Do not mistake ritual for repentance

Do not mistake ritual for repentance

Pol L/C Norawich Buadok, second from left, and his father, far left, participate in the cremation of Dr Waraluck Supawatjariyakul on Jan 26, following their ordination. Varuth Hirunyatheb
Pol L/C Norawich Buadok, second from left, and his father, far left, participate in the cremation of Dr Waraluck Supawatjariyakul on Jan 26, following their ordination. Varuth Hirunyatheb

Can religious rituals cleanse us of our sins?

I believe many local Buddhists believe they can. Otherwise, you wouldn't see so many people drawn to religious practices. Buddhism and commercialism collide with superstition to offer a way for us to supposedly absolve ourselves of responsibility for mistakes committed in the past.

While sin and atonement are prominent concepts in other religions, this ritual is unique to Thai culture, particularly the way in which you see people from the bottom rung all the way up the top of the socio-economic ladder adhering to the same central Buddhist tenet by practising similar kinds of ceremonial atonement.

These include ordination to make amends for wrongdoing, requesting monks to cite particular incantations, or burning objects as a symbolic way to cut ties with past misdeeds.

For some practitioners, however, these are not truly Buddhist acts as karma represents a sin that has already been committed, and no amount of repentance can change the natural rebalancing that must follow.

Such attempts to remove the burden of karma through ritual is the antithesis of Lord of Buddha's teachings that call on us to remain present and conscious of the reality of the moment on each step of our journey through life so that such sins will not be committed in the first place.

Lord Buddha taught his followers that mistakes are to be embraced, learnt from and lived so they may never be repeated. He did not teach that we can cleanse ourselves of them through ostentatious acts of piety.

But still, many Thais are obsessed with the idea that merit-making can compensate for when they have erred, as if crimes and merit making are transactional.

This attitude does more harm than good to society, as it reinforces a notion that anyone -- from individuals to government officials and politicians -- can trade away their karmic debt through public displays of contrition yet continue to repeat those same illegal or immoral acts.

The idea of using religious ritual for reparation became a subject of debate last week, when the big-bike riding cop who hit and killed a doctor entered the monkhood to atone for the crime.

On Jan 21, 21-year-old Pol L/C Norawich Buadok slammed his swanky Ducati into Dr Waraluck Supawatjariyakul, an ophthalmologist at Chulalongkorn University's faculty of medicine. He is estimated to have been riding at a speed in excess of 108 kilometres an hour on Phaya Thai Road in Ratchathewi district when the doctor was hit and killed while using a pedestrian crossing.

The policeman was charged with seven offences, including reckless driving causing death, using a vehicle without a licence plate, and not having third-party insurance.

The incident angered the public as video footage showed the biker made no attempt to stop at the crossing, something which is all too common on Thai roads.

The public resentment was heightened when they learned that Pol L/C Norawich and his father, also a police officer, were ordained at a Bangkok temple a few days after Dr Waraluck's death. Many people saw his entry into the monkhood as a damage control strategy rather than an act of genuine regret.

Many in Thailand see entering the monkhood as a way to escape the public glare rather than undertake a genuinely religious act. Outsiders don't usually know what happens inside the temple compound or in religious circles. Buddhism, and monks, are considered to be on a higher plane in Thailand.

There are many reports of criminals entering the monkhood to avoid legal actions, along with various cases of high-profile people doing the same to avoid controversy, including Field Marshall Thanom Kittikachorn, the frontman of the military dictatorship ousted in 1973. He was allowed to re-enter Thailand in 1976 to serve as a monk, prompting protests against his return.

Suthep Thaugsuban, a leader of the People's Democracy Reform Committee (PDRC) which led the Bangkok shutdown campaign to protest Yingluck Shinawatra's government, was ordained one and a half months after the protests were ended by the 2014 military coup.

It is believed that his ordination was to avoid a confrontation with the military, after news leaked that he had told his followers that the military would back the PDRC protest.

But for Pol L/C Norawich, the motivation for his ordination likely came at the encouragement of his father, Pol Sub Lt Nikom Buadok, who told the media that his family came from a humble background and were unable to compensate Dr Waraluck's family for the loss caused by their son.

For the father, his son's sacrificing of his personal life to religion and committing to observance of moral precepts may well have seemed like the only way his family could repay the sin that caused the doctor's death and offer a genuine apology.

Accompanied by his father, Pol L/C Norawich was reported to have wished to remain in the monkhood indefinitely.

But he was pressured to leave two days after his ordination, as the charges and public uproar prompted the National Office of Buddhism to reverse his status.

Personally, I'm not against the idea of improving oneself by accepting and learning from past mistakes. But I don't agree with doing good things to cover up or even remove the past mistakes.

This only fosters a culture of irresponsibility in society. I have witnessed people behave without proper care and attention for themselves and others.

I have also observed high-ranking people mistreat their subordinates or become involved with corruption.

Yet on weekends, or religious days, they attend church and make merit by offering alms to monks, or lead fund-raising efforts to fix old temples or build new ones, as if that makes everything right.

But at the end of the day, we all, Pol L/C Norawich and his ilk included, will pay for our sins in one way or another. And taking a genuine responsibility for our actions would be a good way to start atoning.

Paritta Wangkiat is columnist with Bangkok Post.

Paritta Wangkiat

Columnist

Paritta Wangkiat is a Bangkok Post columnist.

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