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Prostration in Thailand: A Buddhist History & Tradition

Every few years in Thailand, the subject of prostration comes up. Sometimes it’s brought up by Thai university students at a major Bangkok university like Chulalongkorn. Other times its criticisms made by foreign journalists or academics who, despite having lived in Thailand, have a poor understanding of the Thai language and Thai Buddhism — both of which are critical to unraveling daily life in the Kingdom.

Critics of prostration in Thailand often point toward King Chulalongkorn’s abolition of prostration in 1873, in particular prostrating before the Royal Family. His Majesty believed that the old Siam tradition was causing “very strong oppression” (การกดขี่แก่กันแรงนัก) among the citizenry.

Some Thai academics claim that King Chulalongkorn’s abolition of prostration in Siam (Thailand) was due to pressure from visiting Western dignitaries who saw the practice as backwards and uncivilized. However, anyone who has studied King Rama V knows that the abolition wasn’t due to foreign pressure but was heartfelt, as he even got angry with his own daughter when she didn’t follow the order.

King Chulalongkorn was undoubtedly correct in viewing prostration as oppressive in Siam — for it was a ubiquitous practice in daily life, perpetuating a caste like system where the poor were subservient to the rich.

However, His Majesty also understood the important role Buddhism played in shaping the culture of Thailand. He thus never extended his criticisms of prostration to the practice of prostrating oneself before a revered monk or image of the Buddha, nor to simply crouching down when paying respect to a family member or teacher on a special occasion.

Therefore, the abuses related to prostration declined under King Chulalongkorn but the practice itself never went completely away. His Majesty (and following Kings) knew that prostration was a valuable Buddhist practice. He also often spoke about how cultural changes had to occur very gradually and not all at once. And that being a virtuous role model was often better than trying to change Thai culture via strict laws or rules.

For example, King Bhumibol the Great (The Virtuous Thai King), was known to crouch down when talking with Thai citizens of all classes, rich or poor, villager or city resident, and to kneel before revered Thai monks. This sacred act demonstrated that he was a devout Buddhist who sought to acknowledge and listen to all citizens on their level, not from the elevated position of King.

Prostration as it is practiced today in Thailand (largely limited to special occasions) is arguably a tradition worth preserving, one whose positive aspects outweigh the potential negatives. So, let’s now discuss these positive aspects, since they don’t get talked about enough.


King Bhumibol Kneeling
King Bhumibol the Great kneeling before a Sakon Nakhon villager, demonstrating his humility. His son, HM King Maha Vajiralongkorn, is crouched down on the right.

Prostration in Thai Buddhism

When King Chulalongkorn abolished prostration in Thailand, he used the Thai term “màwp klaan (หมอบคลาน), which refers to a crawling like prostration that suggests subservience. It’s important to note that he used this phrase, instead of the term “ní-yom gràap” (นิยมกราบ), which means prostration done in heartfelt admiration and appreciation.

In Thai Buddhism, prostration is referred to as “bayn-jaang-ká-bprà-dìt” (เบญจางคประดิษฐ์), a term derived from the ancient Pali language. The practice is rooted in its spiritual, moral, and communal significance within Theravada Buddhism in Thailand — one which might be compared to the significance that “washing the feet of others” has in Christianity.

For the Thai Buddhist, prostration is an act of devotion that embodies the principles of humility, reverence, and mindfulness. When prostrating before a Buddhist monk or other revered Thai figure the faithful are lowering themselves symbolically in front of “The Triple Gem”: the Buddha, the Dharma (Buddha’s teachings), and the Sangha (the monastic community).

Their prostration is an acknowledgment of their own ego and pride, which in turn fosters a sense of humility. This act of humility is essential to Buddhist beliefs, as it helps to counteract the sins of arrogance and self-importance, which are considered obstacles to enlightenment.

Prostration also reinforces the Thai person’s commitment to the Buddhist Eight-Fold Path and serves as a reminder of the noble qualities and teachings they aspire to embody — strengthening their faith and devotion, which are vital components of spiritual practice in Buddhism.

The tradition of prostration in Thailand also serves an important communal function. It is a shared ritual that brings the Buddhist community together, encouraging a sense of unity and collective identity. When performed in a group setting, such as in a Thai temple during ceremonies, it enhances the communal experience and reinforces social bonds among practitioners. This collective participation in a revered tradition helps to maintain the integrity and continuity of the Buddhist community in Thailand.

Additionally, prostration is a form of meditation in itself. The physical act, combined with the mental focus on respect and humility, can lead to a state of mindfulness and inner peace. This meditative aspect supports the practitioner’s overall spiritual development, aligning with the core Buddhist practice of cultivating mindfulness and concentration.


Religious Prostration Traditions
Prostration is also an important practice among Thai people of the Islamic faith (whose largest population is in the South of Thailand).

How is Buddhist Prostration Performed?

I mentioned earlier that the Buddhist practice of prostration is referred to as “bayn-jaang-ká-bprà-dìt” (เบญจางคประดิษฐ์) in the Thai language. This translates roughly to “five-point prostration,” indicating the five points of the body that touch the ground: both hands, both knees, and the forehead.

1. Starting Position: The Buddhist begins by standing and then kneeling down.

2. Hand Placement: Both hands are placed together in a prayer-like gesture (known as “wai” in Thai) in front of the chest.

3. Lowering the Body: The individual then bows forward, touching their forehead to the ground while still maintaining the prayer gesture.

4. Final Position: The five points of contact with the ground are both hands, both knees, and the forehead, symbolizing complete submission and humility.


Prostrating Thai Students
Thai students in Sakon Nakhon prostrating in gratitude before their teachers on “Wai Khru” Day.

Prostration Outside of Thai Temples

Critics of prostration in Thailand (be they Thais or foreigners) usually don’t aim their arrows at prostration practices in religious settings. They more often target acts of prostration that occur at secular events such as school and university ceremonies, like those held on “Wai Khru Day” — a day for honoring teachers.

It’s important to note that there are no truly secular events in Thailand. Buddhism is deeply entwined into not only the culture but the language of the Kingdom (as I’ve recently discussed in posts on “karma” and “dharma” in the Thai language).

Gratitude is an essential part of both Thai culture and Buddhism. Prostration is an act of gratitude that has deep emotional resonance for both the giver and receiver. If any teachers, government officials, or elder family members are not truly deserving of being prostrated before in gratitude, Buddhism encourages that we view ourselves not as prostrating before the individual but to the (not yet recognized) divinity and noble qualities within that person.

In many spiritual traditions, including Buddhism, it is believed that every individual possesses an innate potential for enlightenment and the divine qualities of wisdom, compassion, and purity. When Thai Buddhists prostrate, they are honoring these universal virtues, even if the person themselves has behaved poorly and does not deserve their gratitude.

By looking at prostration in Thailand from this perspective (which admittedly is not taught enough by Thai teachers and religious leaders), we can see several key benefits that it delivers to Thai society and culture:

1. Universal Respect: Prostrating to the divinity within promotes a sense of universal respect and reverence. It acknowledges that every being has the potential for enlightenment and goodness, fostering an environment of mutual respect and admiration. This can transcend personal egos and Thailand’s social hierarchies, creating a more egalitarian and compassionate Thai society.

2. Spiritual Aspiration: Prostration serves as a reminder of the spiritual qualities one seeks to cultivate. By bowing to the divine essence within another, Thai Buddhists reinforce their commitment to embodying these virtues themselves. It becomes a physical manifestation of their inner spiritual journey and aspirations.

3. Humility and Ego Reduction: The act of prostration is a powerful tool for reducing the ego and cultivating humility. By recognizing the divine within others, individuals are reminded of their interconnectedness and the shared spiritual path. This humility is essential in many spiritual traditions, helping to overcome pride and self-centeredness, which are barriers to spiritual growth.

4. Strengthening Community Bonds: Viewing prostration as an act of honoring the divinity within helps strengthen Thailand’s community bonds. It creates a shared understanding and respect for the spiritual potential in everyone, fostering a supportive and nurturing community. This collective reverence can enhance social harmony and cooperation.

The keepers of Thailand’s culture traditions (who lament the decline of so many of them) would be wise to pay more attention to the spiritual aspects of prostration, because it is this elevated understanding that will ensure the tradition is preserved while being infused with deeper spiritual meaning.

The Negative Aspects of Prostration in Thailand

Having made the argument for prostration from a Buddhist perspective, which undoubtedly has had positive impact on social harmony in Thailand (especially when compared to many Western countries today), I’d be remiss not to acknowledge the potential negative aspects of prostration — even though the critics have already covered this subject ad nauseam.

The prostration tradition in Thailand is obviously susceptible to misuse and manipulation. It can be used (as it was in the past) to perpetuate rigid social hierarchies and reinforce power imbalances, especially concerning authority figures. The act can encourage subservience, conflicting with Thailand’s goal of greater equality, individual dignity, and speaking truth to power.

Younger generations in particular hold such views, often viewing prostration practices outdated or irrelevant. But older Thai generations are responsible for this cultural disconnect, because they have failed to explain the sacred act of prostration in the best, most compelling ways — resorting to simple calls for respect, gratitude, and becoming a “good citizen,” rather than emphasizing the spiritual development and societal harmony that the prostration tradition targets.

It also should be emphasized that prostration is no longer a daily practice in Thailand, as it was in old Siam. Therefore, it does not have the power to perpetuate rigid social hierarchies or reinforce power imbalances to any significant degree, as it once did.

Thanks to King Chulalongkorn and subsequent Thai kings, the tradition of prostration is now a sacred act attached to those special occasions when we honor elder family members, teachers, monks, ancestors, and leaders, while reminding ourselves of the divine fire within them and ourselves — the one that waits to be lighted when we accept our spiritual calling.

David Alan