Where are the real Buddhists in this clergy?

by SANITSUDA EKACHAI, Bangkok Post, June 14, 2007

Bangkok, Thailand -- The showdown is near. And a bloody one too, it is feared. To avoid violent clashes between the pro- and anti-Thaksin (former Thai Prime Minister) camps, we need our monks all the more to remind us of the importance of patience and non-violence.

Monks protest in front of parliament in Bangkok to demand Buddhism be declared the national religion in post-coup Thailand. Pic by AP

But don't bank your hopes on our supposed symbol of moral authority. They are too busy with something else. Like trying to break through the gates of Parliament - which was what a group of angry monks tried to do on Monday. Like staging a hunger strike as part of the clergy's effort to enshrine Buddhism as the national religion in the new charter.

If they are not busy protesting or mobilising nationalist support through painting other religions as enemies of Buddhism, most senior monks are too busy cashing in on the Jatukarm fever by providing the blessing rituals, or by producing the talismans themselves.

If there is anything that can shore up public respect for the clergy, it would not be through making Buddhism the state religion.

It would be through changing the monks' own behaviour to be in line with the Lord Buddha's teachings.

The gate-crashing effort. The hunger strike. The use of ultra-nationalism. The promotion of greed-governed animism. Is all this what monks should be doing to get what they want?

Whatever the answer, the clergy can no longer expect to have the last word.

Hunger strike as a non-violent act? How is it so, when the principle of non-exploitation in Buddhism cautions against hurting not only others but also oneself?

The status of national religion as a necessary measure to protect Buddhism and Thai-ness? Well, the Buddha has said his teachings will last as long as the monks, nuns, as well as male and female lay Buddhists still truly follow the Path. He never said anything about a national religion.

Meanwhile, what we define as Thai-ness results from our social conditioning. Doesn't Buddhism teach us to understand and undo social conditioning because we are essentially one and the same regardless of race, culture and creed?

And if these monks believe they can rescue Buddhism by pushing and shoving with security personnel, or by making money from the Jatukarm talismans, they are only aggravating public dismay at the clergy's behaviour all the more.

This dismay does not stem from lack of respect. On the contrary.

When fear of political violence and terrorism has become our daily concern, we more than ever need the religious leaders we can respect.

Here's the glitch: the source of respect has changed from days of old. But the clergy, whose culture is rooted in feudalism, do not understand this. And they don't know how to meet modern society's new needs.

That is why the people are frustrated.

In the old days, monks were the privileged literate few who had direct access to the Buddhist texts. They then easily commanded public respect for being the people's sole source of religious knowledge.

Now this is no longer the case. Widespread literacy and technology has broken the monks' monopoly on the teachings. Dhamma books are everywhere. The sacred texts of the Tripitaka are ready at our fingertips on the 'Net.

Meditation, the monks' traditional territory, has increasingly given way to lay meditation masters.

Amid these changes, we don't as much need monks who tell us what the Buddha says. We need monks who live the Buddha's way.

When we are surrounded and constantly attacked by the temptations of this consumerist world, we need living proof that the Buddha's way still works. We need monks to be our role models, to be our source of inspiration.

We need monks who can motivate us to reconnect with ourselves and with others.

We need monks who live their lives showing us that loving kindness is our answer, not power and domination.

Buddhism as a state religion cannot restore the clergy's moral authority. It will come easily, however, if the clergy know their duty and meet our needs.

Sanitsuda Ekachai is Assistant Editor (Outlook), Bangkok Post.