Thai Buddhism in need of immediate, serious reform

opinion February 15, 2017 01:00

Religious flaws begin like tiny black stains on our shirt. The specks are small but the ugliness is creeping. Until, of course, the whole cloth is dyed black.

Yet whereas the dyed shirt can be “made right” once again, a thoroughly blackened religion is anything but. Everyone knows we shouldn’t paper over religious deficiencies, but the bad news is that we do it all the time.

Over the weekend, Thailand gained a new Supreme Patriarch. The respected and compassionate monk will oversee a Buddhist fabric spattered with black spots that are threatening to consume the whole garment. Reducing the size of the stains is no easy task, further complicated by the different measures of right and wrong in the clerical and the layman’s spheres. Most well-intensioned religious scholars, though, truly believe that the task is an urgent one that cannot be postponed further.

The biggest ecclesiastic “crimes”, according to the Buddha’s teachings, are mere everyday occurrences that most of us take for granted. As ordinary citizens, if we steal, the punishment may be a couple of years in jail. But if we claim supernatural powers of, say, being able to predict winning lottery numbers, nobody bothers. Lord Buddha, however, would make no such distinction, and banish any monk for either offence without a second thought.

That’s one big problem for Thai Buddhism. “Serious offences” committed by monks are not considered “serious” enough by the authorities to warrant a genuine crackdown or reform. Once in a while, popular monks found to have broken their vow of celibacy or even committed adultery will be defrocked, but the punishment far from matches the real magnitude and prevalence of these transgressions. And that’s not even half the story: stealing, condemned so strongly by Lord Buddha, has now taken various forms, to the point where it’s even perceived as “legitimate” in many cases.

Should a monk who anoints a brand-new supercar and receives a monetary reward in return be considered a thief? Does a monk “steal” if he solicits donations that go to support the materialistic comfort of himself and others? What if donations are used for purposes that appear religious but in reality are not? For example, if monks squeeze money out of followers with a promise to build a “stairway to heaven” in the form of the world’s tallest Buddha statue, is that “stealing”?

These are just some examples of the black stains that will certainly eat up the whole garment if nothing is done. Dyeing the whole thing black is out of the question, because that would turn Buddhism into its exact opposite. The religion teaches followers to detach themselves from materialistic trappings, and greedy messengers are the last thing we need.

True reform will be an uphill battle. For one thing, it requires addressing one of the most delicate issues. Ordination of laymen for short periods is a longstanding part of Thai culture.

Practically any Thai man can get ordained, which is good for the country’s status as a hub of Buddhism, but bad for the religion essentially. The argument that all “sinners” should be allowed to turn over a new leaf fails to take into consideration the fact that not everyone becomes a monk because he wants to turn over a new leaf.

Thailand today is flooded with all variety of monks, just as it was in the early days of the Chakri Dynasty. During those times, bad behaviour among the clergy triggered a royal clampdown. A new, more disciplined “sect” was created, but that discipline has slowly been eroded and misled by mainstream thinking and modern ways. The spread of black stains has  been relentless.

Some people point to the “UFO Temple” as the greatest blemish on Thai Buddhism. If we look carefully, though, Dhammakaya is not the only religious entity thriving on large donations, outrageous promises and blatant advertisement of miracles. The issue for Thailand is not why Dhammakaya’s influence cannot be kept in check, but why practices that were denounced by Lord Buddha now appear to have become norms in a country that claims to be a centre of Buddhism.

It’s said that any religion is like a rocket; no matter how powerful, it is bound to use up its fuel one day. The fuel is faith, which has begun to waver the world over. 

But when it comes to Thailand’s main religion, Buddhism has the advantage of foundational teachings that are timeless and respectful of human rights. Lord Buddha did not offer us the choice of either following his rules or suffering for eternity, but instead encouraged us to scrutinise the teachings before committing ourselves to his principles. Which makes it a real shame to exploit or distort his teachings.

The white shirt has been smeared, as anybody can see, and dyeing it would do no good. Restoring it to the original state, therefore, is the only option, no matter how hard a task. For all the benefits or virtues of the “middle path” as espoused by the Buddha, this is the one area where compromise is impossible.