As Thai society moves with the times, so do its religious beliefs and practices

Published: 7/02/2012
BangkokPost Newspaper section: Life อ่านภาษาไทย
Writer: Phra Paisal Visalo



Ten years ago, some observers raised doubts over the widespread meditation retreat among the middle-class if it was just a passing fad. What we witness today has shown that the meditation retreat continue to grow and steadily expanding into all sectors of the middle class.

It is the same with other interests in dharma such as attending dharma talks and reciting prayers. Dharma books have become in vogue and many of them have become best-sellers. Dharma CDs and other forms of dharma media have also become very popular.

All these factors point to a certain prospect that the current awakening of dharma interests among the middle-class will remain a marked phenomenon in Thai Buddhism in the next decade.

To start with, meditation retreats will continue to grow and become one of the principal forms of ?practicing religion? in Thailand. Dharma books will also continue to be one of few book genres that will to be in demand.

However, this phenomenon will be taking place amid a great diversity of religious beliefs and practices beyond the predominant Thai Theravada Buddhism. We will witness a greater influence from the Mahayana and Vajrayana streams of Buddhism among the practitioners. Even in Thai Theravada Buddhism we will also see a greater diversity in the tradition as a result of different interpretations and focuses.

In Thai Theravada Buddhism, some groups will focus on the strict upholding of religious precepts and disciplines. Some will stress on meditation practice. Some will practice concentration meditation, others vipassana or insight meditation. Some will focus on the cultivation of mindfulness, others on prayer recitation and traditional merit-making. Even in meditation, both the samatha (concentration) and vipassana (insight) meditation will be divided into many different branches of practices.

This religious diversity will be taking place in parallel with the growth of lay Buddhism. The lay Buddhists will be playing greater roles in religion and we eventually see the emergence of new Buddhism with lay people as core leaders instead of monks. More lay groups will organize their own meditation groups led by lay teachers outside temples. Even in religious rites, we will also see more lay Buddhists organizing their own rituals performed by their group leaders instead of monks.

Many factors contribute to this lay Buddhism phenomenon.

Firstly, the suffering of the middle-class.

Many in the middle-class are successful professionally, but they have found that success does not make them happier. On the contrary, their suffering increases, both from work stress and from worsening inter-personal relationships. They have found that money cannot alleviate their suffering, so they turn to dharma.

A greater number of people are also seeking refuge in dharma after they have experienced work failure or tragic incidents in their lives such as the loss of loved ones or being inflicted with illnesses such as cancer. The 1997 economic crisis also played a part in pushing people in distress to start practicing dharma.

Our country might not experience the crisis of such magnitude again. Yet, our society and the cut-throat economic system which focuses on competition and winning will inevitably produce many losers. This group of people need healing for their minds.

Moreover, the next decade will see not only increasing economic and political uncertainties. The risks from all sorts of natural disaster will be much higher. The result is more worries, more stress, more suffering for the people. It is natural then that many of them will turn to dharma or religions for spiritual security.

Secondly, nostalgia for Thai identity.

Thais are nostalgic for the lost or imagined Thai culture as a result of rapid social and cultural changes caused by the influx of western influences and accelerated by the forces of globalisation. They then began to take an interest in Buddhism and meditation as a means to strengthen their Thai identity.

Thirdly, increasing social diversities.

The multipliticy in society has been mushrooming following the socio-economic diversity generated by globalisation. People nowadays do not only have diverse professions and ways of life, they also have multifarious tastes and needs. When they are interested in Buddhism, they do not only choose to subscribe to the schools of thoughts and practices that fit their likings, they also adapt those beliefs and practices to respond to their different needs. Moreover, they also bring the beliefs from other religious streams into the mix. Therefore, there is a tendency that there will be a great diversity in the belief and practices of Buddhism among the practitioners.

Fourthly, the decreasing influence of the clergy.

Following the clergy?s declining clout, their roles will be will be limited to only rites and rituals, and less relevant to people?s lives. As monastic misconducts continue to be more publicly exposed, the cleric elders will still fail to win back public faith. Consequently, the middle-class who are interested in Buddhism have to turn to one another. This process is eased by the more opportunities nowadays for the lay people to study Buddhism by themselves. For example, the Tripitaka and other important scriptures have become more readily available. So have books, CDs, web sites, dharma TV programmes and meditation course led by lay meditation teachers.

Although the interests in Buddhism among the middle-class will continue to grow in the next decade, this does not mean the growth of Buddhism itself. This lay Buddhism phenomenon is taking place amid a myriad of social malaises that are ever intensifying, which reflects the over-all declining morality of people in society. Crime, murder, theft, rape, corruption, domestic violence, abandoned infants, children and the elderly ? these social problems do not only show society?s collective failure to instill morality among the populace, they also reflect the declining influence of Buddhism in society as a whole.

Actually, even among those keen in Buddhism, the tendency is that their practice and observance will be individualistic. The main purpose is to respond to their own needs without paying attention to society or other people. Many people turn to Buddhism to cope with stress and to seek inner calm. They then are not interested in taking part in public activities to help others, for fear that they will affect their peace of mind.

Many of these people are devoted to making merit with monks in order to accumulate the ?boon? or merit which will help them to have a prosperous in this present life or to have happiness in the next life. Meanwhile, they overlook the downtrodden, believing that helping them will give them less merit than their helping monks.

Of late, there have also been new misunderstandings about karma. For example, the belief that if we help save someone?s life, that will enrage that person?s ?jao kam nai wen? or vengeful spirits who is intent on avenging us. Or the belief that by sharing our merits with others in our prayers will erode our stock of merits. These beliefs actually go against the Buddhist teachings. Yet, they have become widespread. And they will become even more so in the next decade. Here?s why:

Individualism. The practice of Buddhism marked by individualism is the result of the way Buddhism has been promulgated in Thailand in the past several decades. It is the fruit of the reform of Thai Buddhism a century ago which has eroded the social dimension of Buddhism.

Consequently, the practice has come to primarily focus on the development of one?s meditation. (Helping other persons or society has become secondary. Overlooked, even.) When the value on individualism has become a widespread phenomenon in modern Thai society through capitalism and consumerism, people then have become even more focused on one?s self interests. In this system, one?s needs come first. When they turn to dharma practice, then it is aimed for personal happiness on a very superficial level. The practice is not really aimed to reduce greed, mental defilements and attachment on the ego. The generosity, the willingness to help others or for the common good then is lacking. This is one of the reasons why when social problems have not declined at all when more Thais actually turn to dharma practice.

In the same vein, when the goal of dharma practice is not to attain a deep and thorough understanding of one?s mind until one sees the attachment of self and ego, then it becomes very easy to get lost in that attachment of perceived goodness or the one?s image as a good, moral person. Conceit grows. As a result, we frown upon whoever thinks or practices differently from us, or judge them as bad people. This is why many dharma practitioners supported the May violence last year. This is also why the more widespread dharma practice does not mean violence in Thai society will decrease in the next decade.

Another distinct characteristic of popular Thai Buddhism in the next decade is the teachings that are concise, easy-to-understand and to practice, with promise of fast results. This comes from the modern Thais? mentality and way of life which focuses on speed, convenience and tangible results. These teachings will explain the complexity of the modern world in an easy to understand way, so much so that it becomes superficial. They will not demand too much sacrifice and difficulties from the followers. Just donate and put one?s mind in the right place without changing one?s way of life or give up selfishness. These teachings will be highly popular. They also share the common traits in their ability to respond to the followers? worldly needs such as riches, social status and fame. ( One centre attracts the public with this slogan ?life saved, diseases cured, wealth, and fame?). An important part of this trend is the widespread consumerism which does not only commodify religions and dharma teachings that are easy and fast to consume, it also shapes the public?s beliefs that money is an important tool to attain worldly happiness and success.

In parallel with this phenomenon is the flourishing of commercialized Buddhism, or the commercialization of superstition, to be exact. We will see the market expansion of amulets and charms believed to bring quick wealth without having to invest effort or perseverance. These talisman may relate to Buddhism, come from other cults, or mix with one another until it is impossible to identify what is Buddhist, animistic, or Bhraministic. Although the ?Jatukam Ramatep? amulets have already lost their popularity, the next decade will certainly see new products to give people hope and consolation amid the uncertainties in their life and in the world at large. Dependency on these talisman will remain the mainstream belief and practice which reflect the people?s religious understanding of the majority of the Thai people.

Such phenomenon may be cause of worry for the learned in Buddhism who view such belief and practice a violation of the Buddha?s teachings. But it is difficult to foresee the clergy taking any action to create proper understanding. The clergy is very weak and will become even weaker in the next decade. The number of monks and novices will drastically decrease. The knowledge of monks and novices will also likely to decline as a result education failure of the clergy dating back decades. And there is no sign for any improvement. That is not all. The monks? overall behaviours cannot restore public faith in the clergy, because they themselves are caught in the trap of consumerism. Monks then cannot provide spiritual leadership or wisdom for Thai society. Worse, they play an important part in the growth of animism business. This will continue to happen amid neglect and inertia from the Ecclesiastic Council as ever before, which is why monastic misconducts and scandals continue unabated.

What has already happened and will happen more in the next decade is the proliferation of independent faith groups and cults in the clergy which teach and practice differently. Even though they might violate the teachings of the Buddha, the clergy cannot do much about it. The widespread use of connections in the clergy on every level will further aggravate the situation, preventing the clergy from being the refuge for the public.

In this scenario, the Buddhist group that will play an important role in the next decade is the Dhammakaya Temple. It has a very strong organization with a corp of 3,000 monks who have been through intense training. Moreover, it is backed with gigantic funding and a nation-wide network of monks and lay supporters. The temple also enjoys good relationship with many elders in the Ecclesiastic Council. Its influence at the top, in the middle, and at the grassroots levels combined with its ownership of modern communications media will have a significant impact on the beliefs and practices of a large number of Buddhists in the next decade.

One last point is the increasing roles of women. In the past two decades, women have been playing more roles in Thai Buddhism, not only as the supporters of monks but also as an important force in Lay Buddhism. Their roles in the realms of academics and practices have helped Thai Buddhism to be relevant to the way of life of people in modern society. One of the consequences is the emergence of female ordination. The ordination of Bhikkhuni and Samaneri might not be welcomed by the clergy and many conservative Buddhists in the past decade. But I believe that the number of Bhikkhunis will certainly grow in the next decade. It will be difficult for the clergy to stop it. And despite how hard it tries, the opposition will not receive substantial support from the public.

The number of Thai Bhikkhunis in the next decade will not be enough to create serious concerns to the elders. There will not be any strong Bhikkhuni clergy in the near future. Still, female ordination will be provide alternative to many women.

However, Bhikkhuni ordination will remain an important debate in the next decade. So will the question on Buddhism as a national religion. This reflects the decline of Buddhism in Thailand which is rooted in the weaknesses within the Thai Buddhist society which insists to blame it on outside threats from other religions and negligence of the government.



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