Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Thai Buddhism: Land of the Buddha?

Thai Buddhism: A load of balls?

Living in Thailand gives a western Buddhist the opportunity to see Buddhism as an established part of a country's culture, as opposed to a minority interest as it is in the West. However, this is often a mixed blessing. For, while there is much to impress someone interested in how Buddhism manifests at a national level, there are also many aspects of Thai Buddhism that can leave the onlooker bemused or even disheartened. Examples of this are corrupt monks, corruption of the Buddha's teachings, and a populace obsessed with self-benefitting merit-making activities almost to the exclusion of actual Buddhist practice. We will take a closer look at each of these criticisms below, in turn.

Corrupt monks are a common news item in Thailand. Stories abound of monks banking donations to monasteries for personal profit, sometimes amassing fortunes that they and their families can spend upon themselves. Whilst this may seem reasonable to westerners used to evangelical Christian preachers who earn fortunes through TV performances, the rules for Buddhist monks are clear that they should not earn a penny (or baht) from their monastic duties. Indeed, monks are not supposed to even touch money, the more disciplined ones having laypeople handle monastic funds on their behalf. And it's not only the monkish cheats who are caught up in such greed, for it is a common sight to see monks in shops buying anything from furniture to iPhones with wads of cash in their robes.

Some Buddhists claim that it is difficult or even impossible in the modern, money-driven world to not carry some cash around, and that as long as it isn't to excess, it's okay for monks to handle money. However, monks that follow the patimokkha (the rules for Buddhist monks) get by without ever touching a coin, a note or a cheque - so it most certainly is possible, with the help of laypeople. It's worth noting here that laypeople should be willing to assist monks in certain areas, such as supplying food, robes, medicine, & shelter (usually a monastery). Along with these basic requisites, it is also permissible to offer whatever one wishes as long as it isn't likely to distract a monk from his monastic vocation. And here's the rub: in their rush to make merit for themselves, Thai laypeople will thrust just about anything at monks that they think will earn them more merit. Cell phones, computers, and cars are some of the more expensive items a monk can receive from a generous layperson.

The Buddha's teachings accepted as orthodox in Theravada Buddhism (which is primarily found in Thailand, Burma, Laos, Cambodia & Sri Lanka) are called the Pali canon in English. In the original Pali language, which is the ancient Indian tongue in which they are recorded, they are known as Tipitaka, and are considered the earliest extant Buddhist teachings by many scholars. In these texts, which are many times the length of the Christian Bible, we find what Theravada Buddhists consider the actual words of the Buddha. However, when we compare the basic Buddhist teachings therein that promote peace, goodwill, mindfulness, & wisdom, with the commonly-held beliefs of Thais, there are gaping inconsistencies. 

Buddhism , as presented by the Buddha in the Pali canon is a path to freedom from suffering. The further we move along this path, the less suffering we create, until we realize nirvana and suffering is ended completely. This path, known as the noble eightfold path, in essence does not contain any superstitious elements, and is not concerned with supernatural beings such as gods or demons. It is a practical guide on how to live our lives based on morality, meditation & wisdom. Generosity is a precursor to practicing the path, and is associated with making merit for the future. It is believed that by doing good things, such as giving things to monks (as mentioned above), a person will store up good results from such action (karma). The problem is that most laypeople in modern Thailand pretty much only make merit, and don't bother to develop morality, meditation or wisdom: making merit is the easy option. It's akin to a Catholic 'sinning' all week, confessing their sins to a priest, and then doing all the bad stuff again until the next confessional.

This concern with making merit almost to the exclusion to practicing the eightfold path is somewhat disheartening to Buddhists committed to the path. In addition, the belief in supernatural beings that concern mosts Thais also distract from walking the Buddha's path to enlightenment. Gods, demons, ghosts, & spirits of various descriptions are depicted in Buddhist temples, homes, & schools, not to mention books, TV shows, films & comics. That Buddhism encourages its followers to consider the triple gem of the Buddha, his teachings & the community of enlightened ones as the focus of inspiration & devotion seems to get lost in this supernatural mix. Moreover, superstitious practices often take precedence over more purely Buddhist ones like reciting the Buddha's teachings or meditation. These include the wearing of amulets, magical rituals & praying for assistance, which are all criticized in the Pali canon.

In the introduction to this investigation, it was mentioned that there is much to impress someone interested in how Buddhism manifests at a national level. The above observations may have led the reader to despair at this prospect, possibly thinking it impossible amidst all the stuff described. However, this would be untrue. For, while it is this writer's opinion that Buddhism at large in Thailand is in a pretty sorry state of affairs, hope remains. Two examples of this are personified in the monkish figures of Ajahn Chah & Ajahn Payutto. The latter is a highly-respected scholar monk that has been working in Thailand for several decades, writing books about Buddhism based on the Pali canon. He skillfully relates these teachings to the modern world without ever losing contact with the canon's principles and the layperson's commitments and the monk's rules.

The second monk mentioned above, Ajahn Chah, was a forest monk that established a meditation monastery in his home province of Ubon Ratchathani (where this author has lived for the past six years). He was an idiosyncratic teacher that combined adherence to the monk's rules, as with Ajahn Payutto, with an individualistic interpretation of the Buddha's teachings centered on meditation & mindfulness. He also started monasteries for foreigners in both Thailand and across the world, inspiring people of many nationalities to take up the robe, including the wisely known & loved American monk Ajahn Sumedho. Both Ajahn Chah & Ajahn Payutto are examples of how Thai Buddhism can live up to the high standards of the Pali canon. there are many others also.

So, whilst Thailand is not bereft of living Buddhist inspiration, it also contains much to be avoided. In this sense it is a warning that institutionalized religion so often (if not always!) deteriorates into a pale reflection of the teachings that it originally grew from. Corrupt monks & forest monks; corrupted teachings & meditative wisdom; superstitious merit-making & the noble eightfold path. It's all here in Thailand, the 'land of smiles.' And, like those smiles, all is not as it at first appears; a Thai can give you the most beautiful big smile while thinking inside, "What a jerk!" Other smiles are most genuine, and can often be traced back to an origin in Buddhist teachings. Living here is a wonderful, confusing, sometimes frustrating experience. But, with patience & perseverance, one can locate the true teachings of the Buddha in living colour (especially shiny gold).

For more on Ajan Chah, including free ebooks, click here: Wat Nong Pah Pong
To read some of Ajahn Payutto's works, click here: P.A. Payutto


Lucas said...

Hi G, and anyone else out there who might read this.

My name is Lucas. I've been swept away by a need to delve deeper into Buddhism in the last few weeks. I'm 40. I've been thinking about this stuff for years, but just recently, for various reasons, it seems the ingredients came together for me to suddenly realize I didn't want to go on living my life the way I am right now.

I have it pretty cushy: I live in Switzerland, I'm a well paid journalist with a fun job that only has me at it 4 days a week, with little pressure and a great team to work with. I get out to ski tour, hike or bike on weekends. I have plenty of great friends and family is close. I also got married (sort of, we didn't actually sign the papers) last October. But I was somewhat of a different man back then, and there's the rub.

I feel an incredible urge to drop it all and focus simply on following the Dhamma as far as it will take me, but my wife is still very much on the tack that we are going to have a happy, balanced material life with kids (none yet but it is/was supposed to happen real soon). I feel terribly torn.

I'm writing on Buddha Space because, while looking for advice online, I fell on an exchange you'd had back in 2010 with, among others, Dean Crabb. I thought you both said some very sensible things, but above all, that you said them in humble, helpful ways.

I figured maybe you might have some advice for me. I understand there are many parameters you might need to know about to say more, but I just thought I'd throw this cry for help out there if anyone has some guidance for me.

At this point I'm hoping some sort of middle way is possible. It would seem fitting, but I have the nagging sense that the extent to which I feel driven to delve will quickly be at odds with most compromises my wife could live with. At this point, I really want to check out of the whole system revolving around time and money. I feel that if I don't, I'll just keep getting sucked right back into planning that next camping getaway to get some fresh air and fun before diving back into a week of work. As I say, can't really complain, but not really all that satisfied either. And of late, I've been perceiving things that strongly suggest better lies down the Eight Fold Path.

Any insights, shared experiences or just support would be most welcome.

Thanks and good on you for the blog.

Take care,


Lucas said...

I could, and certainly should, have started by saying that your post as a western buddhist living in Thailand is a good cliché breaker.

It's true that, as you say, we aren't all that surprised to hear about corrupt, self-serving preachers, but it seems odd, even disappointing to hear the same thing about monks in Thailand. And yet it makes perfect sense that it should be so.

I've found myself thinking about this quite a bit lately as I consider how to get into really practicing Buddhism. On one hand I realize a lot of the ritual, images and artifacts so prevalent in Buddhism have useful symbolic significance, but I also recall reading somewhere that Siddhartha Gautama himself predicted that within 1000 years of his death, his teachings would have been warped by less enlightened people.He did after all tell them not to pray, and when I was last in Lhassa, Bangkok and many other Buddhist places, I saw people praying to statues all the time.

No view, isn't it?

All the best,


G said...

Hi Lucas,
Your dilemma is a common one that all of us that take the Dharma seriously must face at some point. Apart from a brief time when I was in my mid-twenties, becoming a full-time Dharma practitioner in the form of a monk (or the like) has never been in my mind. Being married & committing to the noble eightfold path has its challenges, but it is possible. Dropping it all isn't necessarily the way to go; marriage (or the like) can be a wonderful vehicle for Dharma practice. And what's more, even within the confines of such a life, Dharma practice can become a full-time activity anyhow.

My wife & I are teachers. We do not have children of our own, but take care of a foster son who lives with us & our young niece that spends much of her time with us. We also take vacations to the beach & elsewhere when the opportunities arise. None of this interferes with a serious investigation of the Dharma; quite the contrary, as it all gives much to reflect on in the light of the Buddha's teachings.

As the article these comments are attached to suggests, I don't indulge in the more fanciful aspects of Asian Buddhism. Simply applying the noble eightfold path to this life is enough, for sure! Keep it simple is my philosophy. The three trainings in morality, meditation & wisdom are plenty to be going on with, and whilst being a monk (or the like) enables a 'purer' focus on the path, it is possible to cultivate the middle way within the confines of lay life, as the Buddha taught in the Pali canon.

As to corrupt Buddhists, they are simply following their imperfect human nature. Corrupted Buddhists, Christians, atheists etc. are all in the same boat, which most of us are too if we are honest with ourselves. This boat is the one taking us the wrong way up the stream! 'The stream' is the image the Buddha used to illustrate the eightfold path, hence those that have opened their Dharma eye are called 'stream-enterers.' (And are heading the right way up the stream!)

I would suggest to you that combining lay life with practicing the path is worth trying. You don't have to abandon your partner in pursuit of the Dharma, although many Buddhists have, including the Buddha of course. At least give living the Dharma in your current life circumstances a go first, Lucas, & see how it goes. Other ways of living the Buddhist life will wait for you if things don't work out. By the way, there's a forest sangha monastery in Switzerland, with Ajahn Thiradhammo as abbott. The url is:

Please let me know how things go, Lucas. If you want to contact me privately, look up the contact details on this blog. Nice to meet you.

Anonymous said...

"You asked for stories so...
I went back to school when I was in my 30's, got a nursing degree, worked full time for 20 years - then became a student of dharma and quit. My "lifestyle" went from very comfortable to not so comfortable, but I was OK with that because it gave me time to practice. Only....I found out I'm really lazy, and didn't practice (well, not much). So now I am almost at Social Security age, running out of funds, living in what is genteelly known as "reduced circumstances." And...due to the recession, no one will hire me, despite my professional degree and 20+yrs experience, because I'm too old. And...I'm no closer to any kind of realization than I was before (well, maybe a little). So now, I work very part time at whatever work I can find to get enough to eat and pay a few bills, am eating up my savings, and am a half a**ed practitioner.

The moral of this story is....think very hard and be very honest with yourself before you jump in either end of the pool.
One is too shallow, the other too deep. Maybe there's a middle way?"
I'll finish by saying how strong is the yearning? If the yearning be so strong you wouldn't be discussing it, you would be compelled to act!

G said...

Salient comments from Anonyomus. So, as well as taking into consideration relationships with other people, the financial implications of opting out of 'regular society' should be taken into account, Lucas.

One can't help but feel sympathy with Anonymous, and hope that things turn around. Then again, Dharma can be practiced with or without a job, with or without property, as long as we have enough to live on! (Admittedly, this is - as Anonymous has found out - not always that easy. Then again, when is walking the path ever easy? The Buddha stated in the Pali canon that it is a most difficult, but rewarding, way to live.)

Anonymous hot on a crucial point - how strong is the yearning to commit to the path? One comment here is that the intensity of this intent on the Dharma can change over time - in either direction! So, to begin with at least, jumping into the middle of the pool, rather than in the deep or shallow ends, is probably a wise choice. In other words, try to incorporate disciplined Buddhist practice into your life as it is now, and see where that leads you...