Buddhist countries in the world; 95 percent of the population practice Theravada Buddhism (a branch of Hinayana Buddhism). As Buddhism is the state religion, the King has the right to appoint the supreme patriarch of the sangha (Buddhist clergy). General awareness of the way of life of the sangha is strong; half the male population has gone though a period of monkhood in their lifetime. Monks are highly revered. In towns and villages the wat (temple) is the heart of social and religious life.
ROLE OF A MONK Some monks pass their time studying Buddhist scriptures and practicing meditation. Many others, however, perhaps the majority, play an active role in daily life, sometime as teachers, sometimes as advisors in village disputes. Monks are called on, too to preside over a wide variety of ceremonial occasions, from funerals to the opening of a new business.
ACQUIRING MERIT Thai Buddhists acquire merit through a number of traditional acts. The most common is offering food to monks in the early morning, while others include presenting robes and other necessities to monasteries, releasing caged birds, and building new temples.
MONKS AS TEACHERS For centuries the only school in Thailand-necessarily limited to boys-were those in temples, where monks offered instruction in secular as well as religious matters. Despite the growth of state education, senior priests are still regarded as scholarly sources of wisdom; their philosophical books are widely read and they are often consulted in times of crisis.
ORDINATION At some point in his life, generally just before he marries and starts a family of his own, a young Thai may undergo training as a monk, often for three months during the rainy season. In villages, the entire population takes part in the ordination ceremony, which involves both religious solemnity and enthusiastic celebration 149. The nak, or future novice, has his head shaved and is dressed in white robes symbolizing purity; carrying an incense stick, a candle and a flower, he is then carried in a gala procession to the temple, where the ordination ceremony is conducted by resident monks.
MEDITION The purpose of meditation is to cleanse the mind of irrelevant thoughts and enhance concentration on the central aim of achieving nirvana. There are a variety of schools, with different teachers and methods, all with the same ultimate purpose.
BUDDHIST ART Buddhism has been the greatest source of inspiration in Thai art, producing not only countless images but also temples and their elaborate decorations. The purpose is not to create objects of beauty but to express the piety of the artist and thus gain merit.