That Spirituality and Modernization
Sulak Sivaraksa

King Rarrikarnhaeng ... commanded his craftsman to carve a slab of stone and place it in the midst of the sugar palm trees. On the day of the new moon, the eighth day of the waxing moon, the day of the full moon and the eighth day of the waning moon, one of the monks ... goes up and sits on the stone slab to preach the Dharma to the throng of lay people who observe the precepts. When it is not the day for preaching the Dharma, King Ramkamhaeng, lord of the Kingdom of Sri Sajjanalai and Sukkothai, goes up, sits on the stone slab, and lets the officials, lords and princes discuss affairs of state with him.[1]
The spirit of Thai Buddhism is already clearly evidenced in this most important inscription of Thai history, dating from 1292. The text reveals a mutual proximity and influence of ruler and subjects. The king was not only a political leader but an ethical teacher. Spiritually, the monkhood was placed even higher than the king: when the monk sat on the stone slab, the sovereign remained on the floor, with his subjects, listening to the sermon, as is still the custom today. The inscription also shows the festive character of Thai Buddhism:
At the close of the rainy season, they presented robes to the monks [Kathina ceremonies].... Everyone goes to the Forest Monastery.... When they are ready to return to the city, they walk together, forming a line all the way from the Forest Monastery to the parade ground. They repeatedly do homage together, accompanied by music ... whoever wants to make merry, does so; whoever wants to laugh, does so; whoever wants to sing, does so.
No expression of religious fervor is complete without the element of enjoyment, or sanuk, a key word in Thai culture. But the elements of fear and of ignorance are also prominent, especially for those of us who are unenlightened lay people. Animistic beliefs, derived from Khmer culture, are evidenced by the following inscription:
There are mountain streams and there is Brah Krabun. The divine spirit of that mountain is more powerful than any other spirit in this kingdom. Whatever lord may rule this Kingdom of Sukhothai, if he makes obeisance to him properly, with the right offerings, this kingdom will thrive, but if obeisance is not made properly or the offerings are not right, the spirit of the hill will no longer protect it and the kingdom will be lost.
Another text that illustrates the rich texture of Thai Buddhism is King Lithai's Sermon on the Three Worlds, a work that seeks to make the spiritual dimension of Buddhism more accessible to the laity.[2] Lithai inserts into a cosmological framework legends about Buddhist deities, descriptions of heavenly realms and hellish beings, and other elements which, though not always compatible with Theravaada orthodoxy, could serve to communicate the Dhamma to those who possessed only a minimum of Buddhist learning. The cosmological scheme is correlated with the more psychologically oriented analysis of consciousness and material factors that are constitutive of Theravaada doctrinal orthodoxy, and with Theravaada conceptions of human social order and hierarchy. The work inculcates such themes as the negative effects of sinfulness and the positive results of meritorious activities, the impermanence that characterizes all samsaric existence, the ideal of life on the Noble Eightfold Path, and the realization of nirvana. Combining a claim to Theravaada orthodoxy with the strong popular appeal of residual Mahaayaana and Brahminist cosmological representations, this text, perhaps the most important and fascinating work in the Thai language, has had a powerful influence on religious consciousness, literary and artistic development, and social, political, and ethical attitudes throughout the centuries.
The worldview expressed in these texts became problematic for many thoughtful Buddhists when they were exposed to Western science and ideology. Not only the cosmological imagery and symbolism but also the ritual and communal patterns correlated with them became the subject of skepticism and were often attacked as archaic and even antithetical to the pristine teaching of the Buddha. King Mongkut (1804-1868) felt the need to go beyond Lithai's Three Worlds. That work had relied on the commentaries and sub-commentaries to the Pali Canon. Mongkut studied these as secondary sources, but gave more attention to the original Tipitaka itself. Thus he could discriminate the essential and pure teaching of the Buddha from its mythological and popular overlay, mixed with magical beliefs and Brahministic rites. He practiced meditation on mindfulness and the austerities prescribed in the Pai Canon and traveled to many parts of the kingdom, mixing with his people in various walks of life, collecting alms from them and giving them spiritual advice, thus gaining experience and insight not available to the nobility and princely families. In 1833 he discovered Ramkamhaeng's inscription together with the stone slab it mentions. He interpreted the inscription as a Magna Carta of the Thai nation and took the example of Ramkamhaeng as his guide, using the stone slab as his throne at his own coronation in 1851.
Mongkut believed that if Thai Buddhists were to survive Western imperialism they must (1) return to the original teaching of the Buddha, beyond The Three Worlds, and (2) reinterpret Ramkamhaeng's message in light of Theravaada Buddhism, so that the king would be a dhamma raaja rather than a deva raaja; the Ayudhyan monarchs had reverted to the latter model, appropriating the Brahministic Khmer concept, especially after the Thai conquests of Angkor around 1367 and in 1432. Mongkut held that the king had the right to rule as long as he was righteous, and that if the people did not want him on the throne, they had the right to remove him.
The Theravaada tradition inherited from Sri Lanka divided the monkhood into two categories: town dwellers, who concentrated on the study of the scriptures, and forest dwellers, who devoted themselves to meditation practice. The former task was later pursued especially by two of Mongkut's sons: Prince Vajira~naavarorasa (1892-1921), who introduced Dhamma studies nation-wide for monks of both sects, as well as for lay men and women, and King Chulalongkorn. Another educational venture was the presentation of Buddhism to the younger generation and the defense of it against foreign missionaries by Chao Phya, Dipakarivamsa (1812-1870), author of The Modern Buddhist; a pioneering critique of The Three Worlds. The preface to the English translation describes it as follows:
The Modem Buddhist assumes religion to be the science of man, and not the revelation of God. He does not think that the comprehension of the Deity, or the firm persuasion of the exact nature of heaven, is of so much consequence as that just idea of one's own self which he believes he finds in Buddhism purged of superstitions.... He has a firm faith that whatever truths science may reveal, none will be found opposed to the vital points of Buddhism. He freely criticises his sacred books by such small lights of science as he possessed. He states his opinion that Buddha, although he knew everything, was careful not to teach that which the people of his age were not ri e to understand, and therefore refrained from many topics he might have referred to, had he lived in a more advanced age.... The missionaries again and again feel hopeful that the day of conversion is at hand, yet are ever doomed to disappointment. I cannot but think that the money and energy expended on their work is in great measure lost, and that the labour of many of them would be better employed in their own country.[3]
In the Sa"ngha, Mongkut set up a strong tradition of deep meditation practice. The Dhammayuttika Order of the Northeast in particular has carried on this tradition, especially through charismatic meditation masters such as Venerable Phra Acariya Mun (1871-1949). His biography by his disciple, Ven. Phra Acariya Mahaa Boowa, the doyen of living masters, has been translated into English.[4] Ven. Phra Acariya Cha, another living master, his a close disciple of Ven. Phra Acariya Mun and has spread his life-style, his method of meditation practice, and his strict adherence to Vinaya discipline to the majority of monks in the Mahaanikaaya Order, and also to Western monks who set up communities in Britain, the United States, Sri Lanka, New Zealand, and Australia. There are a number of other groups that claim to be older than the reform of King Mongkut and tend to accept superstitions and supernatural powers, in the spirit of The Three Worlds.
In the north, Kru Ba Srivijaya (1873-1937) refused to acknowledge the spiritual and temporal authorities of Bangkok. He was regarded as a holy man, with deep spiritual insight, who led the multitudes to rebuild many important Buddhist monuments, but he ordained monks in defiance of the requirements laid down by the first Ecclesiastical Act of 1902. There are still a few meditation masters who claim to be direct disciples of his. They are known for their art of healing by traditional herbs, as religious psychiatrists using holy water and other spiritual mediums, and as astrologers. But they have not continued the social activity and political dissent of Kru Ba. In fact, the royal court, the military, the civilians, as well as the business communities regard meditation masters, of all schools and lineages, as their great supporters, spiritually, socially, politically, and economically.[5]
The Santiasoka sect is the only one that has rebelled against the present established Sa"ngha . Its founder, Phra Bodhiraksha (b. 1934), was ordained in both the Dhammaytittika and Mahaanikaaya, but was satisfied with neither. His sect dates from 1975, when he gave ordination in defiance of the Ecclesiastical Law of 1962. He has also attracted lay followers by his puritanism and vegetarianism, and his abstention from all kinds of ceremonies. He claims to be enlightened spiritually, combining scholarship with meditation, and stressing social reform rather than upholding the status quo. Yet his Buddhist scholarship and his grasp of Thai social reality do not seem sufficiently deep to guarantee that Santiasoka will become a movement of any significance. The government and the Supreme Council of the Sa"ngha have ignored its challenge rather than take it on legally.
The Dhammakaya school, established in 1970, traces its existence to the Ven. Luang Poh Sod (1884-1959), who claimed to have rediscovered a meditation technique lost to the Sa"ngha for hundreds of years, presumably since the Thai were converted to Sinhalese Buddhism. This technique, akin to some Tantric practices, has become popular, especially among Japanese Buddhists of the Shingon sect. Luang Poli Sod's best-known follower, Kittivuddho Bhikkhu (b. 1936), works closely with the military; he once said that to kill a communist to preserve the nation, the religion, and the monarchy is not sinful. Many Buddhists doubt whether peace and non-violence are still of importance to this monk and his admirers. The school claims to represent the only authentic teaching of the Buddha, not revealed in the scriptures. it has not attacked the established Sa"ngha, and it also works well with the capitalist tendency in the Thai society, enjoying close links with the royal palace and the military. Buddhist clubs in most universities have been dominated by lay followers of this school.
In 1932 the traditional monarchical social order was challenged by the Western ideology of liberal democracy. In the same year a young Thai monk, dissatisfied with the division of the Sa"ngha into meditators and textual scholars left Bangkok and returned to his native village in the South, at Chaiya, and founded Suan Mokha, the Garden of Liberation. This monk, the Ven. Buddhadasa Bhikhu (b. 1906), has the vision and scholarship of Mongkut, but he has gone far beyond the great king. Not being interested in ceremonial detail and going beyond the literary message in the Pali Canon, he was able to grasp the essential teaching of the Buddha. He was freed from founding a new sect or criticizing the established hierarchies. Indeed, Buddhadasa is the first Thai monk to acquire a critical understanding of the Pali Tipitaka and to give serious consideration to Mahaayaana tradition as not inferior to the Theravaada school. He has also studied Christianity and Islam in the spirit of dialogue without any feeling of superiority or inferiority. He is much admired by Thai Christians and Muslims alike. However, he has been attacked by some Thai and Sri Lankan Buddhists who regard the Pali text, especially the Abbidhamma-pi.taka and Buddhaghosa's commentaries, as sacred, and allow no reinterpretation or criticism. His comments on social reforms and dhammic socialism have also given him a reputation in certain circles as a communist. Yet his influence in the monkhood, of all sects, is tremendous. Both scholars and meditation masters look up to him as a very important guru, although he only claims to be a Good Friend (kalayaanamitta). He has made a major contribution to the hermeneutics of Thai tradition. In reading texts like The Three Worlds one must be able to distinguish between the dhammic language and the worldly language, going beyond those things that would normally be regarded as myths, superstition, miracles, or deities, neither accepting them easily nor rejecting them outright, but using one's wisdom to interpret them for one's spiritual growth, enlightenment, and liberation.
An American scholar writes:
Buddhadasa's vision of the good and just society coincides with his view of an original state of nature or an original human condition, one of mutual interdependence, harmony and balance. By its very nature this state of nature is selfless- individuals are not attached to self for its own sake. But with the loss of this state of innocence individuals are subject to the bondage of attachment (upaadaana) and unquenchable thirst (ta"nhaa). Consequently, sentient beings need to find ways to return to or restore this condition of mutual interdependence and harmony, love and respect. On the personal level the attainment of wisdom (bodhi) through the methods of awareness (satii), continuous attention (sampaja~nha) and focussed concentration (samaadhi) serves to break through the conditions of greed, ignorance and lust (kilesa); while on the social level those in positions of power promote economic and political policies which after meeting basic physical needs promote a balanced development in which matters of spirit (citta) assume their rightful dominance. Buddhadasa's notion of a truly human community is a universal vision shared by all religions. This socialist society is one governed by love (mettaa). In the language of Buddhist millenarian expectations, it is the age of the Buddha Maitreya. But Buddhadasa's teachings regarding Buddhist Socialism cannot be consigned to an otherworldly messianism. His vision serves as a critique of Western political theories of capitalism and communism, and provides the basic principles for a political philosophy with the potential to guide not only Thailand in the coming years, but all societies struggling to create a just and equitable social, political and economic order.[6]
The quantity and quality of his written work have excelled all living Theravaada, scholars. He has even been compared with Buddhaghosa of Sri Lanka and with Naagaarjuna of India. It is too early to say whether these comparisons it are valid, but his works have been studied critically by Thai and foreigners as the crowning expression of contemporary- Thai spirituality and a signpost to its future.
[1] See A. B. Griswold and Prasert na Nagara, "Epigraphic and Historical Studies no. 9," Journal of the Siam Society 59 (1971) 179-228.
[2] See Three Worlds According to King Ruang: A Buddhist Cosmology, translation with introduction and notes by Frank E. Reynolds and Mari B. Reynolds (Berkeley, CA: Asian Humanities Press, 1982).
[3] See Henry Alabuster, The Wheel of the Law or Buddhism Illustrated from Siamese Sources (London: Trubner, 1871). The author later joined the Thai government and established his family in Bangkok. His grandson, Sitthi Sawetasila, has become Thai Foreign Minister.
[4] There are two English versions of this biography: one by Ruth Inge Heinzel published in the Asian Folklore and Social Life Monograph Series, Telpe; another by Siri Buddhasukh (Bangkok: Mahamakut Rajavidyalaya Press, 1976).
[5] See Stanley J. Tambiah, The Buddhist Saints of the Forest and the Cult of Amulets (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984)
[6] Donald K. Swearer, ed. Buddhadasa's Dhammic Socialism (Bangkok: Thai Inter Religious Commission for Development, 1986).
Gabaude, Louis. Introduction a` 1'herme'neutique de Buddhaddasa Bbikkbu. Paris: 'ecole Francaise de l'Extre^me Orient, 1979.
Rajadhon, Phys Anuman. Popular Buddhism in Siam and other Essays. Bangkok: Sathirakoses-Nagapradipa Foundation (forthcoming).
Rajanubliab, Prince Damrong. Monuments of the Buddha in Siam. Translated by S. Sivaraksa and A. B. Griswold. Bangkok: The Siam Society, 1973.
Rajavaramuni, Phra (P. Patutto). Thai Buddhism in the Buddhist World. Bangkok: Mahachulalongkorn Rajavidyalaya, 1985.
Sivaraksa, Sulak. Buddhist Vision for Renewing Society. Bangkok: Thienwan Press, 1986.
Sivaraksa, Sulak. Siamese Resurgence. Bangkok: ACFOD, 1985.
"Symposium: Religion and Society in Thailand." Journal of Asian Studies 36 (1977) 239-326.
[Originally published in Buddhist Spirituality - Indian, Southeast Asian, Tibetan, Early Chinese, edited by Takeuchi Yoshinori (New York: The Crossroad Publishing Company, 1993), pp. 112-119.]