Social pressures, echoes of corruption hamper a centuries-old religion
For tourists, Thailand is the most religious country, with 92% of Thais officially deemed to follow the state religion. The king must be a Buddhist, with Buddhist rituals wrapped in royal ceremonies amid some of the most spectacular religious architecture in the world, giving the country its national character.
It is a religion that apparently permeates the very fiber of the country. The malefactors go to the aconite to expiate. Buddhist artifacts adorn government buildings. Young men are expected to spend three months as novice monks. Thais can be seen every morning giving alms to monks along the roadside to the chiming of bells in all parts of the country.
fall out of favor
But visits to most of the country’s 40,000 temples, or wats, which dot the countryside outside the tourist district find them empty, many now only inhabited by one or two monks. Some smaller ones don’t even have a monk. Wats in suburban areas and villages now tend to host funerals as their main activity, with other buildings on site having fallen into disrepair, due to lack of use.
It’s not just Buddhism. The forces of modernity, notably aided and abetted by the shortening of attention spans and the need for entertainment engendered by social media, play a major role, with mainstream media concerned about the decline of religion. But while academics and scholars say the decline is superficial, in fact, it is real. Temples were once the social center of their communities, where families gathered.
However, rising prosperity and the ability for families to move elsewhere for entertainment has led to a sharp decline in their use. They organized carnivals and welcomed travellers. The monks gave advice to members of the community and organized morning and evening prayers. The novices resided in the wat, learning under the senior clergy who taught them the dharma, the nature of reality considered a universal truth taught by the Buddha in an age-old ritual.
These activities have decreased considerably. There has been a marked drop in the number of young novices and a sharp drop in the number of people going to the wats for retreats. Those who actually perform the novice ceremony only stay for one to 15 days, instead of the traditional three months. Many stay less than 24 hours.
The pandemic has accelerated this decline
During the Covid-19 pandemic, many wats closed to the public and remained isolated. No one could leave or enter, for up to two years in some cases. However, after the pandemic, the numbers do not return to pre-pandemic levels.
I have spoken to a number of monks over the past few months when the wats have reopened. Ajarn (teacher) Sun, a monk based in the southern resort town of Krabi, said older people who frequent his wat are generally hesitant to return to meditation and dharma retreats for fear of the pandemic.
Ajarn Wan, from Chumphon, a bucolic province in the Gulf of Thailand, elaborated on the issue, saying those who return to wats are usually those seeking blessings to change their fortunes. Others seek help in finding a partner, or even in solving some form of problem. They make short visits, ask for help, make a donation and leave. Wat Chedi in Nakhon Si Thammarat province, nearly 800 km south of Bangkok, is full during weekends and public holidays, especially with families seeking additions to their families or blessings for their businesses. .
Even the teachings of the legendary Buddhadasa Bhikkhu at Sun Moke, Surat Thani, who viewed ritualism and hierarchy in Buddhism as wrong and preached a rationalist perspective of spiritual growth, have almost disappeared for the monastery.
A big disconnect with the younger generation
However, it is the younger generation that remains noticeably on the sidelines. This demographic is abandoning Buddhism. Ajarn Akae from Surat Thani said the youngsters had other more interesting activities. Even if they come, they get bored quickly and just stop doing the activity and leave. Ajarn Akae said that it is extremely difficult to teach those who have a very short attention span. Young people seem to be addicted to phone apps, Akae said – although they are physically present, their focus and minds are far away. They are not interested in learning Dharma.
One of the main reasons is the institutionalization of Buddhism under the current government, with corruption, alcohol, drug trafficking, sex scandals and wealth amassed by a few scam monks putting off young people. The media coverage of the scandalous monks did not help the reputation of the Sangha, the supreme council.
The regime at the head of Prayuth Chan-ocha had in 2017 tried in vain to cleanse the clergy. The former army chief tackled corruption issues but ignored other social issues related to Thai wats. The Sangha is a powerful organization, even for the Thai army.
Altruism, as taught by the Dharma, is the sworn enemy of the material society in which young people live today. Ajarn Akae said he gave up teaching Dharma to Gen-Z. It is impossible to lower their ego and reach them.
Some monks, trying to reach Gen-Z via social media, have used Tik Tok to post selfies and other attention-seeking antics like drinking in cafes, all of which seem to have failed. The only thing some are interested in is finding methods that will make them attractive to others, Ajarn Akae said. People want to be popular and pass their exams.
The only youth groups that visit the wats are school groups. However, in places like Wat Suan Moke in Surat Thani, school excursions now tend to focus solely on visiting exhibits, rather than learning Dharma and meditation. These are superficial. Teachers report that overnight stays within the wat grounds lead to fraternization among students, which is a major problem within the temple grounds. A monk said that dealing with these groups becomes tedious and not worth it, as there seems to be no intention on the part of the students to learn anything.
Wats are dumping grounds for the elderly
The wats are now becoming the dumping ground for unwanted old people. Many are taken to temples, settled by their children and little visited or abandoned. Many wats are filled with people with dementia or Alzheimer’s disease, with no one to care for them.
Thailand will soon be in a situation where some wats may be totally abandoned, the monks say. There is little the government can do, as many are created by family foundations, and therefore on private land. The general dilapidation of the buildings is clearly visible. Small wats with few donations can’t do anything to fix them. It is difficult for the monks, many of whom are elderly themselves, to maintain these wats, built on two or three hectares or more.
Well-known upscale wats, where well-known monks reside, are engaged in massive building programs, funded by donations from daily visitors and other wealthy donors. These wats know they have to build attractions to attract donors. People tend to come to them for blessings of good fortune, rather than for spiritual enrichment.
According to another monk, who did not want his identity known, some monks play on guilt to garner large donations from Thailand’s upper middle class. There is no mechanism to share a portion of these donations with small wats in need.
New Spirit Centers on the Block
There is an area of growth in Thai Buddhism. Specialized forest meditation centers are springing up as an alternative. More comfortable than the basic wats, the middle classes are attracted to them. Monks and lay people in these establishments tend to teach dharma and meditation using modern techniques that connect with their disciples. With over 300 of these centers, and with more openness, they tend to be booked well in advance for weekend retreats.
Originally posted in Asia Sentinel 25e October 2022