Buddhism is a central and unifying force in Thai society. There are over 31,000 temples and the Thai regularly give gifts to the temple, attend festivals, and have their sons ordained.
Religious Beliefs. Theravada Buddhism is the official religion of Thailand (95 percent of the population) ; there are also Muslims (4 percent), and small numbers of Christians, Hindus, Confucians, and animists. Various supernatural beings play a role in village life. They include the guardian spirits of houses and villages, harvest beings such as the Rice Mother, possession spirits who cause illness, and helpful spirits who provide guidance.
Religious Practitioners. About 85 percent of Thai men are ordained priests, although only a small minority makes the priesthood its life work. The head priest at each temple maintains the basic rules of the monastic order. Priests read sermons, sing blessings, and participate in life-cycle rituals. They often also play a central role in village government. In addition to priests there are exorcists, spirit doctors, and diviners who mediate between humans and the spirit world through incantations, charms, possession, and sympathetic action.
Ceremonies. The religious calendar includes the New Year's Festival in April; the day of birth, enlightenment, and death of the Buddha in May; Lent from July to October; and the Festival of Lights in November. In addition, there is an annual fair and days set are aside for presenting robes and food to the priests.
Arts. Although now discouraged by the government, the tattooing of men is still common. Both art and architecture are characterized by subtlety of design and form, with considerable use of amulets, mystical drawings, and both public and private statuary. Traditional musical instruments such as gongs, clappers, wooden blocks, and the long drum are used alongside Western instruments such as saxophones, flutes, and horns. Dance dramas, repartee performances, and shadow plays are a common form of theatrical entertainment in rural villages.
Medicine. Illness is attributed to fright, prolonged adversity, spirit possession, and an imbalance of elements in the body. Locally purchased home remedies and the services of healers are commonly used.
Death and Afterlife. The funeral is the most important life-cycle event because it signifies the launching of the deceased into his or her next existence. Rebirth occurs after a stay in purgatory, the length of which is determined by one's sinfulness. The older and more prestigious the deceased, the more elaborate the funeral rites. The formal mourning period is seven days, after which the body is taken to the house or a morgue where it may be kept for days or even years until it is cremated.