There 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.
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 Sanitsudas 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 Sanghas 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 Thailands 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 Sanitsudas 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 clergys 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. Sanitsudas 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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