Saturday, March 2, 2013

Thai Buddhism: Monk Rockers

Monk Rockers: The new face of Thai Buddhism?

A part of traditional Buddhist life in Thailand is the short-term ordination of boys & young men. This has been seen as a right of passage, and men that have not gone through this procedure are considered 'unripe' in the sense that they are neither morally matured or ready for marriage. In modern Thailand, however, things are not quite that simple, if they ever were. For, many of these young men are behaving in ways that are breaking the rules for monks (patimokkha), and in doing so show Buddhism in a bad light. In a society obsessed with face-saving, appearance often appears more important than substance, and this attitude extends to religion, including Buddhism. So now, some more traditionally-minded Buddhists are complaining about the misbehavior of these naughty monks.

Part of the problem is the traditionally exalted position that monks have in Thai culture, in theory even higher than the King, though in practice this latter point too is probably more for show than actually 'true.' Monks are treated like gods, beyond criticism & correction, unless they openly step over the mark by getting caught having sex or dancing to music. The latter behavior has recently been exposed on the internet with pictures & videos displaying young monks singing & cavorting around like punk rockers - or should that be monk rockers?! Again, despite most Thais knowing that corruption & misbehavior exists behind the gates of Thai monasteries, if it isn't seen, it's not usually investigated. Monks rockin' in front of the camera is too much for most Thai Buddhists to stomach, however: it can't get more in your face than that!

But there's a deeper issue here, alluded to above. Thai monks are often not the paragons of virtue and meditation that they are supposed to be. Materialism is rife in Thailand's monasteries, many run as little more than businesses promoting themselves like Buddhist tourist sites where - for a price - visitors get get blessed or obtain the latest 'magic' amulet. All this goes completely against the spirit & monastic rules of Buddhism. Monks are supposed to devote their lives to studying the Buddha's teachings, meditating, and sharing both these with others. Performing rituals & blessings are secondary activities, and they should not interfere, let alone replace, the central monkish activities of reflection & meditation.

Because of the monks' high social status mentioned above, most Thai Buddhists would never openly criticize a monk. They would rather make merit for themselves & their loved ones and save face by not getting into any uncomfortable conversations regarding a monk's misdemeanors. The reason that Thais are starting to complain more openly about some monks' monkeying around is that Thai Buddhism is reaching a crisis point. Coupled with this, is the fact that some educated Thais that have been exposed to more critical, western modes of thinking are beginning to analyze many aspects of Thai society traditionally never questioned; and this includes those monk-rockers.

In the Pali canon (the Buddhist scriptures recognized in Thailand), there are accounts of situations where laypeople refused to interact with certain monkish communities that were behaving in unseemly ways. On at least one occasion a local lay community refused to even feed the monks, they were so disheartened by the latter's misbehavior. The Thai tendency to not challenge wayward monks is a cultural trait not found in the canon, and it is important that laypeople do not support such monks, as it will only encourage more of the same. And if this happens, as up to now it has, then more and more monks will behave in inappropriate ways, helping to destroy the Buddhist traditions of Thailand. So, Thai Buddhists, speak up & criticize wrong action in the monasteries…before it's too late and Buddhism will have all but died in this wonderful land!

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