Thai Buddhism Needs Urgent Reforms

Op-Ed, The Buddhist Channel, 30 June 2023

Bangkok, Thailand -- Thai Buddhism finds itself in a state of crisis, plagued by a series of deep-rooted issues that threaten the very fabric of this ancient spiritual tradition. From the misconduct of wayward monks to the distortion of Buddhist teachings, the erosion of public faith has reached alarming levels.

Instances of misbehaving monks are far from uncommon. Numerous monks have been caught engaging in inappropriate and criminal acts in violation of their monastic vows from fornication to rape, from substance abuse to drink driving, and from theft to embezzlement. Recently in late 2022, a small temple in Phetchabun was left without any monks after they were all dismissed for failing drug tests. Sometime in May 2023, seven Buddhist monks were accused of embezzling more than 300 million baht donated to their temple.

Furthermore, certain temples have managed to amass substantial and dedicated followings by astutely promoting charismatic monks and abbots, who are believed to possess supernatural abilities.

These temples have tapped into two prevalent aspects of contemporary Thai society: the longing for spiritual solace among urban dwellers who have lost their close connections to traditional village temples, and a belief that generous donations to influential temples will result in personal prosperity and increased material possessions.

Phra Paisal Visalo, the abbot of Sukhato Forest Monastery, who is well known for his socially engaged work with monks, has raised a crucial concern: without immediate and comprehensive reforms, Thai Buddhism may face an unprecedented collapse within the current generation.

Monks Lacking Dhamma Understanding and General Buddhist misconducts

Several critical problems contribute to the crisis in Thai Buddhism. Firstly, the declining quality of monks is deeply concerning. Many monks lack a profound understanding of the Dhamma and deviate from the sacred codes of conduct that govern their way of life. This not only undermines public faith but also gives rise to cult-like groups, supernaturalism, and the commercialization of Buddhism. Such deviations tarnish the image of Buddhism as a whole, perpetuating the misconception that it is a system replete with meaningless rituals and wayward monks.

Secondly, the misconduct of Buddhists themselves adds to the crisis. Corruption, drug abuse, and other immoral activities would be greatly reduced if Buddhists were to practice their faith sincerely. However, the weak Buddhist infrastructure fails to counter the pervasive consumerism and materialism that underlie many social ills in contemporary society.

Social Apathy

Furthermore, there is an alarming sense of indifference between the clergy and lay society. The loss of respect for monks, coupled with the public's waning interest in their affairs, deepens the crisis within the monastic community.

Monks have distanced themselves from the ordinary people they are meant to serve, allowing themselves to be swayed by the influence of the state and powerful individuals. Consequently, they have become increasingly irrelevant to society at large.

Phra Paisal Visalo identifies four major problems within the Sangha that further exacerbate the crisis.

Inefficient "centralized system" of Sangha administration

The first issue lies in the inefficient and centralized system of Sangha administration. A select group of elders holds the authority, but their power remains largely ceremonial, with no mechanisms in place to hold them accountable for their actions.
This lack of accountability breeds nepotism, bribery, and corruption, making the system highly inefficient. To address this, a shift towards decentralization is necessary.

The top-down, centralized approach must give way to a separation of powers within the Sangha administration. Moreover, open channels for input from monks at lower levels should be established to allow them to participate in shaping policies that affect their communities.

Decentralizing the administration down to the provincial, district, and tambon levels would provide local monks with the flexibility to respond to the specific needs of their regions. The second problem lies in the close relationship between the clergy and the state.

Distant and Indifferent Sangha

Instead of acting as a force for societal change, the clergy has become indifferent to social issues and the suffering of the people. Historically, monastic ranks were bestowed by local communities, but this changed when royal appointments became the norm.

As a result, the clergy has grown increasingly distant from society, and temples are often seen as belonging to the wealthy, further eroding public faith. The third problem pertains to the recruitment and training system for new monks.

Decline in Quality of Monks

The traditional semi-screening system, where preceptors had the responsibility of training monks under their supervision, has been replaced by a system where each preceptor oversees hundreds of monks. Consequently, there is insufficient time and attention given to training, leading to a decline in the quality of monks and a lack of adherence to monastic disciplines.

Lastly, the education of monks requires immediate attention. The current focus on rote memorization fails to instill motivation and purpose in their studies. Monks often view formal education as irrelevant to their lives, leading to widespread cheating during exams.

The failure to provide intellectual and spiritual training leaves monks ill-prepared and susceptible to routine violations of monastic disciplines.

The diversification of modern society necessitates an adjustment in Buddhism to cater to various needs, resulting in the emergence of new sects.

Absense of Shared Principles

While diversity should be respected, there must be a foundation of shared principles rooted in the Dhamma Vinaya and monastic disciplines. The current problem lies in the absence of shared principles amid this diversity, which leads to anarchy within the Buddhist community.

It is essential that those who identify with Theravada Buddhism adhere to its core principles, ensuring a unified foundation for the diverse sects. The prospect of Sangha reform under a military regime raises scepticism.

Wither Sangha Reform?

Historically, attempts at reform driven by those in power have been met with resistance and protests from monks. Efforts to pass a draft bill in 2002, following the Dhammakaya scandal, faced significant opposition and were ultimately shelved.

Instead of relying solely on top-down approaches, genuine reform must stem from the rule of law. Swift and decisive action should be taken to punish rogue monks across the country, while urgent improvements in monks' education and training should be prioritized.

Reforming monks' education requires an in-depth understanding of the history of the clergy and the existing education system. It should involve public participation and be based on knowledge, insight, and consensus. Establishing a new body that collects input from all sectors can help reach a shared conclusion on the necessary reforms.

Sangha reform may appear to be an insurmountable task, but it is one that must be undertaken. The collapse of Buddhism in Thailand would render the religion devoid of its essence, reducing it to mere superficial rituals. If we fail to reform the clergy, any efforts to reform the country as a whole will be in vain.

With nearly 70 million people in Thailand and only around 200,000 monks, it is evident that the challenge of reforming the country is far greater. Therefore, urgent and comprehensive reforms must be implemented to ensure Thai Buddhism's relevance and vitality for generations to come.
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