The Buddhist brotherhood is composed of four assemblies of Buddhists, namely, monks, nuns, laymen and laywomen. Monks and nuns form the monastic section while laymen and laywomen form the lay section. The two sections follow the path of the Buddha at different levels. The monks are more devoted to spiritual development than the laymen. To minimize personal cares and worries, they shave their heads, wear only three robes and possess only a few necessary requisites. They depend on the laymen for material necessities such as food, clothing, lodging and medicine, and give them spiritual advice and guidance in return.
Although the rules are very strict, the monkhood is not separated from the lay world because the monasteries are always open to anyone who wants to retire there, either permanently or temporarily. In Thailand it is even a custom for every young man to stay for a time, long or short, in the monastery and acquire a religious training. The present King himself entered the monastery, had his head shaved and lived by alms like the other monks. This tradition is a factor which leads to the stability of Thai Buddhism and the continuing increase in monks and monasteries. Thailand’s area of 200,000 square miles is thus dotted with 28,196 Buddhist monasteries where 339,648 monks and novices live. Travellers from foreign countries have been so impressed by these large numbers of monks and monasteries that they often call Thailand the Land of the Yellow Robe.
Monks form the Sangha, the third principle of Buddhism; the others being the Buddha, the Enlightened One, and the Dharma, his teachings. The monks follow the three main virtues of the Buddha: wisdom, purity and compassion. Compassion is interpreted as social responsibility. Through this virtue and through mutual dependence for material and spiritual life, the monks and the laymen have been in close relationship since the beginning, and the monasteries have been centres of spiritual and social life of the people throughout the history of the Thai nation.
Today social roles of the monks are more obvious in the rural life of the villages than in the urban life of the capital, towns and cities. It is usually the villagers themselves who build the monastery for their own community. They feel themselves belonging to the monastery and the monastery belonging to their community. The village monastery serves as the centre of social life and activities of the village, for village social life follows the Buddhist holy days, temple fairs and merit-making ceremonies. The villagers also feel very close to monks in the local monastery as the monks are in daily contacts with them and are con-stantly drawn into their problems, both secular and spiritual.