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Monday, January 31, 2011
Wrong move by Photirak
Many like to criticise capitalism and consumerism but few have the answer as to how to get out of it. Far fewer people actually make their vision a reality and, moreover, turn it into a social movement.
But the Buddhist monastic Samana Photirak has done just that.
The former TV personality and songwriter created a storm in the clergy in the 1980s when he fiercely attacked the clergy's laxity and indulgence in capitalist luxuriance. His outspokenness outraged the elders, who excommunicated him in 1989. From then on he has had to call himself "Samana" (ascetic) and not "Phra" (monk), to avoid legal hassles.
But his harsh punishment failed to stop the growth of Santi Asoke, his Buddhist reformist movement. Santi Asoke's puritanical stance is a direct critique on the clergy's excess and laxity while its popularity feeds on the clergy's endless scandals which have seriously shaken the public's faith in the Sangha or Buddhist clergy. Samana Photirak is also a fierce critic of materialism and excessive consumption which destroys both the environment and one's spirituality. The Santi Asoke religious communities, which are scattered throughout the country, champion the self-reliant, communal life where members give up their individuality to serve the movement's goal to save the planet through natural farming and profit-free green businesses.
All was good and well, had the movement's leader not allowed his belief in moral politics to fall in the trap of ultra-nationalism.
I have a high regard for Samana Photirak's sincere and persistent efforts to protect nature and to show society that an alternative life which combines spirituality with environmental concern is possible. I agree with his general criticism of the clergy, although I think his contemptuous tone belies arrogance and I question his belief that strictness is goodness. Given his questioning mind against the mainstream, it is perplexing that he has failed to question ultra-nationalism and to see how ultra-nationalism works to fan anger, greed and illusion - everything Buddhism advises against.
Samana Photirak describes his ongoing street demonstration as a neo-protest, one that is polite and peaceful. Well, he can say anything he likes to legimitise his moves "to protect Thailand's territorial integrity". Yet, as a Buddhist ascetic aiming for spiritual liberation, why does he not see that nationalism is one of the socially constructed illusions that strengthen the sense of self? Why does he not see that this creed must be transcended if we want peace?
One reason that comes to mind is his close and longstanding friendship with Chamlong Srimuang, the lay leader of Santi Asoke. Samana Photirak and his highly disciplined "Dharma Army" have been supportive of Maj Gen Chamlong's every political move, from the founding of Palang Dharma Party, the Bangkok governor's election, to the decision to join the anti-Thaksin People's Alliance for Democracy movement. When the PAD plays the nationalism card through the Khao Phra Viharn territorial dispute, the monk sides with the general and plays along with the PAD's political game.
But is this the right thing to do?
Remember the story of the "water war" during Lord Buddha's time? The principality of Kapilavastu belonged to the family of Buddha's father. The adjacent Devadaha principality belonged to his mother's royal lineage. Their armies were at the Rohini River, ready to kill each other over the use of water. When the Buddha heard about this, he rushed to the site. But the Buddha did not take any sides. Instead he asked both sides if water was more valuable than human life. "Is it worth it?" he asked, about killing people for water.
He then advised them to overcome misunderstanding, which causes prejudice and hatred, leading to bloodshed and war. His relatives listened. And war was averted.
At Ratchadamnoen Avenue now, the ultra-nationalists are beating deafening war drums over territorial disputes with Cambodia. A question for the monastics on the street: Is it worth it? Is it worth losing oneself to the we/they mentality, the false sense of ownership, the ego, the anger, the hatred?
Isn't it sad that an ascetic whose stated mission is to save the planet and spirituality, is himself now so busy joining the war cry to even think about that?