Sri Lankan Buddhist culture / Thai Buddhist culture. Differences?

Hello everyone,

Can someone indicate me some differences between the Sri Lankan Buddhist culture and the Thai Buddhist culture ?

I heard/ read these differences:

• Sri Lankan monasticism is more individualist, the Thai one is more focused on the group and around a strong leader/ teacher.
• SL culture is under the Indian influence sphere, the Thai under the Chinese one
• Monks are less honored in SL than in Thailand
• Pointing our feet towards a Buddha statue is not considered as disrespectful in SL while in Thailand it is.

Can you confirn that according to your knowledge ?


Most of those seem fair enough. I’m not sure that monks are less honored in SL, but perhaps in less obvious ways.

One more subtle difference is that Thais tend to prefer to do things together, as big groups. Like their chanting is all on the same notes, whereas Sri Lankans are more freestyle.

This applies to devotions as well. One thing which is really lovely in Sri Lankan Buddhism, in any sizable temple they’ll have the Bodhi tree, the stupa, and the Buddha image. And if you go to somewhere like Kelaniya, you’ll find people wandering quietly about in that space. They might sit for a while in contemplation, or do some chanting. Or they’ll approach and bow. But there’s an organic, peaceful, flowing energy to it. I haven’t really seen that in other places.


It is also considered disrespectful in Sri Lanka at least to some degree.

One thing you have missed which I believe is essential is that temporary ordination for males is obligatory in Thailand whereas in Sri Lanka disrobing is considered a serious social taboo and temporary ordination is unheard of.

As a result, the general population in Sri Lanka is less connected with the inner workings of the Sangha and may have less awareness of some of the minor rules or etiquette.

I would not say this is a good analysis. For example, in Thailand it is quite normal (I believe) for monks to move around and not feel an obligation to the temple where they train. In Sri Lanka, a monk will often live his whole monk life at the temple he ordains. It’s not a universal thing in Sri Lanka, though.

But in the past when child permanent ordinations were more the standard in Sri Lanka, the relation between senior and junior monk was more that of father and son. It’s much more common I believe in Sri Lanka for senior monks to feel a duty to care for junior monks. Whereas in Thailand the junior monks may attend on the senior monks as a servant might towards a master.

It is true, though, that devotional practices, as Bhante has said, are often much more personal than group oriented. Not just lay people visiting sacred places, but even monks doing their own devotional practices in their own temple.

That’s really hard to generalize. Monks are indeed hounoured in Sri Lanka. I’m not sure how that would be quantified.


I think Thais are more overt in how they express respect. There’s a formality which is expressed very gracefully.

Hmm, not sure about this. But the life in the monastery is usually more individualistic in Sri Lanka. Obviously it varies from place to place.

One kind of trivial cultural thing is that Thais tend to move to a lower position when a monk enters the room, whereas Sri Lankans will stand. I have been told this is due to the British influence.

And that’s another factor. Sri Lanka was colonized over centuries, both by Tamils from India and later from Europe. So the culture is much more mixed.

And Thailand has had a very strong influence from a king in the last few centuries.

I wonder if this comes from the royal influence.

My own personal experience has been that the Thai way of showing respect, while graceful, has always felt cooler and more obligatory. Whereas the Sinhala way is more informal and natural. But that’s totally just my impression.


One that hasn’t been mentioned is the offering of food. In Sri Lanka, it’s normal that people will line up and each offer a spoonful into the bowl, coming back later to offer more if needed.

You never see this approach in Thailand. If the food is offered to the Sangha as a whole, it may be offered on to a table, or passed down the line. Or else monks might sit in a small group with the food in the middle, though I think that’s more common in Myanmar.

Interesting, I see that now that you mention it!


I heard that in SL, vegetarian meals are quiet common, while in Thailand, meals are full of meat.

What would be the reason for that ?

I think that Sri Lankan food is more similar to Indian food in that there are many dishes that are vegetarian. However exclusively vegetarian meals are not common. But the end result is that one can eat more or less vegetarian without much trouble. Beef is less common as people see cows as dairy producers/pets more than a meat source. But fish and all seafood is very common, as is mixing dried fish into dishes as a flavouring. Chicken is very common. Lamb and goat is not uncommon. But usually there are meat dishes, vegetable dishes, bean/legume dishes, etc.

When I stayed at a Thai temple in the US, I found that almost every single dish offered was fish or meat exclusively. Plus sticky rice. My understanding is that Thais feel like meat is the “highest” kind of food so that’s what should be offered.


It’s worth knowing that it’s generally fine to let Thais know if you’re vegetarian, mang sa wee rat. Prominent monks like Ajahn Gunha are vegetarian, so they are familiar with the idea.


I think that’s mostly true for bhikkhus only. When I was in Sri Lanka, all the bhikkhuni monasteries I stayed at or visited were fully vegetarian out of compassion for the animals. Even during large celebrations, such as during vesak or kathina, there was never any meat, fish, or eggs.

When it comes to female monastics, there’s a huge difference between Sri Lanka and Thailand. Sri Lanka supports bhikkhuni ordination and has thousands of bhikkhunis, but even Dasasilmatas (women on 10 precepts) are respected and supported to a much higher degree than Mae Chee in Thailand. There’s still discrimination in both countries, but the situation is much easier in SL than in Thailand.


Wow, amazing, leading the way. :pray:

Indeed, thanks to all the bhikkhunis who have made it possible, starting with Sanghamitta!


Just as a piece of anicdata, I lived at a vegetarian monastery and we heard from Thai people that they didn’t offer dana there because they didn’t know what to cook.

I guess my point being that it’s possible to make generalities but there will be a lot of variation.

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Can I also extend this question but to the difference between their actual practice and approach to Buddhism? This depends on the specific school, too, but factors like meditation vs study / philosophy oriented? Specific meditation practices that are more common or even banned? Focusing on certain texts over others?

Sri Lankans are more text and theory oriented, Thais are more practical.

I don’t think there are any “formal” differences in doctrine per se, but of course there are a lot of different ideas and so on through the cultures, many of them quite idiosyncratic.

I think this is a very difficult generalization to make. (To be fair, all generalizations are problematic ¯\_(ツ)_/¯) What if you compared Sri Lankan forest monks to Thai city temple monks? I doubt if the comparison would hold.

It may be worthwhile to consider the variety within each culture when trying to compare them with each other. I think in general forest monastics from both countries will have more in common with each other than forest and temple monks within the same country.

In general, the Sri Lankan forest tradition is much less well known in the west (and maybe even within Sri Lanka). And the Thai forest tradition is going to be a lot more familiar to westerners than temple tradition is.

You would find that virtually every Sri Lankan forest monk has a vastly better understanding of the suttas than a Thai temple monk.

In some respects, yes, but it’s still normal in Sri Lanka that forest monks know the suttas; think of Vens Nyanavimala or Nyanadipa who had an incredible knowledge of suttas.

In fact, even in Thailand I don’t think the stereotype is as solid as all that. While not as much as in Sri Lanka, there’s a fair amount of forest monks who do have a good knowledge of suttas and theory in general. Basically that’s because they actually care about Dhamma.

In the cities, at least in Thailand, the amount of actual “scholar monks” is pretty small. Most temple monks do a few classes if at all, and many quite literally know nothing about Buddhism. They can chant the five precepts, but ask them about the four noble truths and you’ll get a blank. So yes, it’s true that in the Universities and some temples there are very learned monks, but it’s certainly far from all.

And of course, some of the “scholar monks” are also meditators, like my teacher, Ajahn Mahachatchai.


I think Thai Buddhist culture has shrines to the god Brahma, Maitreya (Budai), and to Guanyin. It also presents the practice of talismans and charms/magic.

In Thailand, the course in Pali is organized in 9 grades, and all the texts they have to study are … Commentaries !

You have:

• the Dhammapada commentary at the first 5 grades,
• the Mangalatthadipanī ( a 1524 A.D Thai commentary) at the 4th & 5th grade,
• then the Samanta-Pasadika ( Vinaya Commentary ) for the 6th & 7th,
• the Visuddhimagga at the 8th grade
• and finally the Abhidhammasangahā at the 9th grade

And for the Nak Tam ? Navakovāda and Vināya Mukha ( there might be another one also but not a Sutta book)

And for the Thai Forest tradition ? Pubbasikkhavannana, Vināya Mukha, Ajaan Canda’s Vinaya book & the very authoritative words of your Kruba Ajaans.

Even for the Suttas & Vinaya, when you get them translated, you have the collection going along with all their commentaries.
A quiet controversial Thai monk has created a collection of Suttas without the commentaries. He doesn’t list the Abhidhamma in his “Buddhavacana” but I think he includes the Apadanas …

What about the Sri Lankan official Pali grades ? Do they study the Suttas or only the the Sub-Commentaries ? …

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I don’t believe there is such a thing analogous to the Thai system. I think Pali education would be part of the general pirivena curriculum.

My understanding is that the commentaries and Abhidhamma are also the basis of the pirivena education system. This is why it was so radical when Ven. K. Gnanananda started publishing and teaching from the suttas.


The following comments are based on what I see of Australian diasporas from these countries:

  1. Some Thai festivals are not observed in Sri Lanka, such as Boun Khao Pradap Din and Boun Khao Salak. AFAIK these are not universally observed in Thailand. The concept of a “ancestor” festival in the inauspicious period in vassa is completely alien to SL Buddhists, despite the fact this “inauspicious festival” concept also came from India.

  2. There is no “New Year sand stupa” for Sri Lanka as per Thailand. The Sri Lankan religious year has different festivals to Thailand, marking arrival of arahants Mahinda and Sanghamitta. Many Sri Lankans are not aware of Magha Puja.

  3. Use of amulets is very common for Thailand but uncommon for Sri Lanka. I got given Luang Por Thuad pen and King Dutugamenu spear relic amulet on my second or third visit to Thai temple.

  4. In SL, offering cloth/pah graap is not used. In Thailand this can be used to create a barrier from female donor to monk.

  5. Sri Lankans often chant a verse about offering to the sangha beginning with Sariputta and Moggallana at time of dana offering. Many common chants have minor variants, some have extra or different verses or are just different. E.g. Chattamanavaka Gatha.

  6. Sri Lankan Buddhism uses a different range of texts such as Saddharmaratnavaliya and Pujavaliya. The Maha Pirit Pota is the best known chanting collection for Sri Lanka but not used directly for chanting in Thailand AFAIK. There are also different practices like bodhi puja which are popular in Sri Lanka but not Thailand.

  7. Sri Lankan bhikkhu education has been generally more open to Sanskrit; other languages. There is the concept of being “sadbasha parameshwara” or competent is six languages. You can do something called "pracina"or “oriental studies” which is a bit different to the Thai concept and might also include Tamil. You would see Sri Lankans listing “pracina pandit” rather than level 9 Pali.

  8. Sri Lankans will often make the candidate wear white again between novice and higher ordination (confusing to other countries).

  9. Sri Lankan kathina tree is more like an actual tree or branch with requisites. Thai style is often more like a banana trunk with the other “four requisites”.

  10. If you start getting into the very cultural stuff, there are really a lot of differences. But often “good Buddhists” will prefer not to talk about it. For example, Sri Lanka has the Kataragama Deviyo.

  11. Minor variations. In Thailand, Phra Sivali stands; in Sri Lanka he sits. In Sri Lanka, people might do the “solasamasthana” pilgrimage, in Thailand, they visit…somewhere else.

Thai monarchy is also a different feeling compared to SL government in temple spaces (e.g. portrait of king, royal kathina robe etc).

Thailand isn’t really “Chinese cultural sphere” it is its own thing. There is a big Chinese diaspora e.g. Teocheow, up to 14% of population. Many of them are assimilated Thai.

Thailand also underwent “modernisation”, which lead to some customs being changed. For example, Thai people wear black to funerals and eat with fork and spoon. Sri Lankan people wear white and eat with hands. A lot of these small differences give an overall impression of Sri Lanka being closer to India. But Indian influence is also present on Thai culture in different ways.