Crisis of faith within Buddhism?

Our monastic community has long been a spiritual refuge for Thai society, with our Buddhist monks long held in high esteem.

This might no longer be a familiar scenario, however, with a slew of bad news about the indecent behavior and misconduct of many monastic members having cast a negative light on the clergy like never before. Stories of monks caught up in outrageous acts and improper activity appear every week. To top it off, recent cases of several high-ranking monks allegedly involved in the so-called “money change” scheme – in short, a corruption scandal with senior monks at the helm – have prompted many Buddhists to wonder what happened to our priests, and if Buddhism is encountering a crisis of faith.

Phra Paisal Visalo. (Photo by Apichit Jinakul)

“It is common for people who have lived far from monasteries to have this faith problem,” said Phra Paisal Visalo, Abbot of Wat Pa Sukato in Chaiyaphum province. “But those who are close to the temples understand that there are good and bad monks there, and they are not easily shaken by scandals.”

He recounted how many Buddhists implanted their faith in individual monks and how faith in the religion suffered after their favorite priests were found to be faulty. He then pointed out that Buddhist principles teach us to focus our faith on the Triple Gem – the Buddha, the dhamma and the sangha. “The point is that the sangha here does not mean those with a shaved head who wear saffron dresses but ariya song,” he said.

This term refers to the noble monk who has achieved at least one of the four stages of spiritual awakening in Buddhism, and any layman who can achieve the same is also counted as such. The term is the opposite of Sommuti song, or a monk by name, robe or reputation only.

“Even though we can’t tell which ones are ariya song, we can be assured that those who have committed immoral affairs as mentioned in the reports are not, “he said.” They do not deserve our faith because they do not truly represent the disciples who are required to be trained in accordance with the teachings of Buddha. “

Having lived a monastic life for 35 years and devoting most of his time to writing books on the environment and Buddhism, as well as teaching dhamma and meditation, Phra Paisal is one of the country’s most respected monks, whose non-violence-based way of thinking and deep perspectives on issues surrounding the Buddhist community inspire many followers. Prior to entering monastic life, Paisal was known as a student activist at Thammasat University who staged a hunger strike during the student protests of October 6, 1976, an incident that resulted in bloodshed on the campus. He was arrested and jailed briefly.

He was ordained a monk in 1983 and has since become known as a clergy with a progressive view of Buddhism and its contemporary relevance.

Phra Paisal Visalo. Apichit Jinakul

“The scandals over the troubled monks are a reflection of the deeply rooted problem of the whole sangha system, and the real cause lies in the faults of monastic education and also sangha administration, ”he said, adding that“ our monastic education is weak and outdated and does little to bring spiritual change to novices and monks ”.

According to the 61-year-old priest, monastic education underwent a major transformation for the last time during the reign of King Rama VI, when the 10th Supreme Patriarch, Phramahasamanachao Vajirananavarorasa (1910-1921), created a new curriculum for dhamma studies. However, this modernized system focuses heavily on textual and scriptural teaching, leaving behind the teaching of the practice of meditation, which is the most essential part of Buddhism. “This is where meditation started to disappear from the lives of monks,” he said.

He explained that meditation is very important for monks, especially today when tempting things are everywhere. “If they are not trained to be strong from within, they would be easily distracted and their greed will grow with these stimuli,” he warned.

In his eyes, however, even meditation alone is not enough for monks to survive today. “They have to be able to understand this modern world and know how to deal wisely with new technologies; they have to know how to associate properly with cellphones and also with money,” he said.

Despite the shortcomings of this century-old education system for Thai monks, which he says is in urgent need of reform, we have yet to see any attempt by the senior monks tasked with bringing about change.

“They grew up with it and believe it’s already wonderful. They just want it to stay that way,” said Phra Paisal. He also elaborated with a sad truth: “They don’t see the importance of meditation because they haven’t practiced it.”

He also attributed the long-standing problem of bad monks to the weakness of the sangha administration, which he described as inefficient, lax and passive, adding that the worst part is that many senior monks in the highest positions are also engaged in indecent affairs, namely bribery and cronyism. “This problem has nothing to do with religion [itself] but the monks, the temples and the whole sangha community, ”he concluded.

Such a failure could explain why many fear more and more that Buddhism will soon decline in Thailand. Also, this is probably why we have seen a growing trend in religious extremism, which many claim to be an attempt to protect religion, in our society, in recent years.

From Phra Paisal’s perspective, the movement is not new and it is the result of many factors. “One of them is the feeling of insecurity of some monks, who are afraid of losing their own status if people turn their backs on Buddhism,” he said. “Instead of looking back to see where they went wrong to cause all the problems, they simply blamed other religions for being behind this fallout. Thirty years ago Christianity was seen as the culprit, but now they point the finger at Islam. “

He further explained that nationalism also plays an important role in fueling a hostile attitude towards other religions, claiming that this secular phenomenon is very important in Myanmar, where the Rohingya minority, although they lived there for generations, is never recognized as a citizen of Myanmar because she holds the Islamic faith.

“Buddhism in Thailand is treated strictly as part of nationalism, and what follows is an attempt to define“ to be Thai ”as“ to be Buddhist. ”This means that only those who have the Buddhist faith are considered Thai, and if you are a Christian or a Muslim you are not considered a true Thai, ”he said.

The monk also warns us of the danger of this conception. “Extreme nationalism will make us hate other nationalities, and too much attachment to our religion will make us hate other religions.”

He said that all monks should be able to understand the conventional nature of all religions and nationalities. “People of any faith are our fellow humans. Their beliefs are just different from ours and they have their own ways of training their souls. But, ultimately, they could do good deeds and refrain from bad deeds. just like what our Lord Buddha taught us, ”he said.

Phra Paisal also insisted that the real threat to Buddhism is not other religions but consumerism, which he said caused many monks to deviate from the teachings of Buddha, abandoning the practicing meditation, turning your back on a simple life and starting to accumulate material. things.

Likewise, theory has a lot of influence on how Thai Buddhists treat religion so far. “In fact, most of them are followers of consumerism. They care about getting rich and only want the monks to bless them with good fortune. Buddhism is becoming a religious form of consumerism,” he said. he points out.

In order to protect Buddhism, the monk said that we must turn to ourselves and see the truth that our religion is weakening because of all of us. “We must dare to criticize ourselves and also improve ourselves. We must bring Buddha’s words to remind us of this. He said that Buddhism will not survive unless his followers put his teachings into practice.”

Phra Paisal’s outlook should be food for thought for all Buddhist devotees. He also wanted them to spend this three-month period seriously tweaking themselves. “They should live nearby dhamma and understand the truth about life so that they do not suffer much in the face of its uncertainty. They shouldn’t make money the goal of their life, but rather spiritual cultivation, ”he said.

Asked what he would like to see in the new generation of monks who wish to follow in the footsteps of Buddha, Phra Paisal said, “They must train to achieve virtue, focus and wisdom. They need to be neat, less selfish and able to break free. of suffering and also helping others. And, more importantly: “They must be broad-minded and have compassion for everyone, regardless of their race, language and faith. “