MBU: IN TUNE with the TIMES
With a history of more than 100 years,
Mahamakut Buddhist University embraces new challenges
and is relocating to broaden its missions, writes Oratip Nimkannon
The outspoken monk caught the media's attention again last September, when he rolled out mobile phone ringtones that play dharma phrases each time the phone rings. The ringtones, he said, display an attempt to bring dharma closer to modern teenagers, whose lives are heavily influenced by technologies.
Two weeks later, Phra Phayom launched another innovation: a series of comic books ``Nen Phayom Jom Yoong'' (Novice Phayom, the Little Rascal), which depicts himself as a leading novice monk who promotes the values of dharma (Buddha's teachings).
The books target youths between 12 and 18 years old and aim to encourage them to learn about dharma and Buddhist values.
Phra Phayom's ingenious effort is an example of how Buddhism can stay relevant in the context of a modern lifestyle, which is largely influenced by technologies and materialism. Under this context, Buddhist studies within the temple's ground have also taken on a new meaning.
``In terms of human resources, it means we need quality monks _ monks with at least a bachelor's degree _ to manage and administer temples, so that monks can effectively communicate the doctrines to laypeople,'' says Phra Debvisuddhikavi, vice-rector of Academic Affairs and Planning, Mahamakut Buddhist University (MBU).
``In teaching and learning, this means that monks will be able to apply secular knowledge, such as computer and IT, to the dissemination of traditional Buddhist teachings,'' he says, adding that doing so must not interfere with the Sangkha disciplines.
Although the Sangkha Council has not set a minimum academic requirement for Buddhist clergies holding an administrative position in temples, this rule is about to change. ``[The council] will soon set the minimum requirement to at least a bachelor's degree from a [Buddhist] university,'' says Phra Theppariyattivimol, vice-rector and deputy director for Administrative Affairs.
Doing so, he adds, will ensure that the clergies are knowledgeable in both the spiritual and physical worlds and can preach the Buddhist doctrines in a way that, similar to Phra Phayom, is relevant to people's lives. And this is where Mahamakut Buddhist University, one of the two Buddhist universities in the country, comes in.
Thailand's first Buddhist university
Located within Wat Bovorniwes Viharn's temple compound, Mahamakut Buddhist University was founded by King Chulalongkorn (Rama V) in 1893. Initially, the university served as an ecclesiastical academy for Buddhist monks and novices to study dharma and the Pali language.
In 1945, a higher education institution was established in affiliation with the academy, under the leadership of a newly established Mahamakut Education Council. Two years later, the university began teaching at the bachelor's and master's levels, making Mahamakut the first Buddhist university in Thailand.
``In the beginning, we didn't have a clearly structured system of grade levels,'' Phra Debvisuddhikavi says. ``But education of Buddhist monks and novices advanced from the Buddhist scholar level to graduate of theology at level nine, which was not officially recognised to be equivalent to a bachelor's degree until 1984,'' he adds.
In addition to Buddhist studies, Mahamakut Buddhist University's other objective was to provide cultural and foreign language studies, in order to enhance the teaching and learning of Buddhist education.
This later objective, coupled with the first, facilitates the third objective, which is to disseminate Buddhist values and beliefs to the general public.
In 1999, two years after the Royal Decree of Mahamakut Buddhist University went into effect, the university opened its doors to laypersons. The 1997 Royal Decree also recognised the university as a state university that can award both Buddhist clergies and laypersons accredited academic degrees up to the doctorate level.
``Graduates from Mahamakut Buddhist University have to also complete 15 days of meditation training as well as one year of community service,'' says Phra Theppariyattivimol. ``That's one major difference from a regular state university,'' he adds. Laypersons, however, are not subject to the one-year community service to the same degree of strictness as monks are.
Also with the 1997 Royal Decree, Mahamakut Buddhist University's curriculum is subject to approval from the Office of the Higher Education Commission (Ohec) and quality assessment by the Office for National Education Standards and Quality Assessment (Onesqa).
At the bachelor's degree level, Mahamakut Buddhist University's curriculum offers a total of 14 courses, under its four academic faculties: Religion and Philosophy, Humanities, Social Sciences, and Education.
All students, regardless of which faculty they enrol in, must complete 30 credits of Buddhist studies, in addition to their required departmental core courses.
Laypersons, says Phra Debvisuddhikavi, usually study in separate classes from the monks, with an exception of some basic courses that are taught by guest lecturers. Classes at the master's and doctorate levels, on the other hand, are held together. ``Women and foreigners can also study at Mahamakut; these are no longer issues,'' he says.
Most foreign students at Mahamakut come from within Asia _ India, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Lao PDR, Cambodia, Vietnam, Indonesia and Malaysia, for example. ``We are also open to believers of other religions,'' Phra Debvisuddhikavi says. ``In fact, we welcome them, so that we can learn to understand each other and live together,'' he adds.
Unlike the bachelor-level courses, graduate students _ monks and laypersons alike _ study in the same classes. At the master's level, the university offers seven degree programmes, including Buddhist studies, Buddhism and philosophy, public governance, sociology, Pali and Sanskrit, Pali, and educational management.
In 2005, the university launched a doctorate programme in Buddhist studies; and due to limited staff, the university cannot offer more than one doctorate programme. ``At the moment, society is in dire need of these experts on Buddhism,'' Phra Debvisuddhikavi says.
``This shortage means that we have a communication gap between the sender of the message - monks - and the receiver. Wherever we go and preach or give a talk, people don't understand our messages,'' he adds. The university hopes to fill this gap with its graduates, monks and laypersons alike.
In the past few years, Mahamakut Buddhist University has witnessed an increase of enrolment by laypersons, which compose about 75 percent of the student body. This academic year (June 2006-March 2007), about 9,000 students are enrolled in the bachelor's degree programme, while 2,270 and 20 students are in the master's and doctorate degree programmes, respectively.
Although the original purpose of a Buddhist university was to provide education to monks and novices, higher enrolments among laypersons are not a bad sign. ``We have more laypersons coming to study with us, while the number of monks, as a whole, either stays the same or is decreasing,'' says Phra Theppariyattivimol.
``But this has given us a good opportunity to teach laypersons dharma and the Buddhist doctrines, so that when they graduate they are prepared to be both good citizens and valuable human resources for the country,'' he adds.
And unlike laypersons, who can commute to the university on a daily basis, monks are usually required to find residence within the temple while studying for a degree. Limited on-campus accommodations, among other things, have become a key factor that limit enrolments among the monks, despite the fact that the university currently has seven other campuses nationwide.
With this in mind, the university's five-year development plan focuses specifically on the central campus relocation to Buddhamontol district in Nakhon Pathom. ``Once the expansion project is complete, we should be able to accept two to three times more students,'' Phra Theppariyattivimol says. ``Then, we expect to become the centre for Buddhist education, in both theory and practice in the spiritual and physical worlds,'' he adds.
When this happens, Buddhism education will advance in the same direction, while remaining current and relevant to the people's lives. In addition, participation of non-Buddhists and foreigners will also promote future understanding and tolerance of people across cultures and religious beliefs.
For more information on Mahamakut Buddhist University, visit www.mbu.ac.th . To donate to the university's relocation project, visit www.project.mbu.ac.th or call 02-282-6140-43.
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Last modified: January 11, 2006