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Buddhism at a crossroads

Buddhism at a crossroads

Hundreds of protesters led by monks and nuns took to the streets
recently to demand a Ministry of Buddhism. Leading reformist monk Phra Paisal Visalo believes their proposal falls short of addressing key problems

Phra Paisal Visalo

The importance of Buddhism to Thai people cannot be overstated. That is one reason why hundreds of people, monks and nuns included, marched to Parliament House early last month to demand the setting up of a Ministry of Buddhism. Such a ministry would mean the state would provide a budget and personnel to address the problems threatening the country's main religion.But should we put the future of Buddhism in the hands of the
government? I would argue that if we truly wish to restore and support Buddhism, we have to find ways to involve lay people _ communities _ in the process.

History tells us something.
In the past, Theravada Buddhism thrived here amid a balanced relationship with the government, Sangha and lay communities. The Sangha guided people in the path of dhamma and the government and people were responsible for supplying monks with necessities and for monitoring their practices. When the three elements worked well together, the religion flourished.

Another history lesson: Buddhism's disappearance from India did not have to do with the invasion of Muslim armies, as many believe. Hinduism came under attack as well, but clearly survived. The reason behind the decline of Buddhism in India was excessive state patronage. This led monks to congregate at the then-prominent Buddhist university, Nalanda, and lose touch with lay communities. Over time, ordinary people came to believe that religious matters were the only concern of monks. When Nalanda was destroyed, Buddhism had no solid grounds left with which to continue.

In Thailand, over the centuries, it is true that the monarchy played an important part in upholding the religion. Royal support, however, was limited to important monasteries in the capital and big cities. The majority of wats and monks survived by public support.The monarchy's ability to ensure that monks stayed within the bounds of the vinaya (correct discipline; Buddhist canon) was also limited, even when the monarchy had absolute power. During the reign of King Rama I, 128 monks were disrobed. That number increased to 500 in the reign of King Rama III. Even so, attempts to clean up the Sangha were limited to temples in the capital.
The practice and discipline of monks who lived far from Bangkok was controlled by their local communities. It is undeniable that this sort of local social control is what helped Buddhism to survive until today.

Buddhism began to decline when the three-pronged relationship lost balance. The downturn began about 100 years ago, when the Sangha was pulled towards the state and away from the community by the Sangha Act, (more widely known as the Ror Sor 121 bill). It was first implemented in 1903 and unified Buddhist administration under the Sangha Supreme Council.

As religious affairs came under government control, communities had less say. The wat, which traditionally belonged to the community, was classified by law as an ``asset of the religion'' and came under state control. The villagers' voice was no longer a factor when it came to many issues, including questions about whether certain wats should be built or maintained. These issues were now up to the state.

The state took control of promotions within the monk hierarchy. Although part of that power was later returned to the Sangha Supreme Council, the effect remained the same _ lay people were kept at a distance from monastic matters. Eventually, people paid less attention. The problem is that religious affairs have not been a priority for the state. That is one reason why we have seen so many serious problems with monks and monasteries and why there has been a call for the establishment of a Ministry of Buddhism.
It is not fair, of course, to place all the blame on the state. We
cannot dismiss the fact that lay people have turned their backs on the religion as well.

Take the alarming deterioration in the quality of education for monks. Are ordinary Buddhists aware of this? Have they shown any interest in tackling the problem? While a massive percentage of donations go to construct ubosot, vihara or other temple buildings around the country, only a tiny amount is allocated to schools for monks and novices. The setting up of a new ministry might mean a bigger budget for the well-being of monks and the religion but it would definitely weaken the three-pronged relationship even further. If such a ministry was set up, lay people would become even more complacent about religious matters. The existing Department of Religious Affairs is not very large, but people still expect it to resolve every scandal involving monks. Lay people no longer think that it is their job to shore up the religion. This tendency would become more pronounced if the department was upgraded to a full-fledged ministry. The ministry would take over even more of the functions that used to be the responsibility of lay communities. These functions would in turn serve as more justification for expanding the ministry's budget and powers. Once you have an official body taking care of the organisation of temples, lay people have no room to contribute. It's even possible that people would stop making merit or supporting their local wat, because they'd figure the government was doing it. One can look at any rural society for evidence of the adverse impact of government intervention. Whenever state mechanisms and financing arrive, villagers quickly depend on them to solve all problems. They stop helping themselves and one another. Is there now any village where people are willing to use their own initiative to build a new road or repair a bridge? Most villages will only do so when they get money from the state or the Or Bor Tor (Tambon Administrative Organisation). Without financing, villagers won't work together on such issues, even if it's for the common good.

There is no question that the idea for a Ministry of Buddhism was put forward in good faith. But we can't ignore the negative effects it would have on the duties of individual Buddhists. The central question is: what is causing the decline of Buddhism? Is it a lack of money? Patronage? Power? Or a lack of awareness among Buddhists? If money and power are the answer to problems, why do we still have a plethora of social ills? The Interior Ministry is equipped with wide powers and an enormous budget _ but it can't seem to cope with problems like drugs, crime and gambling.

The key to solving problems in Buddhism is the active participation of civil society. Instead of raising a leviathan ministry, the government would do well to mobilise the public to take an active part in matters concerning the religion. One solution it should consider is the setting up of a decentralised system of committees for the administration of religious affairs at all levels, from the national down to tambons. These committees, which would have to be recognised by law, would be tasked with administering and supporting matters concerning the religion, including expanding spiritual knowledge, promoting Buddhist ethics and promoting education for monks. The committees would be sponsored by the government and paid for with local taxes. Members should be elected in the same manner as members were elected to the National Constitution Drafting Assembly.

An assembly of Buddhists should also be established to monitor the work, policies and budgets of these administrative committees. Both organisations should contain monk and nun representatives. Both would provide forums for religious and lay people to exchange views about the religious situation both nationally and in their localities. Such forums could consider issues such as making sure that monks maintain discipline, deciding how to deal with those who stray off the rightful path, and screening men before they enter the monkhood.

Reviving the role of lay people would help restore balance in the governing of the religion. It would be a longer process, but we really have no choice. State control might bring quicker results but in the long run would just exacerbate the problem. The proposal to establish both local administration committees and the assembly of concerned Buddhists does not dismiss the role of the state. Government must continue to play an active role in maintaining the well-being of Buddhism and monks, partly through the soon-to-be-established National Buddhism Bureau. That office would maintain a close working relationship at all levels with the local committees for the administration of religious affairs. It would serve as the government's agent in allocating budgets for the committees and assembly.To maintain the health of the religion, the government should be promoting the active participation of the public _ not taking over the public's job. That's why we shouldn't look to the proposed ministry as the answer to the restoration of Buddhism in national life.

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