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The Customary Buddhism

The mores and rites handed down over the centuries from teacher to teacher with little reference to the Pali Canon. It was chiefly from the Mons and the Burmese rather than directly from India that the Thais took their Theravada Buddhism and the other Indian elements in their culture as they moved southwards into mainland Southeast Asia.

Hindu deities and many Bra manic practices were retained in Thai Buddhism, most notably in the coronation rites of the royal ceremonies. Many of the fundamental features of Hindu cosmography were incorporated into Buddhist cosmography as well. The Thais also retained many of the ancient animist beliefs and practices from before they first migrated into Southeast Asia. These believes include paying respect to the spirits (phi) of the ancestors and the spirits of place, who live in hills, springs, trees and caves and who protect their houses, shops, villages and cities.

The Tantric elements in early Khmer Mahayana Buddhism is shown by the presence of relief carvings of the Buddha Vajrasattva and of the jina Buddha's in Thailand. The last ten lives, known in Thai as Thotsachat or Sip chat, are the most often illustrated, and of these the last of all, the Vessantara jataka (Thai, Mahachat, 'Great Life'), the life of the supremely charitable Prince Vessantara is the most popular with the Mahayana doctrine.

As early as 17th century the wat, as a Tai creation, was already taken for granted as the basic unit of the Thai Sangha and the center of lay Buddhism. Joining monastery and shrine creates a social whole that is a community in itself and often the center of a lay community. Only few wat can support themselves and ignore popular wants, the vast majority had to accommodate local interests. That brought the monks into the very heart of the local community and fostered what we might call wat Buddhism. The implication is that monks live a sedentary life in the village monastery, serving the local villagers as doctors or fortune tellers. Monastic discipline tended to be loose.

Occasionally, monks would go on a pilgrimage ("dhutanga") which bore little resemblance to the classic dhutanga practices. In a wat, monks and lay people practiced forms of meditation that deviated from the path of tranquility and insight outlined in the Pali canon. This practices is called vichaa aakhom or incantation knowledge. It involves initiations and invocations used for shamanistic purposes, such as protective charms and magical powers. The nirvana is not mentioned in the teaching except as an entity to be invoked for shamanic rites.

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