Keep Suan Mokh free from politics

Keep Suan Mokh free from politics

Like many people in my generation, Suan Mokh forest monastery in Surat Thani province holds a special place in my heart. It's why I feel uneasy with recent developments there.

While most temples are lost in materialism and most monks have become mere postmen to send merit to our ancestors, Suan Mokh is where the crusade to reform Thai Buddhism by the late Buddhadasa Bhikkhu took place.

It started in 1932. Disillusioned by the laxity of city monks during his brief stay to study in Bangkok, he returned to his hometown in Surat Thani's Chaiya district to found a forest monastery and began his efforts to return to the roots of Buddhism.

In a critique to clerical hierarchy, he named himself Buddhadasa, meaning slave of the Buddha instead of allowing himself to be called by an official name given by the clergy. His temple is also run by a foundation, and thus free from the clergy's mandate.

Instead of following the clergy's education system which focuses on the Commentaries, he chose to study the Buddha's words directly himself, resulting in countless monumental works that gave new light to Buddhism in Thailand.

With monks divided into city monks who concentrate on religious texts and forest monks who focus on meditation practices, this reformist monk combined the two together in his practices and teaching.

To counter traditional belief in heaven and hell, he taught "here and now" and popularised the concept of sati or mindfulness to help one live in the present moment.

While meditation was once thought as for monks only, Suan Monk also popularised meditation for ordinary people by offering free meditation courses to both Thais and foreigners.

When many believe living a spiritual life means cutting oneself off from the real world, he taught "work is dhamma practice"; it is so when meditation is integrated in daily life and when every breath is a cultivation of mindfulness.

When Thai Theravada Buddhism thought it was superior to the Mahayana Sect, Buddhadasa Bhikkhu transcended the gap by studying and integrating Mahayana teachings in his own works. 

He also urged inter-faith understanding with Muslims.

A radical monk in his time — since he was critical of capitalism and materialism — he was once branded a communist. But his practices and teachings eventually prevailed.

It is not an exaggeration to say that Buddhadasa Bhikkhu was the most important monk in modern Thailand.

One of the high points in my journalistic career was a chance to interview him and photograph him — and be able to ask such a great monk to stop and look at my camera — during his morning walk in Suan Mokh.

All this is why I want to see Suan Mokh the way it used to be. I want to see it retain its reformist and free spirit. I want to see it free of politics.

This is something two other "reformist" temples have failed to do. The Santi Asoke sect which challenges the materialistic clergy has become part and parcel of the anti-Thaksin movement. The Dhammakaya sect which is often labelled as capitalist Buddhism, is known to side with the pro-Thaksin camp.

With veteran Democrat politician and leader of the People's Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC) Suthep Thaugsuban now residing at Suan Mokh as a monk and becoming its main attraction — it's no longer possible to see Suan Mokh free from politics.

During weekdays, hundreds of PDRC supporters travell to Suan Mokh to see their leader — now a monk under the monastic name of Papakaro, meaning the light of wisdom. The number reaches a thousand during weekends.

Even if they want to, it will be hard for Suan Mokh monks to say no to Phra Suthep's stay or to stop him from taking centre stage. He is Surat Thani's most influential person.

The Suan Mokh monks, however, are reportedly happy to see life return to Suan Mokh once again. It has been quiet, even tainted by monks' infighting and lapses into conservatism, after Buddhadada Bhikkhu passed away. Meditation courses are also reportedly packed by PDRC followers.

Maybe it is for the best. Let's hope meditation helps one to see the transience of life, the illusion of beliefs, the futility of attachment to me and mine, and the need to let go.

It's why Buddhadasa Bhikkhu founded Suan Mokh. It's important to keep this spiritual goal and not get lost in political games.


Sanitsuda Ekachai is editorial pages editor, Bangkok Post.

Sanitsuda Ekachai

Former editorial pages editor

Sanitsuda Ekachai is a former editorial pages editor, Bangkok Post. She writes on social issues, gender, and Thai Buddhism.

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