A recent order by the Supreme Sangha Council prohibiting Buddhist monks and novices from studying non-dhamma subjects is a step backwards in the development of clerical society.
Under such a drastic order, signed by His Holiness the Supreme Patriarch, monks can no longer sit for a recruitment examination in organisations other than those related to Buddhist affairs, nor can they accept a scholarship, local and international, for courses not related to Buddhism.
Any monks violating the order will be expelled from the temple -- a harsh penalty similar to excommunication that could lead to the end of their religious commitments.
It's believed that such a move is aimed at forcing men in saffron robes to concentrate on learning the dhamma so as to achieve monastic purity, keeping secular subjects -- even for academic purposes -- at bay and out of mind.
The order, with the exception of computer and information technology courses and those relating to religious promotion, derives from dogmatic orthodox ideas.
Studying non-dhamma fields is not harmful, it's a plus. Some subjects, such as understanding comparative religions and other social fields, can help broaden a monk's perspective. Such knowledge, when applied to dhamma, can nurture a well-rounded outlook that can complement their role as spiritual leaders.
For a country with great disparities like Thailand, such a dual education system for monks is necessary. By tradition, it has given men from poor families, who otherwise cannot afford an education, the chance to study while in sacred robes. It's true that some may leave the monkhood when they finish their secular studies and abandon celibacy. But their spiritual background as monks could be their foundation as a good citizen, which can further nurture Buddhism. At the same time, monks who are able to study in a dual system could of course choose to stay in the monkhood as they continue their quest for enlightenment.
But the current council, a grouping of senior monks on top of a monastic hierarchy, represents the old world that is seen to be too rigid for adaptation. It's also true that there are some developments among the clergy that make the Supreme Sangha Council worry, in particular, the social media rise of two influencer monks, Phra Maha Praiwan Worawano and Phra Maha Sompong Talaputto, both from Wat Soi Thong in Bangkok.
The two monks are known for their outspokenness and critical views towards the nation's half-baked democracy, including government policies such as submarine procurement. Their live streams via Facebook have a large following and attract viewers in their hundreds of thousands, many of them young.
The monks' online media savvy and their take on current issues have been seen as a challenge to the old institution which views such openness as inappropriate.
But if there's anything to learn from the two monks' success, it's how they have adapted themselves to modern times while refusing to stay aloof from the country's social problems.
Achieving monastic purity is a top goal for monks, but they also have other missions, such as serving society by helping ease people's suffering amid the strong current of materialism.
The Supreme Sangha Council should understand that its hierarchical and feudal-styled system is weakening the institution. The council needs to see that open-minded monks with adaptive skills and a wide knowledge can strengthen Buddhism, making it relevant to new public needs.