When I first visited Thailand almost eight years ago, I thought I understood Buddhism fairly well. After all, I'd read a ton of books about Asian religions, had been a student of Zen and Vipassana Buddhism and a meditator for over 20 years, and I carried The Dhammapada (translated by Eknath Easwaran) and Karen Armstrong's biography of the Buddha in my backpack. But I was sorely mistaken. And now, after having lived in Bangkok for nearly five years, I feel I know less about the religion Thais practice than I did when I first arrived.
Thais can alternately use the liturgies and rituals to protect their bank accounts, settle their anxious minds, fulfill familial obligations, realize enlightenment, impress their neighbors, assuage their guilt, relax, or protect themselves from being hit by a bus.
Religious themes are often absent in murals painted on the inside of Buddhist monastic buildings! This would be like seeing murals of individual and disconnected episodes of Shakespeare's King Lear mixed with disconnected scenes from Beowulf or the Iliad inside a Catholic cathedral.