29 April, 2007

Buddhism to be the STATE RELIGION in Thailand’s new Constitution? No thanks.

Thai people are well aware of the decline in the quality of their Buddhist practices. A Thai baker in Thailand’s Ratchaburi province baked these bread heads to make that very point.

These bread heads were intended to reflect the Buddhist philosophy of not believing in what you see as what you see might not be as true as you thought. It’s no wonder: Thailand’s growing laissez-faire capitalism and competitive consumerism is running increasingly counter to Therevada Buddhism’s minimalist asceticism and self-effacement.

It is therefore understandable that the response of some devout Thai people is to rescue their beloved Buddhism by pressing the Surayud government to declare it the national religion. It’s a form of panic, of being unable to think through the issue clearly enough to find a better solution. But any attempt to cement Buddhism’s status in that manner would certainly backfire badly, because it would increase symbolic division of the nation, especially given the mood of some among the Muslim community in the south. They, too, are Thai citizens.

(Even Stupid W. Bush might recognize the risks in declaring Shiite Islam as the official state religion of Iraq simply because Shiites constitute the majority.)

Merit-making activities can easily become hollow ritual, but their effects must both be felt in the heart and carried through to personal behaviour.

No, even from the point of view of guest foreign residents such as we, it is clear that Buddhism needs to clean up its own act. It must re-make itself purer from within, lift itself on its intrinsic Merit. The principles of “jai-dee” must be put into practice by the people, not just chanted in temples by monks. Current attempts to “sanctify” Buddhism and prop it up by entombing it in a secular constitution are doomed to failure – and increased sectarian strife. You can never legislate or impose Status: history teaches that separation of church and state is healthier for both.

Those who are trying to have Buddhism installed as the national religion are surely missing the point. They display an embarrassing lack of understanding of Buddhism’s basic principles. For a start, Buddhism isn’t even a religion as the word “religion” is commonly understood – it is a philosophy or way of life: Buddha is not a 'god'. Secondly, His Majesty the King is patron of all religions in Thailand …so shouldn’t that be the end of the matter?

These days, however, Buddhism looks for all the world like a “normal” religion, complete with the requisite temples, monks, rituals, statues, incense, and even superstitious ‘magic’ amulets, borrowed from Animism. Lottery ticket sellers lurk outside temples. Corruption and consumerism are rife, in contrast to King Rama IV’s ruling that no monk should own or carry more than the cost of a single meal on his person. Supplicants routinely pray for forgiveness or divine intercession from the Buddha to help pay the rent or fix the car. But the Buddha only taught spiritual self-reliance, ie taking responsibility for one’s own path in life. Statues of Buddha are stone-deaf to supplication about mundane matters like materialism. Statues are merely symbolic mirrors of the potential enlightenment within oneself, if one chooses to seek it.

The unpalatable truth is that some political figures in Thailand see this corrupted neo-Buddhism as a useful tool in getting and holding onto power. Monks have been assisted to mobilise en masse, for instance, in some recent political demonstrations.

Buddhism’s Achilles Heel, arguably, is that at grassroots level it teaches people to accept their present life circumstances in the hope that ritual
merit-making will improve things in one’s next incarnation. In other words, your miserable 7-day job cleaning drains is only the result of your bad habits in your previous lives, and (by implication) is not the fault of the government. It’s a mechanism called “blame-the-victim”.

Similarly, Emperor Constantine of ancient Rome saw political advantage in making Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire. He understood clearly that Christianity’s submissive qualities would make it easier for him to control the people, especially the poor. People of political ambition in modern Thailand are ruthlessly doing the same thing, but poor farmers are unable to see anything except their immediate debt problems. That’s understandable, given their genuine financial plight, but it is potentially fatal as far as Buddhism is concerned. If Buddhism gets even sicker, then the delicate fabric of Thailand’s silken society will rapidly fray and tear apart.

Debt-ridden farmers are still protesting outside Bangkok’s government house. Thaksin let them down badly - as everyone except themselves predicted - and nothing has changed much yet. Recently, some have even considered re-locating to Laos, like refugees in reverse. Here’s more evidence of their angst.

If those mealy-mouthed power-seeking politicians were genuinely concerned about bringing true Buddhism back to the people, they would restore credibility by looking back to what the Buddha taught. And if followers of the Buddha truly understood Phra Buddha’s teachings, they would actively oppose this wrong move to entomb Buddhism in the new Thai constitution. Buddhism should never be placed in a position subservient to politics. If you are Buddhist, would you trust politicians to represent Buddha’s teachings? They are likely to walk all over it if they can score a quick baht. In your heart you surely must know that... so you should be examining your own agenda with honesty.

Danger, Thailand! This is a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Mâi jai-dee leuy.

Buddha came from the wealthy ruling class but nevertheless learned that rank and possessions are not the real issue. There is no reason to assume the wealthy governing class should be better qualified to be the caretakers of Buddhism. Don’t ever let them take it from your grasp. This is strictly a matter between the historic Buddha and your private self:

If you look carefully, you can see at least 9 Buddhas-in-training in this scene from Xiengmai’s Night Bazaar. We can all aspire to become Buddhas if we choose, creating quiet spaces even in the throng of markets and materialism.

P.S. I’m only an armchair Buddhist – mainly an unrepentant Humanist – but regard all “-isms” as interesting windows into the Human Mind. I’m particularly fond of Buddhism and recognise its pivotal role in shaping the Thai psyche. That’s why FunkyPix2 is so critical of christian [sic] missionaries and their disrespectful cultural vandalism.

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