Buddhism Thai Buddhism
Justin McDaniel
  • LAST REVIEWED: 10 July 2020
  • LAST MODIFIED: 19 December 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195393521-0110


Thailand’s population is between 93 and 96 percent Buddhist, and Buddhist institutions have been socially and royally supported for over one thousand years, making Thailand one of the most dynamic places to experience Buddhist practice, interact with Buddhist art, and investigate Buddhist literature and history. However, until the late 20th century, scholarly work on Siamese/Thai Buddhism had been relatively lacking in comparison to work on Buddhism in Sri Lanka, Japan, and Tibet. After that period, scholars started taking advantage of Thailand’s relative peace and economic stability to undertake research that was proving more difficult in places like Burma, Laos, and Cambodia in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s. Perhaps the greatest contribution from both Thai and non-Thai scholars to Buddhist studies more broadly is in the field of anthropology. Classic works have gone far in mapping the ritual and performative aspects of modern Thai Buddhism. While anthropologists have generally dominated the field of Thai Buddhist studies, textual, monastic, art, liturgical, and institutional history have benefitted from the exploration of both Pali and Thai manuscripts, as well as royal and clerical administrative documents. Many of these sources were exposed by the recently deceased and highly influential Japanese scholar Yoneo Ishii. Scholars of art history and epigraphy have also influenced the study of Buddhism in Thailand, with Penth, Woodward, Griswold, Pattaratorn, and others helping to write the history of the movement of styles, schools, and techniques throughout the region. The contributions of Thai Buddhist studies to the fields of Buddhism and politics, and gender and Buddhism, have also grown recently, attracting new students and scholars to the field. Perhaps the least studied aspects of Thai Buddhism are Thai Buddhist modern literature and premodern vernacular manuscript studies. For other sources relevant to studies in Thai Buddhism, see the Oxford Bibliographies articles on Theravada and Buddhism in Southeast Asia.

General Overviews

Early on, most studies of Thai Buddhism were derivative of research done in Sri Lanka or were purely textual studies that looked at the Pali canon and its early commentaries. Many scholars have looked closely at Pali texts. There are few general studies that focus on Theravada Buddhism in Southeast Asia other than Swearer 2010 (originally published in 1995), which although focusing on northern Thailand makes a number of broader points about shared regional practices, and Bechert 1966–1967, which focuses on Burma and Sri Lanka but has sections on Thailand and Laos. Further, Keyes 1977, while not produced by a Buddhist Studies scholar, offers a cultural study of Theravada Buddhist communities. Padmanabh S. Jaini produced several important studies, translations, and editions of Pali works in Southeast Asia. Wells 1982 (originally 1960) is still a reliable classic. Pichard and Lagirarde 2003 and Lagirarde and Paritta 2006, two edited volumes, have respectively contributed much to our knowledge of the intricacies and intimacies of Theravada communities in the region. Berkwitz, et al. 2008, another edited volume, is largely focused on South and Southeast Asia, and the contributors show how texts operate in dynamic historical and social contexts over time. Skilling 2009 is the most comprehensive and well-researched general study to date. Some of the best general studies of Theravada Buddhism are produced by art historians, but this subject area is beyond the scope of this entry. However, a good place to start the study of modern Thai Buddhist art would be Taylor and Ly 2012. Cross-disciplinary approaches, meanwhile, combining art historical, anthropological, and textual evidence are rare. Finally, two forthcoming volumes are of interest. In 2012 and 2013, Peter Skilling and Jason Carbine will release a collected volume with several articles focused on Thai Buddhism titled How Theravada is the Theravada? In addition, Peter Skilling and Justin McDaniel will publish two volumes of collected articles called Buddhist Narrative, which will include several chapters focusing on Thai Buddhist texts.

  • Bechert, Heinz. Buddhismus, Staat und Gesellschaft in den Ländern des Theravada-Buddhismus. Frankfurt and Berlin: Metzner, 1966–1967.

    This is a highly detailed institutional history of reform from an elite perspective. There is also a third volume that is useful as a bibliographic guide, published in 1973.

  • Berkwitz, Stephen C., Juliane Schober, and Claudia Brown. Buddhist Manuscript Cultures: Knowledge, Ritual, and Art. New York and Abingdon, UK: Routledge, 2008.

    A highly original set of articles on manuscript culture that offers a comparative study of various collections and manuscript cultures in South and Southeast Asia. Highly recommended for an introduction to the field.

  • Keyes, Charles F. The Golden Peninsula. New York: Macmillian, 1977.

    Keyes’s influence on the study of Thai Buddhism and society cannot be underestimated. This is one of dozens of books and articles covering subjects as wide-ranging as local heroine/hero cults, gender and ordination, ethnicity, social ethics, modern Thai politics, and religious violence appearing between the mid-1970s and the present day. Keyes’s anthropological approach became a model for many subsequent scholars and drew many graduate students to work with him at the University of Washington.

  • Lagirarde, François, and Paritta Chalermpow Koanantakool, eds. Buddhist Legacies in Mainland Southeast Asia: Mentalities, Interpretations, and Practices. Bangkok: Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn Anthropology Centre, 2006.

    Fourteen articles by the top scholars in Southeast Asian Buddhism, ranging from studies of murals and epigraphy to linguistics and history. Published in collaboration with École Française d’Extrême-Orient.

  • Pichard, Pierre, and François Lagirarde, eds. The Buddhist Monastery. Paris: École Française d’Extrême-Orient, 2003.

    Although this collection draws on material from across Buddhist Asia, the editors have long-term experience working in Thailand, Laos, and Burma, and for comparative purposes, this is an excellent background set of chapters for those interested in Thai Buddhism.

  • Skilling, Peter. Buddhism and Buddhist Literature of South-East Asia: Selected Papers. Edited by Claudio Cicuzza. Materials for the Study of the Tripiṭaka 5. Bangkok: Fragile Palm Leaves Foundation, 2009.

    This is a selection of twelve articles by the leading scholar of Theravada Buddhism. It reveals a breadth and depth rarely achieved by one person. Appendixes provided at the end of many articles list titles of stories, collections, inscriptions, languages, and the like. These, combined with the extensive notes and very useful bibliography, will make it a perennially useful reference work. Published in collaboration with the Lumbini Research Institute.

  • Swearer, Donald. The Buddhist World of Southeast Asia. 2d ed. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2010.

    This text presents a very general treatment of early Buddhist kingdoms, Buddhist festivals and rituals (popular traditions), and reform, focusing primarily on northern Thailand.

  • Taylor, Nora, and Boreth Ly, eds. Modern and Contemporary Southeast Asian Art. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2012.

    This collection of articles provides a good introduction to modern Buddhist art and includes work on Thailand. It is one of the few books in English on this topic.

  • Wells, Kenneth E. Thai Buddhism: Its Rites and Activities. New York: AMS Press, 1982.

    Descriptive overview of the distinctive aspects of ritual practice in Thailand. Originally published in 1939.

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