The term Buddhism is derived from the honorific title given to the founder of the teaching. Buddha means the Awakened or Enlightened One; and Buddhists maintain that their religion is universal and eternal, and that its “light” is periodically rediscovered and proclaimed by Buddha – a name applied to all such “prophets and not only to the historical Buddha, who is usually referred to as Gautama or Sakyasinha (“Lion of the Sakya clan”).
Gautama was born at Kapilavastu in the Himalayas, on the borders of Nepal, probably about 560 B.C. His father Suddhodana (usually called a king, though he may have been merely a prince or a noble of high lineage) had him brought up in wealth and luxury and sought to spare him all the trials of life; for he hoped that his son, Prince Siddartha (“he who has attained his aim”), would become a great ruler and not a world teacher, as had been prophesied by the eminent sage Asita. The boy lost his mother, Maya, soon after his birth and was brought up by his aunt. At the age of 16 he was married to his cousin Yasodhara. But all his father’s attempts to shelter him from the world were vain, for on four successive occasions when he was driving outside the palace a divinity appeared to him in the guise of an aged man, a sick man, a corpse and an ascetic. When his charioteer explained to him the meaning of these visions the young man returned home profoundly distressed and resolved to leave the palace in quest of truth. One night, therefore, the Bodhisattva (one predestined to Enlightenment, a future Buddha) left his wife secretly to live without a roof over his head. To increase the sorrow of this parting, according to one legend, his son Rahula was born on the very day of his departure. Another legend has it, however, that the child was born before Gautama took his decision and that upon learning of the birth he cried, “Rahula has been born: my fetters are now forged.”
Thereafter Siddartha led the life of a wandering pilgrim. Two Brahman ascetics whom he consulted were unable to reveal to him the way to salvation, and he made his way to Uruvela, where by inhuman austerity and extreme mortification of the flesh – his only food being a single grain of rice a day -he sought to attain salvation by his own efforts; but still Enlightenment did not come. After several years, at the end of his strength, he came to the conclusion that this self-mortification would not enable him to attain his aim. He began to eat more plentifully and devoted himself to profound meditation: whereupon five ascetics who also lived at Uruvela and had become his disciples left him, believing that he had abandoned his quest.
Finally, while sitting under a fig-tree one night in May, Sakyamuni (“Sage of the Sakyas”) received enlightenment; and so at the age of 35, seven years after leaving his father’s house, Gautama became the Buddha. Denying himself the prospect of attaining final deliverance for himself in the short term, he resolved to make his doctrine known to mankind and thus triumphed over Mara, the Evil One (a figure similar to the Biblical Satan), who had tempted him to enter at once into Nirvana and thus deprive the world of salvation. At Sarnath, near Benares, he set the Wheel of the Law in motion at the request of the god Brahma; and there too he met the five ascetics who had left him, revealed himself to them as the supreme Buddha and delivered his message to them in his Benares sermon. These five disciples thereupon became the first members of the Sangha. the order of monks founded by the Buddha.
For more then 40 years the Bhagavat (“Exalted One”) travelled about India preaching his faith and winning many disciples to the “Good Law- (Sad-Dhamma) before dying at Kusinagara at the age of 80. In his last moments he exhorted his disciples in these words: “All that exists is transitory. Continue to strive without respite.” Then he rose through successive degrees of meditation and passed into Nirvana. Western scholars date this event about 460 B.C., but various other dates are given in the Buddhist countries. In Sri Lanka the date of the Buddha’s final entry into Nirvana is put at 543 B.C., and accordingly the Thai calendar differs from the Gregorian by 543 years – though it also differs from the Sinhalese calendar by a year in consequence of a different method of calculation.
The birth, life and death of the Buddha are the subject of innumerable legends which are frequently represented in Thai art. It is said, for example, that he entered his mother’s womb in the form of a white elephant and that at his birth a lotus flower opened and there was an eclipse of the sun.
Buddhism spread rapidly throughout India, but very soon different schools emerged with divergent views on certain points – a consequence of the fact that the Buddha’s message was at first transmitted orally by his monks. According to Sinhalese tradition the Buddha’s precepts on his doctrine and on monastic discipline were established by a council. Thereafter, however, a schism arose, and two other councils were held at which the adherents of the “Doctrine of the Elders” (Theravada) finally laid down the canon of the Buddha’s teachings (suttas) in the Tipitaka or Tripitaka (“Three Baskets”). King Vattagamani had this canon written down in Maghadi, a language which Ceylonese tradition holds to be Pali: at any rate the version which has come down to us is in Pali.
King Asoka (272-232 B.C.), who ruled over almost the whole Indian peninsula, became a convinced Buddhist and took an energetic part in the diffusion of the doctrine far beyond the confines of India. It was probably at this period that Indian missionaries made their way into South-East Asia to win converts in the Kingdom of Suvarnabhumi, later known as Dvaravati, which seems in its heyday to have extended over almost the whole of the peninsula. It is possible that Nakhon Pathom, 60 km from Bangkok, was already the country’s capital. Burma appears also to have adopted Buddhism in its diverse forms at this period. Asoka’s son Mahinda (Mahendra) converted King Tissa of Sri Lanka and with him the whole of his people. This was a conquest of great significance for the whole future of Buddhism, and Sri Lanka has remained Buddhist to this day.
About the beginning of the Christian era there grew up within Buddhism a new movement which took the name of Mahayana (the “Greater Vehicle- leading to salvation) and called the older doctrine the Hinayana (“Lesser Vehicle”) – a term which adepts of the Theravada regarded as derogatory. The essential features of the Mahayana were the adoration verging on worship – of the Bodhisattvas as supernatural intermediaries between mankind and salvation, the perfecting of ritual and the progressive development of the doctrine towards philosophical systems which reconciled pantheist ideas with an “extended negativism” (H.V. Glasenapp). This new doctrine did Dot displace the older one, which it regarded as an imperfect expression of the wisdom proclaimed by the Buddha. Apart from the fact that the Mahayana is much more “intellectual” and given to metaphysical speculation than the Hinayana, the main difference between the two is that in Hinayana doctrine man requires only to follow the precepts of Gautarna. Buddha and seek Nirvana by leading the life of a disciple, which will finally bring him into the state of arhat: the Mahayanists add the further requirement that in order to follow the example of the Buddha each individual must at the same time seek Nirvana for himself and seek to work for the salvation of others by effectively preaching the true doctrine to those around him. A man who does this is a Bodhisattva, a saint, who although himself ready to be liberated renounces this right in order to lead others to liberation. In virtue of their abnegation the great Bodhisattvas are Saviors to whom it is natural to render something akin to worship.
The Mahayana gained a firm footing in the state of Srivijaya, which in the 6th century A.D. extended from Malacca to Indonesia.
In the territory of present-day Thailand the little Thai principality of Lan Na was the first to adopt the Theravada doctrine. After the reforms of King Anawratha of Pagan in the 11 th century Burma was also exclusively Theravadan. The Thai kingdom of Sukhothai, established in the 13th century, reconciled the religious creeds of all the neighbouring countries, in a syncretism which was unsurprising in that context, mingling Buddhism and Saivism with elements of animist belief. If Theravada Buddhism prevailed, this was partly on account of its close links with Sri Lanka: it certainly did not reflect any attitude of intolerance, which would have been totally alien to its spirit.
Today, 90% of the population of Thailand belongs to the Theravada movement, which is the country’s official religion. The king, who must be a Buddhist, is designated “Defender of the Faith” (which implies that he must also protect other religions), and plays an important part in all the great religious festivals, as well as directing the ceremonies which take place in the royal temples.