- Keeping the Faith: Thai Buddhism at the Crossroads (review)
- Sojourn: Journal of Social Issues in Southeast Asia
- ISEAS–Yusof Ishak Institute
- Volume 18, Number 1, April 2003
- pp. 154-159
- View Citation
- Additional Information
SOJOURNVoL 18, No. 1 (2003), pp, 154-70 Book Reviews Keeping the Faith: Thai Buddhism at the Crossroads. By Sanitsuda Ekachai. Edited by Nick Wilgus. Bangkok: Post Books, 2002. 328 pp. Sanitsuda Ekachai's new book is a collection ofshort, critical articles and commentaries on various aspects of contemporary Thai Buddhism, arranged under eight sub-headings with a short introduction. An appealing feature ofthis ensemble is that "other" voices are heard with reader-friendly and short, insightful comments over debates concerning the relevance and place of contemporary Thai Buddhism, especially monasticism. The author uses few words and some broad brush strokes to consttuct some extraordinarily vivid frames ofeveryday religious life in Buddhist Thailand. In reviewing a book such as this on Thai Buddhism, we need to ask ourselves what this religion is, which is not always lived in accordance with the texts that most Thais seem to follow and identify with to some extent. The imagination, itselfa social fact, is important as a means of informing the way we think, feel and act, in this case in relation to religion. It also accounts for the many expressions ofThai Buddhism that we see around us. Perhaps also these days we need to venture outside the monasteries to experience living religion and what it means in the consttuction ofeveryday contemporary life in the villages, towns, and cities. Lest we forget, Thailand is still one of the few remaining Buddhist countties where the Arahant (self-accomplished "saint") ideal — and its liberating possibilities — remains alive and well in the collective imagination. Not so any longei for the wellspiing of Theravada Buddhism, Sri Lanka, and doubtful in neighbouring Burma, Cambodia, and Laos. Ir seems ro me rhar many Thais are now asking Book Reviews155 the question: ifthese "acclaimed" exemplars or monastic teachers are still around, where are they to be found? Modern Buddhists would seem to claim that what is needed these days is a system of standardization as a requirement for continued monastic registration. Imagine, ifyou will, a situation in this period of globalization where each monastery (and monks), like many businesses in Thailand, would carry an "ISO" classification engraved over the front gate; for those "good monasteries" able to show that they have adhered to "best-practice standards". But, more seriously, who would determine what is "best practice" — monks or laity? As an exptession ofdiversity, Thai monasticism, we are told, needs to recognize the contribution ofmonk-activists engaged in this world, in as much as it recognizes the normative spiritual achievement of the reclusive, disengaged meditative "Path" questers (to be found among the remaining forest enclaves). This is certainly a theological mute point. These modern activist-exemplars are to be found in urban monasteries, places of teaching and learning, various refuges, rural community centres, conservation sites, and hospices. Importantly, as the author says, while encouraging a worldly engagement we should not forget the allimportant questions ofmonastic discipline. In the past decade or so we have been overwhelmed by media accounts ofserious monastic infringements, abuses ofmonastic privilege and power. These are the "other" images ofThai Buddhism that are not usually affixed to either glossy tourist brochures and postcards to send back home, or media representations, circulated and consumed widely through both print and electronic media (Thai and English). These images have not been favourable to defining a respectable "place" for Buddhism in modern Thai society. At this point we may ask ourselves, what, ifanything, has gone wrong with Thai Buddhism in recent times? Or has the media had a greater influence than we realize? There is not much talk around about "good monks", as these persons are in any case hardly "newsworthy" (unless the reader believes there are no exemplary practising monks left any more — which I do not believe, and death/ neither does the author — though we may differ on what constitutes an "ideal" monk). 156Book Reviews Sanitsuda Ekachai attempts to capture this complexity, while at the same time show us that there are "other" religious possibilities, mainly from the social interstices. At the same time the author shares the concerns of many educated Thais in suggesting that Thai Buddhism needs to be linked to the wider processes ofdemocratic reform so that internal...