There are two types of Buddhism- Theravada, and Mahayana. In Thailand, the prominent form of Buddhism practiced is Theravada Buddhism. Many holidays and festivals in Thailand are based on Buddhism, such as Buddha Day and the famous Loy Krathong festival.
According to estimates made in 2010, 93.6% of the Thai population identifies as Buddhists (6), and most of them take their religious beliefs seriously.
So, to avoid any misunderstandings with the locals, it’s useful to know the 5 precepts of Buddhism and the forbidden acts.
The Rules of Buddhism: 5 Forbidden Acts
In Buddhism, the most well-known rules of forbidden acts are known as the ‘Five Precepts.’ These are the rules guided by the Buddha to help people behave morally and ethically in their lives. It is believed that following these precepts will allow people to achieve enlightenment and reach Nirvana.
Many Buddhists in Thailand follow the forbidden acts more seriously during the Vassa or Buddhist Lent, a period of Three-Lunar-Month that usually starts around August and ends in October.
The following five acts are the ones guided in the Five Precepts to be refrained from committing:
1. Refrain from Killing Other Lives
This includes all lives, including the animals. And this rule might cause some confusion as to whether Buddhism forbids eating meat or that all Buddhists need to be vegetarian. This is actually not the case; Buddhists do not necessarily need to be vegetarians- even monks and nuns.
Buddhism forbids making others suffer from malicious intent. Monks and Nuns can eat meat as long as they are pre-cooked by others.
For other Buddhists, eating meat is not explicitly forbidden by the religion, although many Buddhists in Thailand, and other Buddhist countries in SEA, such as Myanmar, avoid eating meats during the Buddhist Lent period as doing so is believed to bring good karma.
Many restaurants and 7-Eleven shops in Thailand sell vegetarian meals during these periods as special seasonal meals.
2. Refrain from Taking What Is Not Given
Aside from obvious crimes of theft, this also means refraining from borrowing something and also not returning it to the owner. And this rule applies to even family members. Taking something without informing the owner is considered ‘sinning.’
Local people also believe that borrowing money and not giving it back to the lender will make them indebted to them even in the next life. It is also believed that stealing something from the temples or pagodas will bring the worst karma to life and must be avoided at any cost.
3. Refrain from Committing Sexual Misconduct and Adultery
The Five Precepts forbid people from committing adultery or sexual misconduct. It has been stated that lusting over someone already married or in an established relationship is forbidden by religion.
That’s why, in Thailand, having affairs is strongly condemned by society, and Monogamy has been adopted into Thai law since 1935 (1), making Polygamy marriages unofficial.
However, interestingly, Polygamy still exists in Thailand and is also accepted as long as the involving parties agree. Feeling attracted to monks or nuns is considered a big sin, and there were tales from ancient times about people who had to go to hell for lusting over monks or nuns, even for a few seconds.
This rule also applies to situations where one lusts over someone they should not, even when they do so just in their mind and not verbally or physically.
4. Refrain from Saying Lies
Yes, telling lies is prohibited, although there are arguably so many gray areas. ‘White lies’ are considered acceptable as those are told without any ill intentions.
Another belief among Buddhist people is that cursing or saying profanities will lessen the good karma as saying those ‘dirty words’ will make one’s guardian angel stay away from the person.
But in reality, it is not easy to avoid telling lies or cursing at all, so most people will try to keep this precept on special occasions such as Buddhist Day or during religious festival periods.
So, try not to curse (or at least out loud) when visiting the temples to avoid being stared at by the locals.
5. Refrain from Taking Intoxicants
Buddhism explicitly forbids monks and nuns from drinking alcohol and taking intoxicants such as drugs; it is believed that doing so will cloud the mind and cause misjudgments to be made.
For ordinary people who are not monks or nuns, drinking alcohol is not explicitly forbidden by the religion, but it is not encouraged either.
In fact, 7-Eleven shops in Thailand do not sell alcohol on special days related to religion, such as the full moon day of Buddhist Lent, as it is illegal to buy and sell alcohol during Asahna Bucha and Khao Phansa days in Thailand.
And although not explicitly forbidden by the religion, some Buddhists do not drink alcohol for their religious beliefs. Therefore, it’s better to ask before offering drinks to Thai people during social events.
Other Rules and Traditions
There are other rules and traditions followed by Buddhists, apart from the Five Precepts. A few of them are as follows:
Women Are Not Allowed at Certain Areas of Temples:
This rule has caused a lot of controversies among non-Buddhists and non-Asians and has seemed like discrimination against women. However, this rule was made because of the superstitions that have existed since long ago.
Many local people believe in the north and northeast of Thailand that their ancestors have kept the divinities and relics buried under the ground of these historic places, such as temples and holy pagodas.
And such areas are claimed as ‘Holy areas’ or ‘Holy grounds,’ and only authorized persons or monks, who are males, are allowed to be there. Hence, restrictions are made only for women in those historical places, such as the relic in Wat Phra That Hariphunchai in Lamphoon and Wat Prathat Lampang Luang in Lampang (2).
In Thailand, women are also not allowed to touch monks directly as such actions might cause distractions to the monks in their journey to reach enlightenment. Monks usually receive or give things to women by using a cloth or via their attendants.
So if you are a woman, you need to be careful about this when visiting the temples or encountering the monks in Thailand, even when you are not a Buddhist.
Looming above Buddha Statue or Image:
Yes, even standing above (or worse, stepping over) a photo or painting of Buddha is considered very offensive to the Buddhists. That’s why using Buddha statues or images as decoration is highly condemned in Thailand.
If you visit Ayutthaya, you will see signs that say ‘Do not climb over’ or ‘Do not cross’ at certain places, as there are Buddha statues in the lower areas of those places.
Pointing at Buddha Image with your feet or lying down with your feet facing forward to the Buddha statue and image is also considered very offensive and disrespectful. It is believed that the feet are the dirtiest parts of the human body.
Some rules are specifically made for Monks and Nuns as they are to lead lives where there is no lust or wants for physical things and pleasures.
Although ordinary people do not necessarily need to follow these rules, here are a few of them if you are curious to find out!
Monks and Nuns Need to Shave Their Hair:
According to Buddha’s rule, a monk or nun is not allowed to grow his or her hair beyond a certain length or for a certain time period. This is because becoming a Buddhist monk or nun means accepting an ascetic lifestyle. Shaving their heads symbolizes giving up on worldly attachments to cut off self-interest and attachment to personal appearance (3).
And also, shaving the hair gives the monks and nuns more time to focus on reaching enlightenment and Nirvana, which are the ultimate goals for any Buddhist in life.
Therefore, Buddhist monks and nuns will usually shave their heads at least once a fortnight or month, and sometimes more frequently than that, depending on the time it takes for one to grow out their hair.
They also need to use a razor of their own, which is one of the requisites for every monk and nun, and they cannot also use other tools such as scissors.
Dyeing or plucking out the grey hair is also not allowed as well, and as most Buddhist monks do not usually check their appearance in mirrors, they are more likely not to notice the grey hair as well.
Brushing or combing the hair or applying any treatment to the hair, except for medical purposes, is also forbidden. This means that they still have attachments to their personal appearances, which is considered a form of lust (3).
In Thailand, Buddhist monks also need to shave their eyebrows, although it is not required in other Buddhist countries like Myanmar.
Monks and Nuns Do Not Eat Solid Food after 12 Noon:
This is often known as Buddhist Fasting. It is not allowed to eat after midday because monks and nuns reduce as many distractions and physical attachments as possible to focus on meditations and study Buddha’s Dhamma.
So, for them, food is more of just a source of energy to survive and not something to be enjoyed, and they only consume just enough to get energy for their daily activities and hence, only eat breakfast and lunch before midday.
Also, monks and nuns need to rely on other people for cooking as they cannot buy or cook raw meat, and as a way to reduce the burden on people, this practice is applied.
The last possible reason is that monks and nuns lived in the forests or away from civilians in the past and needed to travel every day, so if they were to travel at night, it might endanger them (4).
Monks Are Not Allowed to Handle Money Directly:
According to Vinaya rules, a monk cannot touch or handle the money directly. Therefore, most of the monks need to have an attendant-of-sort called Kappiya who will oversee and manage the money for the monks on their behalf. It may seem inconvenient to do such a thing, especially in modern times.
However, this rule was made to protect and remind the monk to be mindful of dangerous actions as that can lead his monkhood, also known as Bhikkhu life, to be compromised (5).
However, nowadays, this rule applies on a case-by-case basis as things have advanced and monks need to adapt to the modern world.
These rules may sound complicated and complex to follow for non-Buddhists, especially Westerners, but in Buddhism, these are more like guidelines to live a moral and ethical life.
It cannot be said that all Buddhists follow these rules at all times, although some actually do so. But most Buddhists are very mindful of these forbidden acts.
Therefore, by knowing these forbidden acts, you can avoid any unnecessary misunderstanding with the local people. It is always good to be respectful of any religion, especially when you are in their country.
1. Wimolsiri Jamnarnwej. Family Law Of Thailand. Thai Law Forum. [Online] 2021. http://thailawforum.com/articles/familywimol2.html/.
2. Wikigender. Restricted Area For Women In Thailand (Why?). wikigender. [Online] https://www.wikigender.org/wiki/restricted-area-for-women-in-thailand-why/.
3. Buddhism Zone. Why Do Buddhist Monks Shave Their Heads. Buddhism Zone. [Online] https://buddhismzone.org/why-do-buddhist-monks-shave-their-heads/.
4. The Student Room. Why Do Buddhists Not Eat After Noon? The Student Room. [Online] 2016. https://www.thestudentroom.co.uk/showthread.php?t=3884445/.
5. Ariyesako, Bhikkhu. The Bhikkhus’ Rules: A Guide for Laypeople, The Theravadin Buddhist Monk’s Rules Compiled and Explained. s.l. : Sanghaaloka Forest Hermitage, 1999.6.
6. Central Intelligence Agency (USA). World Factbook: Thailand. Central Intelligence Agency. [Online] 2017. https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/th.html/.