Another post on Bhante Sujato's blog at http://sujato.wordpress.com/
The Thai Sangha
January 8, 2010
Prof. Nidhi Eausivong
Article in Thai published in Matichon daily on Jan 4, 2010.
Dr Nidhi is a well known professor in the History Department of Chiengmai University. He is in his late 60s, and educated in the US. He is a foremost Thai academic, who has often providing guidance and advice for the government. For the first time he has come out very clearly on bhikkhuni issue. He is also the founder of Midnight University in Chiengmai.
Finally, there is no bhikkhuni Sangha in the Thai Sangha. One of the senior Venerable monks who ordained women in Australia has been expelled from the forest tradition branch of Wat Nong Pa Pong. The Thai Sangha announced that they do not recognize the ordination. Luckily, however, the said Venerable was not expelled from the Thai Sangha altogether.
The door to allow women to be ordained as bhikkhunis is closed.
However, other countries belonging to the same Theravada tradition are opening the door to welcome the bhikkhuni Sangha. There is already a bhikkhuni Sangha in Sri Lanka, and the Laos community may not object to bhikkhuni Sangha when the need for bhikkhunis arises, and that may be true also with the Sangha in Cambodia and Myanmar.
Will the Thai Sangha perform sanghakamma together with the bhikkhu Sangha from Sri Lanka, Laos, Cambodia, and Myanmar if all those Sanghas already have bhikkhuni Sangha? Or they will accept to join with the bhikkhu Sangha but still refuse the bhikkhuni Sangha?
I am reminded of one particular case which happened in the reign of King Rama I. When the bhikkhus and samaneras from Laos came to further their study in Bangkok, they were not accepted as at the time of their ordination they did not pronounce Pali properly, in accordance with the Thai pronunciation. So the Thai bhikkhus insisted that the Lao monks must go through ordination again. Responding to this, the King said that there was no need for such ordination, as ordination arises from the intention. If the Laotian monks had a good intention there is no obstacle, and they are no less bhikkhus.
This was the spirit of the King who is the founder of the present dynasty. He was willing to adjust to new changes through understanding the underlying principle. Without understanding the underlying principle, the dynasty would not have lasted up to the present. Other institutions also will not survive without adjusting themselves to the new circumstances. When they cannot adjust we can imagine that the institution itself will not maintain its relevance to society for long.
In fact in the current case there is some ambiguity that the Thai Sangha could have used for its own benefit. Since the ordination of bhikkhunis in foreign countries took place under the Thai Sangha, the Sangha could have used this to test the beginnings of change without raising it as a controversial issue. No one loses face.
That is, they could have neither recognized nor resisted the ordination, allowing the case to prove itself for social reaction and acceptance.
To do this does not mean that the Sangha allows it to happen according to the worldly powers. We must not forget that in principle the bhikkhuni Sangha is part of the Sangha according to the Dhamma and Vinaya.
The fact that the Thai Sangha does not recognize the bhikkhuni Sangha is a result of a conservative interpretation of the Vinaya, instead of a more inclusive reading which would allow the fulfilment of the fourfold Buddhist community.
The Thai Sangha came into existence in 1908 according to the first Sangha Act. The purpose then was to utilize the Sangha as a tool to strengthen the absolute monarchy. Therefore the Thai Sangha arose to play the role to spread the Government power to rural areas, and also to control all the monks to have the same goal and practice under the Government.
At the same time, the Thai Sangha was under an able leadership of a well educated monk of the time, that is Somdej Krom Praya Vajirnanavarorosa, who later became the Sangharaja. He led the Thai Sangha to face the challenges of the time effectively. The Thai Sangha worked as a cornerstone to interpret the teaching of the Buddha in line with scientific reasoning, making Buddhism a worthy religion of Siam, one of the modern countries of that time.
In this modern world, the old challenges that were faced at that time have been replaced with emerging challenges for religions to prove their validity in the modern world.
Some of the new challenges of the contemporary world, to which each religion must be able to respond effectively, are:
1. Poverty. This has spread to a large area of humanity. There is a structural exploitation which has never been witnessed before in human history.
2. Environmental degradation. This is now so immense that humanity may not be able to survive.
3. Equality. A sharp and clear consciousness of equality between gender, race, and culture.
4. Peace. The need for long lasting peace on the foundation of sharing and justice. At the same time, people in a civilized world also seek inner peace.
If one should ask what the Thai Sangha has done to respond to these new challenges, the answer is that as a religious institution they have addressed none of these concerns.
We will have a better understanding if we take a look at religious movements around the world including many institutes within Buddhism.
Quite apart from the radical Liberation Theology, the Catholic Church seems to be sharply aware of the social issues of poverty and environmental degradation. These two issues have been the focus of statements and actions by consecutive Popes. The right for ordination for women priests both in the Catholic and Anglican Churches is a topic that is still argued worldwide. The religious institutions allow the issue to be in dialogue even when women priests have not been recognized.
Religious institutions play the role of balancing dictatorships and try to intervene positively in many international conflicts.
Coming back to the same old question, how is the Thai Sangha responding to the new challenges of the modern world?
It is difficult to maintain religion in this modern world. It is true that human beings are still the same, they still need to find the answer which they cannot find outside religion. But a religion cannot merely provide such answers, it must also provide an answer to the people who are still facing the reality of the world. Religion cannot only advise the poor to be diligent and work harder, for this is not sufficient to explain the widespread poverty all over the world.
Similarly it is not sufficient to tell women about gender equality by simply stating that both men and women have equal spiritual capacity to be enlightened, but women do not have the right to be ordained. Immediately it will raise another practical question, that is, men also do not need to be ordained, so why do we need the Sangha at all?
The Thai Sangha is one of the important institutions of the ‘right’ system in Thailand, and like other institutions, they are also facing new challenges of the modern world. So far none of them have been able to adjust to meet the challenges. I have written about this many times in the case of capitalism, political parties, political ideology, moral system, educational system, culture, etc.
The ‘right’ system has been successful in the past because it has the flexibility to adjust, and we had wise men to remind us and provide ideological foundation.
Can the wisdom of the ‘right’ express itself only in the color of the shirt?