Is Thai Buddhism Full of Contradictions?

Sometimes Thai Buddhism can seem full of contradictions – at least to me anyway. The vast majority of the population in Thailand is reported to be Buddhist (same claim the figure to be as much as 96%) yet there seems to be a lot in the country that could strike the newcomer as a bit un-Buddhist. I know that one of the things that disappointed me from the beginning was that Thailand still had the death penalty. I would say that the vast majority of Thai people are decent folk, but there are those who act in ways that might be considered far from the teachings of the Buddha. How does all this reflect on Thai Buddhism?

How Thailand Has Changed My Views on Buddhism

Over the years my ideas about Thai Buddhism have changed – in the beginning I didn’t want to see the faults and later felt a bit disappointed when they could no longer be ignored. Like many westerners I approached Buddhism from a Judeo-Christian viewpoint – even though I’d abandoned Christianity in my teens. I still had this idea in my head that some acts were sinful; the reality is that sin as such does not really exist in Buddhism. You make your choices and live with the consequences – karma is value free.

There is no set of commandments in Buddhism; only suggestions about how to make life more bearable or escape suffering altogether. The precepts of the Buddha are probably closer to training tips than religious commandments.

The Buddha taught his followers that actions will have consequences. If you make positive choices then the results will be good but if you make negative choices the results will be bad. There is no final judgment day and all karma will eventually be distinguished – at least according to some Buddhist scholars. The Buddha’s path provides various tools that can help people avoid the worst of the negative consequences of karma. Those who have the inclination can strive for enlightenment and they will no longer be at the mercy of this force.

I would say that most Thai people are no real interest in achieving enlightenment; at least not in this life anyway. They are happy to just go along doing the best they can now and trying to sow a few good seeds for the future. They believe that bad karma can take years to get you back and it might not even occur in this current life – most Thai Buddhists firmly believe in rebirth. Some would be quite happy to do something ill-advised now, and accept that at some stage they will need to pay the price; like choosing to get drunk even though you know that you will need to suffer a hangover the next day. There is also the view that you can reduce the consequences of doing something wrong by doing lots of good as well – a sort of karmic balancing act.

What do you think?
Is Thai Buddhism full of contradictions?

I’ve been interested in Buddhist philosophy since my early teens but I’m no scholar on the subject. The above is just my opinions and should be taken as such. If you are interested in this topic then you might enjoy another post of mine called ‘there are some bad Buddhist Monks’.

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22 thoughts on “Is Thai Buddhism Full of Contradictions?

  1. Hi Paul,
    Thanks for your inspiration.
    I believe in enlightening and I enjoy the Buddhist based cultures.
    One good aspect is people not blaming others or pointing fingers for bad happenings straight away, like in the West. Instead they are brought up to think first what did I do wrong to come in this situation.

    Some contradictory or slightly funny aspect of the Thai interpretation for me are:
    Monks jumping queues in banks, I understand the people allow them to out of respect, but shouldn’t they show humbleness?
    Monks waiting at luggage-belts in the airport while the Buddha wrote you cannot take more than you can carry (But OK this is a cheap one; they might have taken a budget airlines which will not allow you to cary more than 7.5 KG)
    People praying in costly temples while the real temple is in your mind and body, but OK that’s human nature same like Jesus supposedly destroyed the statues in the temple and later Catholic churches were doing the same thing with statues of Maria and lots of gold etc.

    And as for Buddhism in general:
    Reïncarnation is hard for me to beleive, where did all the reïncarnated people come from when we started off with a handfull of people in Africa.
    I am told they are new soles, but a new sole should have no bad ‘luggage’ from the past and could therefor easily englighten him or herself, never return on the face of the earth after they die.
    And finally like I commented before, as the Buddha wrote and or taught: “After hunderd years my words will not be true anymore”.
    This forms a Dogma like: “Everything I write in this sentence is false”.
    Is this sentence it true or false, nobody can tell.

    1. Hi I-nomad and thanks for finding so much in my post worth commenting on. These are only my own interpretations but I’d like to offer some of my own thoughts about some of the things you mention about Buddhism.

      The Buddha never taught reincarnation, but instead he talked about rebirth – he did not claim that there were souls passing from one life to the next. Rebirth is a continuation of sorts but not of personalities, souls or egos. A common metaphor is one candle passing on its light to another candle – it is not the same candle but they are related. This rebirth can occur in many ways – there is no reason why that which dies could not be born in a different dimension or even on another planet. Of course many Buddhists do talk about rebirth as if it were the same as reincarnation – there are also Buddhists who avoid this part of the teachings altogether. The Buddha did urge his followers to find things out for themselves.

      In regards to the Buddha’s claim that his teachings wouldn’t last – this was to do with the idea that things break apart over time. The truth doesn’t change, but interpretations of it do. He only ever claimed that his teachings were a vehicle for the truth. There have been many accomplished masters over the years who have reconnected with what they believe the Buddha found and reinterpreted it for their own time and place – thus you have the new schools of Buddhism like Zen or even the Thai Forest Tradition.

      Of course this is all just my opinion.

  2. Maybe this is something that is true in other cultures as well. American Christianity has much in common – a lot of people officially identify as Christian, but don’t give much thought to carrying out the principles consistently. It’s commonly used in political elections, the religion card. There may be no religion that is without contradictions. Do Christians really act as if they believe that they will go to Hell for wrong behavior, and Heaven for righteousness, even when no one else is looking? Or is it what you believe can get away with, as the priest sex scandal in the Catholic Church? One of the things you have said, Paul, that has helped me, is that it doesn’t matter whether anything is true when it comes to recovery, what’s important is what works for you. So the blessing may be that the teachings are there for us, but it is up to each one of us to use them for the good of ourselves and others. And that’s hard for any person in any religion in any culture, because we have to stop looking for reward in getting what our ego demands.

  3. Thanks Zentient, I do feel that the important thing is that these ideas can be useful in our lives – maybe we will never get to know any ultimate truth.I also agree that a good path should make us less a slave of the ego – not easy.

  4. Paul, I know very little about Buddhism (and Christianity for that matter), but do like the idea of reincarnation..if that means that if you don’t lead a good life this time, you come to learn the ‘lessons’ in a lower form?

    “I would say that most Thai people are no real interest in achieving enlightenment; at least not in this life anyway. They are happy to just go along doing the best they can now and trying to sow a few good seeds for the future. They believe that bad karma can take years to get you back and it might not even occur in this current life”

    I wish some of the songthaew and tuk tuk drivers that I’ve encountered lately would try to strive for enlightenment 😉 I know this is a serious subject but sometimes I feel like having a slogan put on a shirt…like ‘Karma will get you’. Actually, I read somewhere, that Karma is the act and vipaka is the reaction?

    “There is also the view that you can reduce the consequences of doing something wrong by doing lots of good as well – a sort of karmic balancing act.”

    I’m not a religious person, but this would be similar to Catholics playing up all week and going to church and confession on Sundays? I do believe though if you have done something wrong that it can’t hurt to do many good things to make up for it, although, perhaps this just relieves the conscience.

    I knew there was a reason I refrain from talking about religion 😉

    1. Thanks Snap and welcome to the blog. I think most people do use religion to their own ends – not always a bad thing but it can lead to hypocrisy. I remember somebody saying something along the lines of, ‘ you need to be careful of any religion where your god hates all the same people that you do’ 🙂 You are right about karma – there are different types but of this but it usually refers to intended actions and not results.

  5. Paul I’d say almost any religion has its contradictions.

    I do have a book, Buddha – A Very Short Introduction by Michael Carrithers which I have read but found very heavy going. It didn’t exactly enlighten me but I did get some basics from it about Buddhism.

    The way I view the religion is that by doing good you make yourself a better person and the world around you a better place. However I do think many Thai Buddhists view their world as one that only includes their family. I’m probably way wrong there but that’s the opinion I have got from 40 odd trips to Thailand.

    Picking up on Snap’s comment. I do know a few Catholics who take the attitude that doing a little wrong during the week can be easily put right and forgotten by visiting their church on a Sunday. In some ways I think Buddhism has got a lot of that theory about it.

    1. Hi Martyn, I think you hit the nail on the head about Thai people and family. I actually went to a lecture given by a sociologist about this that was part of the compulsory Thai culture course – this was back when I was teaching. Apparently the Thais have three social circles and each circle involves obligations; their family is the most important one, followed by the social hierarchy and community – there is no obligation to foreigners and other people that aren’t in three circles. I think this analysis makes sense.

  6. I’m not religious in any sense but am interested in the subject as it relates to (and conflicts with) science and evolution. I’ve been here nearly ten years and have come to the conclusion that Thais are not Buddhist at all. I say that having spent a few years working in Japan and some time in Taiwan, both countries where you can see real Buddhist principles in action.

    I feel that religion and superstition are tightly bound together in Thai culture and Buddhism (in the sense of ceremonies) is also strongly reinforced by the state and monarchy. There is a reason for this, and it has nothing to do with enlightenment.

    There have been numerous instances over the last few years which have led me to this conclusion: a monk being murdered a few years ago by his own family to collect substantial insurance money, monks with new Canon 450D’s shooting snapshots outside a famous temple in Nakhon Phanom, a monk openly masturbating in a urinal in Emporium shopping mall (who ignored the maid when she told him to stop), monks being arrested a few months ago by police at Soi Ari BTS because prayer givers noticed the smell of alcohol (police found they were not monks at all, and now they’re back at the same spot).
    Also the commercial market in amulet sales – which made many people poor a few years ago when they discovered their purchases were fake.

    Similarly, if you’ve visited many temples, been to funerals, etc you’ll notice the general state of temples and their surroundings in comparison with those in other Buddhist countries.

    This is not a statement on Buddhism as such but more a reflection of Thai culture. We might think that the Thais value family above all but how many broken families have you seen? When I lived outside Bangkok I never saw one instance of a husband and wife having stayed together more than a couple of years. They have children and then the husband (or boyfriend since they are not normally formally married) leaves for another woman. Kids often grown up with an extended family of aunts and grandmothers.

    Look at how many Buddhist holidays there are, complete with rules and regulations which give police an opportunity to make money from vendors, bars and restaurants in fines and cash payments. Very Buddhist indeed!

    1. Hi Mark, there is certainly a lot going on that reflects badly on Thai Buddhism – I also agree that some people do use religion for their own personal agendas. I have to say though that there are some good monks out there and some devoted followers as well. I battled with addiction for almost two decades but it was a group of monks at Thamkrabok temple who helped me escape. These were sincere people who are willing to treat anybody no matter where they come from; the temple is supported by Thai lay people. So while I agree that it isn’t all rosy in the garden there is a lot of good as well. I have never been to Japan or Taiwan but I’d definitely love to visit to see the comparison in regards to how Buddhism influences people’s lives.

  7. That’s true. I forgot to mention that although I’m an atheist I really like the principles and philosophy of Buddhism. In Japan, for example, it seems to be a fundamental way of life, revealed through a respect for nature and simplicity. Even many Japanese companies, like Uniqlo and Muji, practice this in their branding, design and core values.

    1. Hi Mark, apparently there are quite a few Buddhist atheists I know that there was a recent book released by Stephen Batchelor called, ‘Confessions of a Buddhist Atheist’ – Christopher Hitchens even gave it a good review. I think there is a lot of useful stuff in philosophical Buddhism that can help people no matter what their belief system.

  8. I think Thailand practices a somewhat diluted form of Buddhism. It has been diluted by their previous animist beliefs which have now become integrated into the Thai “flavour” of Buddhism. This is not necessarily a failing of Buddhism itself – in fact it shows that Buddhism can be very flexible, which is a good thing.
    As in all countries/organisations/nations there are good and bad people within – Buddhism is no different.
    Personally I would like to see a return to a more traditional, purer form of Buddhism in Thailand, one that tries to dissuade people from merit making (gaining good karma through doing good deeds rather than through buying things for monks) and visiting temple monks for a tip on next weeks lottery numbers!

    1. Hi Jimbo, it would be nice to see a bit of a Buddhist revival in Thailand. I think that there is a force for this, but it doesn’t seem strong enough yet. Some of the most respected teachers speak out against the more superstitious elements of Thai Buddhism but people don’t want to hear it. I think it was Ajahn Chah who would warm people before his talks that he did not provide lucky lottery numbers; some of his followers took this as a sign that his numbers must be really good. People would write down any number he happened to mention during his sermon – they probably later blamed him when they didn’t win 🙂

  9. Paul, I thought this was a very interesting post.

    I think most people in every country, of every religion, are doing the same, just trying to get along in this life.

    I’m not sure what you meant about approaching Buddhism from a Judeo-Christian standpoint. What does that mean?

    I liked what you said about making good choices now brings good future results, and making bad choices now brings poor future results.

    1. Thanks Mary, I suppose by Judeo-Christian standpoint I was referring to ideas of sin – that there is somebody out there waiting to punish us if we don’t do things in an exact way. Monks that behave badly would not be viewed as sinful from a Buddhist perspective, but more as misguided. There is the idea that negative actions will bring negative consequences but this is generally not viewed as a punishment as such – it is not about vengeance (for want of a better word).

  10. Paul, wonder if you have ever come across a book by Melford Spiro entitled: Buddhism and Society — A great tradition and its Burmese vicissitudes (1970 !) where he wrote about the existence of “nibbanic Buddhists” and “kammatic Buddhists”. As it is very hard to achieve enlightenment or nibbana, most people prefer to improve their kamma either for this life or for next life by performing good deeds like offering foods to the monks in the morning, or if one is quite serious, by getting ordained as a monk, albeit temporarily.

    Both Burmese and Thais are Theravada Buddhists who have the same Tripitaka scripture as guideline but unfortunately the two countries also have the same problem now with the military in power. People seem to be in a dilemma now whether they should become devoted Buddhists who seek enlightenment for oneself but at the same time allow democracy to be trampled by the soldiers’ boots.

    1. Hi Barry, I haven’t read that particular book, but it certainly sounds informative. I have never heard the terms “nibbanic Buddhists” and “kammatic Buddhists” used before but these terms make complete sense to me- I like to refer to kammatic Buddhism as Buddhism lite :-).

      I agree that many people choose to be kammatic Buddhists, but I don’t think that this is just purely because the path is hard (although this certainly plays a part in it) – I feel a lot of people are afraid of any type of enlightenment that might mean an end to self. I would even suggest that many of those Buddhists who claim to be on the path to enlightenment are a little afraid of it – this might be the biggest stumbling block to progress. Of course these are just my observations and they could be way off the mark. Anyway Barry, thanks for informative reply. I’ll look out for that book, but I’ve got so much on my reading list at the moment.

  11. i guess it is people who are full of, amongst other things, full of contradictions
    i have follewed ajaan cha’s lineage for about 20 years now and find the forest wats and their branches in thailand fine centers of learning

    1. Hi Tom, I agree that the forest temples are a shining example of the good in Thai Buddhism. I also think the monks at Thamkrabok are doing a lot to build the reputation of Thai Buddhism around the world.

  12. Hi all, I agree ” there are contradictions in all religions”, just would like to know what do you think are some of the greatest contradiction in Buddhist teachings? thanks

    1. Hi Fish, I wouldn’t even know where to begin with your question because it is difficult to define what is meant by ‘Buddhist Teachings’. In this article I’ve focused more on the cultural aspects of Thai Buddhism.

      The problem with making larger claims about contradictions in Buddhism as a whole is that there is no one set of beliefs to critique.These days it is possible to believe in many different things and still be called a Buddhist – compare western secular Buddhism to devotional Buddhism.

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