Ritual and Liturgy

Thai Buddhist Ritual

Thai ritual has been one the few areas of Thai Buddhist Studies that has received considerable scholarly attention. There are several good sources in Western Languages and much in Thai which explains major Thai Buddhist, Brahmanic, and Animist rituals in detail. There are also resources on the web in the form of amateur video, eye-witness accounts, and anthropological descriptions. The most well-known and consistently reliable studies of Thai ritual include Richard O'Connor's Muang Metaphysics , Donald Swearer's Becoming the Buddha and The Buddhist World of Southeast Asia , B.J. Terwiel's Monks and Magic and Buddhism and Society in Thailand , F. Bizot's L e bouddhisme des Thais, Kenneth Wells, Thai Buddhism, Its Rites and Activities, Prince Anuman Rajadhon's Life and Ritual in Old Siam , among many others (see secondary sources).

Thai rituals can be classified in many ways. There are ecclesiastical rituals often guided by texts called kammavaca which are part of the daily and yearly schedule of monks. These calendrical rituals include daily morning and evening prayers ( tham wat chao , tham wat yen ), mutual confession ( fortnightly meetings of the Buddhist monastic assembly, at the times of the full moon and the new moon, to reaffirm the rules of discipline). The uposatha observance, is held every two weeks, and the Pa ṭ imokhha (the monastic code) is chanted in full. Often monks are judged as "trained" in Thai Buddhism when they can chant the whole text from memory. For many is this is a de facto examination that is expected of any monk who has been in the robes more than two or three years, if not sooner. Some monasteries are famous for having monks who can chant the Patimokkha very quickly and others whose monks can chant it very beautifully. Besides these bi-weekly ceremonies. South and Southeast Asian Buddhists (although it only became a custom later) added the quarter days in the lunar cycle to the list of monthly days of observance, establishing four Sabbath-like days each month (known as wan phra in Thailand). Uposatha days are times in which devout (or even casually observant) lay Buddhists often voluntarily vow to keep eight precepts (i.e.: refraining from: *consuming intoxicants; *abusing others with speech, untruths, slander, rumors; *sexual misconduct; *killing living beings, which can include animals and even insects; *stealing or hording property; *eating after noon; *excessively decorating and entertaining oneself; *sleeping on luxurious beds). In practice, this means that many lay Buddhists, especially elderly women, dress in white, do not wear cosmetics or jewelry and sleep in open air pavilions on monastic grounds. They spend their time meditating, talking casually, listening to chanting, reading, making decorations for the monastery, cleaning and polishing ritual implements, and cooking. Novices, nuns, and monks often use these days to chant for the public, offer sermons, and counsel visitors who may be having personal problems. The importance of uposatha days is found in Pali texts including the Muuluposatha Sutta (Anguttara Nikaya (AN) 3.70), the Uposatha Sutta (Anguttara Nikaya (AN) 8.41).


Besides these monastic rituals, monks also oversee and perform (chanting, blessing water, accepting gifts, giving sermons) numerous annual celebrations marking important events in the life of the Buddha. These include:

Wan khao phansa which is celebrated on the first day after the full moon of the eighth lunar month (July). This ceremony initiates the three month rains retreat during which time novices, nuns, and monks are expected not to travel and to remain studying, chanting, counseling and blessing visitors, and meditating in their monasteries. Novices, nuns, and monks are only permitted (although the level of enforcement varies from monastery to monastery) to stay outside of their monasteries for no more than two nights (in some cases seven nights). The reason given for having an annual "enclosure" period for ordinands is that at the time of the Buddha many farmers in what is today North India were complaining about wandering monks and nuns stepping on their crops (mostly rice) as they were wandering through the region. Therefore, the Buddha ordered all of his disciples not to wander during these months. Indeed, July to October is the height of the growing and harvesting season in the region. Regardless of the origins of the retreat, many monks in Thailand choose to "cham phansa" (stay in a monastery for the rains retreat) in a monastery that is not their home one (meaning the one in which they were originally ordained). The reasons for this are many. Sometimes it is because they want to study Pali or Buddhist ritual science or meditation with a particular teacher at a particular monastery. They might want to translate or memorize a particular text that is popular at a particular monastery. They might want to be close to a family member who may have moved to a particular town or city. Many forest ( arañña or pa ) monasteries in Northeastern Thailand are popular places for ordinands to cham phansa because of their quiet, rural settings. However, large urban monasteries with famous teachers, images, or good libraries are also seen as attractive places to spend three months. Many Thai Buddhists only ordain for three months and therefore, this period is the most popular time to undertake that life temporarily.  

Wan ook phansa (also called pavarana ) is the last day of the rains retreat. It takes place on the day of the full moon of the eleventh lunar month (October). This is a time of great revelry celebrating the end of a period of intense concentration and dedication. Monks, nuns, and novices are given new robes and occasionally new bowls, fans, umbrellas, medicine, toiletries, towels, books, pillows, etc. Monks are ritually bathed and dressed in new robes. Many ordinands in the Thammayut lineage are given pieces of cloth (this can include pieces of cloth found charnel grounds, although this is extremely rare) and taught how to sew their own robes. This period of giving actually takes place over an entire month, not just one day and is called "tot kratin" in Thai. This period is also a period of fund-raising for a monastery and the gifts and donations garnered help them survive throughout the rest of the year. Anapanasati day comes soon after wan ook pansa and monks often listen to the Anapanasati Sutta (teaching on breathing meditation) in the Majjhima Nikaya (MN) 118.

Wan magha pucha takes place on the full moon of the third lunar month (February). Although it is not an extremely popular public celebration, it is an important monastic ceremony which commemorates an event during the life of the Buddha. It is said that one day 1,250 enlightened monks miraculously appeared and bowed down to the Buddha. This was a great sign of the Buddha's superior teaching and enlightened state. The Buddha gave the Ovada-Patimokkha sermon to the crowd.

Wan wisakha pucha is celebrated on the full moon of the sixth month of the lunar year (usually mid-May). This may be the most important monastic and public Buddhist ceremony in Thai calendar. It celebrates three great events in the Buddha's life: the day the Buddha was born, attained enlightenment, and passed away. Wan wisakha Pucha is usually celebrated with a sermon, often drawn from the Mahaparinibbana Sutta , and then a great candle procession three times around the main chedi of each monastery ( wian tian ). The candle procession of Ubon Ratchathani city in Northeastern Thailand is particularly well-known and thousands of people watch homemade elaborately carved (sometimes 40 feet tall) candles slowly move around the main park of the city on trucks.

Wan asanha pucha takes place on the full moon of the eighth lunar month (July). It commemorates the Buddha's first sermon. It also involves a wian tian (candle procession). The first sermon, the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta ( Samyutta Nik a ya (SN) 56.11) is delivered on this day. It contains the four noble truths and eightfold noble path.

On every uposatha day, whether it is a major public and monastic holiday like Wan wisakha pucha or just a weekly day of observance, many people bring food to the monastery, offer candles, incense sticks, flowers, and money (and sometimes statues, bowls, robes, books, among other items used by monastery occupants). Some stay all day taking on the five or eight precepts, while others simply present their offerings, meditate or chant for a few minutes, and stroll around the grounds. Children can play in the courtyards of most monasteries and mothers can nurse their infants. There is occasionally even some lay men playing card games or repairing a broken faucet or window. Usually labor at a monastery (unless it involves major construction or digging holes which monks are forbidden to do) is done by nuns, novices, and monks. However, on uposatha days, many lay people do volunteer work. Therefore, uposatha days are usually lively and busy times at a monastery often breaking up otherwise quiet weeks.

Some rituals are performed on demand and not according to pre-arranged lunar dates or major holidays. These include funerals, weddings, ordinations, house blessings, vehicle blessings, acceptance of gifts, honoring the taking of the five or eight precepts by lay people, among others. Although the novice and full ordinations ( pabbaj a and uppasampad a ) do not have to be performed on a specific date (weekly, monthly, or annually), they are most commonly performed near the time of khao phansa (the first day of the annual three month rains retreat).

Some of these life-cycle rituals include:

Funerals and cremations ( pithi ngan sop lae phao sop ) are, for obvious reasons, are very common rituals at monasteries. Not every monastery has a crematorium, in fact, there has been a systematic shitting down of crematoriums at monasteries in major urban areas in Thailand because of the pollution produced. In Bangkok, for example, a city of 12 million people, most cremations take place in very large gas incinerators in large monasteries on the edge of the city. However, funerary rites can take place at one monastery and cremations at another. However, for convenience, many urban dwelling Thai people choose to go to these large suburban monasteries to perform the funerary rites and cremation together. Therefore, some of these monasteries have seven to eight funerals every evening. Good examples are Wat Rang Sri and Wat Anongkaram. There have not been many good studies on the history of Thai funerary traditions, although there has been much anthropological work (see he bibliography, some particular useful works include: *K. E. Wells, Thai Buddhism: Its Rites and Activities (Bangkok, 1974), 214-216; *B.J. Terweil, Monks and magic: an analysis of religious ceremonies in central Thailand (Bangkok: White Lotus, rpr. 1994); * (Phya) Anuman Rajadhon, Life and Ritual in Old Siam: Three Studies of Thai Life and Customs (tr. William Gedney. New Haven: HRAF Press, 1961); * Charles Keyes and (Phrakhru) Anusaranasasanakiarti, "Funerary Rites and the Buddhist Meaning of Death: An Interpretative Text from Northern Thailand," Journal of the Siam Society 68.1 (Jan. 1980): 1-28; Alan Klima's Funeral Casino (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2002) is a theoretical and political reflection on the culture of death in Thailand; I have a forthcoming study on texts used at funerals in Justin McDaniel, "Philosophical Embryology: Buddhist Texts and the Ritual Construction of a Fetus" in Imagining the Fetus, edited by Vanessa Sasson and Jane Marie Law (American Academy of Religion, 2008). Rita Langer, Patrice Ladwig, Rupert Gethin and others have recently undertaken a major research project investigating the various beliefs and practices associated with death in South and Southeast Asia at the University of Bristol. There are too many Thai sources to list here, many of them are listed in the bibliography. They range from close descriptions of funerals in different regions to cremation volumes published at the time honoring the lives of important monks and lay persons. These cremation volumes, which now include CD-Roms and color photographs of the deceased have been popular since the early 20 th century. Grant Olson ("Thai Cremation Volumes: A Brief History of a Unique Genre of Literature." Asian Folklore Studies 51 (1992): 279-94) is one of the few scholars who has written on this subject. These cremation volumes are an untapped source of Thai social and intellectual history.

After the chanting and the placing (occasionally) of a piece of paper inside the corpses mouth with "sī na" (ci, ce, ru, ni--four syllables representing the four main section of the Abhidhammasaṅgaha ), the corpse is cleaning with water by members of the deceased's family. Then the corpse is placed in a coffin (usually white with gold painted designs) or if the family cannot afford a coffin, the body is simply placed exposed on a pile of wood and pillows. The coffin or pyre is often flanked by flowers, candles, and incense. Tea, soda, or water is offered to the monks after chanting and the visitors often go to a wake and are served Chinese style shark fin soup and pumpkin seeds or simple local dishes (this food is referred to as matakabatta ). Especially in the rural areas of Thailand, a person holding a white flag on a long pole leads the family and friends to the crematorium or funeral pyre. This procession includes the monks and a group of men carrying the coffin. The Abhidhammasa ṅ gaha or Abhidhamma Chet Kamphi is oftn chanted on the way to the place of cremation. Chinese Thai Buddhists are often buried in a cemetery, but ethnic Thai, Lao, Mon, Khmer, and Burmese Buddhists in Thailand are cremated and their ashes are placed inside small boxes embedded in chedi or the walls of a monastery. These boxes often include the dates of birth and death and a black and white photograph. Sometimes the cremation is held immediately after the funerary rites, but sometimes three or more days later because of astrological charts.

There are many types of liturgical texts chanted at a funeral. Some are the idiosyncratic requests of the family members of the deceased, while others are the choice of the monk leading the ritual (funerals must include four monks). In Thailand, the most common text chanted at a funeral in the Abhidhamma Chet Kamphi. The Abhidhamma Chet Kamphi ( Seven Books of the Abhidhamma ) is a genre of texts well-known by both the elite and common people in Thailand. There are several versions. The text was most likely composed long before the eighteenth century, but there are few copies that have survived. Although its origins are largely unknown, it has been used as a funerary text for centuries.This title is misleading. This text does not contain the entire seven volumes of the Abhidhamma . There are many different versions, some simply list the titles of the seven volumes of the Abhidhamma and then a section from the m a tik a (index) which offers an extremely abbreviated summary of the contents of the seven volumes (although this is a gross simplification). Other versions include miraculous stories about how syllables from the different titles of the Abhidhamma help cure diseases and even helped create the world. The Abhidhamma Chet Kamphi is not the only type of Abhidhamma text chanted or used at funerary rites. The Abhidhammasaṅgaha , a 12th century Pali commentary on the Abhidhamma has long been associated with funerals in Thailand . The Abhidhammasaṅgaha or at least the "sī na" (four subjects) is chanted at the beginning of the funerary rites when the corpse has yet to be removed from the home. The Abhidhamma Chet Kamphi is chanted at the time of the actual cremation. These subjects were important to study at elite royal monasteries as is seen in monastic university textbooks as early as 1926 (this is the earliest copy I could find, however, this is not the first edition and the textbook was probably first printed in 1912). There are also hundreds of manuscript copies of these texts. According to Abhidhamma teachings, human life can be reduced to mental and physical conditions. Therefore, this would be a sobering, but timely subject at a funeral. A life is no more than these conditions (actions, sense-objects, association, disassociation, dependence, practice, previous birth, etc.). However, these seven short passages in this manuscript do not explicitly discuss conditions. In fact, the text is very simple and repetitive. It would seem senseless to the untrained ear. It would simply sound like a list of similar sounding words. They either have to be expanded upon in oral vernacular commentary or listened to not for their semantic meaning, but for the meritorious power at the time of death. Most often they are chanted in Pali only at a funeral and then the words are "lifted" and used as the basis for a vernacular sermon after the funeral. These verses are chanted while monks stand in front of the funeral pyre ( suut na fai ). Sections from the longer Abhidhammasaṅgaha , discussed below, are chanted at the beginning of the funeral. This chanting is in Pali, which the vast majority of lay people and monks cannot understand. The semantic meaning of the chanting matters little compared to its powerful ritual value. Funerals are perhaps the most common and frequent times for public Pali chanting in Thailand . Indeed, a funeral is the occasion when large groups of lay people come in contact with monks. The Abhidhamma is one of the most commonly heard and least understood texts in Thai ritual life.

Marriage ( pithi taeng ngan ), like funerary rites, are not described in early Buddhist texts in South Asia. Indeed, it seems that the early disciples of the Buddha did not consider the performance of marriage and death rituals as part of their duties. However, it is evident in a number of texts that the early Buddhists did practice cremation and built small chedi or stupa to mark the place where the ashes and bones of the deceased were housed. Death was also a great subject of reflection and offered an occasion to give teachings on the impermanence of life, the fragility and transitory nature of the human person, and the like. Marriage would seem like an unlikely ritual for Buddhist monastics of any age to participate in since the ideal monastic is supposed to lessen attachments to family, desire, property, and so on. Despite this, Thai monks, usually nine, chant and bless water for marriage ceremonies. These are short rituals usually and the liturgy can change according to the preferences of the monks and the married couple. During the ritual, the married couple kneels side by side in front of the nine seated monks and they are all connected with a white string ( sai sincana ). One end of the string is wrapped around a Buddha image and the other is dipped in a bowl of water which is infused with the power of the chanting. These chanting sessions usually take place over two days, once at night and once again in the morning. After the chanting is finished the bles water is sprinkled over the couple and the guests. Sometimes a conch shell is used to pour the water over the couple's hands. While the water is being poured, the betrothed heads are connected with a white string usually decorated with flowers. After the ceremony the monks eat (so it must be before noon) and the rest of the guests retire to a reception room to eat, dance, and laugh, as the monks return to their monasteries.

Offering ceremonies and alms rounds ( tak bat , binthabat ) are probably the simplest and most frequent ritual activities of nuns, novices, and monks. Every morning, most monastics leave their monasteries at dawn (if not earlier) and walk slowly through their local villages or city neighborhoods. They are instructed not to wear shoes or sandels, to keep their eyes cast downward, to have their robes neatly folded with both shoulders covered (inside the monastery, one shoulder is exposed), walk in order of rank (the monk who has been ordained the longest walks first). People assemble along the streets and offer food to the monks (small portions of rice, fruit, curry, glass noodles, and occasionally a sweet cake or juice box). The monks often do not say anything, they open the lid of their bowls, bend over slightly to allow the kneeling people to reach into their bowls, and then move on. The lead monk can offer a short Pali benediction although this is optional.

Besides the daily morning alms rounds ( binthabat ) nuns, novices, and monks also can receive alms at their monasteries (especially on an uposatha day) or attend a special event where they receive alms. These special events are called "tak bat" and can take place at a private residence or a business. They are common on anniversaries of the founding of schools, grand openings of supermarkets, the first day of a clearance sale at a furniture store, and the like. These ceremonies ensure the business or school year will be successful. There are famous tak bat ceremonies in various provinces. For example, the Bun Bang Fai (rocket festival in Yasothorn Province in which villagers launch homemade rockets to ensure a good planting season) has a very large tak bat for the sangha. Bun Phra Wet rituals (three day ritual chanting of the Vessantara Jataka) held in various provinces at a number of famous monasteries starts and ends with a tak bat offering. In Saraburi Province, the Tak Bat Dok Mai is a relatively unique offering of flowers called dok hong thong. The tak bat is held at the famous Wat Phutthabat. At this monastery and many others the tak bat is followed by boat races, carnival games, beauty contests, and elephant expositions. Ceremonies in Surat, Loei, Nakhon Sri Thammarat, Phisanulok, Nong Khai, and Kanchanaburi are particularly famous and draw visitors from all over the country. Often time this is where most of the annual funds of the monastery are generated.

All of these rituals, whether calendrical or life-cycle oriented, are governed by the idea that giving ( d a na / than ) is a way of making merit ( punna / bun ) to ensure a good next life or good fortune in this life. While ordaining as a monk is the best offering a person can make (some argue that women's ordination is less important although this is a controversial subject, see the bibliography under Women and Buddhism for more information), offering a scoop of rice to a novice in the morning is also considered very meritorious. Some wealthy donors offer the funding to build entire monasteries or libraries, while others make an effort to make pilgrimages to important monasteries throughout Thailand and the world to bear witness to the relics of the Buddha, bodhisattas, and famous arahats and teachers. Taking on the five or eight precepts once a week is also considered meritorious, because one is giving her or his time and giving up desires. Monks are considered the most meritorious of receivers of alms (often they are referred to as "fields of merit"); however, giving a gift to an animal also can be meritorious. There are some cultural associations to certain gifts. For example, if you give a Buddha statue to a monastery then you will be beautiful. If you give candles your eyesight will improve. If you give texts, you will be intelligent. Most Thai Buddhists believe that these benefits will only come in the next life, but some see those benefits as affecting the quality of a person's present life.

Rituals generally have liturgical texts associated with them. Despite the fact, that liturgical texts are the most commonly memorized, chanted, and heard in Thailand, they have received very little scholarly attention. I published an article on the subject in 2007 ("Liturgies and Cacophones in Thai Buddhism" Aséanie 18) and Peter Skilling is working on an extensive study. Pomarin Charuworn recently offered "Dynamism of Phra Malai Chanting: A Comparative Study of Performance at Kanchanaburi and Chonburi", Talk delivered at the Thai Language and Literature Conference, Bangkok, November 11, 2006, which expands on Bonnie Brereton's seminal Thai Tellings of the Phra Malai , Tempe, University of Arizona Press, 1995. The chanting of the Phra Malai story, like the chanting of the Vessantara Jataka (Thet Mahachat) are types of liturgies but are not performed daily like the tham wat chao and tham wat yen . Early liturgical prayer books (for rituals ranging from house blessings, to healing incantations, to morning and evening benedictions) most often contain sets of paritta. Paritta are protective texts that keep the chanter safe from evil spells, menacing other-worldly creatures and the very real dangers of knives, guns, disease, betrayal, fire and poison. Any Buddhist who regularly attends temple ceremonies or requests monks to bless her/his property or endeavors is familiar with these chants and their modern vernacular translations which often serve as subjects for sermons. Paritta literature has long been associated with ritual action and protective implements such as string, holy water, candles, amulets, incense, engraved metal mantra texts worn around the neck, etc.. Primary textual sources abound for these paritta . The earliest Pali chronicles and commentaries (fourth to fifth century CE) mention the use of parittas in protective rites in several places. For example, the commentary on Ratanasutta "states that Ānanda sprinkled water from the Buddha's alms bowl as he went through Vesali reciting the sutta ." Older canonical texts also mention the use of parittas in ceremonies, for example, the Vinayapiṭaka (Vin II 109-110) where the Buddha is said to have permitted the use of a protective chant to cure a snake-bite. The number of parittas in various collections varied widely, but they most often included the Ratana , Mora , Khandha , Dhajagga , and Āṭanaṭiya Suttas . Parittas were included (and still are in modern printed texts) in many different manuscript genres: anisong (Pali: anisaṃsa ), chalong, phithi (Pali/Sanskrit: bidhī / vidhī ), and suat mon . Parittas , including these six, have been the subject of dozens of vernacular translations and commentaries produced in modern Thailand and Laos, and are central to liturgical practice. The recitation of these paritta often begin with the chanting of the "Bot Krap Phra," "Bot Namo," and "Itipiso," as well as the "Tisaraṇa."