- That Spirituality and Modernization
- Sulak Sivaraksa
King Rarrikarnhaeng ... commanded his craftsman to carve a slab of
stone and place it in the midst of the sugar palm trees. On the day of the new moon, the
eighth day of the waxing moon, the day of the full moon and the eighth day of the waning
moon, one of the monks ... goes up and sits on the stone slab to preach the Dharma to the
throng of lay people who observe the precepts. When it is not the day for preaching the
Dharma, King Ramkamhaeng, lord of the Kingdom of Sri Sajjanalai and Sukkothai, goes up,
sits on the stone slab, and lets the officials, lords and princes discuss affairs of state
The spirit of Thai Buddhism is already clearly evidenced
in this most important inscription of Thai history, dating from 1292. The text reveals a
mutual proximity and influence of ruler and subjects. The king was not only a political
leader but an ethical teacher. Spiritually, the monkhood was placed even higher than the
king: when the monk sat on the stone slab, the sovereign remained on the floor, with his
subjects, listening to the sermon, as is still the custom today. The inscription also
shows the festive character of Thai Buddhism:
At the close of the rainy season, they presented robes to the monks
[Kathina ceremonies].... Everyone goes to the Forest Monastery.... When they are ready to
return to the city, they walk together, forming a line all the way from the Forest
Monastery to the parade ground. They repeatedly do homage together, accompanied by music
... whoever wants to make merry, does so; whoever wants to laugh, does so; whoever wants
to sing, does so.
No expression of religious fervor is complete without the element of
enjoyment, or sanuk, a key word in Thai culture. But the elements of fear and of
ignorance are also prominent, especially for those of us who are unenlightened lay people.
Animistic beliefs, derived from Khmer culture, are evidenced by the following inscription:
There are mountain streams and there is Brah Krabun. The divine spirit
of that mountain is more powerful than any other spirit in this kingdom. Whatever lord may
rule this Kingdom of Sukhothai, if he makes obeisance to him properly, with the right
offerings, this kingdom will thrive, but if obeisance is not made properly or the
offerings are not right, the spirit of the hill will no longer protect it and the kingdom
will be lost.
Another text that illustrates the rich texture of Thai Buddhism is King
Lithai's Sermon on the Three Worlds, a work that seeks to make the spiritual
dimension of Buddhism more accessible to the laity. Lithai
inserts into a cosmological framework legends about Buddhist deities, descriptions of
heavenly realms and hellish beings, and other elements which, though not always compatible
with Theravaada orthodoxy, could serve to communicate the Dhamma to those who possessed
only a minimum of Buddhist learning. The cosmological scheme is correlated with the more
psychologically oriented analysis of consciousness and material factors that are
constitutive of Theravaada doctrinal orthodoxy, and with Theravaada conceptions of human
social order and hierarchy. The work inculcates such themes as the negative effects of
sinfulness and the positive results of meritorious activities, the impermanence that
characterizes all samsaric existence, the ideal of life on the Noble Eightfold Path, and
the realization of nirvana. Combining a claim to Theravaada orthodoxy with the strong
popular appeal of residual Mahaayaana and Brahminist cosmological representations, this
text, perhaps the most important and fascinating work in the Thai language, has had a
powerful influence on religious consciousness, literary and artistic development, and
social, political, and ethical attitudes throughout the centuries.
The worldview expressed in these texts became problematic for many
thoughtful Buddhists when they were exposed to Western science and ideology. Not only the
cosmological imagery and symbolism but also the ritual and communal patterns correlated
with them became the subject of skepticism and were often attacked as archaic and even
antithetical to the pristine teaching of the Buddha. King Mongkut (1804-1868) felt the
need to go beyond Lithai's Three Worlds. That work had relied on the commentaries
and sub-commentaries to the Pali Canon. Mongkut studied these as secondary sources, but
gave more attention to the original Tipitaka itself. Thus he could discriminate the
essential and pure teaching of the Buddha from its mythological and popular overlay, mixed
with magical beliefs and Brahministic rites. He practiced meditation on mindfulness and
the austerities prescribed in the Pai Canon and traveled to many parts of the kingdom,
mixing with his people in various walks of life, collecting alms from them and giving them
spiritual advice, thus gaining experience and insight not available to the nobility and
princely families. In 1833 he discovered Ramkamhaeng's inscription together with
the stone slab it mentions. He interpreted the inscription as a Magna Carta of the Thai
nation and took the example of Ramkamhaeng as his guide, using the stone slab as his
throne at his own coronation in 1851.
Mongkut believed that if Thai Buddhists were to survive Western
imperialism they must (1) return to the original teaching of the Buddha, beyond The
Three Worlds, and (2) reinterpret Ramkamhaeng's message in light of Theravaada
Buddhism, so that the king would be a dhamma raaja rather than a deva raaja;
the Ayudhyan monarchs had reverted to the latter model, appropriating the Brahministic
Khmer concept, especially after the Thai conquests of Angkor around 1367 and in 1432. Mongkut
held that the king had the right to rule as long as he was righteous, and that if the
people did not want him on the throne, they had the right to remove him.
The Theravaada tradition inherited from Sri Lanka divided the monkhood
into two categories: town dwellers, who concentrated on the study of the scriptures, and
forest dwellers, who devoted themselves to meditation practice. The former task was later
pursued especially by two of Mongkut's sons: Prince Vajira~naavarorasa (1892-1921), who
introduced Dhamma studies nation-wide for monks of both sects, as well as for lay men and
women, and King Chulalongkorn. Another educational venture was the presentation of
Buddhism to the younger generation and the defense of it against foreign missionaries by
Chao Phya, Dipakarivamsa (1812-1870), author of The Modern Buddhist; a
pioneering critique of The Three Worlds. The preface to the English translation
describes it as follows:
The Modem Buddhist assumes religion to be the science of man,
and not the revelation of God. He does not think that the comprehension of the Deity, or
the firm persuasion of the exact nature of heaven, is of so much consequence as that just
idea of one's own self which he believes he finds in Buddhism purged of superstitions....
He has a firm faith that whatever truths science may reveal, none will be found opposed to
the vital points of Buddhism. He freely criticises his sacred books by such small lights
of science as he possessed. He states his opinion that Buddha, although he knew
everything, was careful not to teach that which the people of his age were not ri e to
understand, and therefore refrained from many topics he might have referred to, had he
lived in a more advanced age.... The missionaries again and again feel hopeful that the
day of conversion is at hand, yet are ever doomed to disappointment. I cannot but think
that the money and energy expended on their work is in great measure lost, and that the
labour of many of them would be better employed in their own country.
In the Sa"ngha, Mongkut set up a strong tradition of deep
meditation practice. The Dhammayuttika Order of the Northeast in particular has carried on
this tradition, especially through charismatic meditation masters such as Venerable Phra
Acariya Mun (1871-1949). His biography by his disciple, Ven. Phra Acariya Mahaa
Boowa, the doyen of living masters, has been translated into English.
Ven. Phra Acariya Cha, another living master, his a close disciple of Ven.
Phra Acariya Mun and has spread his life-style, his method of meditation practice, and his
strict adherence to Vinaya discipline to the majority of monks in the Mahaanikaaya Order,
and also to Western monks who set up communities in Britain, the United States, Sri Lanka,
New Zealand, and Australia. There are a number of other groups that claim to be older than
the reform of King Mongkut and tend to accept superstitions and supernatural powers, in
the spirit of The Three Worlds.
In the north, Kru Ba Srivijaya (1873-1937) refused to
acknowledge the spiritual and temporal authorities of Bangkok. He was regarded as a holy
man, with deep spiritual insight, who led the multitudes to rebuild many important
Buddhist monuments, but he ordained monks in defiance of the requirements laid down by the
first Ecclesiastical Act of 1902. There are still a few meditation masters who
claim to be direct disciples of his. They are known for their art of healing by
traditional herbs, as religious psychiatrists using holy water and other spiritual
mediums, and as astrologers. But they have not continued the social activity and political
dissent of Kru Ba. In fact, the royal court, the military, the civilians, as well as the
business communities regard meditation masters, of all schools and lineages, as their
great supporters, spiritually, socially, politically, and economically.
The Santiasoka sect is the only one that has rebelled
against the present established Sa"ngha . Its founder, Phra Bodhiraksha (b. 1934),
was ordained in both the Dhammaytittika and Mahaanikaaya, but was satisfied with
neither. His sect dates from 1975, when he gave ordination in defiance of the
Ecclesiastical Law of 1962. He has also attracted lay followers by his puritanism
and vegetarianism, and his abstention from all kinds of ceremonies. He claims to be
enlightened spiritually, combining scholarship with meditation, and stressing social
reform rather than upholding the status quo. Yet his Buddhist scholarship and his grasp of
Thai social reality do not seem sufficiently deep to guarantee that Santiasoka will become
a movement of any significance. The government and the Supreme Council of the Sa"ngha
have ignored its challenge rather than take it on legally.
The Dhammakaya school, established in 1970, traces its existence
to the Ven. Luang Poh Sod (1884-1959), who claimed to have rediscovered a
meditation technique lost to the Sa"ngha for hundreds of years, presumably since the
Thai were converted to Sinhalese Buddhism. This technique, akin to some Tantric practices,
has become popular, especially among Japanese Buddhists of the Shingon sect. Luang Poli
Sod's best-known follower, Kittivuddho Bhikkhu (b. 1936), works closely with the
military; he once said that to kill a communist to preserve the nation, the religion, and
the monarchy is not sinful. Many Buddhists doubt whether peace and non-violence are still
of importance to this monk and his admirers. The school claims to represent the only
authentic teaching of the Buddha, not revealed in the scriptures. it has not attacked the
established Sa"ngha, and it also works well with the capitalist tendency in the Thai
society, enjoying close links with the royal palace and the military. Buddhist clubs in
most universities have been dominated by lay followers of this school.
In 1932 the traditional monarchical social order was challenged
by the Western ideology of liberal democracy. In the same year a young Thai monk,
dissatisfied with the division of the Sa"ngha into meditators and textual scholars
left Bangkok and returned to his native village in the South, at Chaiya, and founded Suan
Mokha, the Garden of Liberation. This monk, the Ven. Buddhadasa Bhikhu (b. 1906), has
the vision and scholarship of Mongkut, but he has gone far beyond the great king. Not
being interested in ceremonial detail and going beyond the literary message in the Pali
Canon, he was able to grasp the essential teaching of the Buddha. He was freed from
founding a new sect or criticizing the established hierarchies. Indeed, Buddhadasa is the
first Thai monk to acquire a critical understanding of the Pali Tipitaka and to give
serious consideration to Mahaayaana tradition as not inferior to the Theravaada school. He
has also studied Christianity and Islam in the spirit of dialogue without any feeling of
superiority or inferiority. He is much admired by Thai Christians and Muslims alike.
However, he has been attacked by some Thai and Sri Lankan Buddhists who regard the Pali
text, especially the Abbidhamma-pi.taka and Buddhaghosa's commentaries, as sacred,
and allow no reinterpretation or criticism. His comments on social reforms and dhammic
socialism have also given him a reputation in certain circles as a communist. Yet his
influence in the monkhood, of all sects, is tremendous. Both scholars and meditation
masters look up to him as a very important guru, although he only claims to be a Good
Friend (kalayaanamitta). He has made a major contribution to the hermeneutics of
Thai tradition. In reading texts like The Three Worlds one must be able to
distinguish between the dhammic language and the worldly language, going beyond those
things that would normally be regarded as myths, superstition, miracles, or deities,
neither accepting them easily nor rejecting them outright, but using one's wisdom to
interpret them for one's spiritual growth, enlightenment, and liberation.
An American scholar writes:
Buddhadasa's vision of the good and just society coincides with his
view of an original state of nature or an original human condition, one of mutual
interdependence, harmony and balance. By its very nature this state of nature is selfless-
individuals are not attached to self for its own sake. But with the loss of this state of
innocence individuals are subject to the bondage of attachment (upaadaana) and
unquenchable thirst (ta"nhaa). Consequently, sentient beings need to find ways
to return to or restore this condition of mutual interdependence and harmony, love and
respect. On the personal level the attainment of wisdom (bodhi) through the methods
of awareness (satii), continuous attention (sampaja~nha) and focussed
concentration (samaadhi) serves to break through the conditions of greed, ignorance
and lust (kilesa); while on the social level those in positions of power promote
economic and political policies which after meeting basic physical needs promote a
balanced development in which matters of spirit (citta) assume their rightful
dominance. Buddhadasa's notion of a truly human community is a universal vision shared by
all religions. This socialist society is one governed by love (mettaa). In the
language of Buddhist millenarian expectations, it is the age of the Buddha Maitreya. But
Buddhadasa's teachings regarding Buddhist Socialism cannot be consigned to an otherworldly
messianism. His vision serves as a critique of Western political theories of capitalism
and communism, and provides the basic principles for a political philosophy with the
potential to guide not only Thailand in the coming years, but all societies struggling to
create a just and equitable social, political and economic order.
The quantity and quality of his written work have excelled all living
Theravaada, scholars. He has even been compared with Buddhaghosa of Sri Lanka and with
Naagaarjuna of India. It is too early to say whether these comparisons it are valid, but
his works have been studied critically by Thai and foreigners as the crowning expression
of contemporary- Thai spirituality and a signpost to its future.
 See A. B. Griswold and Prasert na Nagara,
"Epigraphic and Historical Studies no. 9," Journal of the Siam Society 59 (1971)
 See Three Worlds According
to King Ruang: A Buddhist Cosmology, translation with introduction and notes by
Frank E. Reynolds and Mari B. Reynolds (Berkeley, CA: Asian Humanities Press, 1982).
 See Henry Alabuster, The Wheel
of the Law or Buddhism Illustrated from Siamese Sources (London: Trubner, 1871). The
author later joined the Thai government and established his family in Bangkok. His
grandson, Sitthi Sawetasila, has become Thai Foreign Minister.
 There are two English versions
of this biography: one by Ruth Inge Heinzel published in the Asian Folklore and Social
Life Monograph Series, Telpe; another by Siri Buddhasukh (Bangkok: Mahamakut Rajavidyalaya
 See Stanley J. Tambiah, The
Buddhist Saints of the Forest and the Cult of Amulets (Cambridge: Cambridge University
 Donald K. Swearer, ed. Buddhadasa's
Dhammic Socialism (Bangkok: Thai Inter Religious Commission for Development, 1986).
Gabaude, Louis. Introduction a` 1'herme'neutique de
Buddhaddasa Bbikkbu. Paris: 'ecole Francaise de l'Extre^me Orient, 1979.
Rajadhon, Phys Anuman. Popular Buddhism in Siam and other Essays. Bangkok:
Sathirakoses-Nagapradipa Foundation (forthcoming).
Rajanubliab, Prince Damrong. Monuments of the Buddha in Siam.
Translated by S. Sivaraksa and A. B. Griswold. Bangkok: The Siam Society, 1973.
Rajavaramuni, Phra (P. Patutto). Thai Buddhism in the Buddhist
World. Bangkok: Mahachulalongkorn Rajavidyalaya, 1985.
Sivaraksa, Sulak. Buddhist Vision for Renewing Society. Bangkok:
Thienwan Press, 1986.
Sivaraksa, Sulak. Siamese Resurgence. Bangkok: ACFOD, 1985.
"Symposium: Religion and Society in Thailand." Journal
of Asian Studies 36 (1977) 239-326.
[Originally published in Buddhist Spirituality - Indian, Southeast
Asian, Tibetan, Early Chinese, edited by Takeuchi Yoshinori (New York: The Crossroad
Publishing Company, 1993), pp. 112-119.]
Sincere thanks to Phramaha Somnuek Saksree for
transcription of this article.