Buddhist Fundamentalism

Today I gave my first full lecture at the Erasmus Program at NTNU. The topic was a very timely one, Buddhist fundamentalism. There were around eight and nine students and they were really bright ones. They were attentive during my talk and asked a lot of probing questions. I enjoyed each minute of the lecture.

Buddhist fundamentalism seems to be a problem in Thailand at this moment. Well, not exactly *this* moment as it is being caught up by the hysteric wave of violence and protests and finger pointing. But two years ago when the constitution was drafted this was the issue. A group of people, including both lay people and monks petitioned the Parliament to put in a clause in the constitution stipulating that Buddhism is to be the national religion of the country. What they wanted was official recognition of Buddhism by the state and more importantly protection of the religion in the face of growing number of perceived threats coming from both outside and inside the country.

So what different would it make if Buddhism were mentioned in the constitution as the national religion? Many believed it wound not matter at all, but this group believed that by putting this clause in the constitution, they would have a legal framework with which they would push forth policies that serve to protect and defend Buddhism. One policy would have it that monks who violate the Vinaya rules be punished for criminal offense. Now talk about separation beteween church and state! Instead of following the trend everywhere the religion and the state should be separated, these people demand that state and the Buddhist church were officially identified.

As I said, their argument is that by doing so a constitutional framework would be in place for effective policies that would protect and defend Buddhism. But does Buddhism need a defense by the power of the state? These people are not talking as much as lone meditating monks than the established Buddhist enterprise that covers much of Thailand. They are talking of, for example, temples and educational system of monks and novices, and so forth.

But where does the state get its money from? So wouldn’t it be more direct for the people to support Buddhist directly? Thai people have been doing precisely this for centuries. So what is there for the state to do? Perhaps the performance of official ceremonies. But here monks become functionaire of the state — they perform the function of “performing the rituals” for the state. And here they can be paid. But then the normal people can do the same for their monks in their villages too.

So instead of the state officially supporting the establishment Buddhism, the task should be left to the Thai Buddhists themselves. This has been the relation between the monks and the lay people for as long as there’s Buddhism.

One thought on “Buddhist Fundamentalism

  1. wisdomjunkie October 17, 2008 / 4:55 pm

    Thanks.
    I practice Tibetan buddhism and one sect which practices the deity Dorje Shugden is also being accused of being ‘fundamentalist’. If you take fundamentalism to be about a fixation on the purity of the teachings than the kind of fundamentalism you talk about here and the kind of fundamentalism that is being discussed in relation to Tibetan Buddhism at the moment are very different. It was interesting hearing you talk of ‘fundamentalism’ in a political context. Interestingly, the group I know that is being accused of being ‘fundamentalist’ is trying to maintain a separation of politics and religion, and is therefore anti the Dalai Lama who is both a political and spiritual lead in Tibetan Buddhism.

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