Time to fix Sangha Act
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Time to fix Sangha Act

The supreme patriarch nomination controversy underscores an issue that both top monks and the government have tried to dodge for far too long — an urgent need for Sangha reform.

The Supreme Sangha Council (SSC) is correct to say that that its nomination of the next supreme patriarch is legal because it follows the Sangha Act. But this is where the problem lies.

The Sangha Act creates a closed monastic society without public accountability. The top-down law serves top monks well in perpetuating the autocratic and deeply feudal system as well as in silencing calls for reform from within. It has also made the clergy unresponsive to public frustrations over widespread temple corruption, rogue monks and commercialisation of Buddhism. As a result, the clergy has become increasingly irrelevant while public faith plummets.

The SSC may have the law on its side. But it is an archaic law that strengthens top monks’ iron grip on power while weakening the clergy as a whole. To be able to govern with grace, the clergy needs to restore public faith by fostering a transparent monastic system. This is not possible if the autocratic Sangha law is still in place.

The SSC should realise that even if the nomination of Somdet Phra Maha Ratchamangalacharn aka Somdet Chuang eventually prevails, his governance will be rocky and without public faith. Since the controversy is mired in colour-coded politics — Somdet Chuang is viewed as a supporter of the pro-Thaksin Dhammakaya Temple — any other elder who aspires to replace Somdet Chuang will still face the same difficult situation; conflicting parties will surely cite central control and lack of accountability to attack a lack of legitimacy in the opposite side’s choice of supreme patriarch.

At present, the law centralises power within a small group of ailing elders. Ecclesiastic ranks, including the supreme patriarch, are based on years of ordination and support from powerful monks, not one’s performance or vision. The clergy does not even have its own secretariat to develop strategies and goals for monks’ intellectual pursuits, spiritual practice and social service in order to meet rapid social changes. Neither does it have an effective mechanism to punish wayward monks. Temple management is also top-down and financially unaccountable.

The scuffles on Monday between a group of monks and soldiers at Phutthamonthon and their demands clearly showed power preservation is the clergy’s main concern, not reform.

Instead of sticking to the SSC nomination only, the monk protesters equate the opposition to Somdet Chuang to a challenge against Thai Buddhism itself, leading to their repeated call to make Buddhism the official state religion. They have also called on the government not to interfere with clerics yet pressured the government to order state agencies to assist and respect the clergy. These demands show the clergy’s own weaknesses and heavy reliance on state power to prop up the clergy amid its own failure to win public support.

The clergy may have heaved a sigh of relief yesterday. The Department of Special Investigation refused to link Somdet Chuang’s antique car collection with illegal import and tax evasion, asking for more time to investigate. Yet, it cannot be denied that such am investigation exemplifies the crisis of faith, for both the elder and the clergy.

What is at stake for Thai Buddhism is not who will become the next supreme patriarch, but how to reform and decentralise the administrative structure of the clergy through a new Sangha law in order to restore public faith.

It is best for the clergy to initiate reform itself with input from different sectors. Amending the Sangha Act is a crucial first step. If not, monastic society will rot further.


Bangkok Post editorial column

These editorials represent Bangkok Post thoughts about current issues and situations.

Email : anchaleek@bangkokpost.co.th

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