Tradition and Change in Thai Buddhism

27 May 2524

In the Kālāma-Sutta, one of the Buddha’s discourses best known to Western scholars, the Buddha says, among other things, “Do not go merely by tradition.” This saying shows that tradition does not hold a very important place in Buddhist thought. It teaches that tradition is not something to be clung or attached to and also implies that change can be commendable or at least acceptable.

To understand even more clearly what its importance is, tradition has to be distinguished from the original and authentic. By the original and authentic, I mean the original and authentic ideas and practices intended by the Buddha himself as can be found in or interpreted directly from the words of the Pāli Canon, or Theravāda Buddhist scriptures. Though the original and authentic are a source and foundation of the Buddhist tradition, they are not the same as tradition. Tradition has developed out of many factors and components in addition to the original and authentic ideas and practices. In truth, many accretions can be found in tradition. This is why reformers, reformists and others in favor of change have been able to use the original and authentic as an effective weapon against tradition and as their reference for recommending and encouraging change.

So far in contemporary Thai Buddhism, change seems to have been identified with or have resulted from the clash and conflict between tradition and modernization. In order to see this more clearly, we should look at the general picture of traditional Buddhism in Thailand.

Thailand has been called a Buddhist country. The great majority, that is, about 95 percent of her population of approximately 48 million, are Buddhists. The Thai Buddhist institution is very large. It consists of over 26,000 monasteries scattered all over the country, as the residences of over 300,000 monks and novices, giving Thailand the appellation of “the Land of the Yellow Robes.” The King of Thailand shall, according to the constitution, be a Buddhist. Every Thai male citizen is expected to spend a period of time in his life, preferably at least three months, as a monk in a monastery. In fact, most of the Thai kings have followed this tradition. Moreover, all Thai Buddhists are unified under the school of Theravāda Buddhism. All Thai monks are united under a single ecclesiastical government recognized by the laws of the country. The monks enjoy not only a separate government but also rich support both from the secular government and from the public.

Deeper into the fabric of the nation, Buddhism has been one of the main foundations of Thai culture. It has done much to mould the Thai mind and Thai character. The aspect of the Thai personality that has caused Thailand to be called “the Land of Smile” must be credited mainly to the teachings of Buddhism. Buddhist monasteries have been centers of culture, of community activities, of social life, and of popular education.

At the present moment, however, the happy picture of tradition presented above has begun to be deformed and disfigured. Recently many blemishes have begun to appear on the face of traditional Thai Buddhism. In fact, this has not been a sudden occurrence. It has been a long process of internal decay that allowed things to appear to be in good shape until a time came for all the rotten parts to show up their true conditions abruptly and almost simultaneously and be ready to be broken or damaged by slight clashes or strokes. The following may be cited as some principal examples of the rotting conditions that show up when unguided traditional Thai Buddhism clashes with modernization.

Today’s monasteries are not what they used to be. They are no longer centers of education for the masses, although they are still the main avenue of education and social mobility for the rural poor and underprivileged. Further, monasteries are no longer the main centers of community and social life. Though in most rural areas they still retain this status to a large extent, it is in the process of decline. Most of the monks’ social roles have been usurped by government officials, businessmen and so on. These changes, however, should not be regarded as absolutely detrimental or undesirable. Some changes are merely natural and social necessities that should happen when the time comes. What is more serious and undesirable are the following situations which began to appear very recently.

Monastic education for the monks and novices, which also means education for the rural poor, has been in a state of rapid decline. Many big Pāli schools have closed, while those which continue suffer from sharply decreasing numbers of students. The number of Pāli examinees decreases in spite of the increase of the total monastic population. Secular schools run by outsiders, lay parties and even businessmen enjoy a rapidly increasing number of monks and novices as their students to the dissatisfaction of the administrators of the Sangha, or Buddhist Order, and at the expense of the authority and leadership of the Sangha government. The generation gap widens between more traditional, older administrative monks and more modernist, activistic younger monks. Some groups of younger monks have even formed the organization called “The Younger Sangha,” challenging the authority of the Sangha in various ways, as by publishing newspapers critical of the activities of the Sangha administration. In addition, modern interpreters of Buddhism, such as the Venerable Buddhadāsa, independent Abhidhamma schools and new meditation centers have come into existence. Some develop different interpretations of the Buddha’s teachings or different methods of practice and criticize one another for misinterpretation and wrong practices. They neither think of the central Sangha administration as the authority to refer to nor show their trust in its intellectual leadership. Concurrently, while interest in Buddhist teachings and meditation has begun to increase, among the intellectuals, college and university students who go to different Ahhidhamma schools and meditation centers bring into the campuses different interpretations of the teachings and different methods of practice. At the educational institutions they develop different Buddhist groups and many of these Buddhist students become divided. Moreover, some monastic movements develop outside of the Sangha administration. Some movements are suspected of political involvement, some others of political back-up. At least one such movement has proclaimed its independent existence without the acceptance of the administrative authority of the Sangha Supreme Council, which is the central Sangha administration. In doing this, they can point to weaknesses, drawbacks and perversions in the Sangha itself. This adds even more to the weakening of the Sangha’s leadership, and its administrative authority is now being challenged as it has never been before.

On the other hand, most of the younger monks, almost all of whom have been recruited from poor, provincial, peasant families, leave the monkhood after some years of monastic educational training to enjoy some privileges granted by social mobility. This leads to the even more serious problem of the shortage of manpower and qualified personnel in the Sangha. At the same time, many urban people, often those among the elite, in ignorance of tradition and the background of the situation, criticize these ex-monks for exploiting the monastery and the people’s support. They also criticize monks who study in modern Buddhist institutions, like Buddhist universities, of taking advantage of the monkhood and of the people’s labor in order to snatch away occupations from their lay counterparts. Ex-monks, therefore, do not enjoy as much of a respected status in urban society as former generations did half a century ago.

Meanwhile, the Sangha administrators, the abbots and other elderly monks, having been deprived of or lost their social roles, especially their educational responsibilities, have now turned to engage themselves in the construction and repair of monastic buildings, in holding ceremonies and in performing rites connected with magic and superstition. They seem to have turned Buddhism into a new age of grandiose monastic buildings, huge Buddha images and luxurious religious ceremonies. This has caused them to depend more upon persons with power and influence, that is, politicians and the rich, and it has brought them into closer relationship with the latter. At the same time, for the populace, stress has been placed on the merit-making activity of making contributions for huge buildings and luxurious ceremonies. All of these have led to the criticisms of some groups of the Sangha elite both for political affiliation and for economic detriment. Beyond merit-making by giving the aforementioned sorts of contributions, the populace have to resort to fortune-telling and superstitious practices. There are also some so-called Buddhist centers that seek and show specialization in communication with the world of the spirits, healing by the spirit, and proving magical power.

The more activist modern younger monks, on the other hand, react against this limitation of the monks’ roles within the confines of monastery walls. They interpret the Buddha as instructing the monks to play their suitable roles to benefit society. They suggest that the traditional social roles of the monks be revived and adjusted to suit the modern changing society. With these ideas in mind, they have engaged in some kinds of community development and social works. The Sangha administration, also, in cooperation with government agencies, has begun to implement some socio-religious programs of moral, cultural and material help to rural people, such as the Dhammadūta or Dharma Messengers Project, the Dhammacārika or Dhamma Wanderers Project, and lastly, the Commune Unit for Public Instruction Project, all of which aim to benefit society as well as to achieve the security of both the country and the religion. To run these programs at the working level, the Sangha administration has to depend on the active younger monks for manpower. These programs have thus served as the meeting points where the older and the younger monks come to cooperate and work together, though only in practical activities, not in ideology.

It should be noted that in the Buddhist tradition, when the Sangha declined or became weakened by internal dissensions, perversions or corruptions in the past, the kings—as Buddhist rulers—often rendered help by the rectification and purification of the Sangha. Considering the current Thai Buddhist situations, it seems that the time has come again for this kind of rectification and purification to be undertaken.

Unfortunately, it also seems that with the current political instability, modern constitutional governments have to be concerned about their own political stabilization rather than doing anything that might run the risk of losing the status quo. Thai Buddhism, thus, seems to be left at the mercy of fate.

So far, however, we have looked only on the negative side of the situations. Looking optimistically, many of the aforementioned developments point to a good sign and carry a potential for revival of the tradition within themselves. First, we see the interest in Buddhist teachings and practices growing, as among the intellectuals. They are now in search of the true teaching and the correct practice. Second, a need for revival or reform has been clearly felt. This can be witnessed by the appearance of meditation centers both in rural and in urban areas, the increase in the number and activities of Buddhist groups in institutions of higher learning, the active roles assumed by the new monastic movements, and the various kinds or challenges to the Sangha administration. The problem seems to be that when these modern people return to their tradition to seek for answers, those who should provide the answers are not prepared to do so, and thus cannot satisfy the need or fulfill their task. This is the point where tradition clashes with modernization instead of assimilating the latter.

This conflict between tradition and modernization can be more clearly seen through an historical analysis. The encounter between tradition and modernization which began in Thailand about a century ago can be roughly divided for the present purpose into two periods. The first is the period of separation and isolation when those who grew up in tradition clung to the tradition and, in their effort to preserve the tradition intact, tried to shut themselves off from modernity and against any change. At the same time the so-called modernists were interested only in modern things, ideas and practices and were extremely anxious to receive and adopt them. Being unopposed by the tradition, they simply ignored it. Modernization was thus allowed to proceed alongside the tradition, so that the two were relatively separated and isolated without one directly challenging the other.

The second period came very recently. It may be considered a period of change in modernization and of conflict with tradition. It developed when the modernists began to be disillusioned and dissatisfied with modernization and turned to find meaning and answers from tradition. However, as the traditionalists have long been far removed from the real world of changing values, they cannot supply the answers or satisfy the need of the modernists. Moreover, their tradition has been preserved in a distorted or deformed condition because of overprotection. This caused the modernists confusion and made them come into conflict with tradition. Thus, some modernists feel that they are forced to return to the original and authentic instead of tradition. A social phenomenon which evidences this confusion and conflict can be seen in the attempt of some modern people to identify a Thai national character and values which they can accept as worthy to emulate.

Let us examine further the causes of the current situation. We may well ask why those in the tradition are not prepared to satisfy the needs of modern people when the latter turn to tradition for answers. Why are these modern people not able to make use of tradition to find the answers by themselves? And, in sum, why have people been divided into traditionalists and modernists? Why, instead of making a gradual harmonious change by assimilating selected modern elements into the dynamic tradition, have they made distinction among themselves as the traditional and the modern and let conflict and confusion arise?

Truly, there are many factors that are, together, responsible for the current situation. I will cite only some of the fundamental causes and conditions. One is the lack of a really demanding face-to-face challenge or threat to the tradition. Since the beginning of modernization in Thailand, tradition has continued alongside of modernization. Without threatening or challenging each other directly, tradition and modernization have proceeded in separation and isolation from each other and in ignorance of each other. Moreover, in this period of mutual isolation, tradition has even been coddled. In order to change and adjust, pressure or tension is often needed. Sometimes, even a degree of persecution can be helpful, as it used to be oftentimes in the history of other lands and nations.

The second, and most important cause of the current conflict is ignorance. This is related to the aforementioned separation and isolation. As those in conflict are ignorant of one another, no dynamic interaction, no assimilation, adaptation or desirable change can occur. The problem is that those who live in tradition and try to preserve the tradition not only are ignorant of the modern changing world in which their tradition exists, but they also do not truly know their own tradition which they are desperately trying to preserve. They are so submerged under the tradition as to be blinded by it. They are not able to see beyond it. If any adaptation to modernization had happened or were to happen in tradition, the traditionalists would immediately make it a hard and fast part of the tradition and use it as a weapon against further change. This can be illustrated by the reforms made by His Royal Highness Prince Vajirañāṇa, a supreme patriarch a little over half a century ago.

Modern people, on the other hand, have been alienated from their tradition by modern systems, especially the modern system of education. They are ignorant of tradition and cannot make effective use of it—or even tend to treat it in a bad way. This can be exemplified by some groups of leftist modernists who recently, rather than suggesting a new method of study, urged that a lot of traditional Thai literature such as the Trai Phum (Pali: Tebhūmi-kathā) or the Treatise on the Three Worlds of Gods, Men and Hell be burnt because of their deluding nature. Another example is a new movement that has urged a return to the original and authentic teachings of the Buddha while rejecting and condemning the whole tradition that has evolved since.

But now, in this new period of conflict and confusion, there are some hopeful signs, as we observe a change among many modern people. Being disillusioned and dissatisfied with modernism, they let themselves be exposed to many ideas and modes of life and try to avail themselves of these sources to effect a change. This time tradition is sought, scrutinized for meaning and also challenged. It may result in the rejection of tradition, chaos—or it may result in a harmonious change in which tradition continues as a part of the change. We also see some who resort to the original and authentic as the true source of tradition in order to find a meaning that can undermine tradition and be, itself, the foundation for creating change. We see others who seek for meaning within tradition itself by making a new interpretation of it that will lead to a meaningful reform.

In these difficult times, the best route is the way of knowledge and wisdom. A knowledgeable leadership is needed. All possible sources should be consulted, whether the original and authentic, the tradition, or modern conditions. Both one’s own society and the surrounding, changing world should be studied. Both one’s own tradition and other traditions should be studied. By the study of tradition, we will learn to appreciate many parts of it. Many other parts that we cannot appreciate, we may at least understand.

All in all, we should be able to effect good changes in which all the best and relevant parts of the original and authentic, the tradition, and modernity find their suitable places.

This period of conflict and confusion in Thailand may be either the worst or the best of times. It could easily turn into turmoil and crisis, but it is also open to and ripe for creative and beneficial change. If Buddhism survives the present turmoil, it may emerge either utterly decayed or—hopefully—purified and reformed. In the past, when the mechanism of change was power, some kings or powerful authorities might sometimes choose the direction and the contents of change that they themselves were in favor of. Without this autocratic power, change may be based on knowledgeable leadership, and it may indeed be a change for the best, one in which all the best elements are incorporated.

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