Buddhism in Thailand Today

A talk given by Ajahn Jayasaro in Bonn, Germany in June 1999 (2542) 

So to begin with I would like to let you know about the kind of Buddhism which is prevalent in Thailand. Now, after the Buddhas death some 2500 cars ago, the Buddhist monastic order split into a number of different schools (for want of a better term), and these schools may be devided easily into two groups - we can say the liberal, and conservative. The liberal group felt that it was important and a good thing to spread the Buddhist teachings as far as possible, and to be willing to adapt to other cultures. In order to do so, they were trying to concentrate on transmitting the essence of Buddhism and willing to compromise in the language and forms in which it was presented. This is the kind of Buddhism that we usually call Mahayana Buddhism. This school of Buddhism is found for instance in Tibet, China, Korea, and Japan. The other main group of schools was more conservative.They said that the Buddha's teachings are complete - there is nothing that needs to be added to them or taken away and we should preserve these teachings as best as we can, and if other people show interest in them, then we are happy to share our knowledge of these teachings with them. If they do not, then never mind. But we will not compromise or change the teachings in any way.

Now this conservative school flourished particularly in the south of India, and then in what is nowadays called Sri Lanka. This school we call Theravada Buddhism. It has in the past been called Hinayana Buddhism. The term Hinayana Buddhism is considered a little impolite and we prefer Theravada. Hinayana means ''Little Vehicle" as opposed to the Mahayana or "Great Vehicle" (My own understanding of the "Little Vehicle" though means that it is like a Porsche sports car, it's small but reaches its destination very quickly…). The Theravada teachings were after some time introduced and spread in South East Asia. When the first Thai Kingdom was established in Sukothai about seven or eight hundred years ago there were many different kinds of traditions already there.

Sukothai was formerly a border town of the Cambodian Empire. The Cambodian Empire had at his height been Hindu, and as it waned, it became Mahayana Buddhist. Sukothai had also received the ancient Theravada tradition which had spread from Burma and Central Thailand many hundreds of years before, and also the newly emerging Buddhism in Pagan. So there were a great many strands of the Buddhist traditions at that time. The King of Sukothai decided to make a fresh start, and he invited forest monks trained in Sri Lanka who were then living in what is now the far south of Thailand, and built a monastery for them. This was the beginning of what we call Thai Buddhism.

Thus Thai Buddhism started with royal support, and it was a Buddhism which was based an the forest tradition. Now to backtrack a little: The Theavada tradition as it developed in Sri Lanka saw a division in the monastic order between those monks who lived in the forest and those monks who lived in the cities or towns. That is to say that there were monasteries established in lonely places where the monks devoted themselves mainly to meditation practice, and there were monasteries established in or nearby towns or cities, where the monks had much closer contact with the lay Buddhists and where the monks were involved much more in performing ceremonies for the lay people and in day to day counselling of the lay Buddhists. This system worked quite well and enabled the religion to stay healthy and vibrant.

It is imperative for the written teachings or the preserved teachings to be learned and transmitted from generation to generation, and for the teachings to be disseminated amongst the lay Buddhists. It is also important to maintain a close link between the monastics and the lay Buddhists. Even though the forest monasteries were more remote from the towns and villages they were never completely separate fror them because Buddhist monks are not allowed to grow their own food, are not allowed to keep food. The monks go an alms round. They walk to a local village in the morning, receive food in their bowls, return to their monasteries, eat usually one meal a day. Whatever is left over is given away to the lay Buddhists, and nothing is kept. A number of rules in the Vinaya, the Buddhist Monastic Code, prevent the monks from cutting themselves off from society. Just now some of you may have noticed that a moment ago I was offered this bottle into my hand. Now, even if the bottle had been placed on the table here, and I had been told directly: "That's for you", I couldn't drink from it. I can only do so when it has been formally offered into my hands. This means that monks are more or less helpless and that, if there are no lay Buddhists around who are kindhearted enough to give things into our hands, we Buddhist monks just die off. So the monastic discipline ensures a relationship between monastic Buddhism and lay Buddhists, even for those monks who are living a more secluded life.

In the Sukothai period the forest monasteries were very prestigious and received royal support. Subsequently during the period when Ayuthaya was the centre of power in Thailand many cultural changes occurred, some due to the conquering of Cambodia and the adoption of the many Cambodian concepts and practices. For example, the concept of kingship shifted from that of the king as father or dhammaraja to that of king as a god or devaraja, so in the Ayuthaya period it was forbidden for anyone to even look at the King. The emphasis was an making the King a very distant figure from the people. At the same time, with the increased emphasis an ceremonies and the outer forms of religion, the monks in the towns and cities became more prestigious. During the frequent wars of the Ayuthaya period people looked to the forest monks for charms and power objects to protect them from the battlefields. Many forest monks became involved in magical practices.

In 1767 Ayuthaya was sacked by the Burmese army. It's whole population was carried off as hostages to Burma, and a period of some anarchy ensued. Luckily a great man came forward - his name was Taksin - and he helped to drive out the Burmese. A new capital was established, first on the West bank of the Chaopraya river at Thonburi, subsequently an the fight or an the eastern bank - what is now called Bangkok. Now it was generally felt by King Rama I who succeeded King Taksin and the - we can say - more reflective people of that time, that the great disaster that had befallen the country, was due to its falling away from the Buddhist principles: too much Brahmin influence, too much magic. So the early Kings of the present dynasty put much effort into a reform of Buddhism in the country. And this has been a notable feature of the monastic order since the time of King Asoka in India, during the very first period of Buddhism in the world: that Buddhism has always had to depend an the king or the government of the day to help it run its own affairs. And wherever the kings have given strong consistent wise support, then the monastic order has flourished and Buddhism has flourished.

So the early kings of the present dynasty in the early nineteenth century were very sincere in their efforts to reform the monastic order and to heal some of the damage done by the destruction of Ayuthaya, the destruction of all the texts, this great cultural disaster. But the fourth King, King Mongkut, still felt that the monastic order was corrupt and while still a monk himself, before ascending to the throne, established a new movement within the monastic order, a reform movement. This movement laid much greater emphasis an the monastic discipline and the study of Pali texts.

This reform movement subsequently became what we call a sect or a nikaya, and this division of the monastic order into two nikayas has come down to the present day. The much smaller Dhammayut Nikaya, having been established by a king and having received royal support throughout its history, has always enjoyed a disproportional amount of power for its size. In the late nineteenth century it was the Dhammayut Nikaya which was used, or helped the government of King Chulalongkorn, the fifth Monarch, to centralise power in the country and to make the Buddhist monastic order, the Sangha, in Thailand which had formerly been quite diverse, into a single unified order. This is one example of a prominent characteristic of Thai Buddhism: the strong relationship between the Sangha and the state. It is a relationship that has both, positive and negative consequences.

Towards the beginning of this century or late in the nineteenth century a very important figure appears an the scene. He is a native of Ubon Rachathani Province, which is in the north-east of Thailand close to both the Lao and Cambodian border. He is the monk whom we know as Luang Por Mun (or Ajahn Mun). He ordained in a Dhammayut monastery. Whereas before him the Dhammayut order was primarily an urban intellectual movement, Luang Por Mun was from a small village in the countryside, and his interest was meditation and experimental realisation of the profound meaning of the teachings rather than an intellectual grasp of their meaning. Luang Por Mun is considered one of the great figures in contemporary or modem Buddhism, and he is believed to have realised enlightenment and also to have many enlightened disciples. He and his disciples form the foundation of what is known as the north-east forest tradition. These are forest monasteries which are almost all located throughout the north-east of Thailand, predominantly in Udorn and Sakhon Nakorn and the northern parts of the north-east. One very prominent disciple of Ajahn Mun was my own teacher Ajahn Chah. Accidentally today is rather an auspicious or special day for us, because it's Ajahn Chah's birthday. There is a big gathering of all his disciples in Ubon taking place at this moment. Ajahn Chah went to study with Luang Por Mun for quite a short time, but it was a time that transformed his own spiritual practice. However, he remained in his old order, the Mahanikaya sect, or the "Great Sect". He did not change his lineage to be closer to his teacher as many of the other monks who became inspired by Luang Por Mun and went to live with him, did. Although the forest tradition of North-east Thailand has been primarily associated with the Dhammayut sect, Ajahn Chah is probably the most well-known of the forest monks who remained in the Mahanikaya sect.

The forest tradition in the north-east of Thailand has been one in which there has been great emphasis given on the attainment of the teacher. The enlightened master plays a very prominent role. What this has tended to mean is, that as these great teachers have died, the monks who are still unenlightened (which is most of them of course) leave and go off and search for another master. So there has been a problem of continuity in this tradition.

Ajahn Chah differs from many of the monks in this tradition in that from the beginning he put much greater emphasis on community and much less emphasis on himself. He encouraged his more senior disciples to take on more responsibility in training and teaching others, and this resulted in the establishment of many branch monasteries. Ajahn Chah became seriously ill in 1981 and spent ten years more or less in state of paralysis in which he didn't speak. But even so, the number of his monasteries and the number of his disciples continued to increase, and this is very unusual in the forest tradition. At the present moment there are throughout Thailand - and now not only in the north-east but spread right throughout the country - altogether almost two hundred branch monasteries of Wat Nong Pah Pong, Ajahn Chah's monastery. This means perhaps a couple of thousand forest monks.

Yet the forest monks are very much in the minority in Buddhism in Thailand, and if you were to go on holiday to Thailand, these are not usually the monks that you would see. Only few people know, where their monasteries are located. But if you were to make a special trip to the forests in which they live, you would really have much of a feel for the forest tradition. The monks, that you will be more likely to see in the cities or the places where you go on holiday, are the monks who live in the monasteries in the towns or cities, who live quite a different kind of life from the monks in the forest.

The monastic tradition in Thailand is of course in a state of flux, and it is really very difficult to be able to decide on the state of its health, whether things are getting better or things are getting worse. Even in the West you may have been aware that there have been a number of highly publicised scandals in the past few years. But of course that has to be put into the context of a community of monastics of some three hundred thousands strong. If you have just one percent of monks who are misbehaving out of three hundred thousand, that is already three thousand: enough to make the headlines in the tabloid newspapers every day without any difficulty at all. Monks' scandals sell newspapers in Thailand the way that scandals about the members of the British Royal Family sell newspapers in Europe or in England. But it's not a sure indication of just what's going an in monasteries throughout the country. Even after having spent many years in monasteries in Thailand now I still do not feel very confident about making generalisations about this. Even today we have monks who are living their quiet lives in the forest and in mountains and meditating, there are monks devoting themselves to study Pali, the scriptual language, monks, who are performing most ceremonies for lay people, monks who are doing a lot of teaching, monks involved in social work, monks involved in environmental protection, so many different kinds of vocations for Buddhist monks in Thailand. It's a very flexible kind of monastic order. There is a great deal of diversity .

The ideal Buddhist society is composed of what we call the ''Fourfold Assembly'', that is to say: male monastics, female monastics, male laymen, laywomen, and is based an the idea of a sharing of responsibilities. The division between the monastic order and the lay Buddhists is not a fixed one, as a feature of Thai Buddhism is temporary ordination. Traditionally almost every young Thai male would spend a period of time as a monk, ideally the three months of the rains retreat, usualIy after finishing education, before getting married, or before starting a career. It gives people a deeper understanding of their religion before taking up with responsibilities in the world. This tradition has been rather affected by the changes in Thai society: industrialisation, and the movement away from an agrarian way of life. People find it more difficult to spend so long as monks as they used to. But once in their career, civil servants can still have three months paid leave to become monks. I think this is a very good tradition. So many, almost everyone in Thailand, we might say, has either been a monk or else has a family member who has been. There is a sense of connection between the laity and the monastic order.

One problem I see in a living tradition of Buddhism such as in Thailand, that the members of that tradition themselves are often not quite aware of how the whole system is meant to work. I Thailand, this lack of understanding has led to deviations which have not been widely recognised, other than through a general feeling that something is wrong.

To give an example: the monk is meant to be a moral and spiritual example to the lay Buddhists, one who inspires them, one who shows them through his way of life, that this study, this training is possible, it has results that validate the truth of the teachings. But the ideal of the monk is also of one who is separated from the economic system, someone who is somewhat aloof from worldly concerns. Being unattached to worldly affairs he may offer a clear-sighted perspective to those who are in the middle of these things and caught up in them.

However the ability for the monk to be separate from or aloof from most social and political concerns is sometimes taken to be the Buddhist ideal, and lay Buddhists, instead of seeing that in those areas which the monks do not involve themselves, it's the duty of the lay Buddhists to become active. They sometimes assume that non-involvement is the model for all Buddlhists. The monks stay aloof from social problems and injustices etc, and so therefore should all good Buddhists. That is overly passive, it is not the Buddhist model. The Buddhist model is of a sharing of responsibility.

Similarly the influence of the West has led many Thai Buddhists to look an the monastic order in the way, let's say, Christians would look at priests: as a mediator between God and humanity. They come to look an monks as the link between the Dhamma, or what is the higher truth, and themselves. And so when there are problems in the monastic order, then you hear many Thai people saying: "That's it, I am fed up, I dont want anything more to do with Buddhism.'' As if Buddhism was the monks. In fact the lay people are as much Buddhism as the monks are. They just have a different role to play within the Buddhist society. Looking at Thai Buddhism, we see many things which are actually a conflict with what we might read in books about Buddhism. It is really necessary to be aware of how many influences on the tradition there are. There has never been a pure Buddhist tradition in any country, it's always adapted itself at a certain extend.

In Thailand the influence of Brahmanism and animism is easily to be seen. The Thais were in the world for thousands of years before they became Buddhists. Buddhism has never been a crusading faith that has tried to wipe out preexisting traditions. It tries merely to gradually and peacefully supersede them. In practice it is natural that the older traditions do not die out altogether. In the old days we can say most peopIe lived in villages and their access to teachings was very limited. If the monks in their local monastery had a good understanding of Buddhism, they may have had the chance to study and practice in an authentic way, but if the monks were not really very learned or spiritually advanced, they would have no access to the teachings. But the whole atmosphere was one in which Buddhist virtues such as contentment, frugality, kindness, mutual help were the norm. There was no real need for a kind of intellectual grasp of the principles underlying their lives, because of the sense of continuity. Who could have conceived the rapid changes and not even the possibility of the rapid dislocation of society which has followed the modern development in the past thirty years? So, pulled out of their conducive environment and in finding themselves in a very short period of time in environments alien to spiritual practice, many Thais have lost their moral compass. Many young pople going to live in the cities far away from the local monastery, far away from their elders, have fallen prey to drink, drugs and gambling, and so an and so on. Thailand is suffering a great number of social problems due to this too rapid change and the inability to really guide that change, because no one has ever really examined and put the finger an the principles underlying the Buddhist society. It has just been taken it for granted.

In present day Thailand, most people running the country are educated in the West, in non-Buddhist environments and their understanding of Buddhism tends to be shallow. They came back to Thailand after years in Western countries, assuming positions of authority, and so the development of Thailand follows the teachings of the professors at Harvard and MIT, rather than taking into account teachings of the Buddha. Although fortunately these days more and more often Professors of Harvard and MIT read Buddhist books, so it's not quite so awful as it used to be.

There is something that I often say to shock people in Thailand. You hear people wondering "How did we get into this terrible state; how is it, that a Buddhist society could be like this; is there something wrong with Buddhism that we should be led into such difficulties?" I reply to this: as long as we believe that we have a Buddhist society, then we will never going to be able to solve these problems. I think it's better to start off with the humble acceptance that Thailand is not yet a Buddhist society. Then the next question that comes from that is: Do we want to be a Buddhist society? I think Thailand has an incredible potential to be a Buddhist society. But it isn't one yet. But if we can all decide that we wart to be a Buddhist society, let's get down and talk about Buddhist principles and how to integrate Buddhist principles into our social organisation, the path of development that we are taking, because this debate is not yet occurring at the present moment.