chapter  1
16 Pages

Theravada Buddhist Southeast Asia

Introduction to the region Southeast Asia is home to four neighboring countries, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, and Myanmar/Burma, where the majority of the population are followers of Theravada Buddhism. This unique region of the world has long fascinated and perplexed foreign visitors. Situated between two of the world’s most historically influential and populous civilizations, China and India, as well as more recently being influenced by Western and Japanese colonizers and businesses, it is not surprising complex cultures with contradictory features have emerged in these four countries. Often a visitor’s first impression of the region is of the gentleness of the people, yet violence is not unknown and one of the modern world’s most brutal regimes, the Khmer Rouge, sprang to life out of the environments found in these lands. Theravada Buddhism emphasizes the spiritual and the forsaking of material possessions and yet crass materialism can easily be found. Both prostitution and celibate monks are fairly common in the region. Modern cities like Bangkok, with cosmopolitan populations, and remote villages, such as those found along the Thai-Burmese border where life has changed little in hundreds of years, can be experienced within a few hours’ drive. Freewheeling capitalism in Thailand neighbors economies closely controlled by socialist governments in Myanmar/Burma and Laos. The populations of the Theravada Buddhist countries of Southeast Asia are filled with contradictions, complexities, and fascinating personalities. While the people and cultures in the region have proven resilient to attempts by foreigners at stereotyping, there do appear to be some cultural ties that bind the people and cultures of the region together, as well as historical incidents that have resulted in the four nations evolving in some aspects into separate and distinct cultures. Choosing a grouping of cultures or countries to draw a boundary around in order to limit a study is always a problematic and arbitrary decision. Each human has much in common with every other human on the planet; after all, we are all part of the human race. Equally true is the fact that each human is a unique individual, possessing a combination of attributes that makes him or her one of a kind. However, mankind has developed an insatiable capacity for classifying

groups of humans between these two extremes. Common classifications used to study groupings of people include religious affiliation, race, nationality, income, gender, occupation, sexual preference, and countless others. It is acknowledged that grouping the people of the countries of Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, and Myanmar/Burma together has severe limitations. Although the majority in each of these nations adheres to the Theravada Buddhist religion, there are also sizable populations of Christians, Muslims, and other non-Buddhists in each country. Also, each nation has its own unique political system and history. Nevertheless, the majority of the populations of these four countries share a common religion and historical interactions within the region have allowed a connection to develop among the people of the region, which makes this region of the world different from the East Asian lands to the East, South Asia to the West, and the predominately Muslim nations to the South. Tully (2005: 6) believed the boundary between Chinese-influenced East Asia and Indian-influenced Southeast Asia was one of the most distinct divisions found within Asia. Stuart-Fox (2003: 25) argued that the decision by the rulers of ancient China to refrain from sea travel opened the opportunity for inland Southeast Asia to become more heavily influenced by Indian civilizations, yet influence from trade and immigration from China has always been a major factor in shaping the cultures of the region. Being influenced in nearly equal portions by East Asian culture based on the technology of wet rice agriculture, Indian religions, modern globalization, and ancient indigenous beliefs and practices, makes the region a complex and exciting study. As suggested by Kamrava (1999: 19), “Each national culture has two poles around which values cluster, one traditional and the other non-traditional.” Therefore as the history of each of the four countries in the region is intertwined with the other three, it is not surprising that each of the countries of the region shares part of its traditional national culture with the others; while also having obtained more modern features of each of their cultures which have been shaped by global and local political influences. This book will explore the cultural connections and common business and work practices found within these four nations, while always keeping in mind the individual differences between nations, organizations, and people found in the region. This book is intended for individuals in business, government employees, NGO workers, volunteers, educators, tourists, and others with an interest in exploring beneath the surface of one of the most charming, complex, and fascinating regions of the world.