Thai Buddhism serves the state, teaches people to be complacent: academic

Analysing the predominant faith of the majority of Thais, an academic has pointed out that the version of Buddhism patronised by the Thai state promotes Thai nationalism and teaches people to be docile and accept their socio-economic status.  
On 11 May 2016, Somrit Luechai, a scholar of Buddhism, gave a lecture on “The Future of Buddhism in Thailand: Options and Solutions” in the seminar, “Thailand’s Future and Education: Opportunities, Challenges, and Position on the World Stage” at the Pridi Banomyong International College at Thammasat University.
Somrit stated that recent news has caused him to ponder on the situation of Thai Buddhism. The first item was the push by Buddhists to enshrine Buddhism as the national religion. Second was the Sangha’s refusal to ordain Bhikkhuni, female Buddhist monks.
Third was the fight for the position of the Supreme Patriarch, which could lead to an interesting clash. On one side are those with barami (an all-encompassing term for reverence, awe, and benefit), but no power, including smaller sects of Buddhism like the Dhammakaya cult. On the other side are those with power, but without barami, such as the state, the Wat Bowonniwet Vihara, and the Thammayut sect.
Finally, recent news about campaigns to execute those convicted in cases of rape and murder has caused him to think about Thai Buddhism.
Somrit clarified at the seminar that by the term “Thai Buddhists,” he meant Buddhists who are self-declared, practising Buddhists within the context of Thai society, not Buddhists in the international context or Buddhists who adhere to the core text’s principles.
“The Buddhist texts of Thailand start with the sentence that says that current Buddhism has been diluted by animism. I disagree with this statement. It’s Buddhism that has entered and diluted animism, which was already established in the Suvarnabhumi Kingdom and Southeast Asia. Buddhism entered as a foreign influence and tried to incorporate animism, but was unsuccessful. Animism won. Thus “true Buddhism” became “Thai Buddhism.”
Somrit Luechai
Thammayut merges Buddhism with the Nation-State
In the past, Buddhism and the state were separate. Although the separation was not complete, the power structures were. Of course, overlaps and linkages between the two systems were sometimes undeniably created for mutual benefits.
Giving an example of this power separation, Somrit said that once the abbot of Wat Rajathiwat refused to allow Rama IV and his procession to present robes to monks at the end of Buddhist Lent because the abbot disagreed with the procession’s demand to cut down the trees in front of the temple. Reportedly, the abbot said, “If you need to cut down those trees, don’t bother coming.”
“This type of situation is impossible in the present day,” said Somrit. “It’s as impossible as this other story of a high-ranking monk carrying a lamp into the Grand Palace and saying ‘How dark it is!’ in the middle of the day. These stories function to show us that in the old order of things, religion and the state were close but separate, acting as checks and balances upon each other—sometimes, even controlling each other.”
However, the establishment of the Thammayut sect in 1826 was an important turning point in changing this order. The birth of Thammayut was closely tied to the birth of the nation-state, as well as nationalism. At the same time, capitalism and Westernization led to violent divides and conflicts within the court, and had a huge effect on Thai Buddhism.
Somrit explained that the birth of the Thammayut sect created a Thai Buddhism of the state. ‘Thammayut’ has the doctrine, and literal meaning, that the karmic cycle of rebirth will end with this sect, which is the most correct one. Therefore, Thammayut is very strict in terms of vinaya (Pali and Sanskrit for “discipline”), stressing the following of precepts. Thammayut became the Buddhism of the Siamese nation-state in the following King’s reign. The monastic Sangha council was created in 1902 (Rattanakosin Era 121) to oversee all monastic activity in the kingdom. Instead of being a counterbalancing power to the state, religion came under the power of the state.
1.2 billion out of 5.4 billion baht for monks’ pittance
According to Somrit, if we look at how the Office of National Buddhism’s annual budget of 5.4 billion baht is distributed, we can see that 23 million goes to the Supreme Patriarch. The monthly pittance, or stipend, for monks in the Sangha, deans, and abbots amounts to 1.2 billion baht. Various Buddhist rituals cost 3 billion baht. In comparison, non-Buddhist religious departments have only 390 million baht combined. Evidently, a good Thai Buddhist loyal to the state is, in turn, well taken care of by the nation.
“The disparity is clear when we contrast the Sangha and Thai Bhikkhuni. There are about 200 Thai Bhikkhunis and 10 Bhikkhuni monasteries, and none of them are given any money from the state. They must exist outside of the state’s approval, so it’s worth questioning whether the state only supports a type of Buddhism that benefits the state,” said the Buddhism scholar.
Thai Buddhism also mandates interpretations of religious terms, said Somrit. For example, “karma” usually means deeds done, which have consequences (vipaka). Thai interpretations, however, define “karma” as the consequences themselves (shown in the common Thai adage “Do good, receive good. Do bad, receive bad). The explanation for this definition of “karma” is also extremely narrow. Those who have done good “karma” in past lives are then born rich, with high status, and are destined to be leaders. Those who have done bad “karma” in past lives are born poor, and live destitute, uneducated lives. If they want to become rich or raise their status, they must do a lot of good deeds in this life so that they can become rich in the next one. This is the mainstream Thai Buddhism interpretation of karma, and results in large groups of people being complacent with their lot in life, especially without challenging the caste-like social hierarchy.
“However, this contracts with canonical Buddhism. The Buddha championed the poor and he gave a chance to both the poor and the rich. Ideally, the Sangha is supposed to be a community of freedom, unity, and equality,” said Somrit. He pointed out that the Buddha said that everyone had the capacity to achieve their goals in their current life, not in the next. However, “karma” as defined by the Thai state makes people put their hopes in the next life. We can all see how Thai TV urges people to make merit, because you do not have any barami, but you might in the next life if you make merit now. Women, don’t get ordained in this life! Make a lot of merit, and in the next life you might have enough to be born as a man, and then get ordained.
“These words and meanings have been carefully selected in order to define ‘Thai Buddhism.’ Thai Buddhism works through socialization to pacify people—their grandest and greatest project,” said Somrit.
Nevertheless, history shows that this power has often been met with resistance. For example, the monk Sirichanto (1857–1932) decried the state’s decision to send Thai troops to participate in World War I was stripped of his monkhood. Monk Srivichai (1878–1938), who stuck to ancient societies’ precepts of Buddhism, including the one that states that ordaining for 10 years allows one to become a priest who officiates ceremonies (preceptor). However, the Sangha Act dictates that preceptors must be approved by the state. The conflict between original, ancient Buddhism and Thai Buddhism is clear.
Varieties of Thai Buddhism
Somrit concluded that there are several varieties of Thai Buddhism in Thai society. One is Buddhism that follows ancient customs, practiced by the few forest temples. The second, dubbed by Somrit as “State Buddhism”, which includes most Thai Buddhists, is practised by monks in Bangkok, the centre of State Buddhism. The third is “Popular Buddhism,” populated by figures such as reverend grand monks, local masters, and sacred magical objects. Popular Buddhism is more interested in removing troubles in everyday life rather than dharmic principles.
Fourth is “Intellectual Buddhism,” founded by Buddhadasa (1906–1993), practiced by the Buddhist intelligentsia, who do not emphasize rituals or ancient beliefs, but rather focus on the dharmic principles and their application to daily life. This is also quite a small group of Thai Buddhists. The fifth group is “Engaged Buddhism,” which is burgeoning in popularity but also small. Somrit described them as NGO Buddhists who want to help society.
The sixth group is Radical Buddhism. “This group includes the Santi Asoke school [founded by Samana Bhodirak (1934–) who also founded the Palang Dharma Party (1988–2007]. Frankly speaking, it’s a more down-to-earth version of Thammayut, focusing on the villagers and their issues. Interestingly, Wat Bowonniwet Vihara is a Thammayut temple for the upper class, and focuses on both the Thammayut and upper-class emphasis on vinaya and following precepts.”
Finally, a hugely popular type is Middle Class Buddhism, said Somrit. Interestingly in this sect, the participants are rich—both the preachers and the audience. Recently, I even asked them how to give a sermon to reap the most profit.
“This group emphasizes ‘Buddhist Commercialism’, [having faith in Buddhist precepts in the hope of personal monetary gain], rather than self-discipline or changing themselves with deep epiphanies. Wearing white [making merit] for three days is long enough. Don’t try to change them too much or impose too many inconveniences,” said the Buddhist academic.
A Solution for Buddhism in Thai Society
To work towards a solution in Thai society, Somrit said that Thai monks must free themselves from the traps of sacrality as mandated by the ancient Pali language. This is because, says Somrit, the modern day sacred language of Buddhism is English, which can be used to communicate with the entire world, as evidenced by Thích Nhất Hạnh and the Dalai Lama, whose sermons have global appeal.
Secondly, Thai Buddhist sermons are still full of stories about supernatural power, which Somrit says is meaningless to the younger generation and the rest of the world. Instead, the sermons should focus on reason and actual practice, instead of hoping for a better next life by making merit in this one.
Thirdly, Thai Buddhism should comply with the world, instead of resisting global ideals such as human rights, stewardship of the environment, etc. For example, the case of a monk campaigning to burn down mosques goes against the idea of a harmonious, open-minded, and merciful world.
Fourthly, missionary work should not be the sole duty of monks, but of all Buddhists.
Fifthly, for Buddhism to survive, it must be open towards disadvantaged groups, such as women and sexual minorities. Everyone must have the chance to live a religious life, because religions should open their arms to everyone.
“Finally, and very importantly, the Buddhist temples should be separated from the state. Speaking frankly, the Sangha should be abolished. That’s the solution,” concluded Somrit.
This article was first published in Thai on Prachatai and translated by Asaree Thaitrakulpanich.