Thai Buddhism: A load of balls?
Living in Thailand gives a western Buddhist the opportunity to see Buddhism as an established part of a country's culture, as opposed to a minority interest as it is in the West. However, this is often a mixed blessing. For, while there is much to impress someone interested in how Buddhism manifests at a national level, there are also many aspects of Thai Buddhism that can leave the onlooker bemused or even disheartened. Examples of this are corrupt monks, corruption of the Buddha's teachings, and a populace obsessed with self-benefitting merit-making activities almost to the exclusion of actual Buddhist practice. We will take a closer look at each of these criticisms below, in turn.
Corrupt monks are a common news item in Thailand. Stories abound of monks banking donations to monasteries for personal profit, sometimes amassing fortunes that they and their families can spend upon themselves. Whilst this may seem reasonable to westerners used to evangelical Christian preachers who earn fortunes through TV performances, the rules for Buddhist monks are clear that they should not earn a penny (or baht) from their monastic duties. Indeed, monks are not supposed to even touch money, the more disciplined ones having laypeople handle monastic funds on their behalf. And it's not only the monkish cheats who are caught up in such greed, for it is a common sight to see monks in shops buying anything from furniture to iPhones with wads of cash in their robes.
Some Buddhists claim that it is difficult or even impossible in the modern, money-driven world to not carry some cash around, and that as long as it isn't to excess, it's okay for monks to handle money. However, monks that follow the patimokkha (the rules for Buddhist monks) get by without ever touching a coin, a note or a cheque - so it most certainly is possible, with the help of laypeople. It's worth noting here that laypeople should be willing to assist monks in certain areas, such as supplying food, robes, medicine, & shelter (usually a monastery). Along with these basic requisites, it is also permissible to offer whatever one wishes as long as it isn't likely to distract a monk from his monastic vocation. And here's the rub: in their rush to make merit for themselves, Thai laypeople will thrust just about anything at monks that they think will earn them more merit. Cell phones, computers, and cars are some of the more expensive items a monk can receive from a generous layperson.
The Buddha's teachings accepted as orthodox in Theravada Buddhism (which is primarily found in Thailand, Burma, Laos, Cambodia & Sri Lanka) are called the Pali canon in English. In the original Pali language, which is the ancient Indian tongue in which they are recorded, they are known as Tipitaka, and are considered the earliest extant Buddhist teachings by many scholars. In these texts, which are many times the length of the Christian Bible, we find what Theravada Buddhists consider the actual words of the Buddha. However, when we compare the basic Buddhist teachings therein that promote peace, goodwill, mindfulness, & wisdom, with the commonly-held beliefs of Thais, there are gaping inconsistencies.
Buddhism , as presented by the Buddha in the Pali canon is a path to freedom from suffering. The further we move along this path, the less suffering we create, until we realize nirvana and suffering is ended completely. This path, known as the noble eightfold path, in essence does not contain any superstitious elements, and is not concerned with supernatural beings such as gods or demons. It is a practical guide on how to live our lives based on morality, meditation & wisdom. Generosity is a precursor to practicing the path, and is associated with making merit for the future. It is believed that by doing good things, such as giving things to monks (as mentioned above), a person will store up good results from such action (karma). The problem is that most laypeople in modern Thailand pretty much only make merit, and don't bother to develop morality, meditation or wisdom: making merit is the easy option. It's akin to a Catholic 'sinning' all week, confessing their sins to a priest, and then doing all the bad stuff again until the next confessional.
This concern with making merit almost to the exclusion to practicing the eightfold path is somewhat disheartening to Buddhists committed to the path. In addition, the belief in supernatural beings that concern mosts Thais also distract from walking the Buddha's path to enlightenment. Gods, demons, ghosts, & spirits of various descriptions are depicted in Buddhist temples, homes, & schools, not to mention books, TV shows, films & comics. That Buddhism encourages its followers to consider the triple gem of the Buddha, his teachings & the community of enlightened ones as the focus of inspiration & devotion seems to get lost in this supernatural mix. Moreover, superstitious practices often take precedence over more purely Buddhist ones like reciting the Buddha's teachings or meditation. These include the wearing of amulets, magical rituals & praying for assistance, which are all criticized in the Pali canon.
In the introduction to this investigation, it was mentioned that there is much to impress someone interested in how Buddhism manifests at a national level. The above observations may have led the reader to despair at this prospect, possibly thinking it impossible amidst all the stuff described. However, this would be untrue. For, while it is this writer's opinion that Buddhism at large in Thailand is in a pretty sorry state of affairs, hope remains. Two examples of this are personified in the monkish figures of Ajahn Chah & Ajahn Payutto. The latter is a highly-respected scholar monk that has been working in Thailand for several decades, writing books about Buddhism based on the Pali canon. He skillfully relates these teachings to the modern world without ever losing contact with the canon's principles and the layperson's commitments and the monk's rules.
The second monk mentioned above, Ajahn Chah, was a forest monk that established a meditation monastery in his home province of Ubon Ratchathani (where this author has lived for the past six years). He was an idiosyncratic teacher that combined adherence to the monk's rules, as with Ajahn Payutto, with an individualistic interpretation of the Buddha's teachings centered on meditation & mindfulness. He also started monasteries for foreigners in both Thailand and across the world, inspiring people of many nationalities to take up the robe, including the wisely known & loved American monk Ajahn Sumedho. Both Ajahn Chah & Ajahn Payutto are examples of how Thai Buddhism can live up to the high standards of the Pali canon. there are many others also.
So, whilst Thailand is not bereft of living Buddhist inspiration, it also contains much to be avoided. In this sense it is a warning that institutionalized religion so often (if not always!) deteriorates into a pale reflection of the teachings that it originally grew from. Corrupt monks & forest monks; corrupted teachings & meditative wisdom; superstitious merit-making & the noble eightfold path. It's all here in Thailand, the 'land of smiles.' And, like those smiles, all is not as it at first appears; a Thai can give you the most beautiful big smile while thinking inside, "What a jerk!" Other smiles are most genuine, and can often be traced back to an origin in Buddhist teachings. Living here is a wonderful, confusing, sometimes frustrating experience. But, with patience & perseverance, one can locate the true teachings of the Buddha in living colour (especially shiny gold).
For more on Ajan Chah, including free ebooks, click here: Wat Nong Pah Pong
To read some of Ajahn Payutto's works, click here: P.A. Payutto