Let Thai Buddhism Be Reborn

Novices light candles as they join thousands of Thai Buddhist monks in chanting to celebrate Makha Bucha day at Dhammakaya Temple in Pathum Thani province, on the outskirts of Bangkok in February 2013. Photo: Rungroj Yongrit / EPA

Re•tention: Pravit RojanaphrukThere are two divergent paths for Thai Buddhism, veteran French journalist Arnaud Dubus predicts in his latest book:

“Thai Buddhism could continue to go down the slope of nationalism and politicization, being for instance made the national religion, which would be a springboard for the most conservative version of Buddhism to become dominant.”

In this scenario, Dubus argues in “Buddhism and Politics in Thailand,” Thai Buddhism would “run the risk of being hollowed out” or falling under the control of “an opportunistic and dynamic movement” such as Dhammakaya.

The other scenario, which Dubus concludes is less likely, is greater alienation between organized Buddhism and the Thai state. This, he argues, would lead the Thai Sangha to lose state support and become closer to the local communities “who would both materially support and control them.”

While it’s unclear which way Thai Buddhism is heading, it’s clear that monks and lay people in Thailand have, in general, failed in key areas over the years.

Think of how indifferent Thai society, as a self-proclaimed predominantly Buddhist land, has become on the issue of the persecution, if not genocide, of the Rohingya people in neighboring and predominantly Buddhist Myanmar.

Think of how irrelevant state-sanctioned Buddhism has become. Many Thais are Buddhists only in name, attached to the rituals, superstitions and a sense of Buddhist chauvinism.

Anything co-opted by the state tends to serve it and not the people, and mainstream Thai Buddhism has become one such example.

In this sense, the decay of mainstream state-sanctioned Thai Buddhism should not be a cause for worry but something to be celebrated, like the death of something that would pave way for the birth of something new.

Unlike in Europe, Buddhism in Thailand has never undergone proper reform. It has never been questioned and challenged to its very core. It has been taken for granted by a good number of Thais that it is the most rational if not scientific of all religions. This breeds dogmatism while what is needed is a sustained efforts to questions every tenets of the Dhamma in hope that Thai Buddhists can become more relevant, articulate and less dependent on rote memorization of the core of Buddhist teachings, rituals and practices.

Superstition, attachment to various supposedly magical amulets, monks obsessing about obtaining higher and higher title bestowed by the state, these are but some of the troubling aspects of Thai Buddhism.

Often cited Buddhist teachings such as “nothing is permanent but change” is often reproduced without question as to how true it is when if it’s true, then how could this very statement be permanent? If nothing is permanent, then this very specific Buddhist teaching is not permanent, which would mean perhaps permanence exists.

Also, many Thai Buddhists do not question why food offered to monks as alms should continue to include meat when one of the five Buddhist precepts is that of the cessation of killing. Some argue that the practice was accepted during the historical Buddha’s time in order to not place too much burden on villagers who offer food for monks. But that was two millennia ago and now it should be much easier to obtain and offer vegetarian food for monks.

For the benefit of Thai society, what Thai Buddhism needs is not more effective preaching but more effective questioning of the state of Buddhism in Thailand, fundamental Buddhist teachings and its relevance.

Thai society cannot become truly rational and critical as long as majority of the Thai Buddhists uncritically submit themselves to the orthodoxy of what they perceived as the most-scientific religion in the world.

Let Thai Buddhism reincarnate by deconstructing it. There is no point in propping up the state-sanctioned Buddhism that has become increasingly irrelevant to the needs of society over the past century since it was co-opted by the state. Buddhism in Thailand will become relevant again when Buddhists are ready to question its very core and discard its problematic elements.