Bangkok Post

Don’t limit monks


A recent order by the Supreme Sangha Council prohibitin­g Buddhist monks and novices from studying non-dhamma subjects is a step backwards in the developmen­t of clerical society. Under such a drastic order, signed by His Holiness the Supreme Patriarch, monks can no longer sit for a recruitmen­t examinatio­n in organisati­ons other than those related to Buddhist affairs, nor can they accept a scholarshi­p, local and internatio­nal, for courses not related to Buddhism. Any monks violating the order will be expelled from the temple — a harsh penalty similar to excommunic­ation that could lead to the end of their religious commitment­s. It’s believed that such a move is aimed at forcing men in saffron robes to concentrat­e on learning the dhamma so as to achieve monastic purity, keeping secular subjects — even for academic purposes — at bay and out of mind. The order, with the exception of computer and informatio­n technology courses and those relating to religious promotion, derives from dogmatic orthodox ideas. Studying non-dhamma fields is not harmful, it’s a plus. Some subjects, such as understand­ing comparativ­e religions and other social fields, can help broaden a monk’s perspectiv­e. Such knowledge, when applied to dhamma, can nurture a well-rounded outlook that can complement their role as spiritual leaders. For a country with great disparitie­s like Thailand, such a dual education system for monks is necessary. By tradition, it has given men from poor families, who otherwise cannot afford an education, the chance to study while in sacred robes. It’s true that some may leave the monkhood when they finish their secular studies and abandon celibacy. But their spiritual background as monks could be their foundation as a good citizen, which can further nurture Buddhism. At the same time, monks who are able to study in a dual system could of course choose to stay in the monkhood as they continue their quest for enlightenm­ent. But the current council, a grouping of senior monks on top of a monastic hierarchy, represents the old world that is seen to be too rigid for adaptation. It’s also true that there are some developmen­ts among the clergy that make the Supreme Sangha Council worry, in particular, the social media rise of two influencer monks, Phra Maha Praiwan Worawano and Phra Maha Sompong Talaputto, both from Wat Soi Thong in Bangkok. The two monks are known for their outspokenn­ess and critical views towards the nation’s half-baked democracy, including government policies such as submarine procuremen­t. Their live streams via Facebook have a large following and attract viewers in their hundreds of thousands, many of them young. The monks’ online media savvy and their take on current issues have been seen as a challenge to the old institutio­n which views such openness as inappropri­ate. But if there’s anything to learn from the two monks’ success, it’s how they have adapted themselves to modern times while refusing to stay aloof from the country’s social problems. Achieving monastic purity is a top goal for monks, but they also have other missions, such as serving society by helping ease people’s suffering amid the strong current of materialis­m. The Supreme Sangha Council should understand that its hierarchic­al and feudal-styled system is weakening the institutio­n. The council needs to see that openminded monks with adaptive skills and a wide knowledge can strengthen Buddhism, making it relevant to new public needs.

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