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Buddhism for the Next Century:
Toward Renewing a Moral Thai Society

Phra Phaisan Visalo

At the Turn of Two Centuries

As the end of 19th century approached, Siam was faced with the powerful force of westernization, which brought great excitement and anxiety to the Thai elites. Equally dramatic was the change of Siamese society in response to this external pressure. One interesting aspect of that change was the transformation of Thai Buddhism in general and of the Thai Monastic Sangha [1] in particular. There was no change in the history of Thai Buddhism as powerful and intense as the one that occurred around the turn of the 20th century.

Two years before the end of the 19th century, the Thai Sangha, under the leadership of Prince Wachirayan, was at the forefront of introducing a modern education system throughout the country. Schools were built in many wats (monasteries). Wats all over Siam became centers for the dissemination of new ideas and information to the people. A new syllabus introduced rural youth to Western style mathematics and science. Standardized script and language replaced local languages. It should be noted that while such a syllabus was promoted enthusiastically by the Thai Sangha, it was doggedly resisted by its Burmese counterpart. [2]

Three years after the dawn of the 20th century, the Thai Sangha was thoroughly reorganized as never before. All monks in the kingdom were incorporated into the same structure under a centralized leadership in Bangkok. The centralized and bureaucratized administration system, then considered "modern" and "effective," was introduced to one of Siam's oldest institutions.

In the meantime, the Sangha's education system was overhauled. New curriculum, new teaching and learning methods, and new texts were developed. Buddhist teachings were reinterpreted, leading to a new "scientific" orthodoxy. One innovation that should be mentioned was the introduction of Siamese script to replace Khmer in writing religious texts.

It is apparent that Thai Buddhism and its Sangha at the turn of the century were highly dynamic and vibrant. It was an important agent of change not only in the area of Buddhism itself but also in other aspects of Siamese life. The role of the Sangha in the creation of a modern nation state, for example, is beyond dispute.

Such dynamism is in sharp contrast with the state of the Thai Sangha at the turn of the 20th century. Instead of being an agent of change, it has becomes a hindrance to it. The Sangha education system, especially the ecclesiastical one, is obsolete. Its hierarchy and governing structure, modeled after colonial administrations, are out-dated and squelch monks' creativity at every level. Under the present structure, any real reform can take place only at the "periphery," and stops there because of the strong resistance inherent in the hierarchy. Instead of leading, the Sangha is merely a follower, and not a very competent one at that. Innovation is possible only through individual monks, never by the Sangha as an institution.

Despite the stark differences, the conditions of the Sangha at the end of both centuries are closely connected. The obsolete systems of the current Sangha, such as, the educational and administrative, are in fact the legacy of the changes of one hundred years ago. Over time the reform led by Prince Wachirayan has become an obstacle to any real change, even when that change is vital and necessary.

Consequently, the Sangha fails as a moral force. The morality and behavior of monks are increasingly questioned, while virtuous monks struggle to strengthen the morality of society as a whole. Moral decline manifesting in widespread crime, corruption, drugs, and various social problems, throughout the country and in the wats themselves, indicates the failure of the Sangha as a moral force.

Worse than that, Thailand's moral decay reflects a more worrisome fact: Buddhism as it is generally practiced in this country has failed. It's not true that Thai society has become increasingly secularized as was anticipated by some theorists. The fact that meditation has become popular and widespread among the middle class, and the rapid expansion of some schools, Dhammakaya, for example, are signs of a Buddhist revival. Thai society is increasingly religious. The question is why morality in Thai society is increasingly debased. Apart from questioning the role of the Sangha, we need to investigate Buddhism as currently practiced, also.

The Lost Ultimate

Without the reform initiated by King Mongkut, and further developed by his son the Prince Patriarch, the beliefs about Buddhism of Thai people today would be much different. The reform that he began as a monk in the early part of the 19th century has shaped modern Buddhism with its rationality and scientific orientation. The kind of Buddhist teachings that he propagated through his Thammayutika sect left almost no room for superstition or transcendental worlds. Reference to heavens and hells according to the three worlds paradigm was greatly reduced and belief in them was downplayed in its significance. He only recognized the heavens and hells of the mind. [3]

While abandoning the three worlds paradigm that had informed Thai Buddhist belief for many centuries, King Mongkut placed more emphasis on achievementsthat can be fulfilled in this life. He was the first Thai king to turn his back on the aim of being reborn as a Future Buddha. This does not mean, however, that he was more concerned about attaining nibbana in this life. Though he referred to nibbana occasionally in his writings, he seemed to regard it as a remote ideal beyond the reach of people. His teachings, especially for the laity, instead stressed worldly and practical achievements. [4]

Although a wave of westernization was sweeping Thailand at the same time, King Mongkut's Buddhist reform was not aimed at making it more responsive or adaptable to modernity. His objective was to purify Buddhism through the process of returning to the "roots," making it true to the original teachings and practices of the Buddha. But while rejecting traditional Buddhism as a distortion and deviation, the Buddhism he introduced was western influenced in its empirical approach and its stress on this-world achievements.

Western influence was even more apparent in the teachings of later Thammayutika leaders, especially Prince Wachirayan. Nibbana, the ultimate reality which was treated as a remote ideal by King Mongkut, was virtually ignored in the age of Prince Wachirayan. There was no room for the ultimate truth-reality in the kind of Buddhism which he propagated among the general people. In Nawakowat, his primer that has been the standard and fundamental text of Thai Buddhists for the last 80 years, the section "gihipanipatti" (code of morality for the laity) mentions nothing about the ultimate goal (paramattha). In discussing "attha" (goal or benefit), only temporal and mental goals are referred to. He considered nibbana unnecessary, not only for the laity, but also for the monks. This resulted in the phrase "nibbana realization" being removed from the vow of candidacy in the ordination ceremony. [5] In his teaching, the benefit of morality was emphasized only in temporal terms, without indicating any connection to the ultimate or spiritual goal. Meditation has also been ignored in the entirely bookish modern Sangha education system. [6]

Attempts at returning to "the original" always end up back with " the new," since one inevitably looks at the past through the eyes of the present. Returning to origins invariably involves processes of interpretation and selection. What one sees and brings back is always different from the original. In other words, the original remains the same only if it is left as it was. Once we interact with or "contact" it, however respectfully and carefully, it becomes something new, smeared with our "fingerprints."

The "Original Buddhism" that King Mongkut discovered after intensive study of the Tipitaka is therefore a Buddhism mixed with his own opinions and influenced by his world view, consequently mirroring the ideas existing in the social milieu in which he was embedded. Further, his version of Buddhism would not have become so widespread without the reforms of his son, Prince Wachirayan, the Supreme Patriarch in the reign of King Rama the Sixth.

His unification of the Sangha was successful not only in terms of administration but also in shaping along the same lines the understanding of Buddhism among Thai monks. For the first time in Thai history, the different teachings and practices of Buddhism based in different localities, were replaced by a "standardized" orthodoxy introduced from the expansion minded capital. [7] The new centralized structure not only enabled the standard Buddhist curriculum to be adopted effectively throughout the kingdom, but also gave rewards and punishments to local monks based on their response to the central policy. No less important were the texts for propagating the new orthodoxy, still in use, ninety percent of which were written by one person, Prince Wachirayan. [8] King Mongkut's Buddhism, previously confined to his small sect, thereby became the official orthodoxy of the Sangha.

Prince Wachirayan, however, did more than popularize the teaching of his father. As the new nation-state was forming, Buddhist teachings were interpreted and selected which fit the needs and agenda of the nation's rulers. [9] Obligation to the state and its rulers was emphasized as a supreme Buddhist value. Even Thailand's active engagement in the first World War was encouraged and sanctioned by the Prince as a virtuous act, conforming to the teaching of the Buddha. This justification of war was later reinforced by King Rama the Sixth when he declared that waging defensive war was not against Buddhist morality. Under his reign, Buddhism was used to energetically promote and support nationalism.

The highest goal of Buddhism is to attain spiritual liberation and be free from suffering. However, since the age of Prince Wachirayan, this liberating aspect of Buddhism has been increasingly overlooked. Buddhism has been reduced to a code of morality, concerned with only good and bad. [10] Such moral Buddhism was popularized further through the modern curriculum introduced by the Ministry of Education to every school throughout the country. [11] Moreover, such morality is merely memorized but not practiced and therefore is not internalized.

It is apparent that in the past hundred years, Buddhism has been transformed to fit with modernity. Ironically, while superstition was supposedly removed from Buddhism in the process of purification, western rationality, scientism, and nationalism replaced it, resulting in the removal of transcendental and ultimate aspects. In other words, traditional superstition was replaced by modern, foreign superstition.

It is also ironic that despite its emphasis on morality, the official Buddhism has failed to strengthen the actual morality of Thai society. While morality has been propagated continuously in the schools and media for many decades, and while large numbers of people go to make merit in the temples, moral degradation is still a grave problem for Thailand today. One explanation is that this kind of Buddhism lacks "the sacred."

"The sacred" (saksit) here refers to that which is beyond the five physical senses, and is inaccessible and unexplainable by mere rationality, but which, nonetheless, can be attained or realized by the mind. It has a quality or power that those who access it can receive and benefit from. It is a refuge or security for those who believe. Its dynamism is beyond social codes and is incomprehensible to the untrained mind. The ways to realize it are diverse, just as there are many ways of conceiving of it. [12]

There were many forms of the sacred in traditional Buddhism, for example, deities, miracles, revered objects, and natural sites. Belief in heaven and hell played an important role in strengthening people's sense of morality. Some of the ancient laws, for example, the opium prohibition law of King Rama the Second, evoked the fear of hell to dissuade people from opium consumption. Once Buddhism was reformed to be more scientific, there were no tangible sacred things to take the place of deities, heaven, spirits, and the like. Even the Buddha was demystified to be made more human.

Nibbana or the ultimate is, in fact, another form of the sacred, the unconditioned aspect (sankhata). Yet it, too, was removed from official Buddhism. The moral code of official Buddhism has been rationalized as well. People are expected to practice morality through the sheer force of intellect and rationalization, but intellect alone is not effective enough to develop a moral life. Morality has to be deepened to the spiritual level. Faith or fear of the sacred's power, experience of inner peace, and connection with the ultimate through meditation, are all necessary spiritual conditions for maintaining one's morality. With the absence of the sacred, the moral code of official Buddhism no longer had any spiritual support or meaning.

Another consequence of the removal of the sacred is the spread of "malign" superstition. For their own security, ordinary people need the sacred. Once the sacred cannot be found in official Buddhism, they are tempted to look for it outside Buddhism, that is, in superstition. Usually, these superstitions were once a part of traditional Buddhism. Buddhist reform, rather than get rid of superstition, merely expelled them from the wats. Once outside the wat, there were beyond the control of Buddhism and thus became amoral. This degraded form of superstition, aiming to gratify any desire, does not require any morality on the part of the client. This lack of moral obligation is the main factor that differentiates malign superstition from the superstition that was part of traditional Buddhism.

Despite its anti-superstition inclination, official Buddhism has contributed to the wide dissemination of the very superstition it sought to suppress. The more it tries to expel superstition from the wats, the more superstition spreads to them. This is another irony of official Buddhism. Moreover, the superstition that is now spreading to the wats is simultaneously gaining control over Buddhism, and not vice versa as before.

This kind of superstition fits well with the new influence - consumerism. On one hand, consumerism stimulates sensual and material desire, motivating people to seek superstition as a quick and easy way to get what they want. On the other hand, consumerism has commodified superstition, making it easily accessible and diversified, as well as marketing it with modern methods and technology. In short, consumerism increases both the demand for and the supply of superstition.

With this kind of superstition, people just wait for worldly achievement to arrive. Success is expected to come easily, through purchased amulets, without making any effort or practicing Dhamma, such as, diligence, honesty, and self-contentment. Morality is therefore regarded as unnecessary for daily life.

The wide spread of superstition throughout the country, even in the wats, is the sign of official Buddhism's failure in its attempt to remove superstition. It also indicates the influence of consumerism on current Buddhism. Both phenomenon reveal the weakness of Buddhism that can be traced to the reform of King Mongkut and Prince Wachirayan.

Structural Problems

The situation discussed above is the consequence of the new orthodoxy that, however, is only one aspect of the reform. Equally important is the structural aspect of Sangha reorganization begun in the time of Prince Wachirayan and continuing until now. Under the new centralized structure, monks of all localities in the country came under the power of the hierarchy, thus making them less responsive to their own communities. Moreover, allowing the state to exert influence in many important aspects of the Sangha, this new structure virtually transformed the Sangha into an extension of the state. Monks are therefore more inclined toward the state than the people.

The reason that the Sangha stays close to the state is mainly because the Sangha's leadership believes that its unity, cohesion, and orderliness depend upon the state's support. But the price of having state protection is the loss of autonomy. Further, many religious affairs that were once in the control of the local communities, for example, the bestowing of ecclesiastical rank and the establishment of wats, have been monopolized by the state almost completely.

In fact, there are other factors that contribute to the widening gap between the monks and the people. Some of them are the institutionalization of such social services as education and medicine, which were once provided by the monks, the decline of ecclesiastical education, and the lack of motivation in providing education for monks. Compounded by the centralized and bureaucratized structure, these factors contribute to the reduction of the Sangha's role in promoting morality in Thai society. It also obstructs any attempt to reform the Sangha or improve its social role in response to the changing world. With this structure, merely maintaining the moral standards of the monks is almost impossible as shown by the Sangha's failure to cope with all the recent scandals.

New Reform Movements

Throughout the past hundred years, Thai Buddhism has never lacked attempts to reform itself. After Prince Wachirayan's reform, the attempt by Buddhadasa Bhikkhu is the most prominent. In fact, the former had a lot of influence on the latter, especially in terms of the scientific and rational approach to Buddhism, and the anti-superstition inclination. However, Buddhadasa Bhikkhu was able to go beyond Prince Wachirayan; he recognized the supreme value of the ultimate. He did more than anyone else in the recent history of Buddhism in bringing the ultimate goal back to its central place in Buddhism. Moreover, he tried to make it more accessible to ordinary people. His teaching aimed to integrate the ultimate into ordinary life, making transcendence and worldly life inseparable. In other word, nibbana has been reintroduced as the sacred for the committed Buddhist, in place of superstition or miracles. Furthermore, his idea of "nibbana here and now" brings the sacred closer to us in every moment of daily life, without needing to retreat to the forest as monks.

Though he also regarded Buddhism and science as identical, his understanding was different from Prince Wachirayan, was more profound and less imitative. Instead of defining Buddhism to fit with western science, Buddhadasa defined science to conform with Buddhism, that is, as involving not only physical aspects that can be experienced through the five senses, but also including mental processes that can be experienced with the mind, the sixth sense. Buddhadasa Bhikkhu's "Scientific Buddhism" is therefore the science of timeless ultimate truth with meditation is an integral "technology."

Buddhadasa Bhikkhu's ideas find an echo in Phra Dhammapitaka's (P. A. Payuttho) teachings which present Buddhism in its totality with its highest goal found in spiritual liberation through the realization of ultimate truth. The ultimate is not some remote ideal for the unworldly life; instead, it is relevant and necessary for people of this world, both monks and laity. While Buddhadasa Bhikkhu encouraged his followers to live with "void-free mind," Phra Dhammapitaka stressed that noble ones who attain at least the first level of enlightenment are needed by the present world. His Constitution for Living, however comparable to Prince Wachirayan 's Nawagowat in popularity and content, concludes with the chapter entitled "Attainer of Dhamma: A Liberated One," making it strikingly different from Prince Wachirayan's orthodoxy.

It should be noted that science has a significant influence for both Buddhadasa Bhikkhu and Phra Dhammapitaka. (Both enjoyed studying and experimenting with machines and new technologies when they were young.) Like Buddhadasa, Phra Dhammapitaka elevates Thai Buddhism beyond the worldly realm of western science. He recognizes the limits of science. Thus, it should be complemented by Buddhism in order to have a better and deeper understanding of the truth, and to use it in a constructive way. However, one cannot help being impressed how the scientific approach contributes a great deal to his thought and writings. Like Buddhadasa Bhikkhu, his emphasis on the human being's potential to realize the ultimate truth through his own wisdom and effort is likely to be influenced by the humanism on which western science is based. This does not mean that humanism is alien to Buddhism or that it belongs only to western science. Rather, it is highly probable that the humanist influence of science contributed a lot to their perception and recognition of humanism in the Buddha's teaching, leading to their emphasis on and explanation of the supreme potential of the human being. Without humanist ideas, it is difficult to notice and present the humanist approach to Buddhism as they did. This is the reason why traditional Buddhism seldom explained human potential in such a way. Nibbana was understood traditionally as a remote idea that could be attained only through merit accumulation over countless lives. Hence, no serious effort is made to realize nibbana in this life.

Despite their popularity among the middle class, and especially the well educated, the teaching of both monks has not been well received among the Sangha leadership. Their thought and writings have influenced only low ranking monks or those on the periphery, for example, "the Suan Mokkh movement." Until now, Sangha education institutions, including the Sangha universities, still adhere to Prince Wachirayan's orthodoxy. Curriculum and texts developed and written by Prince Wachirayan eighty years ago remain in use in both the Pali and Nak Tham systems, whereas none of the books by Buddhadasa Bhikkhu and Phra Dhammapitaka are studied as texts in the Sangha's ecclesiastical education system.

No contemporary monk in Thailand has put forth greater effort to reform the Sangha education system than Phra Dhammapitaka. He was the first monk to warn the Sangha and government about the value of higher education for monks. Despite some success after thirty years of effort, only secular education for monks receives support and improvement, while monastic and Dhamma education is still quite stuck in the past, both in terms of curriculum and administration. The failure of "reform from within" initiated by him reflects the strong resistance so deeply rooted in the Sangha structure. This has resulted in the sharp decline of the ecclesiastical education system. Inevitably, monks increasingly have lost their position of leadership in Thai society. Instead of leading the laity to live with wisdom and higher morality, they follow the laity along the fashionable trends. Nowadays, is there any trend more powerful than consumerism?

Under the Dominion of Consumerism

Consumerism is the latest ideology having a strong influence on Buddhism, after western science and nationalism had already shaped it for almost a century. While science and nationalism had their impact on Buddhism systemically through its redefinition by the elite, consumerism has shaped Thai Buddhism not through the conscious effort of any individual but because of its own internal weakness.

With the influence of consumerism, the Buddhist community is converted into a marketplace where not only amulets but also merit and ceremonies are sold as commodities. During the past few decades, Thai Buddhist teachings, beliefs, and practices have been transformed dramatically, taking on many of the characteristics of consumerism, as follows:

* materialism: wealth, not happiness, is preached and expected as the goal of religious practice.

* stimulation of desire: consumption of all sorts are encouraged, including consumption of religious experience, for example, visiting heaven and catching "a glimpse of nibbana."

* money-orientation: money, not effort, is the most important factor for religious achievement. Once merit is commodified, it can be accumulated with the aid of money. Even religious experience and tranquillity are expected from offering money as merit making.

* instant results: religious services and practices are expected to give instant results. Superstition becomes attractive since it promises to give quick and easy results.

* individualism: religious practice aims to satisfy individual desires, without any concern for the consequences that befall others.

The proliferation of consumerism has contributed a great deal to the rise of superstition since both complement each other in many aspects. Consumerism stimulates desire and the maximization of profit while superstition offers a "short cut" to worldly achievement. Consumerism commodifies as many things as it can, while superstition sells many commodities such as amulets, talismans, rituals, and "nibbana certificates."

Once consumerism spread into the wats, superstition followed it. Wats, however, not only consume superstition, they also reproduce it. As previously mentioned, wats, once propagators of official Buddhism which is anti-superstition, are now increasingly dominated by superstition. This failure in getting rid of superstition is partly because it lacks the sacred in which people can confide. It leaves no room for a mystical Buddha, deities, heaven, miracles, and so on. Even the ultimate nibbana is pretty much ignored, if not perverted. Despite efforts by Buddhadasa Bhikkhu and Phra Dhammapitaka to revive the significance of nibbana, they have not been accepted much by the Sangha hierarchy and education institutions. Not surprisingly, official Buddhism's influence increasingly declines even among the monks.

Those who turn their backs on official Buddhism, however, do not necessarily turn their ears to Buddhadasa Bhikkhu and Phra Dhammapitaka. Despite the sacredness of the ultimate which both teachers try to bring closer to the life of ordinary people, only the few can connect with it, since such connection is possible only through meditation. For most people, who are not much interested in meditation, the sacred that they can connect with is not the one that is experienced directly with their own minds but the one that is based in faith and is embodied in physical objects that can be perceived with the five senses, for example, Mother Guan Yin (Kannon), Luang Por Toe appearing through a medium, or the Buddha's mystical power embedded in an amulet.

Wats that offer access to this materialist aspect of the sacred can attract large numbers of people. The more they can adapt to consumerism, the more successful they are likely to be. No example is more prominent than Wat Phra Dhammakaya. A clean and orderly atmosphere is the first impression most visitors have about Wat Phra Dhammakaya, but it is the sacred that binds the large number of followers to this wat with tenacious faith. Besides its reputedly powerful miracles, its sacred is immanent and touchable. Its sacred is characterized by the Buddha's Dhammakaya and nibbana. Its nibbana and the Buddha's Dhammakaya are not only a permanent self (atta) but also perceivable like matter (having physical qualities like cold and soft). Moreover, ordinary people (that have not advanced in meditation) can have contact with the Buddha's Dhammakaya, through their "rice offering to Dhammakaya in Nibbana" ceremony.

The sacred alone is not the only reason for Dhammakaya's rapid expansion. Its success in drawing people (arguably almost a million followers) is also due to its adaptation to consumerism. Dhammakaya not only promises worldly achievement to its followers, but also uses marketing techniques to create a demand for merit through "direct sale." Merit is commodified and diversified in different forms for followers to have more choice. Competition is encouraged between volunteers who solicit donations and rewards are given to those who can achieve the highest amount of donations. These techniques are derived from the idea of its leader that "Buddhism is an excellent commodity that gets bad sales because of the lack of good marketing strategies."

A "Mega-Church" like Wat Dhammakaya is only one aspect of consumerized Buddhism. Another aspect is the many small wats with widely diverse practices and beliefs. There are many wats that mix up various symbols, ceremonies, and deities, for example, mixing the Buddha, Kannon, and Shiva together in the same wat. This can be explained by the increasing social differentiation in Thai society, creating diverse beliefs and demands for different religious experiences. Such religious behavior is better characterized by religious "consumption" than religious "practice," since it is driven not by strong faith in a particular practice but by desire for self-gratification, or even desire for a "taste" of religious experience for a while.

What lessons can we learn from the cases of Wat Dhammakaya, the religious cocktail, and the rise of superstition? They are telling us that:

1. Uniform or standardized Buddhism is a thing of the past. Thai Buddhism is returning to diversity again, perhaps to a greater degree than before the Prince Wachirayan reform.

2. In the past, uniform Buddhism was possible because of state and central Sangha control. The trend in the above is a sign that Buddhism is becoming independent of the state and the Sangha hierarchy, returning again to the hands of the people.

3. Consumerism is gaining influence in shaping Thai Buddhism, partly through the "consumption" and selection by ordinary people.

4. The beliefs and behavior of Thai people are deviating increasingly from Buddhist teaching and is rather more about self-gratification than reducing selfishness.

Toward the Reform Needed Today

A Buddhism that is under the dominion of consumerism is not conducive to the good life and a peaceful society. Instead, it chains our lives to suffering and enslaves us to material things, not to mention increasing social conflicts. Even the worldly achievements that it promises are hardly realized since it does not encourage effort, self-reliance, or cooperation. The current economic crisis in Thailand is the most recent example of how its promise has failed.

The consumerist domination is only one aspect of the problems that face Thai Buddhism today. Liberation from consumerism is therefore only part of the solution, although a vital and necessary one. The revival of Buddhism needs a comprehensive reform that copes with other factors as well. In short, there are three main factors on the part of Buddhism that have had a great impact on the beliefs and practices of Thai Buddhists, and on the quality and role of the monks during the past century, resulting in the decline of morality in Thai society. These factors are:

1. Teachings that became official orthodoxy;
2. Sangha structure and its relationship to state and society;
3. Buddhist education.

Real reform of Thai Buddhism is possible only when these factors are addressed effectively.

Beyond Science

As earlier mentioned, rationalized and scientific Buddhism, though welcomed by the educated and middle classes, has reduced Buddhism to superficial teachings, void of spiritual depth. The situation was worsened by a nationalism that became religion in its own right. Such secularized Buddhism lacks the vitality needed to resist materialism, and thus is easily corrupted by the consumer capitalism that goes hand in hand with demoralized superstition.

Science and rationalism are not the aspects that should be rejected. They become problematic, however, when they are allowed to define Buddhism, resulting inthe rejection of teachings that do not fit with materialist science or that transcend rationality. It should be noted that science and rationalism can lead us to some levels of truth, but not all. The ultimate is a level of truth inaccessible to them and thus becomes one of their casualties.

No matter what attitude science has toward the ultimate, the key point for Thai Buddhists is to bring the ultimate back into Buddhism. Nibbana, or liberation of mind, should be integrated into daily life through the effort of ordinary people. This is the true sacred that should not be absent from Buddhism, wherever it is taught, even in schools for children.

At the same time, other forms of the sacred should be allowed a role in Buddhism. Deities, miracles, amulets, and others from the realm of superstition, if used skillfully, can be instrumental in leading people to higher levels of Dhamma. The point is that they should be guided by Buddhism, and not the other way around.

Nothing can provide a more solid basis for one's morality than the ultimate truth. Once the mind is liberated from defilement and delusion, real happiness and peace is realized, with no ill-will or desire to harm anyone remaining. Though ordinary people may not attain the ultimate fully, a momentary experience of it is possible and will have a tremendous impact on their lives and their relationships.

For those that cannot experience the ultimate, lower levels of the sacred, when approached with a proper attitude, can restrain one from doing evil or harming others. Ordinary people that lack sufficient training always need such sacred beliefs to a certain extent. According to Buddhadasa Bhikkhu, unless one is Arahat, the Buddhism that one practices is never a pure one. A certain degree of superstition will continue to creep into one's practice. Hence, he concluded "Buddhism still needs superstition." [13]

Restoring the Social Dimension of Buddhism

Thai Buddhism is increasingly individualized; everyone practices and adapts it arbitrarily for her or his own benefit with less and less intervention from the state, Sangha hierarchy, or even one's own family and community, as was previously the norm. With such an attitude, Buddhism is easily used to gratify oneself or to meet one's personal desire, without concern for others, not to mention nature and the spiritual dimension.

It is highly likely that Buddhism will continue to be reduced to a personal level of teaching. In fact, this is no new trend. In the past, the benefits of the five precepts, for example, were always explained only on the personal level, that is, contributing to a peaceful, happy individual life, while the benefits to society were rarely mentioned. Though there are many teachings on one's obligation to society (such as the aparihaniyadhamma, dhammas never leading to deterioration only to progress), they were less emphasized than teachings on person-to-person practice (like the teaching of the six directions). [14] Even teachings about the four sublime states of mind - the interpersonal attitudes of loving kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity - received more attention than the principles or Dhamma on which equanimity is based.

According to Buddhism, since one has obligations to oneself, others, society, and Dhamma, there are teachings for all four categories. However, only the first two categories are stressed. Nowadays, we do not live in villages anymore, but in a broader more complex society. In such a society, there are not only personal and interpersonal relationships. There are also social relationships, relationship with society as a whole, which is increasingly global. Peace and harmony in society and personal happiness do not depend only on proper behavior among individuals, but equally depend on how we relate to our own society, for example, how we abide by the law, take care of public properties, and respect the social heritage and traditions. Buddhist teaching on our duty to the public world or society, therefore, should be emphasized (and applied appropriately to the modern world) in no less degree than teachings on personal relationship. (More on this point will be discussed later.)

Restructuring the Sangha

The Thai Sangha is now facing three main organizational problems, as follows:

1. The centralized and inefficient structure;
2. The close relationship with the state;
3. Distance from society.

The complexity and diversity of the present society demands a dynamic Sangha if Buddhism is to play a significant role in contributing to the good life. To be more dynamic, the Sangha has to be decentralized and more open for initiatives from monks on every level.

Instead of its current top-down orientation, the administration by the Council of Elders should be more responsive and accountable to monks throughout the country. Their participation should be encouraged in the process of developing important plans or schemes, Sangha education policy, for instance. Nowadays, most of such plans are developed by bureaucrats in the Ministry of Education with only token participation allowed from ordinary monks.

Apart from more participation in shaping various plans and schemes, administrative responsibility should be decentralized to all levels. This will enable local monks to be more responsive to their particular situations and develop closer relationships with the people.

Administration on the regional and lower levels can be improved if an administrative body is created to assist the head monk (chao khana) on each of these levels. Members of such administrative bodies, of course, should not be appointed (the current practice) but come from direct election by all monks in the respective constituencies.

Relationship with the State

A balanced relationship between the Sangha, rulers, and the people has always been essential for Theravada Buddhism's health. Nowadays, the Sangha, however, leans closer to the state, so much so that the former became an extension, or even a tool, of the latter. Such a relationship contributes to the rigidity of the Sangha, since it is in effect a powerless bureaucracy under the control of a corrupt one, and creates nothing but inertia towards constructive change.

The Sangha consistently loses more than it gains from this relationship. Unlike individual rulers in the past, modern states have no heart to care for enlightenment or the Dhamma. The State's domination of the Sangha (or Church) is never for the sake of Sangha or religion, but only for the state itself. Obviously, the Sangha should keep its proper distance from the state and decrease dependence on it.

For that to be possible, the Sangha should not depend on the state for its budget. It should seek more financial support from civil society for its activities. Besides donations from individuals, financial support from civic bodies is a necessary alternative to state support.

Secondly, the Sangha should have more autonomy in its own administration, without relying upon the Department of Religious Affairs (Ministry of Education), which acts as the secretariat for the Council of Elders. Monks now have sufficient potential for the self-government which is enshrined in the new constitution. Sangha self-determination should be supported by decentralization of responsibilities to lower levels, as mentioned earlier.

Thirdly, the Sangha should depend less on state sanction and approval of its religious affairs. State involvement in the establishment of wats or the appointment of high ranking monks, for example, should be minimized. Title promotions, if worth preserving, should involve representatives of people from all walks of life rather than give a dominant role to the state.

Sangha Relationship to Society

In the past, wats were both supported and checked by their surrounding communities. The widening gap between the wats and their communities contributed to misbehavior of monks on one hand, and to the unresponsiveness of monks to the plight of surrounding communities on the other hand.

A closer relationship between the Sangha and society can be developed by more involvement of civil society in religious and Sangha affairs. A lot of support that the Sangha now receives from the state can be offered by civil society instead. In the foreseeable future, the budget for Sangha education and administration, for example, can be provided by "provincial councils," the civil bodies being nurtured on the provincial level throughout Thailand, to represent all groups in each province, as part of the Eighth National Economic and Social Development Plan. Such bodies should reclaim the responsibilities that are now monopolized by the state, and return them to civil society, that is, the people. These responsibilities, of course, should include promotion of religious affairs, which so far has been in the hands of the Department of Religious Affairs.

Besides the provincial level, civic bodies should be created on more local levels in order to work with and give support to the Sangha on corresponding levels. Such coordination will forge closer relationship between the Sangha and civil society on all levels. More support and checks from society is essential for the improvement of the quality of the monkhood.

Sangha Education and Role of Women

Restoration of the complete Buddhist teachings and the reorganization of the Sangha must be supported by reform of Sangha education, as it is now in serious decline. Ecclesiastical education is outdated, that is, unable to provide an appropriate understanding of the Dhamma, while secular education for monks is either insufficient, of poor quality, or too "worldly" (offering no basis for understanding the world from Buddhist or spiritual perspectives). The current Sangha education system needs reform in a comprehensive way, including curriculum, learning methods, texts, facilities, teacher training, and management. Under the existing Sangha structure, true Sangha education reform is almost impossible because it requires a great deal of energy and initiative, which can hardly be expected from the twenty septuagenarians in the Council of Elders in whom all Sangha power is centralized.

As a part of Sangha reform, the role of other Buddhists outside the Sangha should be a matter of serious concern, especially the role of women. So far, less opportunity is given to women than men as far as Dhamma training and dissemination is concerned. The stark difference between monks and nuns is one clear example. The potential of women to study, practice, realize, and teach Dhamma, clearly, is not inferior to that of men. If the former receive energetic support from society, they will make an invaluable contribution to the Buddhist community and society as a whole, much greater than before. Bhikkhuni ordination is one option for women that should be taken into consideration by Thai society. However, other options should be developed, too. Creation of new forms for female monks and the promotion of the status of nuns (maechi) in order to win the respect they deserve from society, no less than monks receive, should be developed concurrently, regardless of the outcome of the long drawn out bhikkhuni controversy.

Time for New Social Role

All the reforms mentioned above can be called internal reform or "reform for one's own welfare." According to the Buddha, there are three kinds of welfare or benefit: one's own welfare (attattha), the welfare of others (parattha), and the benefit of both (ubhayattha). The third shows that the preceding two go hand in hand and cannot be separated Consequently, reform for one's own benefit is just half of the reform that is needed, and on its own will not get us very far. The other half is reform for the welfare of others, that is, of society as a whole.

The predominant social function of Buddhism nowadays is in ritual services, while its moral and spiritual influence has been drastically reduced. The only sign that Thai society still adheres to Buddhism is the Thai peoples' relationships to wats and monk, as expressed through giving alms food, merit making, and, recently, attending retreats. However, if we consider the relationships among people throughout society itself, we see that the influence of Buddhism is actually much weaker than in the past. Selfishness, lack of generosity, and worse, exploitation, crime, corruption, and misuse of public properties are increasingly prominent in Thai society today.

There are two kinds of social relationships: vertical and horizontal. A Buddhist influence is more prominent in the former, as reflected in the relationship between laity and monks, children and parents, and even people's relationship to the sacred like the Buddha, Buddha relics, and merit. But horizontal relationships, beyond the narrow circles of relatives and friends, is more influenced by consumerism and materialism, than by Buddhism.

Buddhism's influence on vertical relationships, however beneficial it may be to individuals and society, is not enough. Buddhism must expand its role and influence to horizontal relationships, in order to increase generosity among people, to overcome violence and crime, and to work for more peace in society. Such a role cannot be achieved merely through preaching, as before, but needs to be radically rethought and dramatically adapted.

Outline for Strengthening Morality in Thai Society

Thai society badly needs binding moral forces that encourage and help people to live together with goodwill, harmony, generosity, and cooperation, and which will make society more desirable and livable. It is important to note that such forces, while weak in Thai society as a whole, actually still exist in small, intimate circles of family, kinship, and friends. In these circles, everybody treats each other with honesty, sincerity, and love. Impolite or selfish behavior, however obvious they are in the streets, cinemas, public places, and even the wats, are rarely found in these small circles. In other words, Thai people do not lack morality; it's just that they apply it only to their immediate acquaintances. The question is how morality can be expanded to other people and to the rest of society.

For Thai society to have a stronger moral basis, Buddhism can play the following roles:

1. Extending the context of morality

Why do Thais act morally only with their acquaintances? Mainly because the morality taught in the wats and schools, not only stresses the interpersonal level as earlier mentioned, but is likely to be confined to one's immediate acquaintances. For example, there are the "six directions," a frequently heard teaching in Thailand, which stipulate mutual responsibility in six kinds of relationship: the relationship between children and parents, wife and husband, student and teacher, worker and boss, lay people and monks, and friend and friend. (Note that five of these six pairs or relationships are, traditionally, vertical ones.)

Such a teaching is well suited to the village community where everybody knows each other. Modern society, however, is more complicated. In daily life, one does not relate with only one's acquaintances, but also with people outside one's small circles. Until now, traditional Buddhist teaching has given less importance to this latter kind of relationship. Buddhist moral teaching should therefore be redefined to include broader relationships. If the six directions teaching is to be improved, for example, at least one pair of relationships essential to the modern world, should be added: seller and buyer.

Modern people relate to each other not just through interpersonal relationships, but also through institutions, organizations, and systems that are impersonal in nature. Thai society requires moral guidelines for these impersonal relationships as well. Buddhism should develop this kind of morality; otherwise its influence in Thai society will be limited.

2. Developing social consciousness

Social consciousness here means concern for society and commitment to its welfare. There are many Buddhist teachings supporting this attitude, that is, teachings on the welfare of both oneself and all others. However, "others" has traditionally been defined as persons and not as society as a whole. Though there are many teachings on obligations to the community, community is usually understood as small units like intimate familiars and villages, and seldom as the broader unit of society. Partly because Thais are most familiar with relationships on only the personal level, community, to them, is always confined to that which is personalized or consists of persons with whom they have direct relationships. Such familiar, tangible community is different from society, which is more abstract, consists of unknown people, and involves impersonal relationships, those that result from organizations or systems.

Teachings on responsibility to community, not only need more emphasis, but also need to be defined in broader terms so as to include all of society. Suitable teachings for this purpose include the seven conditions of welfare (aparihaniyadhamma), meritorious action through rendering services (veyyavaccamaya), and willingness to give a helping hand to the community (kinkaraniyesu dakkhata). Here, Buddhadasa Bhikkhu's idea of Dhammic Socialism is most relevant: its ethical system emphasizes obligation to the society and the good of the whole, not just personal benefit or that of other individuals.

3. Expanding social relationships

A moral attitude or moral understanding is but one factor in moral behavior. Another equally important factor is social relationship. Thai people apply morality in a narrow way because their social circles are small; their social interaction is usually limited the people with whom they already have personal relationships. It's rare that people of different backgrounds, professions, and localities, and who have no previous personal relationship, will come together or work together. Social interactions based on common objectives or ideas is much less frequent than those based on existing personal bonds. Unsurprisingly, cooperation on a wider scale, either for mutual benefit or public good, is rare.

Relationships confined to one's own small circles are conducive to a narrow mind, whereas expansive (horizontal) relationships contribute to a "civic mind." Expansive engagement helps broaden one's realm of concern: from self concern to concern for others; from concern for family to concern for community and society (and the world); from concern for people to concern for all of nature. With this attitude, one's own welfare and the public welfare are considered identical since one has developed a strong sense that one is part of society and society is part of oneself.

It's essential that Buddhist monks and laity support self-help groups of various kinds, from Dhamma study groups, to co-operatives, to organizations for environmental conservation and community development. Monks can play an important role in enlarging horizontal relationships among people, through creating and nurturing networks among these groups. In addition to helping broaden their attitudes and concerns, expansive social relationships will develop people's confidence to carry out public activities on a wider scale. As mentioned, there are many Buddhist teachings that can be applied to this work.

4. Building trust

Trust building is one significant benefit of collective action and enlarging horizontal relationships. Making acquaintances and working together are direct sources of trust. Trust is also strengthened by the norm of reciprocity developed through regular cooperation and networks of relationships. Once a norm of reciprocity is established, defectors and "free riders" are easily sanctioned by the public. Social sanction of defectors develops trust and confidence among people to cooperate with each other. Not just the result of cooperation, trust also encourages cooperation, either for mutual benefit or public good. Cooperation is impossible if people do not trust each other or suspect that opportunists will exploit their efforts. Trust is, therefore, an important form of social capital.

The presence or absence of trust is not purely a matter of attitude. It also depends on social conditions. In a society where a norm of reciprocity is established and social sanctions are effective against the defectors and opportunists, the level of trust is high. Hence, it is not enough to preach to people to trust each other. Appropriate social conditions have to be developed as well. Expanding horizontal relationships, through developing networks of civic engagement, is a vital condition for trust. This can best be done from practical grassroots activities in which people work together for mutual benefits agreed upon by all. The tight and wide network contributes not only to active and intensive engagement among people but is also essential for effective sanctions toward the cheater. In a society where horizontal relationships among people are narrow, and civic engagement is low, trust is weak and so is cooperation for society's welfare. [15]

The above helps explain why the attitude of "everyone for oneself" is so prevalent in Thailand today. Trust is low. So is society's capacity to impose a high cost on the defectors and cheaters since they have weak ties and low engagement with society. Corrupt politicians, bureaucrats, businessmen, other elites, including some monks, increase the problem by capitalizing on this weakness. Thus, a network of engagement and expansive horizontal relationships is needed for Thai society. It will increase the capacity of society to punish the defectors and thus foster trust among its members. With a high level of trust, people have more incentive to cooperate with others, beyond their small circles of personal acquaintances.

Again, for Buddhism to be an effective moral force in Thai society, it needs to do more than just preach about morality. It also needs to help create the social conditions required to sustain and support the morality it preaches. This can be achieved through broadening horizontal relationships, that is, supporting self-help groups, community cooperation, and creating networks among diverse communities. For a start, the monks must learn to develop such networks among themselves on local and more distant levels, and then expand the networks to include villagers, NGOs, progressive business people, and others.

Free Society from Consumerism

The promotion of morality as mentioned above emphasizes cooperation and concern for the welfare of others. In Buddhist teachings, this is mainly categorized under sila. To be firm, sila. must be based on samadhi (a strong, well-trained, integrated mind) and panna (wisdom). Morality promotion has to give importance to the world view and mental qualities of people to be successful.

Buddhism can play a significant role in both areas. Thai society also needs this contribution from Buddhism, since Thais are now overwhelmed by consumerism, which is becoming a kind of religion, one devoid of wisdom and peace of mind. Suffering and conflict in relationships are increasingly intensified on every level because of the selfish consumerist world view and values.

Thai society needs a Buddhist perspective to replace consumerism. For decades, the former has been subjugated by the latter. It now should be revived and presented in a way relevant to the modern world. There is now increasing interest in dynamism, for example, the dynamic and holistic nature of Buddhist perspectives. Its spiritual perspectives are also needed to balance the extreme materialism prevailing today.

Buddhist values such as nonviolence, self-contentment, and freedom of mind are no less important. These perspectives and their value system should be developed as a world view for society. They should be integrated as a goal for life and direction for society, constituting a basis for collective vision and strategy. Concretely speaking, instead of aiming for the unlimited growth of wealth and consumption, society should take meaningful happiness and a higher quality of life as its goal.

For this to be possible, a body of knowledge based on Buddhist perspectives and the corresponding value system has to be developed to offer an alternative explanation of reality and to provide practical solutions to existing problems. Fortunately, due to its emphasis on natural law and experience, Buddhism can draw on the more useful contributions of science in this endeavor. Yet, without creating its own body of knowledge, an idea cannot develop into an effective societal world view. Buddhism must be true to itself.

Replacing consumerist ideology with a Buddhist world view is essential for freeing society from consumerism and its source - capitalism. It would simultaneously strengthen Buddhism. Buddhist weaknesses, either on the level of orthodoxy or institutions, are, to a large degree, the result of the consumerist invasion. If Buddhism cannot liberate itself from consumerism, it has no future. The best way to do this is to help Thai society be free from consumerism, too.

Dual Mission

An individual's welfare and the welfare of others are intimately related. Helping Thai society to be free from the grip of consumerism is the best way to help Buddhism itself. Similarly, strengthening Thai society will strengthen Buddhism too. This means that reforming Buddhism, as already mentioned, must go hand in hand with reforming society. The latter is vital for the welfare of Buddhism because the reorganization of the Sangha is almost impossible without support and pressure from society at large. If Thai society remains weak, lacks proper understanding of Buddhism, and has no concern for public affairs, we cannot expect society's support in the reform of Buddhism.

Buddhist reform cannot be separated from social reform; they are "dual missions" that concerned people must carry out together. The civil society movement, a recent attempt to create a stronger society, must give priority to the reform of Buddhism since Buddhism has such great potential to help liberate civil society from the domination of state and capital. Reforming Buddhism is the only way to liberate its potential to support civil society.

This article began with the question of how Buddhism can be a strong moral force for Thai society. Buddhism, in decline for decades, has lost that status. Restoring the wholeness of the teaching and reorganizing the Sangha is the first stage in reviving Buddhism. It needs to reform its role in society, too. In the end, its new role in helping to elevate society will in turn help elevate itself out of its decline and thus become more viable.

This double mission challenging Thai Buddhism will be a decisive factor in determining the status and fate of Thai Buddhism in the next century.

I would like to offer my sincerest thanks to Sucitto Bhikkhu and others at Dawn Kiam for their help in editing this article.

Previously published in Socially Engaged Buddhism for the New Millennium (Bangkok: Santhirakoses-Nagapradipa Foundation & Foundation for Children, 1999)


[1] Henceforth referred to simply as "the Sangha", according to Theravada custom.

[2] David K. Wyatt, Thailand : A Short History (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1984), 217

[3] King Mongkut criticized traditional teachings that evoke images of hell and heaven "as if threatening with hell, luring with heaven."

[4] He was perhaps the first Thai to initiate the birthday party (for himself), reasoning that longevity is one of the "highest gains." To celebrate the birth of one of his sons, the blessing he gave was only for worldly happiness, departing from the tradition practiced by his predecessors.

[5] Concerning those who attain nibbana, he once mentioned that "there is no person like that nowadays."

[6] Prince Wachirayan's sect, Thammayutika Nikaya, played a significant role in promoting this orthodoxy throughout the country. Though Phra Ajarn Man Phurithatto and his disciples belong to this sect, their meditative style of practice and emphasis on the realization of nibbana, had no influence on the official orthodoxy propagated from Bangkok. They were mainly on the periphery of the Sangha and, oftentimes, were criticized and threatened by the hierarchy of their own sect. Despite being respected by the hierarchy later, their popularity among people was used, both by the monastic and state hierarchies, to promote Sangha consolidation and national integration in remote areas, especially in the northeast where they were based. See J.L.Taylor, Forest Monks and the Nation-State (Singapore: ISEAS, 1993).

[7] Concerning the conflict between the local monks and monks representing the Bangkok hierarchy, and how the former were later subjugated and domesticated, see Kamala Tiyavanich, Forest Recollections (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1997).

[8] Yoneo Ishii, Sangha, State and Society (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1986), 94.

[9] A similar process has occurred in recent decades with sects like the Dhammakaya movement and capitalism.

[10] Srisuporn Chuangsakun, Kwam Plian Plan kong Kana Song: Suksa Karanee Thammayutika Nikaya [The Change in the Sangha:Case Study of Thammayutika Sect] (Bangkok: Chulalongkorn University, 1986).

[11] Suwanna Sathaanan, Puttatham in Rat Thai [Buddhism in the Thai State] (Bangkok: Thai Khadi Institute, 1986).

[12] The Thai word saksit is derived by combining sakdi (status) and siddhi (power), both of which are more Hindu in meaning and origin than Buddhist. The definition of "the sacred" given here is purposefully as broad as possible and attempts to span the entire spectrum of what people take to be sacred, some of which are discussed below. This definition also includes nibbana as understood in the Pali Suttas. At this point, we need not distinguish clearly between the truly sacred and its sublimations and perversions (as understood by Buddhism).

[13] Buddhadasa Bhikkhu, Putthasat kap Sayasat [Buddhism and Superstition] publisher and date not given.

[14] The six directions represent duties toward parents, spouse and children, teachers, friends, servants and employees, and spiritual guides.

[15] See the relationship among trust, cooperation, and networks of civic engagement in Robert D. Putnam, Making Democracy Work (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1994).

Phra Phaisan Visalo
Executive Committee - Phra Sekhiyadhamma
e-mail: [email protected] 


Source: Buddhist Peace Fellowship, https://www.bpf.org

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