. The patronage extended to many scholars and scholarly institutions resulted in the existence of several well-organized educational and religious institutions in the country.

King Maha Dhammaraja II (Boromokot) ascended the throne of Ayuthia in 1733 AD. During his rule Ayuthia became a great center of Buddhism and religious mission from Sri Lanka came there to get help and assistance from the Thai monks. About 1750 AD, the king of Sri Lanka sent messenger to the king of Thailand and the latter sent golden and silver images of the Buddha, copies of sacred texts and about 10 monks under the leadership of Upali Mahathera. It is clear that at that time Sri Lanka recognized Thailand to be a country where Buddhism prevailed in a much purer form.

The Burmese invaders destroyed most of Ayuthia in 1767. As a result of the repeated attacks of the Burmese, the rulers of Thailand shifted their capital to Banckok. General Chakri, who was known as Ramal (1782-1809 AD), was the founder of the present reigning dynasty at Bangkok. Buddhism continued to flourish under the patronage of the rulers of this dynasty.

In 1828, Thailand's Prince Mongkut (later King Rama IV) founds the Dhammayut movement, which later became the Dhammayut Sect.

In 1900, Ven. Ajaan Mun and Ven. Ajaan Sao revive the forest meditation tradition in Thailand.

In the early 19th century, to prevent the encroachment of Christian missionaries, Rama V (1868-1910) worked with his brothers (one of whom was Prince Mongkut) to move the country from a loose feudal system to a centralized nation-state. By doing that, they enacted religious reforms to present a united front in the face of imperialist threats from Britain and France. This Sangha Act formally marked the beginnings of the Mahanikaya and Dhammayut sects. Sangha government, which up to that time had been in the hands of a lay official appointed by the king, is handed over to the bhikkhus. It wasn't until the 1950's that the movement he founded gained acceptance in Bangkok, and only in the 1970's did it come into prominence on a nationwide level.


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