NONTHABURI, Thailand: The ongoing conflict within Thailand's monastic community has raised questions about the role of monks and Buddhist temples in the Thai society.
Earlier this week, the Buddhism Protection Centre of Thailand said the state should not interfere in matters relating to monkhood, after Thai Prime Minister Gen Prayut Chan-ocha delayed the appointment of the leader of Thai Buddhism on Feb 15, in the wake of a controversy over the supreme patriarch nominee, Somdet Phra Maha Ratchamangalacharn.
Also known as Somdet Chuang, the monk had been nominated for the top post by the Supreme Sangha Council. However, he is currently under investigation for alleged tax evasion.
The postponement triggered a mass protest by Buddhist monks, who accused the military government of siding with a political faction that aims to undermind the Buddhist governing institution, the Supreme Sangha Council.
Their protest reflected a changing time in Thai Buddhism; in the past, monks served as teachers and community leaders, but nowadays many are hoping for a greater role on the national stage and pressuring the government to declare Buddhism as the national religion in the country’s new charter.
Supporters of the movement see their role as missionaries for the heart and soul of Thailand’s younger generations.
“Our job is to provide the knowledge of meditation and how to be a good Buddhist that is relevant to the modern world that is changing rapidly,” said Phra Pasura Pantamano, Dhammakaya Temple’s foreign correspondent. “In the past 50 years, Thailand has been changing and just like any country in the world where the economic development is growing rapidly, the drop in spiritual practice occurred.”
The likes of him find it necessary to strengthen the Supreme Sangha Council, which comprises 20 senior monks who govern Buddhism in Thailand, as a way forward. So when the appointment of the supreme patriarch was stalled, they were upset.
In response, prominent monks in the country have urged Thai Buddhists to return to the basic principles of their belief and concentrate on their self-improvement and that of the community instead of politics surrounding monkhood.
“If they ask me to join their campaign to make Buddhism a national religion in the new constitution, while people still continue to get intoxicated, commit murder or partake in corruption, then I just don’t see the point of this," said Phra Payom Kalayano, the abbot of Suan Kaew temple in Nonthaburi. He added that it is important for modern-day monks to help develop their local community, particularly in rural areas.
“Those who want to progress stayed in Bangkok, but there is shortage of well-educated monks in the provinces. Only few would help develop rural areas,” he said.
Some monks say the current conflict in the monkhood reflects people’s shifting expectations of monks and Buddhism, and that popular monks like Phra Payom represent the exception rather than the norm in the monastic community.
“These days, the role of Buddhism has been transformed. Most monks have become a performer of religious rituals. Those few that are respected by the public are those monks who are ‘outside’ the monkhood,” said Phra Maha Paiwan Worawanno from Soi Tong temple.
Currently, there are some 300,000 monks in Thailand, where more than 90 per cent of the population consider themselves Buddhists.