Globalization and the Challenge for Thailand as a Nation of Practicing Buddhists

Tetsunori Koizumi, Director

Thailand is known as a nation of practicing Buddhists who practice Buddhism in their daily life. The Thais invite monks to perform ceremonies at important family events such as birthdays, weddings and funerals. They keep Buddha images at family altars for worship. Some wear small Buddha images around the neck when traveling and, when passing wats and chedis on their way, pay homage to them with a gentle bowing of their heads with joined palms. Indeed, joining palms has become the customary way of greeting each other for the Thais, prompting the visitors to characterize Thailand as the land of smiles.

The seminal event in the history of the Thai people as well as of Thai Buddhism is the defeat of the Khmers by the Thais in 1238 that led to the establishment of the Kingdom of Sukhothai, the first kingdom built by the Thais whose name means the “Dawn of Happiness.” Sukhothai reached the height of its power and prosperity during the reign of Phoh Khun Ramkhamhaeng, who ascended to the throne in 1277. It was Ramkhamhaeng who introduced the present form of Theravada Buddhism in Thailand, inviting monks from Ceylon to reorganize the Sangha and to instruct its members with the “purified” form of Buddhism written in Pali.

The Kingdom of Skhothai lasted for about a century and half. The Kingdom of Sriayudhya ruled Thailand for the next four centuries. Theravada Buddhism continued to be the foundation of the nation during this period of Thai history called the Ayudhya period. However, the political system headed by the paternalistic Buddhist king established during the Sukhothai period did not work for the Ayudhhya kingdom because of its expanded territory that stretched northward to Sukhothai and eastward to Angkor. Out of the necessity to rule a vast kingdom, King Trailok (1468-88) devised a new, hierarchical administration that would evolve into the modern Thai bureaucracy.

The successive rulers of Thailand have encouraged and supported Buddhism by building monasteries for monks, providing them with material necessities, inviting them to perform religious ceremonies and patronizing their educational activities. Some of the notable rulers who contributed to the propagation of Buddhism among the Thais include King Tilokaraj (1441-87) of Chiengmai who called the Tenth Buddhist Council, the first to be held in Thailand, and King Rama I (1782-1809) who called the second Buddhist Council of Thailand and laid the foundation of Thailand as a modern nation-state, appointing a committee to edit an authoritative edition of the Buddhist scriptures. King Mongkut (Rama IV, 1851-68), who spent 27 years as a monk prior to his coronation, founded a new movement called the Dhammayuttika to restore strict discipline in the Sangha. King Chulalongkorn (Rama V, 1868-1910), who called the third Buddhist Council of Thailand in 1878, initiated the modern revision of the Tripitaka. More importantly, King Rama V enacted the Administration of the Buddhist Order Act in 1903 to reorganize the Sangha as a branch of the Thai civil service, thus fusing the tradition of the paternalistic Buddhist king and the modern system of political bureaucracy.

Buddhism was accepted and adopted as their own by the Thais initially because they found in it a simple message of cause and effect contained in the doctrine of karma. Chances for attaining happiness and good fortune were believed to increase by Buddhist amulets, in addition to all other kinds of amulets the Thais used to procure reflecting their indigenous faith of animism that believed in the presence of phee, or spirit, in everything in the world around them. In this sense, Buddhism was “amalgamated” onto the indigenous culture of animism before it was adopted by the Thais. Another reason for the wide acceptance of Buddhism by the Thais was that it was amenable to the inner sense of freedom that the Thais had always cherished. In fact, when the country’s name was changed from “Siam” to “Thailand” by a proclamation issued on June 24, 1939, it was a reflection of the Thai people’s wish to preserve their land as “Prathet Thai,” that is, “the land of the free,” for the Thais had always felt that Siam was a term imposed on them by outsiders.

Unlike their neighbors, the Thais have never experienced colonial rule by Western powers. This explains why the Thais have been willing importers of cultures from countries in the West in their efforts to modernize their nation. Here again, the King assumed the leadership role. King Narai (1656-88), for example, is known for his efforts to expand international trade, going as far as appointing a Greek adventurer, Constantine Phaulcon, as his adviser on foreign affairs. And there is, of course, King Mongkut (1851-68) whose fascination with Western science and technology is depicted in Rodgers & Hammerstein’s “The King and I”.

One consequence of modernization of Thailand was the infiltration of ideas and technologies from the West. This has led to an increasing importance of national schools run by the State instead of schools run by the Sangha. Moreover, some members of the Sangha, especially young and ambitious men from rural areas have departed for cities in search of higher education and more lucrative jobs there. Modernization of their country has meant for the Thais that their traditional culture based on Buddhism must be reexamined for its relevance in a modern, technological society.

One of the most vocal critics of the state-supported Sangha is Bhikkhu Buddhadasa, who established a forest retreat, Suan Mokh, in southern Thailand. Bhikkhu Buddhadasa, who passed away in 1993, had been advocating the return to the original teachings of the Buddha. To him, monks should devote their energy to following the path of spiritual training as taught by the Buddha. At Suan Mokh, monks can sit quietly among the trees for meditation, undisturbed by the hustle and bustle of busy city life. Suan Mokh now attracts many fervent devotees, both monks and lay people, who see the need to preserve their heritage of Theravada Buddhism that has been the foundation of their nation.

Bhikkhu Buddhadasa’s influence on the Thais and the rest of the world for that matter did not end with his passing. Among his lasting influences are: (1) his emphasis on the importance of correct understanding of Buddhist principles and practice, (2) his call for mutual understanding and cooperation among all religions, and (3) his call for meetings of community and world leaders to find a way out of the tyranny of materialism that was spreading in the world under global capitalism. The “Dhammatic Socialism,” which he advocated as a Buddhist alternative to both capitalism and communism, was his prescription of what is now known as “engaged Buddhism.”

Mention should also be made of “Dhamma-Mata,” a residential facility for women interested in Buddhist study and practice. In fact, the role of women in society has become one of the focal points of controversy in Thailand with modernization. With the modernization of the society, more and more Thai women are seeking opportunities for higher education and finding rewarding jobs in the secular side of the society. The same is not true of the ecclesiastical side of the society, for Theravada Buddhism has always been very strict about excluding females from the Order. Dhamma-Mata is thus a revolutionary attempt by Bhikkhu Buddhadasa, whose name literally means “servant of the Buddha,” to make Buddhism relevant for modern Thai women largely free of the Buddhist tradition in Thailand which has always been highly monk-centric.

The challenge facing the Thais today is to strike a balance between their traditional Buddhism-based culture and the new culture of globalism that was brought to them with the expansion of global capitalism. In fact, the Thais are finding an increasing tension between the modern urban sector that is undergoing rapid change with globalization and the traditional rural sector that is increasingly left behind. What is needed is a serious reexamination of how their Buddhist culture can be relevant and useful in Thai society today caught in the wave of globalization. In other words, the adopted culture of Buddhism needs to go through the new round of adaptation in Thailand today to meet the challenges of globalization.