Buddhist Temples in Thailand


THAILAND LOCATOR MAP – Rei-artur blog via Wikimedia Commons CC-BY-SA-3.0


                              ***History of how Buddhism Came to the Country-The First 300 Years***

Before Buddhism arrived in Thailand, central and western Thailand was ruled by the Mon civilization from the 9th to 11th century. This group descended from the Khmers (called the Dvaravati) and later settled in Burma. The Angkor architecture is attributed to the Khmer’s style. Also the influence of the “Indianized” culture is connected to Theravada Buddhism which has remained the area’s major religion. Northern Thailand was ruled for over 200 years by the ancient Lan Na Empire. Chiang Mai was chosen as the “navel of the eight world synod” of Theravada Buddhism during the time of King Tilokoraj.

(According to Blackburn 2015) Thailand and Sri Lanka as well as Myanmar believe themselves to have a special connection that includes monastic Buddhist activity changes around the 11th century CE. The connections that these three countries have is mainly due to the history of exchanges across the geography of the Bay of Bengal which dates back to the Indic King Asoka in the third century BCE. There are Buddhist texts, historical art, archaeology and epigraphic accounts that contribute to the understandings of these connections. Between 1000-1500 CE, maritime trade in southern Asia had undergone necessary changes relating to regional political changes.

Buddhism came to Thailand as a Theravada religion (religious culture) in the 13th century CE. After the Khmer Empire fell and the Khmer expelled, the first Buddhist state Sukkothai was formed in North Central Thailand. Mahayana Buddhism which was the sect that considered the spirit to be more important than the writings. Animistic practices and Brahmanism were already practiced in this area and continued on within the larger Theravada tradition. The time-frames for the first Buddhist kingdoms were: Sukkothai, (c. 1253-1350); Ayutya or Ayudhya (c. 1350-1767); and the Thonburi period which will not be discussed in detail here (1767-82) (Keown 2007: 735).

Sukhothai National Park By Daniel Wabyick from San Francisco CC BY-SA 2.0

Sukhothai National Park By Daniel Wabyick from San Francisco

Sukkothai period was not only important due to its’ being the first in Thailand but was also considered the “Golden Age of Thai Buddhism”. This period laid a foundation for future Thai dynastic policies. The already existing Brahamanical influences created a downturn during the Ayudhya period.  Overall the king was the protector of the Buddhist traditions (known as the sasana) and the Dharma. The title given to the king as protector of the Dharma is the Dharmaraja. The king’s position of protection included keeping the integrity of the sangha, the doctrine of the orthodoxy, the order within the monkhood, and the canonized texts preserved….(Keown 2007:735).  There was also fraternal links with Sri Lanka as they shared the Theravada tradition. The rulers allowed for adaptations, known as “syncretism” in anthropology, so that Buddhism would continue indefinitely. During the Ayudhya period, the king was considered to be like a Hindu god king and his title was “Devaraja”. This particular period was influenced by India due to sea trade that transferred not only physical goods but cultural values and ideas.

A king that ruled from 1441-1481 supported Buddhism and was able to bring back into the forefront Buddhist practices as he himself became a monk. Under his rule a group was sent to Sri Lanka to study Buddhism and they became monks and later the result was a new sect that settled in Northern Thailand called Warnaratvongsa.

When considering the Chakri dynasty, which has modern relevance as it is still in power today, Rama I and Rama II, made efforts regarding monkhood due to the fact that political turmoil and colonial rule had taken a toll on Buddhism. The focus included monastic schooling and purification of sangha, and reconnecting with Buddhist Sri Lanka. (Keown 2007: 735)

      *****Original Purpose of Buddhist Temples in Thailand: Elements of a “wat”*****

What is a Wat?

In Thailand, the Buddhist temple-monastery is called a Wat which consists of many elements including Hindu cosmology concepts from India and the teachings of Buddha. The Wat has lay and sacred functions of “devotional practice” and has specific aspects that involves religious activities, symbolism and meaning.

The Wat consists of a Buddhist center that serves many social, cultural, and religious community functions such as: a school, a medical dispensary, employment bureau, a place to park when needed; to leave unwanted animals; for people to overnight; and a festival locale.



The Wat is much more than a single building but is actually a compound with multiple components that is central to the community. (Stratton 2010:12-16) The compound is usually square and aligned with the four cardinal points or directions that would consist of central, northern and southern with the Main Gate facing the East. There are walls and other access gates as well. Sometimes there are interior walls providing a distinction between what would be considered the sacred and mundane (aka. secular) spaces. Trans-regionally, the archaeological elements may have commonalities yet the styles may reflect differing local cultural distinctions.

Thai wats have purpose behind the design and vary in intricacy depending on how rural or poor the related village is. They range from cave forest monastery-types to prosperous royal Thai wats which more than 150 have that designation. Sri Lanka and India both have influenced the architecture of Thai wats. The elements have distinctive features where there are exterior and interior assembly and ordinations hall. Each component has its function whether it be sacred or non-sacred.

By JPSwimmer (Photographed on location in Bangkok, Thailand) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons


The most common elements can include: entrance gate, the wihan (assembly hall), bot (ordination hall), chedi (stupa-memorial to Buddha), Bodhi tree (representing where Buddha received enlightenment), image hall, library, cloister, Abbot’s office and headquarters, wash area, spirit house, well, sala (laity rest spot), kuti (monk’s quarters) and school.

***The Modern Day Relevance and Purpose of Buddhist Temples in Thailand***

Blackburn (2010: 317-318) discusses what she calls the “landscape of the southern Buddhist world” which she says involves India, Cambodia, Burman, Sri Lanka, Laos and Thailand. She remarks on the amazing architecture that consists of structures like domes and towers that were built for protection or celebration of an important Buddhist teacher or Buddha himself. Of course these sites have historical royal powerful political and monastic meaning. The sites and associated relics contain memories, power, and meaning. Blackburn says this (2010: 318)






“Today, relic sites are centers of pilgrimage and ritual action, visited by those who seek access to protective power, as well as assistance with ritual remembrance and mental purification. Those who have taken refuge in the Triple Gem”… (which is also known as the Three Refuges of Buddhism and consist “… of Buddha, Dharma (teachings of Buddha), and Saṅgha (the monastic community) therefore often seek proximity to the traces of the Buddha and, sometimes, his monks. In addition, relic sites are deeply social spaces offering more than one kind of ease. At a relic monument, someone inclined towards the Triple Gem will generally find an aesthetically pleasing and emotionally comforting space for ritual, a respite from some daily cares, and, perhaps, the chance to frolic a little outside the confines of home and work.” Swearer (2004:40) discusses Thai Buddhist temples in a way that transcends geography, “In a broad, cultural sense the wat both expresses and defines the centrality of Buddhism for Thai identity…The wat is a  sacred space not only for its physical attributes but, even more so, for what takes place there. Among its many functions, the wat is a continual reminder of the Buddha and his teachings.”

-Kimberlyn Amanda Skille



Blackburn, Anne M. 2010. “Buddha-Relics in the Lives of Southern Asian Polities.” Numen: International Review for the History of Religions 57, no. 3/4: 317-340. Academic Search Premier, EBSCOhost (accessed November 17, 2015).

Blackburn, Anne M. 2015. “Buddhist Connections in the Indian Ocean: Changes in Monastic Mobility, 1000-1500.” Journal of the Economic & Social History of the Orient 58, no. 3: 237-266. Academic Search Premier, Religion and Philosophy Collection, EBSCOhost (accessed November 6, 2015).

Buddha Statues-Video-10 Largest. https://youtu.be/3BOmeJyrBR8

Buswell, Robert E. and Thomson Gale (Firm). 2004. Encyclopedia of Buddhism [Electronic Resource] Thomson/Gale.

Emerald Buddha photo: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AEmerald_Buddha%2C_August_2012%2C_Bangkok.jpg


Keown, Damien, 1951- and Charles S. Prebish. 2007. Encyclopedia of Buddhism Routledge.

Map of Global Buddhism 2015 https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ABuddhism_percentage_by_country.png

Map of Thailand: By   Rei-artur   pt   en   Rei-artur blog [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/) or CC BY-SA 2.5-2.0-1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5-2.0-1.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Scott, Rachelle M. 2006. “A New Buddhist Sect: The Dhammakāya Temple and the Politics of Religious Difference.” Religion 36 (4): 215-230. doi:10.1016/j.religion.2006.10.001

Stratton, Carol. 2010. What’s What in a Wat : Thai Buddhist Temples : Their Purpose and Design : A Handbook. Thailand: Silkworm Books

Sukhothai National Park with Buddha in foreground photo: By Daniel Wabyick from San Francisco (Sukhothai National Park) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Swearer, Donald K. Becoming the Buddha: The Ritual of Image Consecration in Thailand. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2004. Xviii336 pp.

Walker, Joan Hazelden. 1981. Religious Studies 17 (3). Cambridge University Press: 413–17. http://www.jstor.org/stable/20005770.

Walsh, Michael J. 2007. “Efficacious Surroundings: Temple Space and Buddhist Well-Being.” Journal of Religion and Health 46 (4): 471-479. doi:10.1007/s10943-007-9129-y.

Wat Ku, Reclining Buddha Photo. https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/5/57/Wat_Ku%2C_ancient_reclining_Buddha_statue_in_Nonthaburi_Province%2C_Thailand.jpg; By Archy36 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

White Temple Photo. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AThe_White_Temple%2C_Wat_Rong_Khun%2C_Chiang_Rai%2C_Thailand.jpg



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