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Phra Paisal Visalo Monk's life mission is to empower the people
Monk's life mission is to empower the people

Few monks dare speak up against the clergy's feudal dictatorship that breeds nepotism and corruption. Far fewer monks understand the modern challenges Thai Buddhism is facing and how to cope with them.

That makes 44-year-old Phra Paisal Visalo one of a kind.

The monk, who never minces words about the clergy, is conducting a comprehensive research project to offer concrete measures to reform the cleric system.

His Sangha reform research project involves many progressive Buddhist scholars who believe the clergy's inertia and insularity is severely hurting Thai Buddhism. Research topics include the recruitment system, monks' education, temple finance, female ordination and lay Buddhism.

Born in 1957, young Paisal Wongworawisit grew up in the politically progressive atmosphere of the 1970s. He became involved in political movements in high school, but his religious bent was evident right from the start.

While most student leaders were discussing Marxism and revolution, Paisal worked with a small group of friends to advocate non-violence.

When political ideologies of the right and left clashed in 1976 culminating in a state massacre of students at Thammasat University, many students fled to the jungle to take up arms with the Communist Party of Thailand.

Paisal was arrested and briefly jailed before being released on bail. Although under threat from the right-wing government, he refused to join the revolution.

"I believe in non-violence. I don't believe in the so-called people's wars," he said.

Paisal and a small group of peace activists then formed the Coordinating Group for Religion in Society to work on human rights issues and non-violence. It was the only politically-active non-governmental organisation in Bangkok at that time.

Things were tough. Paisal lost himself in risky political activism and academic writings, so much so that he was nearly burnt-out both physically and mentally.

When the tense political atmosphere began to ease in 1979, with the government granting amnesty to the student fighters, Paisal entered the monkhood in 1983, to "charge the batteries".

"I was exhausted from work. I was stressed," he recalls. "I thought I needed merely three months to meditate to revitalise myself."

But he never left the monkhood again.

"The more I practice dhamma, the stronger my faith is," he explains, "and the more I realise the value of a spiritual life."

Now eighteen years in the robe, Paisal has become abbot of Wat Pah Sukato, located behind the mountains in Chaiyapume province. Its distance from Bangkok, however, has failed to mute his activism.

The monk is still the focal point in several non-governmental organisations that advocate Buddhist activism, non-violence and inter-religious dialogues.

His organisations are also critical of consumer culture and the government's "greed-driven" development policies which allegedly destroy nature, moral restraints, and communities.

He is also a driving force behind the Sekhiyadham movement of monks and nuns who apply Buddhist teachings to organise villagers to develop community empowerment.

One of the group's goals is to prove that alternative models of development based on religious values of contentment and simplicity are not only possible, but also crucial for the livelihood of future generations.

To make Buddhist teachings relevant to the younger generation, Paisal initiated a website www.budpage.com in the hope that more and more youngsters will now learn about Buddhism from the Internet.

He is also campaigning to sensitise the public to see merit-making as a way to help others in society rather than a personal investment for an after-life in heaven.

A prolific writer, Phra Paisal is well-known for his works that shed light on the problems of Thai Buddhism and the challenges the religion faces in the information age.

"Thai Buddhism has three main problems," he says. "The problems involve the teachings, the clergy, and the lay Buddhists themselves."

Thai Buddhism, he says, has lost its mystical and social aspects. "We're only interested in our needs, not those of society."

Meanwhile, the clergy is fraught with weaknesses. "Monks are generally weak intellectually, morally and spiritually," he charges, blaming this development on the monks' authoritarian education system and rigid lifestyle.

Concurrently, he said, nepotism is rife and corruption in the clergy's closed and autocratic governing system encourages bad monks to abuse their positions while constantly increasing the clergy's power chain through money and favours.

The lay Buddhist society does not fare much better, he said.

Not knowing the true essence of Buddhism, lay Buddhists end up pampering monks with material possessions, believing this will buy merit, well-being, success and a sweet after-life in heaven.

He also notes that the proliferation of lay Buddhist movements, that have tended to eclipse the role of monks, are also full of pitfalls.

Governed by consumer culture, the new religious groups are often geared to serve their followers' individualistic and materialistic needs, he observes.

While his research in Sangha reform may provide some answers as to how the clerics and the devotees can meet each other half-way through various checks and balances, the monk does not believe change will ever come from within the clergy.

He said cleric reform, here or elsewhere, show that change almost always stems from external pressures, be they alternative movements from the fringes or direct forces from secular power centres.

Whether he is successful in his goals, or fails, Phra Paisal sees his duty and life's mission as providing knowledge in Sangha reform and proposing ways to empower both monks and the lay society against the dangers of a consumer culture.

"I don't expect to see change in my lifetime," he says, "but we must do what we can to inject new life into Thai Buddhism. Otherwise, it will wither away."


Personal file

Name Phra Paisal Visalo
Born 10 May 1957
Education Thammasat University, Faculty of Liberal Arts
Career Abbot of Sukato Forest Monastery; Ordination, 5 February 1983;
Committee member of Co-ordinating Group for Religion in Society; Editor of "Anurak" environmental newsletter; Editor of "Jabta Nuclear"
anti-nuclear newsletter
Awards 2001 Pridi Banomyong Award for his outstanding work in peace
activism Phra Paisal's equal passion for both intellect and activism defines his life both before and after his initiation into the monkhood.

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