That Spirituality and Modernization
... 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.
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
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.
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
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. 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.
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:
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.
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.
 See A. B. Griswold and
Prasert na Nagara, "Epigraphic and Historical Studies no. 9," Journal of the
Siam Society 59 (1971) 179-228.
 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).
 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.
 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).
 See Stanley J.
Tambiah, The Buddhist Saints of the Forest and the Cult of Amulets (Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press, 1984)
 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,
"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.]