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A faith in dire need of reform

By WOR WACHIRAMETHI, The Bangkok Post, Aug 15, 2007

The row may be over, but the challenge is far from done regarding the question of the relationship between the State and Buddhism. What can the government do to shore up our weakening faith?

Bangkok, Thailand -- Buddhist activists may have stopped their campaign to push for Buddhism to be enshrined as the state religion in the constitution, after Her Majesty the Queen said in her 75th birthday address to the people that Buddhism should be free of politics and kept out of the new charter. The challenge faced by the religion, however, is not over yet.

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In the course of drafting the 2007 Constitution, certain quarters of Buddhists advocated that the new charter should stipulate that ''Buddhism is the State religion.''

After thorough consideration, though, the charter drafting body decided against such a clause. The best solution to recognise Buddhism as the ancient faith of the Kingdom that would equally placate both the ecclesiastical and secular worlds is to state that ''the King is a Buddhist and patron of all religions''. This appears in Article 9 (Chapter 2, the Monarch, page 3).

Also as part of a compromise to meet the demand of the clergy and Buddhism advocates, another new clause has been added: ''The State must provide patronage and protection to Buddhism, a religion long upheld by the majority of the Thai people, and other religions. The State must promote good understanding and reconciliation among followers of all religions, as well as supporting the application of religious teaching to cultivate ethics and develop quality of life.'' These words appear in Article 79 (Chapter 5, public policy guidelines, Section 4, policy relating to religion, society, health, education and culture, page 32.)

The substance of Article 9 and Article 79 sufficiently accords the status of Buddhism as a ''national religion'', be it from the historical perspective wherein the King has always been the ultimate patron of all religions regardless of whether the Kingdom was ruled by absolute or constitutional monarchy. This, in effect, means that Buddhism is the national religion.

It must be noted that the latest draft charter goes beyond recognising Buddhism as the national religion. This particular draft clarifies the ''mission'' of the State towards Buddhism and other religions through the clause, ''the State must provide patronage and protection to Buddhism, a religion long upheld by the majority of the Thai people''.

Ultimately, the demand from the clergy and Buddhists has been satisfied by the drafters. Even though it is not unequivocally expressed in words, substantively these two articles give enough ground to kick-start Buddhism reform in earnest.

In the advent of promulgation of this charter following the referendum, the next thing to watch is what constitutes the ''mission'' of the State in providing for, and protecting, Buddhism. What are the most pressing issues warranting the State's help?

In my opinion, the most urgent agenda the State must tend to towards the religious institutions and the clergy is ''developing guidelines for the governance and education of the clergy'', so that these organisations can be strengthened for their own sake as well as to stay relevant in today's world.

One root cause of multiple rounds of political, economic, social and educational crises besetting Thailand in recent years has to do with the intellectual crisis and moral crisis. In particular, the political crisis culminating in the coup d'etat in 2006 resulted from these two types of crisis. Monks once were the intellectual and spiritual beacons of Thai society, with the clergy being the rock of ethical values.

Yet today, monks have lost both functions. Many monks have fallen susceptible to materialism, consumerism, political factionalism.

The credibility and capability of monks to assert intellectual and spiritual leadership have been eroded as a result of them being in the same worldly cesspit as the lay people whom they are supposed to lead.

In terms of being an institution of ethical model, quite a few monks have themselves become catalysts to accelerate the country's moral decline. Certain senior monks have joined the bandwagon of leading the vinaya astray by giving Buddhism a twist of other faiths, without the slightest consideration to the consequences that such an action may drag Buddhism down the drain and plunge Buddhism deeper into the cult of consumerism.

The imbalance in development policies and the various crises Thailand is grappling with are in part related to the clergy's being out of sync with the modern world, and the resultant lack of capacity to lead intellectually and ethically. If we let the predicament of the clergy and Buddhist institutions persist on its own course, without the State's ''patronage'' as prescribed in the draft constitution, the political reform and development in this country would continue to plod along the same old treacherous pattern.

In a nutshell, the mission of the State towards religion is to expedite the ''patronage and protection of Buddhism and other religions'', to allow Buddhism and other faiths to return to their original core and essence _ in that religion must be an instrument to propel and not set back development, and that the religion's human resources must be able to perform their duty most efficiently.

Otherwise, the various problems that originated from religion could spiral into a crisis of national scale.

Buddhist monk Wor Wachiramethi is director of the Vimutyalai Institute. This article is part of a series of articles on Thai people and their experience with democracy, provided by the Sanya Dharmasakti Institute for Democracy, Thammasat University.

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