Buddhism and Thai Society

I just read a transcription of a talk on “Buddhism and Thai Society” by Vichak Panich, Sirote Klampaiboon and Sulak Sivaraksa. The talks are really insightful and one learns a lot from it. Basically these three intellectuals agree that Thai Buddhism as it stands now is out of touch with the changing reality of Thai society, and it functions now mainly as a prop for the state power only. Furthermore, they also agree that Thai Buddhism is also being used as a prop for capitalism. Monks themselves are sucked into the whirlwind of capitalistic desire, either by the demand of the people who see no other ideology or belief except for capitalism and consumerism, or by the monks themselves who in this regard are no different from the people themselves.

There is a talk about how to return Thai Buddhism to the primal state of “pure Theravada” Buddhism that presumably existed during the time of the Buddha. I don’t think this is really possible, and I don’t think that there existed such a thing as “pure Theravada” version either. Obviously there was a kind of Buddhism that was practiced by the Buddha himself and his followers, but I don’t know if this was really “Theravada” as what is usually regarded as “Theravada” is more an adaptation by monks in later period than what existed during the Buddha’s lifetime. For example, state supported Buddhism first took shape in the reign of Emperor Asoka, some three hundred years after the Buddha’s death. Hence I doubt that we can actually return to the state when the Buddha and his followers roams the Indian countryside. The social situation just does not allow it any longer.

Or perhaps the call for the return to “pure Theravada” is a critique of the current situation, where the destination is put forward as an ideal state into which the current situation should be changed. The one who called for the return envisioned that “pure Theravada” meant that the monks are free from state organization, where they really follow and practice the Buddha’s teaching in order to attain cessation of all sufferings. But that is not exactly speaking “Theravada” because what is known as “Theravada,” at least in the Thai context, is always tied up inextricably with state power and state ideology.

There was also talk about how Buddhism and politics could be related. This has always been a problem for Buddhism, because when the Buddha started teaching, he was not affiliated with any state mechanism. In fact he explicitly turned away from such trappings when he escaped the confine of his own palace to seek Liberation. It is when Buddhism became “state religion” that the issue of Buddhism and politics became an issue. In Christianity the issue was solved when Constantine proclaimed that Christians were free to practice their religion and he himself became a Christian, and when later emperor decreed it to be the official religion of the Roman Empire. Then church and state became one. This lasted for many centuries until the rise of liberalism and modernity, which led to the idea of separation between Church and State. In fact the relation between Christianity and the State is an interesting one because Jesus himself was crucified precisely because he was regarded as an insurgent, a rebel who rose up to challenge Rome’s power.

In the case of Buddhism, of course the Buddha was not arrested and sentenced to death. He simply led a mendicant’s life, challenging no authority at all. The Buddha and his followers lived around the margins of society, accepting alms from the people and invitations from them, kings included, to eat at their houses or palaces. But later on Buddhism was not accepted as “state religion” in the same way that Christianity was. Some Indian kings were Buddhists, and during their reigns they supported Buddhism materially, building temples and providing food to the monks. Buddhist monks did not seek to attain temporal power in the same way as the Christian pope did. The situation in Tibet where the Dalai Lama had temporal power came much later, in a very different circumstance that existed in Tibet.

What happened was that, instead of the monks themselves having political power as the catholic Church did during the Middle Ages, the monks were coopted by kings in Buddhist kingdoms as a prop of their state power. And the monks accepted this in return for state support and protection. This has been the norm in India, Sri Lanka, Burma, Thailand and in other Buddhist kingdoms (except Tibet where there were no kings, so monks had to assume political power).

But the situation changed with the coming of democracy, and more intensely with globalization. In Thailand, the institutions of Buddhism were made more subservient to the state and the king through the efforts of King Rama IV and his sons Rama V and Prince Vajirayana, who was a very influential abbot during the reign of Rama V. All these resulted in Buddhist institutions becoming more “organized” and bureaucratic, but on the other hand it made them much more resistant to change. Thus when the globalization, post-modern age comes, the monks did not know what to do. Hence all the problems the panel talked about.

I think Thai people are smart enough to figure out a solution by themselves. In fact this is what they are actually doing. They are beginning to listen less and less to the mainstream monks and starting to form their own “Sangha” with no support from the state and certainly none from the Sangha Establishment. This is very welcome. If anything it signifies the spirit of the Buddha when he broke away from his palace. Buddhism in Thailand is becoming more of the property of the people again, and not solely that of the royal court.


10 thoughts on “Buddhism and Thai Society

  1. Charles Frith January 3, 2011 / 9:25 am

    A useful and solid post.

    I wilt over Buddhist piety when the death penalty isn’t discussed in the Kingdom. Basic tenet contravened by the state. Is it Mickey mouse Buddhism till that issue escalates into mindful consciousness?

  2. soraj January 3, 2011 / 3:50 pm

    In fact the Thai Parliament just debated on death penalty a few days ago. The problem is that the majority of Thais do believe in it even though they are Buddhists. It’s quite ironic I know. This thing needs time and patience.

  3. Charles Frith January 3, 2011 / 4:49 pm

    It’s a golden opportunity to evaluate what Buddhism means in Thailand. I hope they grab the chance.

  4. Thomas Richmond February 25, 2011 / 9:43 am

    Do you think a secular Thailand – with formal separation of Buddhist establishment from the state – is possible in the near future, if at all?

    I find it disturbing that most of Thais I know are not even aware of the concept of secularism, let alone know what the word even means, and (as far as I know) it’s usually assumed that acts like compulsory prayer and Buddhist studies in public school and state-sponsored religious ceremonies are fine with modern state.

  5. soraj February 25, 2011 / 2:44 pm

    According to the letter of the Thai constitution, Thailand is already a secular state. People have freedom of religion and only the King is required to be a Buddhist. However, this does not have to mean that religion and state have to be as strictly separated as in the US. Students in public schools are still required to do their daily prayers, but if they are not Buddhists then they are not required to do the Buddhist prayers. There are many Christian and Islamic schools where students do the prayers in their respective religions.
    It is true that many state ceremonies have Buddhist elements, but this goes along with the overall tradition and culture of the people. It is not that Buddhist monks have any formal influence at all in state matters.

  6. Thomas Richmond March 6, 2011 / 4:35 pm

    Sorry for delayed response. Anyway, here are my thoughts:

    “People have freedom of religion and only the King is required to be a Buddhist”

    I beg your pardon, but that is nothing remotely close to secularism – rather, it’s merely ‘tolerance’, ie. the freedom of citizens to practice any or no religion. As you must have been aware of, there have been many religiously tolerant regimes before which are not necessarily secular.

    “There are many Christian and Islamic schools where students do the prayers in their respective religions.”

    Now, my point is that those Christian and Islamic schools are private schools (not run by the state), so they can enforce religious prayer in their schools and still don’t violate the principles of secularism in any bit. State agencies in secular country, after all, cannot endorse any religion over others regardless of majority of population. However, all state-run, public schools in Thailand sponsor Buddhist prayers and Buddhist classes – a clear sign of state adopting religion in its educational institutions.

    “It is not that Buddhist monks have any formal influence at all in state matters”

    Let me raise a much hotly debated example of Buddhist influence in state matters: laws banning selling of alcohol on Buddhist holidays, citing Buddhist morality. This is clear example of state devoted to enforce elements of Buddhism through legislation – equivalent to Islamic states enforcing Islamic practices (banning selling of alcohol or using women’s veil) through laws.

    Furthermore, going back to my point about secular states not allowed to sponsor any religion or religious practice, Thai governments themselves occasionally hosted religious events such as “National Merit Day” (ทำบุญประเทศ). True, recently the National Merit Day includes 4 or 5 religions, but it can still be seen as endorsing those 5 religions over 200 others.

    So all in all, I think Thai society is far, far from a secular one – surely, it seems like an irrelevant issue (since majority of Thais, as you said, are Buddhist anyway) but we must not forget that chronic problems in the South are caused by this very fact.

  7. soraj March 6, 2011 / 9:10 pm

    Those who campaigned for banning alcohol on Buddhist holidays are not monks, but lay people who are searching for reasons to ban alcohol any which way they can. Traditional Thai culture is that people drink a lot of alcohol on all special occasions, including Buddhist holidays. It is when those secular, lay people who want to see Thailand an alcohol free country cite the precepts against alcohol consumption (a very minor one in the Buddha’s teaching) that this seems to be mixing religions and laws. Thus your comparison between Buddhism and Islam on this point is misleading. Islam has very specific injunction against alcohol; Buddhism does not. There are many stories of “drunken” arahants (especially in Chinese Buddhism). And even in Theravada, drinking alcohol by monks is only a minor offense.

  8. Thomas Richmond March 9, 2011 / 12:55 am

    I think it is irrelevant whether theological core of Buddhism allows consumption of alcohol or not. What is relevant is how these politicians and the supporters of anti-alcohol laws reasoned the need for such laws: they think they’re acting on principles of Buddhism – regardless of how wrong that perception might be. (For an example of such rhetoric see here: Daily News calling it “ถือเป็นการเริ่มต้นที่ดีของรัฐในความพยายามจะยับยั้งธุรกิจการค้าขายเครื่อง ดื่มแอลกอฮอล์ ซึ่งเป็นผลิตภัณฑ์เพื่อการบริโภคที่ขัดต่อหลักศีลธรรมในพุทธศาสนา” @ http://www.luangpee.net/forum/?topic=6631.0).

    And while we were discussing this matter, Thai government had made one more move that affirms the religious, non-secular nature of Thailand: http://www.thairath.co.th/content/edu/154395. My particular interest is implementation of mandatory Buddhist prayers in all public schools and demands that the students should participate in religious ceremonies.

    One can only wonder how this would ever be possible in a secular country.

  9. soraj March 9, 2011 / 8:51 am

    I think the core teachings make all the difference. If you compare Buddhism and Islam on this matter, Buddhism does not consider alcohol consumption to be a major issue at all, so one constructs an argument against consumption according to Buddhism only on one’s own interpretation of it, interpretation which extends the core teaching quite thinly. Perhaps the people you quoted from Daily News would like to see clear injunctions based on religious principles as in Islam. In other words they seem to want to turn Buddhism into Islam. But that is not what the Buddha intended.

    And I have already said that there are no compulsory Buddhist prayers in Thai public schools; students who are not Buddhists are not required to attend them.

  10. soraj March 9, 2011 / 9:10 am

    I’ve just read the news piece in Thairath that you mentioned. My take is this: If you *force* somebody to pray for somebody else in order to create merit for him, the merit won’t be much because these things can’t be forced. So I don’t know what the government is up to here. Completely baffling

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