Politics of Thai Buddism
Written and Researched by
Enrique Chaljub & Joseph Roskop
One Sangha, One Nation
As any Thai school child can tell you, Thai society has three pillars: Nation, Religion, and Monarchy. Despite not being the official religion, around 95% of Thailand is Buddhist. As we’ll explore, Buddhism has played a key role in the formation of a Thai national identity. Subsequently, it has historically been a source of moral legitimacy for both the forces in power, as well as inspiration for those dissatisfied with them. However, in today’s progressively modernized (and capitalized) Thailand, Buddhism’s core institution, the state-regulated Sangha (monastic community) is almost universally viewed as outdated and decaying. Moreover, there is little consensus on any solutions.
While divergent sects of Buddhism (as well as it’s hybrid theologies) make the religion’s exact time of arrival to Thailand difficult to ascertain, archeological evidence indicates that by the 3rd century B.C.E., versions of Buddhism consistent with Pali Canon were being practiced en masse (Kusalasaya, 2006). The sect of Buddhism most commonly practiced in today’s Thailand is Theravada, characterized by its belief that Buddha was a teacher rather than a deity. Despite an almost monolithic Buddhist identity in Thailand, some Hindu influence also pervades its religious ceremonies. This includes the required use of Hindu clergymen to officiate the royal coronation ceremony for the Thai monarchy (The Coronation Ritual and Thai Kingship since the mid-nineteenth century, NUS Repository).
Regardless of its precise origin, the ubiquity of Buddhism in Thailand has led many to view the faith as integral to concepts of “Thainess” (Elliott & Wattanasuwan, 1999). This reality has been interpreted as being exploitative by some who claim that Thai Buddhism has been “captured by the state” (McCargo, 2004).
"The symbiotic relationship between the state and sangha has effectively limited
Buddhism to the role of legitimating state power, and the universalistic teachings
of Buddhism have been subordinated to nationalist ideology."
Sentiments such as this were rooted in the 1902 Sangha Act, enacted during a period in which King Rama V was defining boundaries around a formal Thai state; this was coupled with the attempted centralization of the predominating regional faith at time— Buddhism. With the Sangha act, religious power “theoretically became centralized in the Council of Elders” a select group of senior Bangkok monks who tended to have close ties to Thai monarchy and the social elite. This council was headed by a Supreme Patriarch (the Buddhist Sangha’s top ecclesiastical post)— a position which was itself appointed by the king.
The end of the absolute monarchy in 1932 coincided with an increase in pressure on the Sangha leadership to form more inclusive institutions. This was widely viewed as a response to the fact that the Council of Elders tended to be dominated by a circle of elite, urban-based Thammayut monks — “[...] Mahanikai–Thammayut relations [were] a Sangha and state concern going back to the mid-nineteenth century, and became a more acute worry after the 1902 Sangha Act passed and the Thammayut expanded their influence upcountry” (Subrahmanyan, 2014).
In turn, rural areas were generally the domain of the more diverse and numerous Mahanikai monks, stationed in more modest temples, or Wats. The presiding semi-democratic government after the Revolution of 1932 was initially disinclined to mediate any disputes within the Sangha, generally deferring all authority to the established Sangha elites. Over time, Mahanikai monks were able to lobby some parliamentary support to the cause of Sangha democratization, arguing that Sangha leadership was unfairly dominated by Thammayut monks– “to [the Mahanikai] the system of hierarchy was open to abuse by unscrupulous monks and the rules of the discipline were ignored because of the general privilege of the palace-founded Thammayut” (Subrahmanyan, 2014).
This parliamentary support was eventually leveraged to pass a new Sangha Act in 1941, which aimed to democratize the Sangha leadership. However, enforcing the new act was another task altogether. Subrahmanyan writes, “Faced with Thammayut resistance, in the late 1940s Mahanikai activists repeatedly petitioned the government for fulfilment of the spirit and letter of the 1941 Sangha Act that was now obviously in danger of becoming meaningless.”
The 1941 version of the Act was eventually overturned by an authoritarian government in 1962, which returned the authority to select the Supreme Patriarch to the king; a stark departure from the aspirations of previous Mahanikai monks. This was done in an apparent rebuke to the wave of quasi-democratization that had washed over Thailand in the previous 2 decades; and was shortly followed by a new Thai constitution in 1963.
The rise of contradictory religious movements began in the 70’s, an especially chaotic decade in Thailand both politically and socially (see student movement.) Two movements in particular best exemplify the societal tug-of-war under which the future form of Thai Buddhism still hangs: the Dhammakaya and Santi Asoke. Each approached the crisis of faith facing an increasingly modernized and capitalized Thailand in two radically different ways. While the Dhammakaya embraced the new era, the Santi Asoke condemned it.
Dhammakaya Meditation and Wat Phra Dhammakaya
The Dhammakaya movement is primarily centered around its meditative style, an allegedly ancient and superior form of meditation practiced by the Buddha and his early disciples. The movement’s founder, Luang Phaw Sot, claimed to have rediscovered Dhammakaya meditation in the early 20th century during a supernatural experience after spending four hours meditating (Mackenzie 2007).
The higher levels of Dhammakaya meditation are purported to give one special powers. These include the ability to: visit past lives; discover where someone was reborn; cure oneself and others of any disease; gain extra sensory perception; and perform mind control. The feats rumored to have been accomplished by Luang Pow Sot and his early disciples vary from curing the terminally ill, to mind travelling to the halls of power in Washington D.C. and dissuading American leaders from dropping nuclear bombs on Thailand, instead having them target Japan (Mackenzie 2007).
After the death of Luang Pow Sot in 1959, his disciples split ways. One of them, Kun Yai Chan, an illiterate woman responsible for the nuclear bomb miracle, founded the Dhammakaya Foundation at the present site of Wat Phra Dhammakaya. This temple in particular began to grow rapidly in large part due to its business-like approach to fundraising and recruitment, as well as the charismatic leadership and vision of former abbot (and current fugitive) Phra Dhammachayo. Wat Phra Dhammakaya is presently the fastest growing temple in Thailand with around 600 - 800 monks, 300 - 500 novice monks, more than 1000 paid officials, and millions of followers worldwide. The temple now covers an area spanning ~800 acres and contains massive structures like a cetiya with 1 million depictions of the Buddha (Mackenzie 2007).
Wat Phra Dhammakaya cetiya
Wat Phra Dhammakaya’s methods of fundraising have regularly come into public scrutiny, especially in times of economic downturn like the 1997 Asian financial crisis. It frequently used alleged miracles as advertisement material urging laypeople to donate for the building of the cetiya. The temple also emphasizes the merit-making potential donating can have both in present and future lifetimes. A perfect example is the seven benefits it lists for owning a Buddha image (~$220) in its cetiya:
The power to protect against and overcome all obstacles and perils
Wealth and prosperity
Personal beauty, radiance and endearment to all
Career success, strong health, and long life
Right understanding of the world, purity, and radiance of mind
Forthrightness and steadfastness in Dhamma practice
Endowment with worldly riches, heavenly riches, and the riches of nibbana (Mackenzie 2007)
Critics argue that the tactics deployed to secure donations are not only predatory, but also contradict Buddhist teachings. For some, the promise of worldly riches in exchange for cash-friendly merit-making does not exactly match a religion which preaches detachment from worldly desires. Although merit-making is a core part of Thai Buddhism, the Wat Phra Dhammakaya approach has proven too distasteful for many.
Highly respected Buddhist scholars and monastics like Phra Dhammapitaka and Professor Sathiarapong Rachabandit have also criticized some of the basic teachings of the temple. The former was a victim of slander and the latter of murder threats, both allegedly perpetrated by followers of the movement, further staining its image in the public eye (Mackenzie 2007).
The physical size of Wat Phra Dhammakaya has also been a subject of controversy. When tenant farmers living on land purchased by the temple were eventually forced out, they threatened to commit suicide and burn down the temple (Mackenzie 2007).
The controversies also extend into the political sphere due to Wat Phra Dhammakaya’s rumored links to former PM Thaksin Shinawatra. After the 2014 military coup that ousted Thaksin’s younger sister, Yingluck Shinawatra, the ruling junta then took aim at the temple and its leadership. By 2017, 308 different cases were filed against the Wat Phra Dhammakaya, and two arrest warrants were issued for Phra Dhammachayo. This led to a prolonged standoff between authorities and Dhammakaya monks who successfully used peaceful tactics to impede the leader’s arrest. The +20 day siege of the temple was not only extremely costly and unpopular, it also failed to arrest the fugitive monk.
Thai political cartoon depicting the escape of Phra Dhammachayo
Despite their controversies, Wat Phra Dhammakaya and the Dhammakaya movement still form part of the state regulated Thai Sangha. Wat Phra Dhammakaya has always been careful to comply with all Sangha regulations, and in return, the Sangha has been measured in its responses to the temple’s controversies (Mackenzie 2007). After all, the relationship is symbiotic. Wat Phra Dhammakaya’s association with the Sangha legitimizes the movement within the mainstream and protects it from harsher criticism. The Sangha, on the other hand, is aware of its declining relevance and prestige and understands its need for reform, but lacks the “creativity and capability” (Mackenzie 2007) of doing so. In the eyes of the Sangha, Wat Phra Dhammakaya offers both; additionally it’s the only temple large enough to host a meeting of all senior monks in the country (Mackenzie 2007).
Phra Bodhirak and the Santi Asoke
Before his ordination as a monk, Phra Bodhirak was a well-known TV programmer and song composer. But even then he lived a more ascetic life than most monks.
“He shocked his family and friends by shaving his head, wearing only simple white
clothes and going around barefoot. By the time he finally decided to resign from
his job, he had been a strict vegetarian for a number of years.” (Poompana Insi)
In 1970 Phra Bodhirak finally became a monk after having a “supernatural experience” earlier that year, and it was not long before he came under fire for his divisive sermons. He regularly denounced other monks for being lazy and lax in spiritual practice (Mackenzie 2007). In turn, the monk was chastised by the Sangha in quick fashion.
Under the tenets of Theravada Buddhism there was little choice in the Sangha’s reaction to Phra Bodhirak’s divisiveness. Sanghabheda, or schism-causing, is one of the seven crimes against the Sangha, as well as one of the five heinous offences along with matricide, fratricide, killing an enlightened being, and injuring the Buddha (Scott 2009).
On the other hand, there was little desire on Phra Bodhirak’s part to stay in the state-regulated Sangha. His unwavering defiance resonated with marginalized groups which resented the ‘establishment.’ The renegade monk then made a community out of his disenfranchised followers and named it the Santi Asoke.
Members of this community live spiritual and ascetic lives. Both monks and lay people walk barefoot, eat one vegetarian meal a day, and sleep in a klot (small one-person tent) during the evenings (Mackenzie 2007). Predictably critical of the growing consumerism in Thai society, for the Santi Asoke, the proper Buddhist response to capitalism is rejection and asceticism.
Present and Future of Buddhism in Thailand
As things stand, both the Sangha and its leadership continue to be ripe for reform but are unable to execute. Despite all its political might, the NCPO has struggled to restore faith in the aging Sangha. Although the junta successfully impeded the appointment of an undesirable candidate to the position of Supreme Patriarch, its heavy handed (and politically motivated) approach of aggressively prosecuting some monks has arguably made things worse.
For years now, the exposing of ‘bad’ monks has become a media sensation in Thailand. The laity is well aware of misbehaving monks misusing temple donations and their involvement in sex scandals. However, more recent scandals have dealt devastating blows at the moral legitimacy of the Sangha. One wave of arrest uncovered an embezzlement scheme worth hundreds of millions of baht, involving multiple “prestigious temples under royal patronage.” Since the crackdown was not followed by institutional reform, it's unclear if lay people would view this new “purged” Sangha any differently. As mentioned previously, the crackdown on Wat Phra Dhammakaya was also widely deemed a failure. PR-wise the repression/clampdown strategy might have done more damage than good to state-regulated Buddhism.
Despite all this, Buddhism continues to be one of the pillars of Thai society: Buddhist rituals and symbolism are still part of royal ceremonies; being ordained as a monk temporality is still a rite of passage for many young men and a source of great pride and merit to their family; and politicians still frequently seek the blessing of popular monks during election campaigns.
Family and friends gather to celebrate the temporary ordination of two young men. Those attending take turns cutting the hair of the soon to be monks.
Politicians have also found other ways to use Buddhism as a source of moral legitimacy. A personal favorite is Suthep Thaugsuban’s ordination. In 2014, after leading months of protests responsible for deposing Yingluck Shinawatra, he was detained by the NCPO and released after four days. After his release, Suthep, ever the showman, announced his retirement from politics and was ordained as a monk. He eventually made his return to politics in time for the next elections and founded a party in support of General Prayut.
The future role of Buddhism in Thailand is very unclear. The religion continues to be a part of Thai national identity and will perhaps change with it. Some proposals suggest a shift to the Dhammakaya model, making the religion more accessible and easily digestible. One example of this was a bid to set aside areas in shopping malls where the laity could interact with monks with at their convenience (Scott 2009). If embraced, capitalism could provide a powerful tool for Buddhism and religions like it. After all, while the Sangha is in self-preservation mode, Wat Phra Dhammakaya is actively attempting global expansion.
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