While the junta thinks that Thai Buddhism will be purified by arresting the former abbot of Wat Dhammakaya, experts point out a lack of secularism and political tolerance is a real threat to the dominant religion.
History of the Sangha Council
Aphinya Fuengfusakul, a lecturer from Chiang Mai University’s Department of Sociology and Anthropology, stated the Sangha Council has prevented secularism from emerging in Thai society.
The Sangha Council is a hierarchical body responsible for governing Thai Buddhist monks across the country. The council was established in the reign of King Rama V in order to modernise the religion. However, state power was used to guarantee the existence of a certain religious organisation and give it superiority over other religious organisations, Aphinya observed.
She also added the Sangha Council emerged with the goal of purifying Buddhism. Therefore, sects or beliefs that appear to deviate from “real Buddhism” need to be suppressed. Dhammakaya is an obvious example of such deviation because of its prosperity and popularity. However, the council has never recognized that the proliferation of these so-called “deviant” Buddhist sects is due to the council’s failure to adapt to a changing society.
She compared unconventional Buddhist sects to civil society organisations which emerge to fill gaps between the state and society. Unconventional sects propose alternative interpretations to believers who disagree with the traditional interpretation, like civil society organisations try to propose solutions to social problems when they find the government’s solutions ineffective.
Aphinya pointed out that the junta’s operation to arrest Dhammachayo will
not solve any problem since the problematic structure of the Sangha Council remains untouched. More individuals like Dhammachayo and more sects like Dhammakaya will emerge because nothing can prevent people from interpreting religion from their own perspective.
She suggested that the Thai state detach itself from any religious organisation and let people decide what to believe. The state must guarantee freedom of religion and allow free debate on religious interpretation so people could learn to live together with political tolerance.
The problems of the Sangha Council were further explained by Phramaha Boonchuay. As a Buddhist monk, he observed that the Council has destroyed a core value of Buddhism. Since the Council rewards monks with monastic titles based on their seniority and knowledge of Dhamma, most monks focus on learning Dhamma and practice less meditation, which is one of the core practices of Buddhism.
Buddhism as a State Mechanism
Pinyapan Potjanalawan, a lecturer at Lampang Rajabhat University’s Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences, said that although religions are supposed to be separate from the state, Buddhism has always been a crucial state mechanism. In the era of Ashoka the Great, Buddhism was used as an excuse for the king to spread his influence over India. Ashoka also used Buddhism to suppress his opponents by deeming them heretics. A similar thing is happening in Thailand right now, Pinyapan observed.
In Thailand’s education system, Buddhism has more space than any other religion. The Thai state has policies to connect schools with temples in an attempt to establish Buddhist morality as core values for students. The reason why Dhammakaya is so popular nowadays is that it can reach younger generations through these policies.
The state gives Buddhism priority and resources without any system of checks and balances, especially on financial issues. Dhammakaya is not the only temple that faces money laundering allegations. Other famous temples and monks also face allegations of possessing dirty money and illegal land encroachment.
Pinyapan added that if Thai state has an excise tax, it should also have a religious tax so that the state could distribute these resources to society. He concluded that the state and religion cannot be totally separated. The state’s role, however, should be only to redistribute wealth, not to control people’s beliefs.