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Religious Economy in Thailand: A Review of Keeping the Faith: Thai Buddhism at the Crossroads by Sanitsuda Ekachai

by Massimo Introvigne


imgThere is something to be said for shopping in bookstores rather than on the Internet only. Had I not visited a number of English-language bookstores during a recent trip to Thailand, I would have missed the information on Thai religion contained in op-eds and columns published in the period 1996-2001 written by Sanitsuda Ekachai in the English-language Bangkok daily newspaper The Bangkok Post, and later collected into a highly successful book under the title Keeping the Faith: Thai Buddhism at the Crossroads (Bangkok: Post Books, 2001). Sanitsuda, an assistant editor at The Bangkok Post, is a well-known reformist journalist in Thailand. One may not share her enthusiasm for certain political causes in the fields of ecology and feminism (and the idea that initiating women into Theravada Buddhist monkhood would more or less automatically solve a number of Buddhist problems), but during my visit to Thailand I found her to be almost unanimously respected as a very astute observer of local religion.

It has been recently alleged that theories of religious economy have been derived from the study of Christian countries, and are basically inapplicable to other religious climates, particularly those predominantly Buddhist of the Far East. Sanitsuda is no sociologist, but one interesting aspect of her book is that she often reviewed for her English-speaking readers works by Thai social scientists published in the Thai language, adding her own observations to them. The picture emerging from these studies is quite familiar. Although no reliable quantitative data were collected, Thai scholars generally agree that Theravada Buddhism was in good shape in the country in the 19th century, and remained in decent shape right up to the early 1960s. This is explained, according to Sanitsuda, by the fact that originally there was no centralized governmental control of Buddhism. “A century ago, the Thai clergy was actually pluralistic. Monks were accountable to their communities and their practices varied with local cultures and their masters’ training” (p. 242.) The government, according to a century-old tradition, did provide financial supports to Buddhist institutions and temples, whilst these institutions were in fact competing between themselves, with State money working as a reward for those proving to be more popular. At the beginning of the 20th century, in the wake of colonial threats, the Thai State started moving towards political and religious centralisation, creating a national Sangha to overview the entire national Theravada clergy. In 1962, the military government became concerned about possible Communist infiltrations into Buddhist temples and passed the Sangha Bill which, according to Sanitsuda “concentrated power in a small group of senior monks” (p. 314.) In fact, Theravada Buddhism as a whole was placed under the control of a single centralized directorate or Supreme Council, loyal to the government, which received all the public funds, and allocated them to local institutions according to a system giving precedence to seniority over merit. “In the old days, the neighbourhood controlled monks and temples. This went with the dictatorial Sangha Bill which gave the Supreme Council sole power to allocate monastic positions and power. Monks feel they only need to please the Council elders” (p. 290.)

Just as any religious economy theories would predict, the Council-controlled and State-salaried Buddhist clergy became complacent, infiltrated by careerists, and less keen to engage in missionary activities than to protect its own State-guaranteed situation. Most of Sanitsuda’s book is a familiar litany of how a State clergy, whose salaries are guaranteed no matter what, become lazy and incompetent. “People with dead-end futures use the monkhood as an occupation of last resort” (p. 63.) “The monopolistic, authoritarian structure of the Sangha, which allows no dissent nor local difference of religious practice, has rid the structure of internal challenges which might otherwise make it more alert to competition” (p. 240.) “One of the Sangha’s weaknesses is its heavy dependence on state power and nationalism to protect its turf and silence critics. This has encouraged a cry-baby mentality so that the clergy is forever demanding outside help instead of developing self-reliance” (p. 318.) Worse was to come in the 1990s, when the clergy was largely silent as Bangkok and Thailand’s tourist resorts became the sex tourism capital of the world (with possibly as many as one million prostitutes,) and a number of scandals surrounding prominent members of the clergy, found guilty of sexual abuse or becoming drug or alcohol addicts, became known.

One result of the post-1962 complacency among the mainline Buddhist clergy (again, in full accord with the religious economy theory) was the rise of new religious movements, both inside and outside Buddhism. Sanitsuda chronicles the rise of two very different Buddhist movements both at odds with the Supreme Council, the Santi Asoke, which she calls “fundamentalist,” and Dhammakaya, which she accuses of spreading a “consumerist” and emotional version of Buddhism. Neither of these movements sits well with Sanitsuda’s politics, and she also has some harsh words for the “cultic” features of Dhammakaya. She stops short, however, of advocating political repression of such movements, noting that Thai law protects the religious liberty of non-Buddhist (or, more exactly, non-Theravada) groups, whilst according to the Supreme Council the power to denounce heretic Theravada Buddhists to the State. This creates a paradoxical situation in which the Unification Church or the Mormons, for instance, can freely engage in proselytization, whilst dissident Theravada groups are harassed by the police, at the instigation of the Supreme Council.

Theravada independent sects and new religious movements are explained by Sanitsuda in sociological, rather than political or criminological, terms. “Inertia within the Sangha,” she writes, “has allowed opportunists to cash in on the saffron robes [of the Theravada monks] as well as forcing the devout – disenchanted with the lax discipline and commercialisation of mainstream Buddhism – to look for other choices, leading to the proliferation of sects and meditation groups” (p. 64.) While a local social scientist states that “the rise of popularity of the Dhammakaya and Santi Asoke religious movements, albeit of contrasting dogma, reflects the religious needs of a new audience, the middle-class urban professionals, and more specialisation in religious services” (p. 65,) the lazy Buddhist clergy is said to explain the success of new religious movements such as Sekai Kyusei-kyo, Sukyo Mahikari, the Sathya Sai Baba movement, Falun Gong, and the Unification Church, as well as non-Theravada forms of Buddhism, particularly Soka Gakkai. “Many,” Sanitsuda wisely notes, believe religions have lost power because people today are less religious and more materialistic. But if that is the case, how do we explain the proliferation of new faith groups that are fast eating into the territories of conventional religions?” (p. 237.) Although figures for specific new religious movements should not be exaggerated, Sanitsuda notes the popularity in Thailand, among people who no longer visit Theravada temples, of a variety of New Age and spiritualist beliefs imported from both the West, India, or China.

Yet, Sanitsuda still sees hope in Theravada Buddhism, provided that the power of the Supreme Council is reduced, and free intra-Theravada competition allowed, although she recognizes that “breaking the clergy’s monopolistic structure, however, is easier said than done” (p. 242.) Obviously, a collection of op-eds in a daily newspaper is hardly equivalent to a social scientific survey. Sanitsuda’s book, however, opens an interesting window on Thai religious economy, and suggests that very similar processes to those observed in the West are at work in a quintessentially Buddhist country. Thailand faces State-sponsored clergy falling prey to laziness and complacency, and thereby making room for both intra-Buddhist and extra-Buddhist dissent in the shape of a variety of “cults” and “sects”, with free intra-Theravada competition seen by many as a remedy for the prevailing clergy crisis.

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