The Effects of Buddhism on Southeast Asian Culture

A large black wicker Buddha at an outdoor pavilion in Myanmar, the only one of this type I’ve ever encountered. Photo: Henry Lewis

I don’t remember making a conscious decision to immerse myself in the study of Buddhism, but by 2005 when I arrived in Thailand to teach I already understood (at least on an intellectual level) many of its basic tenants. I’d read books by Tibet’s Dalai Lama, Vietnam’s Thich Nhat Hanh and a variety of other popular Asian Buddhist writers. I found their suggestions on how to achieve freedom from the human ‘monkey mind’ with the aim of eventually attaining a higher state of consciousness to be very appealing.

I’d also regularly attended a Buddhist sangha back in Seattle during the early 1990s where I’d developed a meditation practice and learned more about the rituals and practices which had been repackaged for Western consumption. What lay in front of me, however, was a series of lessons on the different interpretations and manifestations of Buddhism found from one country and culture in East Asia to another.

Thais making merit through symbolic offerings at Wat Po in Bangkok. Note, the cow sculpture which is more often seen in Hindu iconography. The syncretic nature of religion means that when a faith enters a new region, it usually blends with the folk belief system that was already in place before its arrival. Photo: Henry Lewis

Rituals in the Big Mango

The three years I spent teaching in Bangkok were filled with many unique experiences, but the one that absolutely astounded me–and made me the most uneasy–was the celebration of ‘teacher’s day’ at the small college where I was teaching.

The classroom had been carefully prepared, with great attention paid to each detail. The students had removed all the desks and placed five large (plush and luxuriously adorned) wing-back style chairs along one wall and there were large bouquets of fragrant flowers adorning various spots around the room.

When I was led into this redecorated space, I was quite astonished by the setup–not to mention the aesthetically pleasing transformation–that had taken place in what was once a drab classroom. As the only native-speaking teacher in the college’s small English department, I had only been told that it was ‘teacher’s day’ and the students had planned a special celebration for us.

Never being one to fly by the seat of my pants (at least not back in those days), I was both excited and more than a bit apprehensive about what was to come. I had been in Thailand for less than two months so I was still in my ‘I want to relax like all the locals, but it isn’t easy’ mode, especially in an unknown situation surrounded by colleagues I barely knew.

The head of the one of the world’s longest reclining Buddhas at Wat Po in Bangkok. Photo: Henry Lewis

Relax Teacher

Each teacher was shown to a specific chair and carefully seated as though we were royalty. As the department’s foreign English mascot, I was placed in the center chair right beside the Head of Department. First, we were all given delicious freshly-squeezed juice to drink.

As we settled into our thrones, I watched the reactions of the teachers on either side of me as the students disappeared into the hallway. They had expectations about what would be happening next, but for me this was completely new territory. I thought perhaps the students might reappear in traditional costumes and sing or tell Thai fables while practicing their English. I could never have guessed what would happen next.

After a few moments of silence, the students reappeared just outside the classroom door, but this time they were all on their knees and moving in a side to side shuffle as they reentered the room. In unison, they faced us and bowed, performing a full prostration touching their heads and hands on the floor. Being someone who was raised with a large dose of egalitarianism, this made me exceedingly uncomfortable.

I had seen locals doing prostrations while praying to images in Buddhist temples during my time living in China as well as while traveling in Japan and Southeast Asia, and that reverence I understood. But in this context, it seemed odd to say the least.

The students held bundles of white strings in their hands—the white representing purity and enlightenment. One at a time they approached each teacher, moving laboriously across the open floor on their knees. In turn, each student tied a white string around every teacher’s right wrist, after which they would do their knee walk in reverse, never turning their backs on us. Needless to say, all the knee-shuffling and string-tying took a quite a bit of time to complete, and I found myself feeling overwhelmed by this act of generosity and deep respect.

I noted how genuinely each of my Thai colleagues enjoyed this reverent ceremony, one of whom had been a Buddhist monk before he began his teaching career. Still, having students bow to me and crawl around on their knees in order to honor my presence made me feel incredibly uncomfortable.

A young monk sculpting a Buddha image at a temple in Luang Prabang, Laos. Photo: Henry Lewis

SE Asian Theravada Buddhism

The rituals performed within a culture are often indicative of the values most cherished in that culture. While the teacher’s day ceremony I experienced in Bangkok was surely just as rooted in the historical spread of Chinese Confucianism—where respect for one’s elders and those in positions of authority are highly valued attributes—as it was in Buddhism, it nevertheless was representative of the respect I witnessed during most of my personal encounters within the country.

Buddhist teachings are the basis for many daily routines and are seen as being inseparable from family life or government policy (in theory). These teachings instruct practitioners to ‘make merit’, which involves performing a variety of acts of charity as often as possible. By doing this on a regular basis, it’s believed that an individual will be blessed with a more prosperous rebirth in the next life.

Much of the activity I observed inside and in the gardens surrounding Buddhist temple complexes revolved around this making of merit. Merit can be made by doing charitable acts for the poor, supporting a Buddhist temple and by giving alms (usually food) to monks who line up early each morning with their empty bowls into which local residents will place rice or other simple foods.

Sculptures of Buddha and his monk students as they make the rounds to collect alms, seen here at a temple in northeastern Myanmar. Photo: Henry Lewis

Real monks collecting morning alms in Luang Prabang, Laos. Photo: Henry Lewis

The spread of Buddhism took a circuitous route from its original founding in northern India and then extended it’s reach across the remainder of East Asia. Chinese Mahayana Buddhism was almost wiped out during Communist China’s Cultural Revolution to the point that it’s difficult to discern the details of the earliest practices there. Similarly, Japanese Buddhism follows several differing schools of thought, but all were colored by the merging of Buddhism with the country’s ancient Shinto beliefs.Tibetan Buddhism blends imagery and practices from Hinduism in nearby Nepal and India with its hungry ghost and demon iconography.

According to those who have far more expertise on the subject than I, Southeast Asian Buddhism is closer in form to the original practices taught by the historical Buddha in northern India. The purist lineage is said to be found in the interior of the island nation of Sri Lanka where Buddhism first spread from India before almost disappearing in its country of origin.

Exterior of the Dambulla Buddhist cave complex located in the mountainous interior of the island nation of Sri Lanka. Photo: Henry Lewis

Detail inside one of the caves at the Dambulla complex where a huge variety of Buddhist sculptures and frescoes can be found. Photo: Henry Lewis

What all these different forms of Buddhism have in common are the rich and complex systems of iconography and the most basic Buddhist teachings that all things are temporary and interconnected and the guidance that one must perform acts of kindness in this lifetime in order to be reborn into a better life in the future.

For a brief comparison of how various world religions–including Buddhism–provide a stabilizing force and springboard to happiness and contentment for many, please follow this link to my post “The Pursuit of Happiness.”

Buddha statues are sometimes wrapped in beautiful fabrics such as this one at a temple in northeastern Myanmar. Photo: Henry Lewis

Final Thoughts

Of course, this isn’t to say that everyone in Thailand or any other Southeast Asian culture (in general) always acts with respectful good intentions. Wars and dictatorial governments have all placed their imprints on the cultures of this region. In addition, many Westerners think of the ‘sex industry’ as being synonymous with Southeast Asia, and especially Thailand, but this is only a small sector of the region’s vast tourism industry—and one that was largely created by US forces who came to Thailand for R&R during the years of the American War in Vietnam.

The biggest stain by far on Southeast Asian Buddhist culture has been the human genocide perpetrated by the Buddhist regime in Myanmar against the Muslim Rohingya communities in the west of that country. The horrors committed there are an example of extreme religious intolerance and further illustrate the fact that there are good and bad people in every culture and country on our diverse planet.

However, a gentle manner and respect for others is the expectation and traditionally, the norm to which one should aspire in all Southeast Asian cultures.

I always smile when I see one of these little monks which are often stationed just outside the entrance to temples in Thailand. The Thai idea of ‘sanook’ (fun) even applies to religious aspects of their culture. Photo: Henry Lewis



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  1. Thank you Henry🙏. Your keen observation and portrayal of the details are astounding!


  2. Wonderful and “enlightening” post.


  3. I first encountered the name of Kwan Yin the Buddhist mother goddess of mercy about 10 years ago.

    And have encountered various paintings and statues of Kwan Yin at significant moments in my life ever since.

    Almost 3 years ago now when I was at the epitome of my existence of being homeless during the homelessness period of my life, I was wandering through northwest Calgary cold and hungry on a night of a blizzard without any place to stay or go to when I happened to walk beside a Vietnamese Buddhist monastery in one neighbourhood and noticed a large statue outside.

    The statue was of Kwan Yin and I recognized her.

    I went up with my hand and I touched her hand.

    I immediately felt warmth for the first time that night.

    I ended up eventually spending the night sleeping on a park bench outside.

    But the next day I encountered somebody which led me to encounter somebody else that led me to staying in a community housing project as opposed to a homeless shelter where several of the clientele are drug addicts and/or hardened criminals.

    I attribute that to Kwan Yin’s mercy I encountered on a cold and snowy night.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Dracul, that’s a beautiful story. I too, believe that Kwan Yin (in Thailand, she’s called Kwan Im) is a special figure in Buddhist iconography. I mean how can she not be since she’s one of the few female images you’re likely to run across on the grounds of a Buddhist temple. I’m so glad you found your way to her at a time when you were most in need of her mercy and compassion. Thanks for sharing this!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Some beautiful, stunning photos Henry. You’re so lucky to have been there!
    I’ve experienced the gentle manner myself and felt its gentle effect. Very Buddhist.
    I’m doubtful, however, to what extent Buddhism and Buddhists, like other religions and their followers, can stand up to evils such as greed, intolerance etc. But then again, as you know, I have no faith in religions.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Marios,

      Yes, in today’s world rejecting the poisonous mantras of greed and intolerance are likely difficult even for those who are most dedicated to a specific spiritual practice. To some extent, it seems that in SE Asian Buddhism the monastic communities (monks and nuns) fill the void between the material world–the lay Buddhist community–and the sangha, represented by their vow of poverty and giving up of Earthly desires. By supporting their local temple and providing full support to the monastic community, my Thai friends felt they were somehow cleansing themselves of those worldly evils.

      Your comments are always appreciated!


  6. Thoroughly enjoyed this post! It’s great for me to read about and to see pictures of your observations over the years, especially since “I knew you when” you were first learning about Buddhism. When it comes to hearing about the things you’ve seen and learned I never get enough.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I felt your discomfort reading about ‘Teachers Day’. It’s awkward enough having to join in with ‘make merit’ ceremonies and also getting generally fawned over as a farang senior manager at work. I cannot imagine how mortified I’d feel if my staff were on their knees in front of me!

    I agree that Buddhism is entwined into daily life in Thailand. It doesn’t seem like a separate, religious activity – people seem to be able to build small rituals like giving a daily offering of red Fanta to a tree spirit at the same time as they open up their shop.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Thanks for your comments and enjoy your experiences in Thailand!


  9. In this article as well as throughout your blog, I love how you derive wisdom from places and people all over the world — truly inspiring and encouraging to find so much critical thinking, positive attitudes, and messages to make the world a better place for all. Thanks for sharing your experiences and your support. All the best!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Mathias,

      Thank you so much for your kind words. In my blog posts, I simply try to share the experiences I’ve had and explain how they’ve helped me to reexamine beliefs about my own culture as well as how I fit into the larger scheme of frenetic activity on our planet. It’s an ongoing personal education with many more questions than answers.

      As a teacher of students from many different world cultures, I also enjoy reading your posts and find them to be a good source of information for anyone who’s working in an international context. Thank you for your support as well!

      Liked by 1 person

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