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Western-educated monks inject new blood into Thai Buddhism
By Peter Janssen, Monster & Critics, Dec 22, 2010
Chiang Mai, Thailand -- Sorayut Chayapanyo, the 32-year-old abbot of the Doi Pha Som forest temple, has found little use for his Stanford University economics degree in the hills of Chiang Mai.
'I studied pure, hard-core, theoretical economics and now I can say it's all BS,' Sorayut said, sitting in his spartan hut on top of Pha Som hill.
'Western economics are leading us to a dead end. It was a mistake from the first equation they used - the optimization equation,' he said. 'Western economics is all about people being driven by greed.'
Sorayut was ordained as a monk eight years ago in New York, after graduating from Stanford University and working in the United States for two years, including a stint at the World Bank.
Six years ago he moved to Samueang, a rustic district about 80 kilometres south-west of Chiang Mai, where he found his mission - the restoration of a centuries-old pagoda of the top of Pha Som hill.
Nearby villagers gave their time and free labour to renovate the ancient shrine, blackened by forest fires and long neglected.
In return, Sorayut started thinking of ways to assist the villages. He first built a small dam and weir system on a stream on Pha Som hill, helping to store water for the surrounding villages in the dry season.
He then persuaded villagers to stop cutting down trees in the forests in an effort to retain water and reduce forest fires.
Finally, three years ago, he began preaching 'sufficiency economy' advocated by King Bhumibol Adulyadej, Thailand's revered 83-year-old king. Although much-politicized of late, Sorayut argued that the theory makes economic sense in impoverished rural areas where access to the market economy is difficult.
Often misunderstood as being anti-capitalist and anti-Western, Sorayut argued that sufficiency economy is somewhere between the market economy and socialism, following the Buddhist precept of learning to be content.
'Sufficiency economy means trying to depend on yourself when possible,' Sorayut said. 'In the market economy money is everything, but in sufficiency economy, money is just one thing. Water, rice and trees have value too, as does love and friendship. Generosity is more important than profit.'
In practice, sufficiency economy has meant persuading farmers in Samueang to grow their own food for consumption, instead of investing in strawberries and cabbages to supply merchants in Chiang Mai.
Many villagers have returned to rice farming, promoting their product as 'organic' since they use neither chemical fertilizers nor pesticides, and planting slow-growing but highly valued trees such a teak for their retirement plan.
The concept appears to be catching on, drawing followers from 20 villages around Doi Pha Som.
'Before I didn't believe in sufficiency economy but now I see it works,' said Udon Sukho, a 50-year-old farmer. 'I used to have to borrow money all the time to grow cash crops. Now I'm debt free.'
Sorayut is arguably one of a new breed of Western-educated monks who are starting to make a social impact in Thailand.
'For the Western-educated Thais, this is a new trend that started about 10 years ago,' said Sulak Sivaraksa, a well-known Buddhist scholar and social critic. 'There are not many yet but I think the number is growing. There is hope.'
Thanomsing Sukosalo, a 30-year-old monk in Chiang Mai who publishes Moom magazine for teenagers, is another example.
Thanomsing, from a well-to-do Thai family, was educated in New Zealand, Australia, China and the US before he decided to be ordained at the age of 25.
With the guidance of Buddhist monk Prayudh Payutto, the recipient of the UNESCO peace education award in 1994, Thanomsing has gathered a group of young college-educated monks in Chiang Mai to publish magazines, do social work and promote Buddhism.
'Some people have studied economics, history or computer science, but we're all trying to achieve the same goal,' Thanomsing said. 'Our goal is a Buddhist goal - to un-sling all the things that are attached to us.'
But Thanomsing expressed concern that the new generation of college-educated monks was not more organized in its activities, perhaps a reflection of a lack of direction from Thailand's Buddhist hierarchy of monks, called the Sangka.
But supreme neglect may be better than the alternative.
'The good thing about the Thai Sangka is it's so weak it doesn't do anything,' Sulak said. 'In Burma, a woman was ordained as a monk last year and they had her put her in jail right away. Here they would do nothing.'