Buddhism in Decline: Media Narratives in Thailand

Photo via Max Pixel and used under a Creative Commons license.

By Brooke Schedneck

“In deeply religious Thailand, monks have long been revered. But badly behaved clergy, corruption scandals, and the vast wealth amassed by some temples has many asking if something is rotten at the heart of Thai Buddhism. From selfies on private jets to multimillion dollar donations from allegedly crooked businessmen, Thailand’s monks are coming under increasing fire for their embrace of commercialism.”

This quote from Delphine Thouvenot and Thanaporn Promyamyai’s Bangkok Post article from 2015 titled “Chequebook Buddhism: Threat to Buddhism in Thailand?” exemplifies the ways the media, both foreign and Thai, frequently constructs Buddhism in Thailand as existing in a state of collapse. In many opinion pieces, Buddhism is portrayed as a religion in dire need of transformation, reform, or even an entire overhaul. The highest-ranking monks, called the Sangha Council, are criticized for their weak actions and lack of power. Editorials often state that these monks’ decisions have led to Buddhist institutions’ downfall through the Council’s political meddling, lack of control over their disciples, and the Council members’ own luxurious lifestyles.

Religious institutions in crisis and the unstoppable force of modernity that have taken their place is a compelling story throughout much of Asia. But in contemporary Thailand, this narrative is especially dominant. Major media outlets covering Buddhism in Thailand, in particular English-language newspapers Bangkok Post and The Nation, and Thai newspapers, such as Matichon and Thai Rat, help to shape and reinforce Thai society’s views about the state of Thai Buddhism.

I first started to notice a penchant for extreme statements about the plight of Thai Buddhism in the media soon after I moved to Chiang Mai in 2009. After years of research and teaching in the city, this narrative has become even more frustrating: from my observations, Buddhism is hardly in decline. I have witnessed the dynamism of lay-monastic relations almost daily since I became a scholar of Buddhism in Thailand.

The media narrative is problematic not only because it’s misleading, but also because it’s harmful. What underlies this argument of a Buddhist decline is a dichotomy of extremes, which positions crass, secular modernity at one end and pure, pristine Buddhism on the other. Thai media proclaims that Buddhism should be a force against the temptations of the secular world, but instead has become caught in the grasp of modernization. These binaries are clearly too general, as mixing of religion and modernity is part of our reality.

Critics frequently cite monastic scandals as evidence for their claims of Buddhism’s excesses and corruption. Almost every day there is a new story circulating about a monk or novice monk who was seen taking a selfie, dancing in an effeminate manner, going on a diving expedition, hanging out in a coffee shop, wearing high-heels, or engaging in some other seemingly inappropriate behavior. However, major monastic scandals involving sex, drugs, and money make the biggest impact within Thai society. In 2013 everyone knew the name of monk Luang Pu Nen Kham after photos of him lying with a woman surfaced. Then, a YouTube clip of the now infamous monk showed him riding in a private jet, holding a Louis Vuitton bag and wearing designer sunglasses. Luang Pu Nen Kham embodied the image of a Thai monk who has been corrupted by modernity and become weak and unable to ignore temptation.

In this formulation, forces of modernization, urbanization, secularization, and consumerism butt up against a devout majority of peace-loving Buddhists. Media articles often write nostalgically about an idyllic past when the temple was the center of the community and Thai society followed Buddhist morality. The narrative contends that modernity has confused Thai society, causing one of the major national institutions to become unstable, if not completely broken. There is a note of loss in these pieces, and the accusation that a once devoutly Buddhist nation has strayed far off its path.

However, not all Buddhists share this perspective, and some articulate alternative viewpoints that focus on ways Buddhism can adapt with modernity while not losing sight of Buddhist teachings. Student monks at the Buddhist universities in Chiang Mai have other ways to understand this presumed threat of Buddhist decline in Thailand. In my conversations with these monks concerning the media, they did not bring up the power of modernity as a factor in Buddhism’s decline.

In a dozen conversations with student monks at two Buddhist universities in Chiang Mai, many of my interviewees responded right away to the topic of decline with a list of problems and solutions. These discussions also helped to contextualize the dominant media narratives. The monks I spoke to considered the problems in Thai Buddhism to be less dire than the media portrayal. One monk stated, “This is not the end of Buddhism, just basic problems. Buddhism is still here, no one can just take it away as if a bomb had gone off.” Through comments like this, monks distinguish between Buddhism and Buddhists. They emphasize that Buddhism is not in decline, but that the people who practice Buddhism can lose sight of the teachings. Many monks believed that it was wrong to hold up a few monks’ actions as if they reflect all of Thai Buddhism.

The young monks I spoke to understood the role of media in influencing Thai society. Another monk stated, “this [focus on inappropriate behavior] is spreading now because of all the media about monks. In the past, maybe there were also monks like this, but now everybody knows about it.” They could understand the situation of monks accused of behaving badly: “Many of these monks in the news are novice monks. They do not yet know the rules,” said one. “This is the main problem in Thai Buddhism that can be easily fixed. But some monks are naughty and do not know how to practice or follow the Vinaya [rules of the monks]. Just like in the outside world, some people are bad. It is unavoidable in monks too.” Their matter-of-fact reflections on scandals in Thai Buddhism do not invoke a nostalgic past when all monks were pure and all laypeople could look up to them.

Another problem that the monks at Chiang Mai’s Buddhist universities discussed was abuse of power among the high-ranking monastic seniors within the Buddhist hierarchy. Instead of framing the issue as monks being attracted to modernity, as the media often does, they instead explain these monks’ transgressions by referencing the Buddhist teachings. High-ranking monks are often interested in power, one monk asserted, “because they forget about the Dhamma [Buddhist teachings] and Vinaya. They intimidate their disciples and laypeople and just do what they want without thinking about the people.” The monks emphasized that while some laypeople believe that high-ranking monks are more pure, this is not always true. Instead, high-ranking monks “care about building big buildings but not building people.” These student monks believe what is most important for Buddhism in Thai society today is teaching other monks and laypeople how to become better Buddhists. They are not interested in pushing away modernity, and did not cite it as a problem.

Student monks in Chiang Mai are cautiously hopeful about the state of Buddhism in Thailand. They can see some good aspects and know the teachings are still there for those who seek them out. The situation is not quite so urgent for them, as they do not mourn for a time when Buddhism and society were more closely aligned, nor do they perceive modernity to be at odds with Buddhist teachings. They see problems with Buddhist monasticism, but emphasize that there is no problem with Buddhism itself.

Thai media and monks identify similar problems. However, monks have more nuanced explanations for these problems, why they are occurring, and how to fix them. But, as they made sure to tell me, no one is going to listen.