Buddhist Monks in Thailand

Wat Phra Kaew Bangkok
Wat Phra Kaew Bangkok

Socially, every Thai male is excepted to become a monk for a short period in his life, optimally between the time he finishes school and the time he starts a career or marries. Men or boys under 20 years of age may enter the Sangha as novices – this is not unusual since a family earns great merit when one if its sons ‘takes robe and bowl’.

Traditionally, the length of time spent in the ‘wat’ is three months, during the Buddhist lent (phansa), which begins in July and coincides with the rainy season. However, nowadays men may spend as little as a week or 15 days to accrue merits monks.

There are about 32,000 monasteries in Thailand and 460,000 monks ; many of these monks are ordained for a lifetime. Of these a large percentage become scholars and teachers, while some specialize in healing and/or folk magic.

The Sangha is divided into two sects : the Mahanikai (Great Society) and the Thammayut (from the Pali dhammayutika or ‘dharma-adhering). The latter is a minority sect (the ratio being one Thammayut to 35 Mahanikai) begun by King Mongkut and patterned after an early Mon form of monastic discipline which he had practiced as a monk (‘bhikkhu’). Members of both sects must adhere to 227 monastic vows or precepts as laid out in the Vinya Pitaka – Buddhist scriptures dealing with monastic discipline.

Overall discipline for Thammayut monks, however, is generally stricter.

For example, they eat only once a day – before noon – and must eat only what is in their alms bowl, whereas Mahanikais eat twice before noon and may accept side dishes. Thammayut monks are expected to attain proficiency in meditation as well as Buddhist scholarship or scripture study ; the Manahanikai monks typically ‘specialize’ in one or the other. Other factors may supersede sectarian divisions when it comes to disciplinary disparities. Monks who live in the city, for example, usually emphasize study of the Buddhist scriptures while those living in the forest tend to emphasize meditation.

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