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  Buddhism in Contemporary Thailand

Buddhism in Contemporary Thailand*

On behalf of the Supreme Sangha Council of Thailand, I congratulate the Sri Lankan Buddhists on the 250th anniversary of the Siam Nikaya in Sri Lanka. Following the footprints of Phra Upali, the Supreme Sangha Council of Thailand has sent me to participate in this International Conference on Buddhasasana as a gesture of our intention to strengthen relation between the Sri Lankan and the Thai Sangha. The success story of Phra Upali reminds us that in the contemporary world of globalization Sri Lankan and Thai Sanghas have to work closely for the sake of Buddhasasana.

Phra Upãli - the greatest
     Sri Lanka and Thailand share a long history of religious relation. Theravada Buddhism in Thailand is known as Lankavamsa. This is because 700 years ago King Ramkhamhaeng invited a leader of Sri Lankan monks from Nakhon Si Thammarat in the South to preach Sri Lankan Buddhism in Sukhothai. That was the beginning of Lankavamsa in Thailand. And 250 years ago Thai people had opportunity to return a favor to Sri Lanka when King Boromkot sent Phra Upali and others to revive the higher ordination tradition in Sri Lanka , after the ordination lineage in this island had been broken by Portuguese persecution. Through a great sacrifice of Phra Upali, the higher ordination tradition was reintroduced to Sri Lanka and was followed by the establishment of the Siam Nikaya.

     We are gathering here to remind us of the great service that Phra Upali has done to Buddhism in Sri Lanka. When Phra Upali decided to come to Sri Lanka he might have known that it was a journey of no return. He was ready to sacrifice his life for the benefit of mankind and for agation of Buddhism. He followed the Buddhas'instruction given to the first group of 60 Dhammadutas "Caratha bhikkhave carikam bahujanahitaya bahujanasukhaya lok?nukamp?ya - Go, monks, for the benefit and happiness of the world, out of compassion for the world." Phra Upali passed away in Sri Lanka after spending three years to revive the higher ordination tradition in this land. I personally regard Phra Upali as the greatest Dhammaduta or missionary monk that Thailand has ever produced. This is because of the reason that Phra Upali not only accomplished his mission in Sri Labka but also succeeded in establishing here the greatest Nikaya which was named after his motherland and his name as Syamopali Mahanikaya, the Siam Upali lineage or simply the Siam Nikaya.

     It is interesting to learn that whereas the major Nikaya of Buddhism in Sri Lanka is known as Siam Nikaya, Buddhism in Thailand is called Lankavamsa. This is due to a historical fact that Thailand received Theravada Buddhism from Sri Lanka during the Sukhothai period in 12th century of the Common Era, and has maintained a canonical tradition and an unbroken ordination lineage since.

     In contemprary Thailand, Buddhism is the state religion of the country. Under the constitution, the King as a symbol of the nation, Bust be a Buddhist. The Crown and the State have always been involved in supporting and assisting the Ordained sangha and in promoting Buddhism among the people. According to the latest census, with a total population of 63 million, approximately 94% of Thais are Buddhist. As of 2002, there were 32,000 monasterises, 265,956 monks and 87,695 novices in the Kingdom. Besides numerous forest monasteries where monks may go for extended meditation, there is a monastery in nearly every village and there are many more monasteries in the cities. Schools are often located on monastery grounds, and the Sangha is actively involved in the efforts of the state to rise the educational level of the people as a whole. Buddhism and the Sangha, therefore, are deeply intertwined with the daily lives of the people of Thailand.

Sangha Organization
     Today, in Thailand, there are two Theravada Nikayas, the Maha Nikaya and the Dhammayut Nikaya. The Mana Nikaya is by far the larger and traces its lineage directly to the Lankan establishment of the Sangha during the Sukhothai period. The Dhammayut was established in 1833 by H.R.H. Prince Mongkut, who later ascended the throne, as a smaller Nikaya dedicated to a more strict observance of the Vinaya. Both Nikayas come under the direction of the Supreme Sangha Council and the Supreme Patriarch and subsequent internal reforms have greatly reduced the differenes between them.

     Over the last century, the Sangha in Thailand has governed itself under the regulations of the first Sangha Act (1902), the second Sangha Act (1941), and the current Sangha Act, enacted in 1962 and amended in 1992. Two major divisions are recognized by law, the Mahayana division with Chinese and Vietnamese sects, and the Theravada division with the Maha Nikaya and Dhammayut Nikaya. Both divisions come under direstion of the Supreme Patriarch, or Sangharaja, who is appointed by the King from one of the Theravada Nikayas and who serves for life. The Supreme Patriarch is assisted by the Supreme Sangha Council, or Mahathera Samakhom, which has eight permanent members and 12 rotating members appointed by the Supreme Patriarch.

     The Supreme Sangha Council, led by the Supreme Patriarch has the duty and the authority to command the Sangha, to issue rules and regulations, and to appoint Sangha administrators from both Nikayas. Sangha administration is assisted by the National Bureau of Buddhism whose office serves as the secretariat of the Supreme Sangha Council. The National Bureau of Buddhism functions as a liaison office to achieve harmonious cooperation between the Sangha and the State. It is responsible for the care of monks and monasteries by budgeting financial support from government funds and by assisting Sangha officers with their administrative duties.

     As regutaled by the Sangha Act, the Thai Sangha is well organized. Many thousands of monasteries and a quarter million monks and novices come under centralized administration and the Sangha enjoys the recognition and support of the State. There is uniformity in Sangha affairs, education and rite. With a centralized hierarchy, Sangha activities can be closely supervised, discipline maintained and there is a channel of communication between the central administration and the outlying provinces. With such an organization, cooperation and concord with the State have been maintained and the monks have been able to contribute to the unity of the people and to national security. On the other hand, such a centralized organization may be excessively dependent on a small leadership, which, in turn may not be able to respond quickly to changing social conditions.

     There is currently need for a new law, and a Sangha reform act is being drafted and debated. The general administrative structure of the Sangha will be chaged in such a way that the absolute power of the Supreme Sangha Council will be delegated to an executive committee called Mahaganissra.

Buddhist Education
     To provide education for monks and novices, the Supreme Sangha Council takes responsibility for maintaining a traditional system of education consisting of Dhamma studies and Pali studies. There are three levels of Dhamma studies and nine levels of Pali studies. The three levels of Dhamma studies, taught in Thai are intended as basic education for monks and novices.

     Students of Pali studies are required to read the Tipitaka and its commentaries in the Pali version. They learn how to translate Pali into Thai and Thai into Pali. The Higher Ordination of novices who have passed the examinations at level nine are sponsored by the King. The Pali language is difficult to learn, involving a great deal of memorization and recitation. The State, however, recognizes level nine, the highest level of achievement, as equivalent only to a Bachelors' degree. As a result, monk and novices lack interest in learning the Pali. The Sangha would like the highest level of Pali studies to be officially recongnized as a Doctorate, and is ready to change the curriculum to require a thesis written in Pali.

     How can we make it easier to learn Pali, a dead language, so that, as in former times, we can use it to communicate within the Theravada Sangha among different countries? Pali can be the international language of Theravada Buddhism, like English is the language of globalization, and for example, in meetings like this, papers would be submitted in Pali.

     In Thailand, modern Buddhist education is provided by two Buddhist universities administered by monks. They are Mahachulalongkornrajavidyalaya University and Mahamkut University. Both of them are state universities, receiving financial support from the Thai government, and both have Baccalaureate through Doctorate programmes open to both ordained and lay people.

     Mahachulalongkornrajavidyalaya University maintains 10 campuses throughout the country and four Sangha Colleges, with 10 educational centers, as well as 3 affiliated institutes including those in South Korea and Taiwan. All the braches of Machachulalongkornrajavidyalaya University are linked together through an information technology network. There are four faculties in Mahachulalongkornrajavidyalaya University; the Faculty of Buddhism, the Faculty of Education, the Faculty of Humanities, and the Faculty of Social Sciences.

     At Mahachulalongkornrajavidyalaya University, we have instituted an International Programme at the post-graduate level. Taught in English, the programme attracts both students and lecturers from abroad for advanced work in Buddhist Studies and Buddhist Philosophy, thus maintaining an international Buddhist discourse at the academic level. Our network of campuses throughout the Kingdom endeavours to raise the educational and moral level of the Sangha, and to produce monks who can teach the Buddhadhamma accurately and who can intelligently discuss the Dhamma along with contemporary concerns and current affairs. In other words, our curriculum is designed to produce monks who can address the concerns of their communities.

     In this international Programme, we need lecturers who can teach in English and who can help evaluate papers and theses written in English. We would like to exchange lecturers, researchers, and students with other countries and institutions and to build a worldwide network.

     In order to provide Buddhist education in the schools, the Thai Sangha has persuaded the Ministry of Education to mandate the teaching of Buddhism to all students from grade 1-12. Local school districts, however, were left to formulate their own curriculum, although the level of understanding of Buddhism in the local districts may be quite informal and even inaccurate in some cases. There was, then, an urgent need for a formal curriculum to guide local educators in forming their programmes. Mahachulalongkornrajavidyalaya University undertook the task of producing such a curriculum, and I am happy to report that the curriculum is now complete and has been introduced to all schools by the Ministry of Education.

     The curriculum for grades 1-12 includes the life of the Buddha, Jataka stories, the basic teachings of the Buddha, and an introduction to the Tipitaka and to Buddhist vocabulary. It is designed impart an understanding of the Sangha and of the Duties and roles of monks. Besides the educational value of the effort, we believe that the curriculum will promote Buddhism by exposing the children to its precious teachings, and will protect Buddhism by ensuring that the children are given an accurate account of those teachings.

Religious Practice
     Another major issue related to Buddhist activities is meditation practice. In Thailand, meditation is taught to, and practiced by, both ordained and lay Buddhists, at various centres and monasteries throughout the country as well as at home.

     There are both forest monasteries and city monasteries in Thailand. The monks in forest monasteries, the aranyavasi, dedicate their time to meditation, both Samatha and Vipassana. The monks in city monasteries, the kamavasi, devote their time to study and tend to become Sanght administrators. The separation of forest from city monasteries means that monks and novices who study, rarely meditate, and monks and novices who meditate, rarely study. We have tried to integrate these two sides of Buddhist practice by making meditation practice a compulsory subject for all students at Mahachulalongkornrajavidyalaya University, and by making an annual meditation retreat a required part of the curriculum.

     Understanding religious practice in terms of observing the Vianaya for ordained and pancasila for laity, we have to admit the fact that rapid modernization has brought about social disintegration and a precipitous decline in personal morality. Buddhists are not immune to this, and rampant sexual misconduct, violence, crime, and drug abuse, indicates that the laity are no longer able to keep sila very well. It is necessary to call for a return to personal morality and self-discipline. The fact that the decline in morality is precipitated by rapid changes in the social order indicates that calls for greater self-discipline are necessary.

     There is ample material in the Theravada tradition that can be brought to bear on contemporary problems-but we have to make the effort to rethink it, to interpret and apply the tradition to new situations. For a beginning of such an effort, I would direct you to my book, Buddhist Morality.

     I understand practice also in terms of addressing social problems-the Buddha himself insisted that a modicum of comfort and well being was a prerequisite to hearing the Dhamma and we can do no less than to attempt to address the basic needs of those who minght benefit from the Dhamma. The Thai Sangha has done much in this area. For example, there have been significant activities in the North in addressing the AIDS pandemic both in combating the disease itself through education and in ameliorating the social problems that come from it. My university runs a summer camp for at-risk youth, helping to direst them away from drugs and crime and into constructive life styles. Graduates of the university are required to perform a year of social service and we have many programmes in which they can serve, including development programmes for the Hill tribe peoples, and Buddhist Sunday Schools.

Promotion of Buddhism
     There are several issues in teaching Buddhism to the laity.
     First, the traditional way in which teachings are given, with the monk sitting on a high seat and the laity sitting on the floor with hands folded, is not appealing to the younger generations. As a consequence, only older people go to the monasteries on days of observance. The situation is exacerbated by the fact that days of observance are usually on work days and younger people cannot come. There are teachings on Sundays, but it is not popular to go to the monastery on Sundays. People say that they do not have time to come and listen to the teaching.

     In the face of the economic crises, His Majesty the King of Thailand derived an economic programme from the Buddhist principles of self-reliance and the Middle Path. His programme, called self-sufficiency economics, is not only a plan of recovery but also of extended sustainability in which economy would be geared to meeting needs at a sufficient level rather than to ever increasing levels of wealth fuelled by greed. It is an economy in which people and nations would be satisfied at a reasonable level of wealth and in which wealth would never be accumulated at the expense of other. All would have enough to live on and to live for. The King thereby has encouraged Buddhists at all levels-personal, community, and national to return to the values of Buddhism, and to base economic activity and policy on the Buddha's teachings. In doing so His Majesty the King has shown that the Buddha's teachings can be relevant in the contemporary world.

     The King has translated the Mahajanaka Jataka into Thai and English, with adjustments to contemporary society. In the story, King mahajanaka, throuht great perseverance, without desire for reward, gains the throne and brings prosperity to the kingdom. Published in 1996, the book is a best seller and is timely in encouraging the Thai people to endure the economic crises and to strive for economic recovery through perseverance, wisdom and physical health.

      The Thai Sangha engages in a number of activities related to the promotion of Buddhism. For example, it has established monasteries staffed by missionary monks in many Western countries. In Thailand there are monasteries and meditation centres at which lay people of all nationalities can learn and practice meditation. Mahachulalongkornrajavidyalaya University, for example, maintains the International Buddhist Meditation Centre, with instruction in both Thai and English. There are also monasteries tailored especially for Western monks.

     If to promote Buddhism is to cultivate that which gives rise to happiness and to eliminate that which gives rise to suffering, then much of what I discussed as 'practice' applies here as well Part of promoting Buddhism means addressing the social malaise that has come with modernization and globalization-both in terms of reducing suffering itself, and in terms of preparing people to hear the message of the Buddha. Certainly, much of the task of converting Buddhists to Buddhism is teaching them how to apply the traditions to which they often want to hold, to the modern situations in which they must live, but which seem to contradict those traditions.

     Accordingly, at Mahachulalongkornrajavidyalaya Univirsity, we train monks to teach Buddhism in the schools, we send them out into the field to work directly with the people. We use information technology and computer technology to make the Buddhas message available world wide at the click of a mouse, to engage in discourse, and to coordinate international activities of Buddhist promotion.

     In response to globalization, Buddhist promotion must also build global networks of Buddhists working together for the benefit of the world. That is to say, perhaps, that we must enter into the globalisation process itself in order to bring Buddhist values to it. In this connection I should like to review two initiatives in which Mahachulalongkornarajavidyalaya University has played a central role.

     In the year 2000, Mahachulalongkornrajavidyalaya University co-hosted the Second World Buddhist Propagation Conference, or Buddhist Summit, in Thailand. That Summit was attended by senior Buddhist leaders from 16 Asian countries, representing the major branches of Buddhism, Theravada and Mahayana alike. Not only were these leaders able to discuss ways in which we can work together in promoting Buddhism for the benefit of humanity and in cooperating in concrete programmes for peace and the betterment of humankind and the environment, but we also approved a charter, creating the World Buddhist Conference as a permanent organization, binding the Buddhist leaders of the world together in service to humanity.

     That same year, along with other representatives of the Thai Sangha, I participated in the Millennium World Peace Summit of Religious and Spiritual Leaders at the General Assembly Hall of the United Nations in New York City. This was the first time in history that senior representatives of all the world's major religions had met in one place to discuss ways and means of bringing peace to the world. I participated the following year in a follow-up meeting, again in New York, to plan further actions and to discuss how the intentions of the year 2000 Peace Summit could be put into practice.

     The result was the first meeting of the World Council of Religious Leaders, held in Bangkok last June and co-hosted by Mahachulalongkornrajavidyalaya University and the Millennium World Peace Summit with the cooperation of the United Nations. Senior representatives of the world's religions met seeking routes to peace, the alleviation of poverty, and environmental preservation. A charter was approved creating a permanent council of leaders of the world's religions, including Buddhism, Hinduism, Jainism, Islam Judaism, Christianity and others. A key feature of the World Council of Religious Leaders is to work hand in hand with the United Nations on these issues, while maintaining its independence.

     At Mahachulalongkornrajavidyalaya University we have established procedures whereby institutions of Buddhist learning in other countries may affiliate with the university for our mutual benefit. The Donggook Buddhist Chonbop College in Korea has already affiliated and the Chinjou Buddhist College of Taiwan, has applied for affiliation. We are thereby building a network of Buddhist learning among different countries and traditions. Thusacademic discourse among different cultures is instituted and kept alive and a process of rapprochement among peoples that have sometimes been unaware of each other and sometimes have been hostile to each other is begun.

Protection of Buddhism
     The final key area of Sangha activities is the protection of Buddhism. Much of what we have already discussed serves to protect Buddhism from misunderstandings and misuse. One of the most obvious threats to Buddhism is the aggressive conversion tactics of some religions. These aggressive efforts are of concern not only to Buddhism but also to many other religions as well. One way of meeting these threats is by ensuring that we as the Sangha are properly fulfilling our duties toward the laity-that is, providing education guidance and concern, while ourselves returning to a rigorous observance of the Vinaya. In response to accusations of Buddhist indifference from some Christian propagandists, we might remember that Buddhists were building hospitals and other works of public charity before Jesus was born. Remembering that, we would do well to return to works of public service and compassion on a larger scale. At the World Council of Religious Leaders meeting in Bangkok last June, the problem of aggressive propagation was a matter of concern to nearly all the delegates and it is clear that the World Council of Religious Leaders will never condone the aggressive conversion efforts of any religion.

     The deeper threat to Buddhism is from within, from those monks who allow themselves to fall from the observance of the Vinaya. The lapses of these monks corrupt the Sangha from within, corrode the authority of the Sangha among the laity, and give ammunition to the enemies of Buddhism. We must find ways of addressing this problem.

     But, again, we must recognize that misconduct in the Sangha is exacerbated by the Forces of globalisation and of modernization. Indeed, all the major religions in the world are periodically rocked by scandals of this kind. It is not enough simply to say. 'Be good!' We must train our monks specifically to weather the challenges of the contemporary world. But for the long term we must find effective ways of suffusing the modern and modernizing world with Buddhist sensibility and Buddhist values, of making it a world in which it is easier to be good.

     Dialogue is essential at all levels and it is imperative that the dialogue begun here continues into the future. I thank the organizers for creating this platform. I therefore hope that we will be able to host such a gathering as this in Thailand in the not too distant future.

     I would like to offer my deeply felt gratitude to the ancient Sangha of Sri Lanka for bringing Buddhism to Thailand so long ago, and I would like to congratulate the Sri Lankan people for maintaining, unbroken for 250 years, the lineage of the Siamopali Makanikaya.

     The Sangha has weathered many storms and survived many difficulties over the 2,500 years since the Lord Buddha established this precious order. By following the Dhamma-Vinaya which he gave us, and applying it as he intended, intelligently, the Buddhasasana will continue long into the future for the welfare of humanity.

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