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Some Thai Buddhist Literature Aside from the Canon

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We have already pointed out that the origin of the Thai script is credited to King Ramkamhaeng the Great of Sukhothai and dates from the latter part of the thirteenth century and the creation of his Inscription. The Thai definition of literature is quite broad, and this inscription, which reads like a nation’s constitution, is also viewed as a seminal piece of Buddhist literature.

The Thai imagination is very active in a work attributed to Phya Lithai (1345), The Three Worlds of King Ruang (Traiphum Phra Ruang). Based on Buddhist canonical texts, local legends, and dreams, this very detailed, full-blown cosmology serves as a road map to various heavens and hells and the perils of lives lived at all levels of existence. In this work, gaps in Buddhist texts are filled in with speculation about the creation of life, while the spirit of other texts provides a springboard into rich pools of fantastic description. One such description involves a fall from grace, which in this case involves the hoarding of rice.

The Uttararkuru people have a kind of rice called the rice that grows by itself...The rice is white and has a pleasing smell; since it has no chaff or bran, there is no need to pound or sift it...People are always suggesting to one another that they eat this rice...They never have fever, pain, numbness of the limbs, or tiredness. (Reynolds and Reynolds, 127-128)

In a gift-giving society, greed and hoarding are one of the greatest “sins.” According to the story, some people start collecting pots of this rice. And what follows? The rice stops growing on its own, people have to bend over and start the strenuous activity of planting and harvesting rice, enter disease and the necessity for a righteous, wheel-turning king (government) to keep peace among the people. So much for utopia and paradise.

One of the most enduring Thai literary works is the Ramakian, a uniquely Thai interpretation of the Indian epic, the Ramayana. While some people believe that the Thai version of the Rama legend predated the establishment of the Kingdom of Sukhothai, earliest archeological evidence was found in the ruins of the Kingdom of Ayudhaya, sacked by the Burmese in 1767. The destruction of Ayudhaya is considered one of the greatest losses of art and literature in Thai history. The longest version of the Ramakian was written by a group of poets in 1798 and was sponsored by the first king of the Chakri dynasty, Rama I. This work — a blend of Thai legends, state rites, and Buddhist elements — is yet another example of the Indianization or Sanskritization of Southeast Asia.

The Ramakian is written in verse form and is often performed in a masked dance called the khon. Thai dance is different from typical Western forms, such as ballet. In Thai dance, dancers tend to hold a posture and then quickly move to a new, taxing position. In both Thai classical music and dance there is much less “flow” and continuity. This has led some observers to wonder if these forms reflect deep-seated Buddhist notions of the non-substantiality of personality or so-called no-self (anatta). [See the aspect related to Basic Buddhist Principles.]


The Jataka Tales, or Birth Stories, have held a prominent place in the imagination of the Thai people. Traditionally, the most popular tale is the penultimate life before attaining Buddhahood, that being the life of Prince Vessantara, “The Generous Prince.” This Job-like tale focuses on the sacrifices and merit made by Prince Vessantara. It includes demonstrations of non-attachment and giving — even giving up family members — in the process of demonstrating his commitment to generosity. The merit-making message of this tale is evidence of the importance of gift giving in Thai culture. Many monks continue the tradition of chanting, day and night, an elaborate version of this Jataka tale in an annual event called the Thet Mahachat (The Sermon of the Great Life).

A further outgrowth of gift giving takes the form of an unusual genre of literature, the cremation volume. Souvenirs are often presented to attendees at the close of cremation rites. As early as the 1870s, with the advent of printing presses in Thailand, people began to distribute such books at funerals. These volumes usually include a brief biography of the deceased; in addition, the publication of cremation volumes is a way of distributing and preserving literary, cultural, and religious information that families find meaningful. In a status-conscious society, these volumes also help to “place” people in the Thai social order. A collection of cremation volumes at Wat Bovornives in Bangkok is cataloged according to an adaptation of the Dewey Decimal System that reflects the status, ranks, and structure of Thai society.

Buddhist teachings and stories have been preserved through the strength of oral traditions and attention given to (palm leaf) manuscripts. The name of the Buddhist canon, the Tipitaka or “Three Baskets,” presumably comes from an early filing system: putting the three parts of the canonrules (vinaya), teachings (sutta), and psychological details (abhidhamma) — into separate baskets. While ideally monks should be well versed in all three of these dimensions, Buddhist tradition and subsequent curricula for monks focused on certain parts of the canon over others, making the observer often wonder which basket carries the most weight. Thai Buddhist laity, however, are more likely to gain their knowledge of Buddhism from the influence of parents and teachers, listening to sermons, and reading collections of proverbs, modern commentaries, or interpretations, rather than the canonical texts themselves.

And, not to be overlooked, modern Thai fiction itself is often a blend of romantic love, heroism, the life of the Buddha, and references to Jataka Tales. While globalization refashions traditional belief, the Thai creative imagination continues to respond to modernity with its own distinctive synthesis of the past and present.

Some important sources

Bofman, Theodora Helene. The Poetics of the Ramakian. Monograph Series on Southeast Asia, Special Report No. 21. DeKalb: Center for Southeast Asian Studies, 1984.

Reynolds, Frank E. and Mani B., tr. Three Worlds According to King Ruang: A Thai Cosmology. Berkeley: Asian Humanities Press, 1982.

Rutin, Mattani Mojdara. Modern Thai Literature: The Process of Modernization and the Transformation of Values. Bangkok: Thammasat University Press, 1988.