Yasodhara newsletter on international buddhist woman's activities 
Vol.20 (no.75) April-June, B.E. 2546 (2003)

        "Keeping the Faith"
chronicles the effects of a changing world onThai Buddhism Jim Taylor KEEPING THE FAITH: Thai Buddhism at the Crossroads By Sanitsuda Ekachai. Edited by Nick Wilgus. Post Books,326 pages, 350 baht Sanitsuda Ekachai'snew book is a collection of short, critical arti-cles and commentaries on various aspects ofcontemporary Thai Buddhism, arranged under eight sub-headings with a short introduction.An appealing feature of this ensemble is that "other" voices are heard with reader-friendlyand short, insightful comments over debatesconcerning the relevance and place of contem-porary Thai Buddhism, especially monasticism.The author uses few words and some broad brush-strokes to construct some extraordinarily vivid frames of everyday religious life in Buddhist Thailand. In reviewing a book such as this on Thai Buddhism, we need to ask ourselves whatis this religion, not always in accordance withthe texts, that most Thais seem to follow and identify with to some extent.

          The imagination,itself a social fact, is important as a means of informing the way we think, feel and act, in this case in relation to religion. It also accounts for the many expressions of Thai Buddhism thatwe see around us. Perhaps also these days we need to venture outside the monasteries toexperience living religion and what it means in the constructions of everyday contemporarylife in the villages, towns and cities. Lest weforget, Thailand is still one of the few remainingBuddhist countries where the Arahant (self-accomplished
"saint") ideal and its liberatingpossibilities remains alive and well in thecollective imagination. Not so any longer forthe wellspring of Theravada Buddhism, Sri Lanka, and doubtful in neighbouring Burma, Cambodia and Laos. It seems to me that many Thais are now asking the question: if these "acclaimed" exemplars or monastic teachers are still around, where are they to be found? Modern Buddhists would seem to claim that what is neededthese days is a system of standardisation as a requirement for continued monastic registration. Imagine, if you will, a situation in this periodof globalisation where each monastery (and monks), like many businesses in Thailand, would carry an "ISO" classification engraved over the front gate; for those "good monasteries" ableto show that they have adhered to "best-practice standards". But, more seriously, who would determine what is "best practice" monks or laity? As an expression of diversity, Thai monasticism, we are told, needs to recognisethe contribution of monk-activists engaged inthis world, in as much as it recognises thenormative spiritual achievement of the reclusive, disengaged meditative "Path" questers (to be found among the remaining forests enclaves).This is certainly a theological mute point. These modern activist-exemplars are to be found inurban monasteries, places of teaching andlearning, various refuges, rural community centres,conservation sites and hospices. Importantly, as the author says, while encouraging a worldlyengagement we should not forget the all-important questions of monastic discipline. In the pastdecade or so we have been overwhelmed by media accounts of serious monastic infringements, abuses of monastic privilege and power. These are the "other" images of Thai Buddhism that are not usually affixed to glossy tourist brochures and postcards to send back home; media repre-sentations, circulated and consumed widely through both print and electronic media (Thai and English). These images have not been favourable to defining a respectable "place" for Buddhism in modern Thai society. At this point we may ask ourselves, what, if anything, has gone wrong with Thai Buddhism in recent times? Or has themedia had a greater influence than we realise? There is not much talk around about "good monks", as these persons are in any case hardly "newsworthy" (unless the reader believes there are no exemplary practicing monks left any more which I do not believe, and clearly neither does the author though we may differ on what con-stitutes an "ideal" monk). Sanitsuda Ekachaiattempts to capture this complexity, while atthe same time show us that there are "other"religious possibilities, mainly from the socialinterstices. At the same time the author shares the concerns of many educated Thais in sug-gesting that Thai Buddhism needs to be linkedto the wider processes of democratic reform so that internal change can likewise occur in the Sangha (male and female monastic orders). Theassumption is that Thai Buddhism is in a state of "crisis" needing serious structural attention and that little trust can be placed in the monastic elders who, we are told, are unaware of current social realities. The position throughout (insofar as it is possible to identify a consistent thread) starts on the premise that the forces of moder-nisation in Thailand have destroyed the fundamental basis of tradition, especially culturalforms such as religion. This has lead to a new materialistic and individuated society basedon consumption. Thais, it would appear, clearlylike to go shopping instead of going to themonastery, or in a manner of speaking, theBuddha has been "relocated" in the shoppingcentres and arcades. Thus said, we need to be careful in assuming cultures are static, without any capacity to change through internal andexternal influences. Thai Buddhism has always been contested and changing (is this not one of the fundamental tenants of Buddhism?) and, in going with historic flows, this has accountedfor its continuities. It is from global realitiesthat Thailand struggles to find a new identity.It is from this scenario, as the author makesanother important thematic point, that TheravadaBuddhism in Thailand has re-established a new "relevance" for "modern Thai life and problems"(p.10) ; a religion that is, contrary to contemporary images, "still alive and well in the Thai psyche" (p.11). The responses from the Sangha to theconditions of modernity have been mixed andnot without tensions and contradictions involvingvarious actors. Everyone, it seems, has something to say concerning "problems" over discipline,monastic training and the maintenance ofreligious sanctity. Many of the case studies in this book received media attention over thepast decade or so due, in no small part, to the author herself writing on social issues for the Bangkok Post. The reader is taken through some depressing scenarios of monastic corruption and scandals on the one hand, and tales of hope and promise on the other. The compilation (even if the reader has read some of these accounts penned by the author before) gives a broadoverview of a modern society in change, especially through the confused and traumatic social and economic crisis of the late 1990s. However,unfortunately, the events of 1997 were not clearly factored into the discussions and implicationsfor Thai Buddhist practices. Although "other" voices are heard in the text, the author also makes her own position clear, as in support for thereform Dhamma heritage of the late modernist scholar-monk Buddhadasa Bhikkhu and, corre-spondingly, an active, engaged monastic order (male and female). This engaged "here-and-now" Buddhism (espoused by the well-known Sulak Sivaraksa) confronts contemporary concernsand issues (women's rights, environment andconservation, social equity, justice, etc), reaching out to a society clearly much in need of spiritual nourishment. The proviso is that these "con-cerned" monks keep to the disciplinary charter; though how they do this while at the same time are encouraged to become more "engaged" and "this-worldly" is not fully addressed as are the inherent contradictions in this proposition. Monks gain respect and veneration precisely because of a ritual separation from society at large, where the temptations of ordinary life are minimised. Even Buddhadasa Bhikkhu particularly popular among the Thai middle class preferred a forest hermitage for his contemplation and scholastic pursuits. The very problems confronting modern monks have been a blurring of spatial boundaries with the gradual attrition from the simple, distanced, reclusive life. In other words, theincreasing worldliness of monks has createdits own problems as it did in the West among Protestant and Catholic clergy. There was even talk of whether Buddhist monks should beallowed to marry if they are going to be more engaged in the world. In the matter of "keeping the faith", the modern-day problems are indeed complicated, but the solution is simple if we go back (forward?) to the essence of (timeless) dhamma practice. In the present "crisis" we need to understand the practical implications of the monastic discipline, and its limitations on worldly engagement. It is not possible to have it both ways. The Theravada monastic discipline is to ensure that being a monk, even these days, is unambiguous and without hindrance. It is inambiguous situations that confusion arises. For most ordinands, keeping the minutiae of thediscipline is not easily done and disciplinaryinfractions occur with increasing frequencybecause monks, after all, are human. Thereare many Thais who have fallen into a crisis in"faith" over the condition of the contemporary Bhikkhu Sangha. Some even believe that mostof the remaining good monastic teachers have now established branch monasteries outsidethe country, especially in the West, while one or two alleged monastic miscreants were forcedto flee the country out the back door for fear of facing criminal proceedings. But, looking at the situation overall, these cases were few and far between. In regard to the question of women in Thai Buddhism, the author is most articulate:"It boils down to power: the male-dominated order wants to continue excluding womenfrom entering and sharing monks' sphere of authority" (p.287). It is not that the author is necessarily incorrect in her moral assessmentsit is more a question of whether all concerns,even more conservative ones, have been ad-equately considered. The progressive positionis that if the Sangha's administrative structure (and its geriatric monk-administrators) is not in accordance with modern norms and values, it should be changed. After all, Thailand is rapidly changing. The same argument is heard overthe necessity of providing secular education to monks to enable them to keep abreast withthe informational world-in-change, especially IT, though issuing bachelor's degrees to ambitious monks, or a new digital monastic order ("Cyber-Sangha") does not, in itself, ensure a "better fit" monastic order, or a body of monks more able to respond to contemporary social needs. There would be little to disagree about thesubtext in the book, with its concerns for much-needed reform, which also seeks connectionback to the untainted origins of the teachings.The book is about the concern in making "faith" work in the present; making the varieties ofThai Buddhism relevant and meaningful intoday's world in order to "keep faith". ThaiBuddhism, in a sense, may be at a "crossroads", but to my mind it all depends on perspectives, ways of seeing and understanding, and whichparticular road one is looking down. Dr. Jim Taylor is a senior lecturer at theDepartment of Anthropology, University of Adelaide,South Australia.

Back      Yasodhara Newsletter No.75

 Songdhammakalyani  Temple  195 Petkasem Highway Muang District, Nakhonpathom Thailand 73000
Tel.& Fax.  660 3428 4315   E- mail :
[email protected]
Copyright (c) 2002-2003 Thaibhikkhunis.org  All rights reserved.