Scripture schools feed dreams
Temples under royal patronage give poor ‘novices’ a chance of succeeding in life, writes Apinya Wipatayotin
Buddhist-oriented “scripture schools” are often the only source of education for young boys from impoverished families in Thailand that cannot afford a state education, but these traditional teaching bases have for years suffered from neglect and a lack of funding.
Now they are now back on the public radar and getting the attention they need courtesy of a royal helping hand and contributions from stateowned organisations, meaning more kids fated to slip through the social safety net now have a chance of chasing their dreams.
For many poor parents in rural areas, education is a luxury. Sending their children off to school remains out of their reach despite various government subsidies that are available in compulsory education.
The parents see no choice but turn to local temples for spiritual as well as practical help in educating and feeding their youngsters — almost always boys.
The families count on the temples to help them survive poverty as they offer full board while guarantee their offspring will at least be taught to read and write as they study religious scripture time and again.
These so-called “scripture schools” dispense education in a conservative way, sometimes using a self-styled curriculum. But the focus is on the study of Buddhism and fundamental reading and writing courses. The schools enroll novices from Mathayom 1-6 (grades 7-12).
However, some of the major subjects taught at mainstream schools are either absent or inadequately taught, making it a difficult jump for the novices from the temple to a regular classroom.
Despite this, talented students can go on to Buddhist universities or institutions of higher learning on scholarships — they are a rare breed.
The temples that run the schools complain of stingy budgets and a lack of state assistance.
They are mostly self-funded, with t he monks relying on fund-raising schemes such as annual robe-giving rites to keep them chugging along.
They also offer varying standards of education depending on their financial status. Often, those in rural areas suffer the most. But their fortunes are slowly reversing with the aid of the royal palace.
Wat Sri Muang Mang temple scripture school is one of 69 nationwide chosen to benefit from royal patronage under the guidance of Her Royal Highness Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn.
The schools have been thrown a lifeline since they were placed under the royally initiated project.
The temple and its attached school, which is known as Phra Pariyatthitham Pakhem Witthaya, are run by abbot Phra Khru Jantawiriyopas. They are located in Phayao’s Chiang Muan district near the Lao border.
Phongphan Ekarwut, who is responsible for developing science and technology at the schools under Princess Sirindhorn’s patronage, said the project was launched 15 years ago when the princess toured Nan province and visited Wat Bo Luang Wittayatham School there.
She reportedly saw the squalor that novices had to endure and the poor quality of education offered there and resolved to do something about it.
The princess used her own money to raise the standard of education being offered, which marked the start of the project.
Ms Phongphan said the princess discovered first-hand during her trip that the novices relied on donations of sticky rice from locals to survive. She soon arranged to set up a fund to help pay for nutritious meals, milk and other forms of nourishment a growing child needs.
The project requires millions of baht per year. “We want to see novices get a decent education. They’re no different from regular students who receive support from the government, including school milk,” she said.
There are at least 40,000 novices in 400 scripture schools nationwide, she added.
Help has also been forthcoming from government agencies.
The National Science and Technology Development Agency (NSTDA) has stepped in to teach science and technology subjects at some of the schools. These subjects were added after the princess made it known she wanted the novices equipped with the tools they need to succeed in a fast-changing, digital society.
In recent years more mainstream subjects have been introduced.
Wat Sri Muang Mang is educating 50 novices. It has four teachers for subjects like English and mathematics and six monks who teach religious discipline as well as the sacred language of Pali — used in early Buddhist texts — and the Lanna dialect used in northern Thailand.
Phra Khru Jantawiriyopas, director of Phra Pariyatthitham Pakhem Witthaya, said the school’s financial difficulties have eased in the wake of the royal assistance.
Meanwhile, the National Office for Buddhism has allocated a subsidy of about 12,000 baht per novice each year. This covers textbooks, meals and the teacher’s salary.
Real expenses dwarf this. The school has reached out to local communities and other stakeholders for financial support. One of the supporters is KTBGS (KTB General Services), an affiliate of state-owned Krung Thai Bank.
For three straight years KTBGS has invested in school buildings at Phra Khru Jantawiriyopas’ temple and donated educational tools to empower locals and sustain the communities.
This year, it organised the robe-giving rite and raised over 700,000 baht for the scripture school. It expects to hire more teachers and provide additional scholarships for outstanding novices so they can continue their education at university.
Orajanya Chanthaworrasut, managing director of KTBGS, said the company believes longterm support holds the answer to strengthening communities.
KTBGS employs over 7,400 staff and takes care of 9,900 ATM machines around the country.
With all that cash flying around, the company figured a merit-making trip to the temple would draw employees closer to religion and hammer home the importance of virtues like honesty and selflessness.
“Our definition of ‘capital’ is not money, assets or shareholders,” Ms Orajanya said.
“If we have good people and a good family, it will bring us prosperity. And we know religion lays a path to goodness.”
Meanwhile, Phra Kru Soonthornboonnitwit, chairman of Phra Pariyatthitham School in Phayao, said novices are crucial to keep Buddhist teaching alive as they represent the next generation of monks.
He said the community and temple must work together to maintain the school.
The temple sometimes shares its cash donations with locals through projects to assist the elderly and the sick, he said, illustrating how reciprocal help serves all those on the fringes of society.
We want to see novices get a decent education. They’re no different from regular students. PHONGPHAN EKARWUT DEVELOPER OF SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY AT SCRIPTURE SCHOOLS UNDER PRINCESS SIRINDHORN’S PATRONAGE
Locals and visitors join a religious rite at a local temple in Phayao. Temples and schools are the pillar establishments of local communities in the North.
Public donations have financed the construction of a new building at the Wat Sri Muang Mang temple scripture school, one of 69 nationwide chosen to benefit from royal patronage under the guidance of Her Royal Highness Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn.
For many novices from poor families, scripture schools are their only chance of getting an education.
Novices sit down to a meal provided by Buddhist disciples visiting the Wat Sri Muang Mang temple scripture school.
The scripture school has received government subsidies and public donations which enable it to procure school equipment, including a microscope, for the novices.
Visitors arrive at Wat Sri Muang Mang for the ‘kathin’ or robe-giving ceremony, which also raises funds for the temple school.