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The sorry state of Thai Buddhism

The Nation, June 21, 2006

There are better ways of ensuring the relevance of Thailand's national religion than mass ceremonies or big temples

Bangkok, Thailand -- It has become customary for the Religious Affairs Department and Buddhist monastic authorities to intensify the enforcement of disciplinary standards for monks in the run-up to major religious holidays. With the approach of Buddhist Lent, which starts on July 11, they have decided to single out one monk in Nakhon Sawan's Takhli district who has won a huge following among the lottery-buying public for his supposed supernatural powers to predict winning numbers.

<< State of Buddhism in Thailand: Many who call themselves Buddhist are apparently content with superficially observing religious rites that they don't see as having much relevance to modern society

This monk is being investigated for breach of Buddhist precepts. If found guilty, Phra Lek of Wat Lad Tipparos could be defrocked and charged with fraud, a criminal offence. Monastic disciplinary enforcers will try to determine whether Phra Lek actually provided "lucky" numbers in exchange for cash donations amounting to the more than Bt10 million he was alleged to have amassed.

It might be useful to make an example of an errant monk like Phra Lek if monks' code of behaviour were consistently enforced.

But Phra Lek is just a small fry among all the wayward monks who have sullied the good name of Buddhism in the Kingdom. The scope of what is ailing the religion is far greater than most of Thailand's Buddhists are prepared to admit.

Many observant Buddhists have become so cynical that nothing - not even the most outrageous and despicable act imaginable committed by such morally challenged monks - would surprise them any more. Precious little has been done by monastic authorities to reverse what many see as a precipitous decline of Buddhism.

All too many monks in this country do not observe even the most rudimentary precepts required of lay Buddhists - let alone the 227 precepts that saffron-robed monks, who are supposed to propagate and teach the religion, must observe.

What is particularly worrying is that many people no longer even care and seem to believe the state of Buddhism in this country is beyond salvage. Many who call themselves Buddhist are apparently content with superficially observing religious rites that they don't see as having much relevance to modern society - let alone their personal lives.

That's sad, considering that Buddhism was for centuries so closely intertwined with the development of our national identity. Equally important was its moral authority, which had a positive influence on public morality and social norms and contributed to our peace and prosperity.

Buddhist temples used to be centres of learning and guardians of our cultural heritage, but now many have turned into dens of iniquity. As Thailand evolved from a traditional society to a modern nation-state, the failure to reform Buddhism and keep it up to date with all the drastic social and economic changes resulted in the religion's diminished influence as a force for good.

Instead of continuing to serve society as a guiding light, Buddhist institutions have become bogged down in anachronism and increasingly less relevant to our younger generations. Worse still, rampant misbehaviour and corruption by monks has further eroded these institutions.

Lay followers, who share responsibility for supporting and nurturing Buddhist institutions, have consistently failed to demand drastic reforms that are so badly needed. Even the credibility of the Supreme Sangha Council has been compromised by high-profile scandals.

The commercialisation of Buddhism, including fraudulent fund-raising and the selling of amulets, has become a national embarrassment. The number of temples continues to proliferate, but there are not enough well-qualified monks to go around.

Buddhist studies are badly taught in schools by teachers who don't know any better. Boring and unimaginative teaching methods coupled with too much emphasis on rote learning turn young people off.

We Thai Buddhists are very good at organising mass ceremonies celebrating religious holidays, spending huge sums building ever-larger religious statues and erecting ornately decorated temples to house them - as if these actions were all that mattered in perpetuating a religion supposedly practised by 95 per cent of our population.

It's time for those who consider themselves Buddhist to stand up and be counted in the campaign to clean up Buddhist institutions.

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