Clamouring for a national religion

By Sanitsuda Ekachai, Bangkok Post, April 7, 2007

Bangkok, Thailand -- Unwilling to accept that the decline of public faith in the religious institution is a result of their own closed and corrupt system, the clergy are waging a new public campaign to have Buddhism officially enshrined as the national religion in the new charter. The tide now seems to be on the clergy's side.

The clergy are at it again. The ethno-centric nationalism is in full swing and the concerted efforts to back the clergy seem better organised than ever.

To start with, the military has already expressed support for the clergy's moves. The parliamentary committee on religion has also turned the clergy's demand into its own proposal to the Constitution Drafting Committee, thus making the clergy's petition officially in the legislative pipeline.

While some committee members who are in the media are using their newspapers to support their own proposal, the clergy sent a troop of monks to the sacred Bodhgaya pilgrimage site in India, to take a fighting vow. There they publicly declared that the clergy would lead a nationwide boycott against the draft constitution if Buddhism is not institutionalised as the national religion.

According to supporters, the national religion clause is only a matter of recognising social reality because most people in Thailand are Buddhists while the national culture and history are closely intertwined with Buddhism. Besides, the King is constitutionally required to be Buddhist.

Accept reality, they insist. Not doing so, they say, will entail grave consequences because Buddhism can be overtaken by other aggressive religions if the state authorities will not provide sufficient protection.

It must be pointed out that this national religion campaign is taking place amid widespread paranoia within the clergy against Islam following the southern violence. There has also been wide distribution of leaflets alleging that Islam is a threat to Thai Buddhism.

Since the national religion proponents are pushing us to accept reality, they should explore first what really causes this decline of public faith in the monastic order.

The reality is that the extremely rich clergy are already enjoying heavy support from the state _ so much so that monks have lost accountability to the local communities while totally depending on the state to solve their own problems.

Another reality is that no outside help can cure the clergy of the ills that stem from their own feudalistic and authoritarian structure which breeds inertia, nepotism and corruption.

Since Buddhism teaches the need to dismantle a sense of self, the clergy should ask itself if its national religion demand is a quest for power, which is about greed and desire to strengthen ego.

The raging popularity of the Jatukam Ramathep talisman should also prompt us to ask ourselves if we are really Buddhists.

Essentially, this is a worship of spirits, which is no different from previous crazes such as the Rahu spirit worship that engulfed the country a few years ago. It is also in line with our worship of Hindu gods at spectacular shrines in every nook and cranny of the city.

Buddhism teaches self-reliance. It also teaches us the need to let go of our ego in order to avoid being emotionally stirred by likes and dislikes, which perpetuate our mental cycle of greed, anger and delusion.

The spirit worship, meanwhile, teaches dependency on external help.

If we are honest to ourselves, we should be able to answer if we have lost touch with the Buddhist teachings and if our Buddhism has been reduced to mere rites and rituals.

The Jatukam Ramathep phenomenon does not only reflect public insecurity from political uncertainties and terrorism threats, it also shows that we are basically animists.

Accept reality.

If we really need a national religion, animism should be the one. At least it can help us stop fooling ourselves that we are still Buddhists, and see who we really are.