Thailand is drawing students from all over the world, keen to study ‘engaged Buddhism’ and its social benefits.
Behind the Dhammakaya sect controversy currently raging in the minds of Thai Buddhists lies a centuries-old question: how to deal with “greed”?
In this new age of globalisation, capitalism and consumerism, Thai Buddhism is evolving in different ways to remain relevant to people. Among the most successful is Dhammakaya, though its critics say the sect has gained its popularity both here and abroad through commercialised teachings that play on desire for reward rather than cultivating compassion and empathy for others.
“Dhammakaya Temple focuses on donations – the more money you give, the more [positive karma] you receive. Many people have gone broke because they believe in this and many other distorted teachings,” Phra Paisal Visalo, abbot of Chaiyaphum’s Wat Pa Sukato in the Northeast, lamented earlier this year.
MCU has over 25,000 Buddhist monks (both male and female), laymen and laywomen.Photo: NATION/RACHANON INTHARAGSA
Yet many Buddhist scholars see an alternative way forward, believing that “socially engaged Buddhism” can help to light the way in our era of globalisation.
“Modern Buddhism can provide the key to challenges in our globalised and capitalist world,” stressed Professor Phra Brahmapundit, rector of Mahachulalongkornrajavidhalaya University, Thailand’s premier Buddhist educational institute.
“Thailand entered the middle income era a few decades ago. Many people have misconceptions about consumerism and capitalism. They think that earning more money and consuming more will make us happy. In terms of engaged Buddhism, we do not reject donations.
But instead of simply collecting, we have to focus on how we spend the donated money so as to benefit society.”
Another way Thai Buddhism has dealt with the demands of an increasingly affluent society is with meditation and dharma retreats. Their popularity among the middle class means more and more people are using Buddhism to navigate their everyday lives and jobs.
Pioneers of this trend were Luang Por Chah Subhaddo in the Northeast and Buddhadasa of Suan Mokkh Temple down South, whose idea for public meditation retreats has become an important way of practising religion in Thailand.
Luang Por Chah (1918-1992) founded two major monasteries in the Thai Forest Tradition and was also instrumental in establishing Theravada Buddhism in the West. Beginning in 1979 with the founding of Cittaviveka (Chithurst Buddhist Monastery) in southern England, the Forest Tradition of Ajahn Chah has since spread across the West.
Buddhadasa (1906-1993) is internationally renowned as a Buddhist reformer and recognised among the World’s Great Personalities by Unesco. Nowadays the Buddhadasa Indapanno Archives at Suan Mokkh in Bangkok is an education centre for Thai and foreign Buddhist scholars and practitioners.
More recently the socially conscious abbot of Wat Pa Sukato temple in Chaiyaphum, Phra Paisal Visalo, has used Facebook to bring Buddhist ideas and training to the new generation of young, curious-minded netizens.
Improving society is also the focus at Mahachulalongkornrajavidhidalaya University (MCU), though the teaching here is more formal and institutionalised. A key lies in the intensive vipassana course, which is popular among master’s students, who practise insight meditation for seven months so as to achieve a peaceful mental state.
“Many of our students are nurses and doctors,” Rector Phra Brahmapundit explains. “They use these practices alongside modern treatments, and many adapt insight vipassana and breathing techniques to help terminally ill patients.”
Newly ordained female monks receive their first alms from family and friends at Songdhammakalyani monastery in Nakhon Pathom.Photo: AFP
Spread of women in Buddhism
Though not officially recognised, Thai female monks have played a big role in making Buddhist relevant for the masses, opening their monasteries for retreats and making socially engaged dharma a cornerstone of their practice.
There are currently only about 100 female monks practising in Thailand – compared with some 300,000 males in the Sangha.
Yet thanks to Theravada ordinations carried out in Sri Lankan temples, the number of Thai bhikkunis has been growing. They are now scattered across Chiang Mai in the North, Yasothon in the Northeast and Songkhla in the South.
The 73-year-old abbess, of Songdhammakalyani monastery in Nakhon Pathom, the Venerable Dhammananda, was ordained in Sri Lanka in 2003. She made headlines last year when she was barred from paying tribute to His Majesty the late King Bhumibol at the Grand Palace as the Thai Sangharaja Council of Elders does not recognise female monks. Dhammananda lodged a petition with both the National Human Rights
Commission as well as the Thai Committee on Unfair Gender Discrimination, which have yet to announce their findings.
“It’s a small number but we’re spreading – we have bhikkhunis in 10 provinces now,” Dhammananda told The Nation in 2012. She now divides her time between her religious commitments and writing on the history of bhikkhunis in Thailand.
Theravada Buddhism became the state religion of the Sukhothai Kingdom 800 years ago, flourishing from seeds planted in Suvannabhumi by travelling Indian monks. In the 19th century, King Chulalongkorn the Great (Rama V) enshrined Buddhist education by founding a dharma school at the Temple of the Emerald Buddha in the Grand Palace grounds.
What became the MCU has retained “dharma” as the core of its curriculum and, as Thailand’s oldest Buddhist university, is now spreading its wings.
Thailand’s global melting pot
“The 60 years of teaching experience means we are now ready to offer education worldwide – which is why we launched our vision to become a global centre of Buddhist education,” the rector says.
The main campus is located on 322 rai in Ayutthaya’s Wangnoi district, a handy 30 minutes’ drive from Bangkok, from which rise 11 buildings – the Tripitaka Museum, Rector’s Building, Library and Tech block, guest accommodation, dining hall, lecture rooms, halls of residence, temple, Maha Vajiralongking Conference Hall and Somdej Phra Phutthacha Vipassana Dhura centre.
MCU offers a four-year bachelor’s degree on Buddhism as well as master’s programmes in Buddhist studies, Pali studies, philosophy, dharma communication, vipassana meditation, educational administration, public administration, and life and death studies. The master’s programme is taught in English while the university offers a PhD in Buddhist studies in both Thai and English.
MCU now maintains 11 campuses and 16 Sangha colleges along with seven affiliated institutes in Thailand and abroad – Mahapanya Vidayalai in Hat Yai, Dongguk Chunbop College in South Korea, Taiwan’s Ching Chueh Buddhist Sangha University, the Buddhist College and the Brahm Education Centre in Singapore, Sri Lanka’s International Buddhist Academy, and the Dharma Gate Buddhist College in Hungary.
“The attraction for international students is a curriculum that focuses on study of the Tripitaka in the Theravada tradition and the Pali language, plus offering them the chance to practise meditation as a core subject,” the rector explains. “The rest covers the application of Buddhism to modern science.”
“The university’s success is founded on applied dharma. We don’t just focus on studying texts; we teach our students how to apply Buddhist teaching to the modern world. When our graduates return to their countries, they can apply the dharma to challenges of social development.
“That is why attract many students from many different countries. Right now there are 25,000 students enrolled on our BA, MA and PhD courses in various faculties.”
Of these, 1,400 are foreign students studying for master’s degrees and PhDs. They come from 20 countries, including Sri Lanka, India, Myanmar, Cambodia, Laos, America, Britain and Hungary.
Among them is a group of monks from Myanmar, where opportunities for higher education are limited.
Three years into his studies here, Myanmar monk Zanaka, 31, is busy preparing his thesis “An analysis on solving social conflict with special reference to the Mahanidana Sutta (‘Great Causes Discourse’)”.
“Here it is different from Myanmar, where Buddhist education is mostly in the local language. Here we study in English, which gives us better opportunity to communicate in the globalised world. We meet monks from other countries, so we can share Buddhist knowledge and current affairs from our own countries with each other. After I graduate, I hope to support my country by helping cultivate a peaceful society for the next generation,” Zanaka explains.
Fellow monk Astin Kesara, 30, also aims to use the contemporary dharma he has studied here to help improve the situation back in Myanmar.
“Here we can absorb current Buddhist thinking in English. We also learn more about the different traditions – from Thailand, Sri Lanka and Cambodia. Learning alongside monks from different countries can help forge strong connections. With these connections and globalisation, I want to help create a strong Buddhist community in my country that improve things for the religion and the general community in Asia.”
Fellow student Ethumalpiliye Sumanathero is aware MCU has a branch in his homeland of Sri Lanka, a country renowned for Buddhist education, but he prefers to study in Thailand to broaden his experiences.
After seven months here, the 27-year-old Theravada monk says he has absorbed a wider spectrum of Buddhist teaching.
“Before studying here, I had little knowledge of Mahayana and Vajrayana [Tibetan] Buddhism. Now I have learned so much about these traditions. I have also learned more about vipassana meditation,” Sumanathero says.
“Without such experience, I wouldn’t be able to achieve my goal of educating a new generation back home about Buddhism in the modern world.”
Mahachulalongkornrajavidhidalaya University,Thailand’s premier Buddhist academy, aims to be an international hub for Buddhist studies by 2027.Photo: MCU
Plan for international hub
By the end of this year, the college will have accommodation for 1,000 students, taken up mostly by monks from Buddhist countries.
“Not only do we train them in meditation, modern science and Buddhism, but the programme is in English,” says the rector.
“We believe that after they return to their countries, they can spread the word and boost interest in Buddhism worldwide.
“Right now we focus on English [but] we plan to use other languages of instruction, like Chinese and Japanese.”
A Mahayana programme taught in Mandarin will launch this year, he adds. Along with the “hardware”, the university is also forging the software. In 2011 it initiated the “Common Buddhist Texts” project to create the first online source in English of the Theravada, Mahayana and Vajrayana canons.
Meanwhile on Saturday the university unveiled the opening phase of its “Union Catalogue of Buddhist Texts” – the first comprehensive English-language source of the major texts of the Pali, Chinese and Tibetan canons – to mark Visakha Bucha Day.
“It’s as big as the bible,” the rector says, adding that the next section in English, Chinese and Japanese should be published in five years.
“By the next decade we hope to be operating as the Buddhist study hub in Asia, with full-scale programmes in Thai, English, Chinese, Japanese and Tibetan.”
The words are uttered with a quiet conviction that modern Buddhism has a crucial role to play in our globalised world.
Thailand’s oldest Buddhist university
King Chulalongkorn the Great (Rama V) began studying Buddhism as a youngster, eventually ordaining as a monk for 15 days in 1873 at the age of 20.
Known for his progressive policies, King Rama V was successful in bringing a peaceful end to slavery in 1905. He initiated enormous reforms and modernisation of state law, civil organisations, education and religion.
In 1887, he founded a dharma school at the Temple of the Emerald Buddha with the purpose of establishing a major educational institute for Buddhist monks, novices and laypersons. The school was soon moved to Wat Mathat and renamed Mahathat College.
In 1898 he oversaw and sponsored the first Thai translation of the Tripitaka. One thousand copies of the “The Printed Tipitaka Edition” were produced at a cost of 1 chang apiece and distributed to Buddhist temples in Thailand and abroad.
Four years later, King Rama V issued the Sangha Administration Act of BE2445 (1902) to establish a common standard for the monkhood. The Sangha Supreme Council was granted authority to settle all disputes and conflicts, and was divided into regional, provincial, district and sub-district levels. The Sangha Act also enshrined Rama V’s vision of equal opportunity for all in education, whether laymen or monks. The Act states that abbots and high-ranking monks are responsible for supporting education.
This synchronised with the 1898 announcement of formal education for children upcountry. Temples were responsible for educating children, and monks were to be in charge of teaching. School textbooks were printed on dharma and other subjects.