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A Century of Spirituality

by Nantiya Tangwisutijit, The Nation, May 27, 2006

Can Thai buddhism be saved from superstition? Followers feel Buddhadasa's teachings are crucially relevant to the present age

Bangkok, Thailand -- Mayura Wilainum-chokchai remembers having little interest in the extensive TV news coverage of the funeral of the Venerable Buddhadasa Bhikku 13 years ago. She had never heard of the monk before and simply assumed Buddhadasa was one of many famous Luang pu, senior monks with sacred powers.

Now 26, Mayura sees things very differently. She recently left her job as a graphic designer with a Japanese company in order to pursue graduate studies in the United States. Upon her return to Thailand, she plans to enter the teaching profession, starting a new life spreading Buddhadasa's dharma to the younger generation.

"I want to bring Buddhism to the attention of young people," she says. "I was almost too old when I learnt that Buddhist teachings can benefit someone like myself who never believed in superstitious stories or particularly liked going to temples full of ornate buildings and monks watching big-screen TVs with [Sony] Playstations".

Last night Mayura and some of her like-minded friends made the trip by train to Suan Mokkh or the "Garden of Liberation" founded by Buddhadasa 74 years ago, to join today's commemoration of the centenary of Thailand's most famous Buddhist scholar and reformer of Theravada Buddhism.

Mayura exemplifies a growing trend among young people, a trend which many Buddhist scholars hope will be able to save Thai Buddhism from a potentially shaky future.

"More than 80 per cent of people report that they are Buddhists, but I doubt that many of them really know about the essence of the Buddha's teaching," challenges Bancha Chalermchaikit, the owner of Sukapap Jai publishing house, which has printed Buddhadasa's books for more than two decades.

"Some 2,000 copies of Buddhadasa's books might stay on the shelves for four or five years while those about monks and nuns with supernatural powers can sell 100,000 copies in a few months."

Even worse, adds Phra Dussadee Methangul, a famous disciple of Buddhadasa, is that most of the nation's 300,000 Buddhist monks are not doing their job of helping people rid their minds of the ignorance that the Buddha taught is the root cause of delusion and suffering.

"The monks themselves may even be encouraging this delusion," explains Phra Dussadee. "They hand out lottery numbers and amulets and sprinkle holy water because they know that these are easy ways to draw people to their temples, and more visitors means more donations."

As Buddhadasa emphasised, such activities are far from what was at the essence of the Buddha's teachings, and as a result, critics charge, they are contributing to the religion's decline at a time when it may be needed more than ever.

An advocate of Buddhism, Dr Tienchai Wongchaisuwan observes that temples taking advantage of people's fears and hopes for a better life are acting little differently from corporations. "Multinational corporations exploit our ignorance surrounding how the craving for material possessions works and are systematically packaging it as 'modern culture'," he argues.

Other scholars agree. As consumerism becomes more sophisticated, it sells not only products but lifestyles and culture too. Ritualistic Buddhism benefits from that same approach: "It's about getting people to feel better about themselves", notes Dr Suwanna Satha-anand, a lecturer in philosophy at Chulalongkorn University.

"Commercial Buddhism is also selling something more abstract, such as meditation training that can make people feel momentary happiness," she notes.

"We have to admit that Buddhism [such as Buddhadasa taught] is a very difficult and demanding religion. It is a religion based on wisdom, not faith. To gain this wisdom, you have to not only intellectually understand the teaching but also practice it. It demands you rely on yourself, not gods."

But Phra Paisal Visalo, a well-known disciple of Buddhadasa, is not discouraged. He says the fact that an increasing numbers of people in the West are becoming interested in Buddhism and its logical explanation of life and suffering is an illustration of people failing to find the answer to life through material success.

He sees Thailand as no different and cites young people like Mayura as an example of the beginning of a similar trend. "This growth in material consumption does have a positive side. It allows religion an opportunity to present alternatives once people emerge from the myth that materialism leads to happiness," he says. "Moreover, advances like information technology can also help us monks to understand the outside world better and be more responsive to people's needs."

Phra Dussadee concurs, adding that maybe it is time for Buddhadasa's followers to become more aggressive in their networking to spread his teaching to wider groups in society. As Buddhadasa hoped, more laypersons are now beginning to teach dharma to fellow laypersons through books and lectures, as Mayura herself plans to do.

"Monks certainly face a tough challenge if they are still to be relevant in the future of Buddhism," advises Phra Dussadee. "We may lose relevance if they don't adjust to become more committed to learning and practising deeper dharma to fit our role as religious practitioners."

Ultimately, none of this may really matter if we follow the basic Buddhist teaching of impermanence, says Dr Suwanna. "Buddhadasa's teaching could eventually fade away, but as the monk himself stressed, Buddhism is a fundamental law of nature and will always be there for people to discover."

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