Buddhist Social Engagement – Lessons from Thailand

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An interesting article in the Bangkok Post, ‘Misbehaving monks need reform, too’. Though the article asks a number of questions, Sanitsuda Ekachai raises some fascinating issues particularly when compared to the situation in Burma:

‘Which raises the question of where propriety lies – not only for monks, but also for people who call themselves Buddhists. Many protesters pride themselves as devout Buddhists, yet they think nothing is wrong with some of the poisonous speeches of hate and ill-will that dominate the anti-government rallies.’

This is very similar to the speeches in Burma, which Venerable Candima, a Burmese monk, has recently commented on:

‘He (U Wirathu, any monastic making such pronouncements) has spoken to cause misunderstanding and cause a divide between national leaders and its citizens. It has to be said that a monk has committed one of the four unwholesome verbal actions.’

The Bangkok Post Article continues:

‘The red-shirt rallies are not any better, but at least they have not claimed to be “good” people. Buddhism teaches tolerance and inter-relatedness of all beings. What kind of Buddhists are we – red, yellow, or in between – to support violent speeches and violent acts to purge the objects of someone’s hatred from the face of the Earth?

Back to the monks. Their political activism is quite mild compared with their peers in other Buddhist countries. We don’t see monks burning themselves like in Tibet or openly inciting violence against ethnic minorities as in Myanmar. When Thai monks took to the streets a few years ago, the aim was not to better society, but to preserve the status quo and strengthen their old power base.

Make Buddhism the national religion, they demanded. Fortunately, it fell flat.’

Clearly, Burma and Thailand are comparable in many ways – and there are many lessons to be learned from the problematic nuances of Buddhist monastics being socially engaged, of striving for political change, and indeed of having political views. Should a Buddhist monk really advise people who to vote for?

Thanks to Justin Meiland for suggesting the Bangkok Post article to me.

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