Keeping the Faith


Thai religious traditions show more respect than in U.S.

Jesse Fonkert


I recently was fortunate enough to spend three and a half weeks in Thailand with Professor Reynold Nesiba, some of my closest friends and a great group of people including students from both Augustana College and the University of St. Thomas. On our trip, we studied the political economy of Thailand.

While there, I made a point to observe the religious practices of the Thai people with the goal of comparing their practices with my own Christian ones, as well as those of our country, and I was surprised with the results.

Thailand, a mainly Buddhist country with a Muslim minority, is located in the Southern portion of the kingdom, and everywhere I walked I found Buddhist shrines where people would be praying to the Buddha for guidance or leave little offerings to the Buddha such as flowers that held a certain significance in Buddhism. These shrines were very intricate and could be found on street corners, hotels, bazaars and an assortment of locations.

While riding the sky-tram in Bangkok and looking for familiar faces, (a habit that all of you from small towns know all too well) I noticed a little sign above the seat by the door that bore a representation of a Buddhist monk, which meant that this spot was reserved for a monk. This same type of respect for these holy men was evident in the Airport in Chiang Mai where a sitting room in the terminal was reserved solely for monks.

In Thailand, it is also part of the culture to bow to one another upon greeting. The person who ranks lowest in their society bows first, and the one who ranks highest bows last. Even the king of Thailand follows this tradition, but there is one exception: each person (including royalty) must bow to monks, but the monk is not expected to bow in return.

This respect for religious figures is different from what it is like in the United States where pastors and priests are the subjects of crude jokes, are ridiculed by the community, constantly questioned and disrespected.

It took some critical thinking (Thank you, Augustana) to figure out what could have caused such a difference in reverence between holy men, and one of the main factors could be the recent sexual scandals that have rocked the Christian church in North America.

In Thailand the monks are held to a higher standard than the rest of the community and they uphold this standard. It is time that the same is true in the United States.