Thai Buddhism and Gender Roles
Thai lifestyle and Buddhism have been integrated throughout Thailand’s history. Today, the majority of Thai people are Theravada Buddhists that comprise nearly 95 percent of the population. Theravada Buddhism has been the dominant religion in Thailand for centuries; this religion is closely associated with traditional values and cultural activities and profoundly influences everyday life. For instance, in the morning we see people offering food to monks and students in Thai schools doing chanting before classes. People go to the temple occasionally during birthdays, Buddhist religious holidays, and in order to meditate. However, the tradition is changing gradually and, currently, some people have alienated from Buddhism. Therefore, this paper focuses on why some Thai people have been gradually moving from Buddhism and rich traditional Thai culture.
Historically, most people in Thailand used to receive education from the monks and learnt about Buddha’s teachings since childhood. Monks encountered with Western Civilization when a modern Western system of public education was established in Thailand. During that period Thai people welcomed westerners and accepted new knowledge and technology from the West. Most children went to public schools instead of going to the temple to get educated by monks. Nowadays, very few people receive education from monks. Those people who receive education in a western way gradually isolate themselves from the traditional Thai society.
Additionally, Thai people developed relationships with the Western countries and wanted their country to become developed as well; thus, some people began to send their children to study in other countries. They hoped their children would come back to help Thailand develop. As a result, those young people became more modernized than those who received education and worked in Thailand. They began to live their lives like westerners, adopted western culture and traditions. However, it is worth noting that some of them retained their culture and considered themselves Buddhists.
How Buddhism culture was influenced by Western culture
Thai people were strongly influenced by western fashion; today we see that people wear clothes and accessories that symbolize western styles. More so, most people, especially the new generation, are not wearing the proper clothes when going to the temple. We see that some teenagers even wear shorts in the temple. Therefore, it is evident that most temples are not strict enough and it seems like Thai people are no longer concerned with what people wear to temples anymore. People should know that it is not acceptable to wear shorts in the temple. When we see a person dressed improperly in the temple, we may think that it is acceptable for us to dress like that as well. As a result, people copy the style and it becomes unofficially acceptable. In Myanmar, all people wear traditional clothes in the temple. They are very conservative. Burmese people seem to take it seriously too; they do not allow those who wear shorts or tank tops to enter the temple. Temples in Thailand should be strict on that subject as well. “Gradually, Thai Buddhism finds itself more and more restricted in its role as a social and religious force” (Plamintr, 1994).
As Thailand welcomed westernization, Monks lost intellectual leadership. Most of them seem to struggle not to participate in daily life activities. Nowadays we see that most of them “focus their attention only on monastic affairs inside the temple and place emphasis on the construction of monastic buildings. They have usually seen blessing religious ceremonies through chants or ceremonial preaching and inducing the adherents to make donations for a monastic building’ (Plamintr, 1994). On the other hand, people themselves donated a lot of money to famous temples because they want to put their names on the temple records to show off their wealth. Other people then want to compete with those by offering to donate more money to temples. It is like a competition in the communities to show who has more money. Nowadays, some monks have their own pretty cars such as BMW, Benz and some even have personal drivers. Having said that, temples should be institutions for people to worship and for monks to learn the Buddha’s teachings and helping those struggling to understand the teachings.
Unlike many cities, monks still hold social leadership in rural areas. They maintain and fulfill people’s social needs. “In rural Thailand monks still fill their traditional roles of helping the villagers in their spiritual and temporal concerns” (Plamintr, 1994). People from the cities should visit rural Thailand and see how conservative people remain there and learn from them. Most people wear traditional clothes to the temple. People still offer food to monks at their houses daily and attend the temples on Buddhist holidays or in order to participate in meditation.
Overall, the majority of Thai people seem to alienate themselves from Buddhism and traditional Thailand culture. The matter is that people are rather busy with their lives nowadays. They do not have time to attend the temple or offer food to monks every day. Modernization is largely positive and has resulted in the country’s prosperity by enabling it to develop faster than many neighboring countries. But the problem is that Buddhists monks do not fulfill the people’s social needs and their traditional roles in helping the people. In future, Buddhism might decline if people stop following the Buddhist teachings correctly and appropriately. Like Buddha said, “the progress and decline of the religion lie in the hands of Buddhists” (Plamintr, 1994). Monks should also show people the importance of religion and stop prioritizing on material things.
Gender Roles in my Family
Many people think that gender roles are exactly the same as they were in the 1950s. Families usually consist of the father, mother and their children. The father is the breadwinner and mother is the homemaker. However, it is worth noting that nowadays gender roles have changed and the 1950s perceptions are no longer true. For instance, my extended family consists of:
- Both parents with children.
- One single parent with children.
- Grandparent with grandchildren
- Stepparent, mother with one child.
Since the day I was born, I have lived with both of my parents. My father was the breadwinner of the family, and my mother always made decisions. My mother told me that father used to cook every day because she did not know how to cook and he also took me to school every morning. My mother, on the other hand, was the stay-at-home mom. She took care of me and my elder brother and did some little home chores. When I was four, my father died in the car accident and my mother then became a widow. Later on, my mother moved to Koh Samui to take part in my aunt’s hotel business, and my brother and I moved in with our grandparents.
My mother became the breadwinner and worked to support my elder brother and me. She used to come home to visit us three or four times a year, which was obviously not what I expected. In my grandparents’ place, my grandfather was the breadwinner and my grandmother was the caregiver and homemaker. My grandparents were very conservative in comparison with my parents. Grandfather made all decisions in the family, and we had to fulfill his orders. My grandmother, on the other hand, took care of us and did most of housework including cooking, laundry, and taking care of the garden. Grandfather took us to school every morning and grandmother was the one to make sure that we were fed. We did not take part in activities together that much. During most weekends, we went to the temple to make merit and offer food and alms to monks.
When I was ten, my mother decided to move and study in the United States. She was also working on a part-time basis and sent us money. When I was 13, I moved to the United States to live with my mother. My brother did not want to come to the United States. In the US, I did most of the housework except cooking. My mother had already learned how to cook. I became an independent person and used to walk to the bus stop alone. My mother and I lived together for several years and then she got married. I was so happy to see my mother married again. We moved to my stepfather right after they got married.
Living with my stepfather was not as difficult as I thought. I got along with him very well. My stepfather and mother worked almost every day and I went to school as usual. So now both of my parents were the family breadwinners and both of them worked at home equally. My stepfather always cooked in the morning while my mother cooked lunch and dinner. I used to help with the housework after school. Stepfather always drove me to school and made sure that I had enough money for lunch. My stepfather also picked me from school in the evening; sometimes he could wait for me until 9 p.m. when there were special activities at school. He was very supportive to me and allowed me to participate in various school activities. My mother, on the other hand, was always busy with school and work. She did not have enough time for me; nevertheless, I always understood her situation. Sometimes we went shopping during the weekends. Mother became a nurse later and began working at the hospital. It was rather challenging to have my parents busy all the times because we barely saw each other. Once in a while we would sit down and have dinner together because my stepfather worked in the morning shift and mother worked during the evening shift. But, luckily, I used to see both my parents every day.
When I graduated from high school, I started looking for a job right away because I wanted to support myself and my further education. I did not want to spend my parents’ money. I paid for the community college education in California and graduated from the college two years later; then I transferred to the University of Thailand because of medical reasons. Medical treatment is rather expensive in the USA. So far, I have been living in Thailand for two years already. I love it here and I have my relatives visiting me frequently. In the USA I barely saw anyone visit my parents and me. I live alone now in Thailand; thus, I take care of myself and do not depend on my parents anymore.
Generally, gender roles in my family are rather unique. My mother is my role model. She shows me that I can do anything I want and I always think that I am very independent because of her. However, I am very grateful to everyone for taking care of me. I am really grateful to have a family like that.