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Anna and the retarded education

By METTANANDO BHIKKHU, Bangkok Post, May 6, 2005

Thai monastic education is trapped in the past and by rules which are as quixotic as they are anachronistic

Bangkok, Thailand -- The good news about a Buddhist monastic education is that it has served Thailand and most Buddhist countries in Asia as the main thrust of literacy for hundreds of years. This is attested to in the records of foreigners and Christian missionaries in Asia who were surprised by the high literacy rate among native Buddhists in countries such as Sri Lanka, Burma, Siam and Mongolia.

The monastic system provided many boys from poor rural areas a way up the social ladder. Many leaders in Asia were educated or supported by monks or nuns before attaining success in life. However, this does not mean that the traditional monastic education and training is the foundation of an advanced learning system as required by modern society.

The bad news about education in Buddhist monasteries in Thailand is that it is based almost exclusively on memorisation; critical thinking plays little part. It is conditioned by the traditional system of feudal obedience. No student has the right to question his teachers.

This is in contrast with the liberal and critical attitude of early Buddhist monastic training expounded by the Buddha in the canonical literature. This does not condone any concept of obedience to the guru. The message of the Buddha encourages his listeners not to believe in him nor accept his teachings without putting them to the test of thorough and critical analysis.

Monks here are taught to accept the teachings of their master without question. Criticism or analysis of any passage or myth about the life of Buddha is neither welcome nor tolerated.

Worse than the rigid system of religious orthodoxy in the monastic philosophy of education is that students in this education system are not encouraged to study the Tipitaka, the very canonical literature of Buddhism. Instead, their studies are limited to commentaries from the Mahavihara monastery in Sri Lanka of the 5th century CE. The traditional system of exegesis is based on fables and tales written by commentators and preserved in the Pali language, which is believed to be the language of the state of Magadha, the legendary root language of the cosmos, spoken by the Buddha.

Despite the fact the legend of the root language of Pali as the language of the Buddha has no support in the Tipitaka, this belief is one of the distinctive characteristics of Theravada Buddhism, which is the only form of the religion that takes the language as the one and only sacred language of Buddhism. Based on this assumption, Buddhist scriptures in Tibetan, Chinese or Mongolian are seen as heterodox.

Even worse than this is that the text on Pali grammar, mandated for national Pali examination in Thailand, differs greatly from books of Pali grammar taught in other Theravada countries. Not only is this book without references, thus preventing readers from learning about the history and origin of Pali, its format is not based on the traditional book of grammar in Pali that was known in Sri Lanka or Burma.

The Pali Grammar Book, written by Somdet Phra Mahasamanchao Krom Phra Vajirayanvarosos, classifies Pali grammar into four parts: morphology, parts of speech, syntax and the prosody system of division not shared in books of Pali grammar taught in other Theravada countries. Nowhere in this authoritative book does the princely monk acknowledge his sources. The alien format of the grammar was taken from Victorian English. The source of the format, of course, was taken from his English instructor when he was a young prince. This could have been Anna Leonowens, who was employed by King Rama IV to educate the royal children.

Because of the authority of the princely monk, who later became the leader of Buddhism in Thailand, the syllabus cannot be changed. Monks and novices are forced to memorise the paradigms, and the hybrid Pali grammar posed in a modern European language; the learning style is like parrots without any clear understanding of its true meaning. The translation they learn is based entirely on what their teacher tells them; no independent thinking is allowed. It is not surprising therefore that the Thai translation of Pali literature is quite different in several details from that of other scholars in the Pali language and from other Theravada Buddhist countries.

Worse than this already bad news is that there is no way for the Thai feudal monastic system to reform monastic education, as it is closely intertwined with the monarchy and pride of ecclesiastical feudalism.

The adverse effect of the current traditional monastic education is obvious in Thai society, where monks are taken as leaders. When scholars and civic leaders are pushing for education reform, their efforts are retarded by monks who see the child-centred model of modern education as sacrilegious to the Buddhist ideal in which the Dharma should be the centre.

Attached to this traditional value, so-called the Dharma as they interpret the religion, is Buddhist chauvinism and religious complacency. Anna might not have expected the influence of her teaching in the court of Siam to have lasted this long.

Mettanando Bhikkhu is a staunch critic of the Ecclesiastical Council, and a former physician with an MA from Oxford University and a doctorate from Hamburg University, Germany

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