Clergy must drop its dependence on state 

Clergy must drop its dependence on state 

A monk carries a homemade sign that reads, 'Thailand is a Buddhist country'. He was involved in the protest last week to pressure the government to endorse the Sangha Council's nomination of the next supreme patriarch, and to make Buddhism the official state religion. (Photo by Pornprom Satrabhaya)
A monk carries a homemade sign that reads, 'Thailand is a Buddhist country'. He was involved in the protest last week to pressure the government to endorse the Sangha Council's nomination of the next supreme patriarch, and to make Buddhism the official state religion. (Photo by Pornprom Satrabhaya)

The Sangha Council and its supporters should realise one thing in their campaign to pressure the government to endorse the supreme patriarch of their choice: They can't have the cake and eat it too.

The clergy are certainly correct to say the government should not interfere with the the selection of their leader. In fact, the government should not interfere with the clergy in their internal matters at all, unless monks or their organisations break the law. 

The problem is the clergy wants all the privileges that come with being the dominant creed in the country. They want state protection and financial support on their own terms. It is only when things don't go their ways that they begin to talk about independence. 

But state patronage comes with strings attached. The Sangha Act has given the ecclesiastic council autocratic, central control over 300,000 monks. While the Supreme Sangha Council (SSC) has full authority to select a new patriarch, the Sangha law makes it clear that the nomination for royal endorsement must be made by the government. 

This provision had long been taken for granted as just a matter of procedure. That may have been true back when public faith in the clergy had not hit rock bottom and when the clergy were not deeply mired in colour-coded politics.

But it is a different story now. The government is currently using its prerogative in the Sangha law to delay the supreme patriarch nomination. It is clearly a political move to pre-empt a pro-Thaksin, pro-Dhammakaya clergy. But as in any political gambit, the goverment would surely retreat in the face of public resistance. Instead the intervention has received wide public support. 

This should be a wake-up call for the clergy. Their enemy is not the hostile government; it is the hostile public. The clergy's urgent task is not to pressure the government, but to confront the crisis of faith and fix its internal malaises to restore moral integrity and public respect.

Toward that end, I used to think that the authoritarian Sangha Act should be amended to decentralise the clergy, ensure financial transparency and make temples accountable to communities. Come to think of it, even a better Sangha law would endorse political relations between state and the Thai Buddhist clergy. The new law may institutionalise some mechanisms to ensure temple transparency and accountability, but it will certainly promise state patronage to the clergy in return. Subsequently, the crux of the problem will remain intact.

The clergy like to portray themselves as non-political. The opposite is true. First and foremost, they depend on the government to sustain their power over the closed, feudal system through the Sangha Act. If that is not political, what is?

They also support race-based nationalism, which is not only politically explosive, but also non-Buddhist. They prefer to attack other religions for undermining Thai Buddhism instead of fixing its own weaknesses. Examples abound, the latest of which is their opposition to a halal food production centre in the North.

In return for state patronage, the clergy allow monks to be used by the government to support various development policies, and also to serve political parties as vote canvassers during elections. More importantly, monks are not allowed to be critical of state projects. Outspoken monks do it at their own risk. The elders themselves also refrain from being the voice of morality in the face of state oppression. That is how they grow irrelevant to society.

There have been efforts by younger monks to reform the clergy's power structure and administration to lessen the clergy's dependence of state authority, but to no avail.

The SSC relies on the National Office of Buddhism as its secretariat. This has robbed the clergy of a chance to train their own monks to manage their own cleric affairs. The attempts to amend the Sangha Act to set up elected executive, legislative and judicial bodies have been dismissed by the elders who apparently view these younger monks' moves to amend the Sangha Act as a threat to their central control.

The elders also wanted to amend the Sangha Act, but their main goal is to suppress public and media criticism of the clergy. Again, relying on state power to punish dissent without the clergy having to lift a finger.

Interestingly, both the elders and reform-minded younger monks want their feudal ecclesiastic hierarchy and ranks intact. The ranks -- and the prestige and power that come with them -- are not viewed as problematic; the way the perks are distributed is. The monarchy is still viewed as the source of prestige and authority. Not the spiritual practices of the monks themselves.

Ever since the Sangha Act was put in place by military strongman Sarit Thanarat in 1962, public faith in the clergy has been in constant decline. Temple corruption, rogue monks and commercialisation of Buddhism have become widespread. Public dissatisfaction with the elders' negligence, inefficiency and growing materialism steadily increased, giving rise to many new religious groups. Meanwhile, the rise of communications technology has empowered Buddhists to bypass monks and go directly to the Buddhist texts, making monks less relevant.

These new religious groups include Dhammakaya which teaches one can buy merit points and reserve a space in heaven by donating to the temple, and Santi Asoke which teaches frugality, self-sufficiency and self-sacrifice to the temple. By kowtowing to elders, Dhammakaya connections and influence have dominated the clergy's top echelon. For criticising the Sangha Council, Santi Asoke was banished.

During the protest at Phutthamonthon to support the abbot of Wat Pak Nam, the mentor of the controversial monk Dhammachayo of Wat Dhammakaya, as the next supreme patriarch, the clergy also repeated their call to make Buddhism an official state religion.

This is the clergy's political dependence on the state to the extreme, which contradicts their own demand for the state to stay out of their affairs. The demand also shows the clergy's inability to command public support without state intervention.

If the clergy really wants to tackle the crisis of faith they must cut the umbilical cord with the government. They must learn how to work and compete with other religious groups in the faith market.

At present, the clergy can live in their feudal cocoon, unresponsive to public sentiment and needs, because their power -- and inefficiency -- cannot be challenged through state legislation and support. Hence the crisis of faith.

If they still want the government to back their status quo, then don't complain about state intervention. There is no such thing as a free lunch.

Sanitsuda Ekachai is former editorial pages editor, Bangkok Post.

Sanitsuda Ekachai

Former editorial pages editor

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

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