The Buddhist church of Thailand has its own organization, which resolves on its own authority any problems which arise within the order of monks. All the monks (bhikkhus), who number about 150,000, and the novices (samaneras) belong to the Sangha (Order). At their head is the Sangharaja or Patriarch, who is elected by the Order and appointed for life by the king. Below the Patriarch are four ministers who are respectively responsible for administration, education, information and public works (e.g. the restoration of wats). For the purposes of religious administration the country is divided into nine districts, each consisting of six provinces; and the provinces are in turn divided into wats (of which there are 20,000 in Thailand), the smallest administrative units. The wats are headed by abbots, who form a college for the election of the Patriarch.
Young men under 20 are admitted to the Order as samaneras (pronounced samanen in Thai), who, like the monks, have shaven heads and wear the saffron robe. The monks take a vow of poverty and are allowed only a few possessions – three robes, an iron alms-bowl, a needle, a belt and a strainer to filter the water they drink so that they may not inadvertently swallow the smallest living creature, of the 227 rules which they must observe the most important are: not to kill (even in self-defense), to refrain from sexual intercourse, not to lie, not to steal, to possess no money. Nor must they proclaim their superiority over others or declare themselves “enlightened”.
Monks can leave the Order at any time, and may do so not more than three times. They are not bound to a particular wat. There is no real control over them except in questions of morality: they can pursue their own particular interests, and some even take up pursuits which have no relation to Buddhism, like witch-doctoring or soothsaying.
Every man is expected to spend at least three months of his life as a monk in a monastery; and most choose the Buddhist equivalent of Lent (July-September) to retire to a wat and devote their timeto meditation.
In the early morning the monks can be seen in the streets gathering the food they require. They are not allowed to beg, but must accept whatever is offered to them. In the villages the peasants put out plates of meat, rice and fruit for the monks outside their houses or themselves carry their gifts to the temple. The monks have their last meal about 11 am, after which they are allowed only to drink. Their days are spent in meditation, chanting, the study of the scriptures, teaching or various tasks round the monastery. The last service is celebrated at 5 pm.
In Thailand the Order is divided into two branches, the Mahanikaya and the Dhammayuttika. The latter, founded by King Mongkut, has a higher standard of scholarship and devotes much time to philosophical meditation. It is much less numerous than the Mahanikaya.
A number of nuns, shaven-headed and wearing white robes, also live in the monasteries. They are mostly elderly women, either unmarried or widows, who desire to end their days under the protection of the Buddha and pay a small sum for their board and lodging.