Buddhist-Christian Studies 23 (2003) 181-183
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Keeping the Faith: Thai Buddhism at the Crossroads. By Sanitsuda Ekachai. Edited by Nick Wilgus. Bangkok: Post Books, 2001. 192 pp.
Sanitsuda Ekachai, editorial columnist and features section editor of the Bangkok Post, writes this book in the Menckanian tradition of muckraking journalism. A collection of columns from the past decade, the book has an angry goal—the reform of a corrupt Thai Buddhist sangha. Somehow, however, the author manages to accomplish the task without an angry or bitter tone. One suspects that this is because she has the goods. In thirty-six short features and twenty-one even shorter editorials, Ekachai paints a damning picture of a corrupt Theravada Buddhist sangha that has lost touch with both its religious tradition and its lay constituency.
She presents overwhelming evidence of the corruption. She tells several well-publicized stories of sexual scandals involving bhikkhus and mentions a dozen more. She carefully tallies the possessions of rich bhikkhus and richer temples. She makes clear the unrepentant patriarchy of the authoritarian Buddhist hierarchy and reminds us of the un-Buddhist character of a sangha that will not allow the ordination of bhikkhunis. And she argues that the root cause of much of this drifting from Buddhist ideals is a buying into the consumerism that has gripped much of modern Thai culture.
This last point—consumerism—is important. If the book has a theme—always a tall order for a collection of articles—it is the economic enslavement of Thai culture and the sangha to capitalistic values. Of course, the West is the culprit here. Since Thailand, strictly speaking, has never been colonialized, the West managed to corrupt Thailand (or Siam as some prefer) simply by being in the area. As one of Ekachai's key informants, Sulak Sivaraksha succinctly put it, "Siam is culturally and intellectually colonized because the country identifies itself closely with the West" (161). [End Page 181]
A close second as a theme, however, is patriarchy. Patriarchy, not Buddhism, is the root of the gender imbalance in the sangha. The Buddha embraced (a bit reluctantly to be sure) the order of bhikkhunis and made it clear his reluctance was an upayic or strategic matter, not a question of the spiritual status of women. Women are as able as men when Enlightenment is the question. Patriarchy is also at the root of Thailand's shameful sex industry—one in thirty women in Thailand is a prostitute. The culture is at fault here, a culture that sees women as objects rather than persons.
Sivaraksha ties consumerism and patriarchy together when he says, "In a consumer society, the seeking for endless sensory pleasures and possessions has become the ultimate quest while Buddhism teaches about letting go" (75). The combination of testosterone-blocking celibacy and baht- driven greed has been too much for the modern bhikkhus of Thailand.
Not all bhikkhus, however. Ekachai's book rises above the level of pure muckraking through the simple expedient of offering hope. She tells a dozen or more stories of enlightened (small "e") bhikkhus who are taking steps at reform. By "ordaining" (and thereby protecting) endangered trees in a forest. By teaching the dhamma instead of occultism. By showing economic restraint in the face of runaway rapaciousness. These are inspiring stories of bhikkhus named Buddhadasa, Dhammapitika, Udompatanakorn, Kutajitto, Supajarawat,Visalo, and Kabilsingh. Hope is personalized in these reformers.
Reading between the lines, one can imagine a response to Ekachai's overwhelming case: the traditional Thai sangha is organized to serve rural village folk. Although the traditional village still exists in Thailand, it is becoming an endangered species in the face of the urbanized juggernaut. The sangha simply hasn't discovered the keys to reaching a changed constituency. Reading between the lines, one suspects that the author would wholeheartedly agree with this defense. Only she wouldn't consider it a defense but a reason, and a well-known reason at that. Her rejoinder would be that the current leadership must know it is out of touch, but still refuses any move...