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Buddhism in Thailand

Stories from the Field, 3 Jan 2023

Dr Satanun Boonyakiat (Dr Golf) teaches Systematic Theology at McGilvary College of Divinity at Payap University in Chiangmai, Thailand.

Buddhism is the religion of 93% of the population of Thailand, and understanding Buddhism in Thailand is essential to understanding the Thai people. Even though it is not the official religion, Thai culture is strongly influenced by Theravada Buddhism as well as the folk or animistic religion of the original people groups.

The fundamental worldview of a typical Thai makes it quite difficult for them to accept a Christian worldview:

  • Many Thais believe that to be Thai means to be Buddhist.

  • Christianity is regarded as a foreign religion, and is inferior to Buddhism which has a longer history.

  • A person should be loyal to his family and community, which means sharing the same religion.

  • There are many gods, not just one almighty God.

  • ‘Gods’ are regarded as ‘sacred things’, and people do not develop a personal relationship of intimacy with a ‘god’. The relationship is more transactional.

Image by srihari kapu, Unsplash

Dr Golf also spent some time explaining the Buddhist concept of kamma (also spelt karma), which Buddhists regard as a natural law of action and reaction. When a person does a good action, there will be a good effect, whether directly or in the future. This is good kamma. Conversely, when someone does a bad action, he will have bad kamma and will suffer for his act eventually. From the lens of kamma, Jesus’ suffering would be regarded as the result of bad deeds he has done in his past.

A Buddhist does not believe that it is possible for someone else to suffer the bad effect for another, and therefore does not accept the idea of a Saviour who suffers to pay for someone else’s wrongdoings; each person is responsible for his own destiny. In order to reach nirvana or extinction (the ultimate aim for a Buddhist), he must do much good and escape from the cycle of rebirth.

It is important to address these issues when sharing the gospel with Thai Buddhists. Points which address the worldview of Thai Buddhists include:

  • It is possible to practise the Christian faith without having to ‘leave’ their families and communities. This might involve identifying customs and practices which do not conflict with Christianity which Christians can still participate in, or contextualising some rituals and customs (by avoiding or adapting aspects that conflict with Christianity) so that they can still celebrate important festivals with their families.

  • There is a loving, merciful and personal God who wants to develop an individual relationship with every person.

  • Explaining the concept of salvation from sins in plain and simple language, free of Christian jargon.

  • Demonstrating a holistic gospel so they are able to see God working in all aspects of the lives of Christians, both now and eternally.

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