Buddhism in Thailand Is Under Threat

Written by Majbritt Timmermans. 

The Thai Buddhist industry is worth over 50 billion baht. Over 94% of the population follows the Theravada Buddhism and there are over 250 000 monks. But senior Buddhist monks believe Buddhism is in crisis, because the young people are turning away from the monks. Many temples in the country are in shortage of monks. Monasteries are no longer the centers of village life, serving as meeting places, guest houses and community centers. Many monasteries have become buildings of the past.

One of the problems is the falling number of monks. Families in Thailand changed from having a dozen children to having just one or two children. And the government schools have replaced the monastic education once provided in villages. Values have changed with time. In the past People went to the temples on the holidays, now the people go to shopping malls. Buddhist retreats and books about teaching Buddhist practices seem to make Buddhism popular, but that does not solve the problem of the shortage of monks. The job of Buddhist monk was first a moral authority, teacher and community leader. That job has now changed to only presiding over periodic ceremonies. In the Thai countryside the people have lost their respect for the monks.

Monks feel like they are less needed. Today if they have problems, they do not need to come to a monk for the solution. They have a telephone to call their friends and talk about their troubles. In this day and age, the line between what is and is not acceptable behavior can become blurred. The past was a simpler age. Before the arrival of all electronics, social media and globalization it was easier to live without pleasures. Now Monks can be tempted more to go down the wrong path.

Inside the Buddhist temples a trend called commercial Buddhism can be found. Thailand’s monks are being criticized for increasing commercialism. In today’s influencer and social media society it seems like some monks have a ‘career’. The popular monks go to deliver sermons and receive financial contributions in return. The financial contribution should not be the case. Only ‘donations’ should be in place. The size of the contribution depends on the monk’s popularity. Some monks sell amulets, predictions or holy water to make profits. Some of them use it for good causes such as building schools, but unfortunately there are some that use it for own purposes.

Scandals with certain Monks contribute to the decline. Because of social medias, videos have become available where monks can be seen that are drinking alcohol and doing other forbidden activities. One scandal is a video of a Buddhist monk that went viral on YouTube in 2013. In the video the monk Wirapol Sukphol can be seen with other monks sitting back in the leather seats of an executive jet, passing luxury accessories among themselves. Here is the link to see the video for yourself: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z9An9ydGM4g

After an investigation people found out that Wirapol Sukphol had built a mansion in Southern California and has bought multiple Mercedes Benz cars. All of this is clearly not according to the 227 precepts a Monk is supposed to live.

Another part of commercial Buddhism in Thailand is that there are temples which attract followers by saying their monks have supernatural powers. Nowadays people think good karma is about throwing money at temples, especially rich people. They have faith, but they do not think. That is not practicing good karma, smartly. That is just blind faith.” Says Phra Payom Kalayano.

The national Institute of Development Administration (NIDA) estimated the country’s temples receive between 100 and 120 billion baht in donations every year. This is on top of their state funding. In 2015 the state funding was $113 million for only renovating the temples. The Dhammakaya temple now has dozens of worldwide temples. They have mastered the modern money collection technique. The national Office of Buddhism is supposed to regulate the religion, but it too has received criticism of allegation of financial irregularities.

To fight the financial irregularities happening in temples, the government has introduced a law. The law requires temples, which accumulate $3 billion in donations every year, to publicize their financial records.

“Buddhism is overwhelmed by capitalism. We have become too much obsessed with the idea of getting benefits and money” Pra Maha Warrawunno said.

Buddhism also seems to receive bad criticism in light of the elections in Thailand in 2019. Two Buddhist parties in the election are aligned with the Junta, which has imposed measures to bring Thailand’s temples under control in the name of tackling scandals. Therefore, a former monk was campaigning for Thailand’s election with the message that Buddhism is under threat. His supporters believe that authorities harass monks and care more about Thailand’s tiny Muslim minority. Even though the Buddhism religion is followed by more than 90% of the Thai population. Monks have little influence over the state compared to the monarchy and military.

It is clear the the traditional Buddhsim lifestyle in Thailand is under threat. Different solutions are being discussed. But the answer is not clear. The deputy director of the office of National Buddhism, Amnart Buasiri, wants to export Buddhism to westerners to boost Thailand’s international trade. Perhaps Thai Buddhism needs a new lifestyle to match the country’s fast-paced lifestyle. The teaching of Buddhism should become easy and digestible.

References:

2013, Multicultral Times: The Business of Buddhism in Thailand

Fuller, T., 2012, The New York Times: Monks Lose Relevance as Thailand grows Richer

Fernquest, J., 2015, The Bangkok Post: Chequebook Buddhism: Threat to Buddhism in Thailand?

 

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