Thailand: Sangha needs to look within

The Bangkok Post, May 16, 2008

Bangkok, Thailand -- If the Buddhist Sangha wants to restore public faith, it must immediately tackle the widespread monastic misconduct without fear or favour. Pushing for a law to get more money from the government and to discourage media criticism will not help the clergy one bit in becoming socially relevant again.

Last year, the Office of National Buddhism which represents the clergy tried in vain to convince the coup-appointed National Legislative Assembly to pass the Support and Protection of Buddhism Bill. So they are trying again.

The draft bill is based on the assumption that Thai Buddhism is weakening because of inadequate financial support from the government, and because sensational media reporting is showing the clergy in a bad light.

Consequently, the draft bill proposes the setting up of a state fund to finance the propagation of Buddhist teaching. And although the clergy can take the media to court under standard defamation laws, they are calling for special protection through more severe legal punishment for the mass media.

Possibly feeling threatened by the emergence of new religious groups, the draft bill seeks punitive measures against anyone perceived by the Sangha to be distorting or imitating mainstream Buddhist teaching.

But even if the clergy get what they want, this legislation will not help restore the public's faith in our monks because it is based on wrong assumptions and wrong views. To start with, Thai Buddhism is not weakening; this is attested to by the lay meditation movement which has grown in leaps and bounds over the past decade. It is the Thai Buddhist clergy that is weakening, due to a governing system that is closed, feudal and extremely authoritarian. This closed and hierarchical system not only breeds inertia and corruption, it also goes against the Lord Buddha's explicit intention to create the Sangha as an alternative egalitarian and democratic society fostering spiritual practice.

The only way for the clergy to restore public faith is by being true to the Vinaya, the monastic code of conduct. That, and only that.

The clergy's demand for more money from the government also falls flat, given the wealth of temples and many monks; it is common practice for them to treat public donations as personal property. No one in the clergy wants to touch this problem and we know why.

It is the monks' own lack of will to pursue a spiritual life and the clergy's refusal to punish stray monks that has caused a decline in public respect. Not the mass media.

The clergy's attempt at showing a semblance of progressiveness by legally recognising the mae chee or white-robed nuns in the draft bill also fails miserably. The nuns feel betrayed because the Office of National Buddhism's draft bill still considers them mere lay Buddhist women, not monastics. It also puts the mae chee under direct control of the clergy without allowing them any say in the matter. Some of these nuns have already said in private that they prefer to be left alone.

Although some details of the draft bill might be changed after going through cosmetic public hearings, its essence which deals with power and control is unlikely to change.

The monks have long depended on state patronage to protect their status quo and to suppress perceived threats. The Support and Protection of Buddhism draft bill is no different. But without tending to the rust that is corroding their system from within, there is little chance of the clergy's restoring public trust and faith.