Thailand: Constitution is no place for Buddhism

by Avudh Panananda, The Nation, April 24, 2007

No Thai kings have ever allowed secular and spiritual affairs to be mixed

Bangkok, Thailand -- Protesting monks are demanding to enshrine Buddhism as the state religion in the new constitution and their saffron robes are a most visible banner to rally crowds in front of Parliament.

For decades the debate on the merits and demerits of declaring a state religion has been rekindled time and again; it may forever be an unresolved issue.

The propagation of Theravada Buddhism has had an undeniably unique role in the formation of the Thai nation. From ancient times to the present, the Kingdom has always been known as the land of Buddhist devotees.

But the underlying issue at hand is not as simple as the inclusion or exclusion of a charter provision stating that "Buddhism is the state religion", unlike neighbouring Malaysia proclaiming Islam as its faith.

Although Buddhist followers and the growing number of Thais from other religions see nothing wrong in the glorification of Buddhism, the past 17 constitutions did not bear any religious flag. This is because Thailand has always been a secular state.

Every Thai king is a Buddhist and every royal palace from the Sukhothai era to Rattanakosin has a palace temple for royal worship and religious rituals.

But no Thai kings ever allowed secular and spiritual affairs to be mixed.

Under the mainstream teaching of Buddhism, monks have kept themselves apart from secular affairs. With the exception of Tibetan Buddhism, temples are a spiritual pillar of society and not the dominating force to run a country. When Lord Buddha was alive, his preachings converted many kings and rulers to the path of enlightenment but he did not rely on his elite followers to install his teaching as the exclusive spiritual guidance.

The concept of national religion had not been coined at the time and Buddha did not show any inclination to involve a state to propagate his teaching.

About three centuries after the death of Lord Buddha, the propagation of Buddhism peaked during the reign of King Ashoka of Mauryan. Even then, the great king was a devout follower of Buddhist morals but did not involve monks in the kingship.

Unlike other religions from ancient Egypt to Christendom in the Middle Ages to modern-day Islam, Buddhism has no concept of theocracy. What happened to Tibetan Buddhism was a product of unique feudal development rather than the faith.

Without the need nor the desire to impose a social system based on a religious teaching, the argument to enshrine a state religion is meaningless.

Malaysia and many Muslim countries have a different set of aspirations than Thailand, hence no attempts should be made to make a simple comparison.

Proponents for Buddhism as a state religion have every right to glorify their religious faith but they should explain how to remain a secular state, or if abandoning it, how they would build a Buddhist social system - which has never existed before.

Passionate arguments have been circulated about the interwoven history of Theravada Buddhism and Thailand. Every suspended constitution extolled the Buddhist faith in the chapter on the monarchy. No one tries to deny the integral role of Buddhism in Thailand.

Devout Buddhists should devote time to propagate their faith instead of raising a red herring idea about state religion.

The future of the Buddhist faith remains in the hands of monks and devotees and not a few words in the constitution.

In a nutshell, the essence of Buddhism is the Buddha's teaching as contained in the Tipitaka, the Pali canons, while the country's highest law is about the people's aspirations, which include those professed by non-believers.

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