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.