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Buddhism, Legitimation, and Conflict: The Political Functions of Urban Thai Buddhism Essay

Ideally, Buddhism is a religion with a huge following whereby the believers in the religion follow and interact socially with the Dharma doctrine which is basically what the Buddha taught or his way of living. Dharma is the path to attain such enlightenment and the teachings of Buddha and through the following of Buddhists traditions shows the variances in attaining Dharma and reaching enlightenment. The Buddha way of teaching is only considered helpful to individuals if it is practiced with discipline what the Buddha’s themselves called the VinayaCITATION Jac07 p 44 l 1033 (Jackson 44). The understanding of Buddhism is expressed by the acts of those who abide unwillingly to the apparition of Dharma-Vinaya and preach its beliefs to the masses. Like many other religions, Buddhists have multiple sects and traditions. In essence, the ultimate goal for all Buddhists is to attain enlightenment. Theraveda Buddhism accounts for nearly ninety five percent of the population in Thailand and this shows just how much Buddhism more than any other religion is influential in Thailand. In the long history of the existence of Thailand, the citizens seem to have been predominantly Buddhist by religion at least from the moment they were acquainted with it. Current historical records show that all the previous kings of Thailand were adherents of Buddhism. Most notable is the fact that the Thai constitution clearly states that a Thai King must be a Buddhist and as a result, must be the ultimate upholder of Buddhism.

Theravada School of Buddhism has been one of the three major forces that have influence in the country. Despite the existence of substantial regional and local variations, the major themes of Buddhism in Thailand are provided by the Theravada schoolCITATION Mac07 p 87 l 1033 (Mackenzie 87). Traditionally, Pali is the language of religion in Thailand as evidenced by the fact that the scriptures are recorded in Pali through the older Tham and Khom scripts or the modern Thai script. As the primary religious Thai text, Pali is also used in religious rite despite the little number of Thai citizens who understand it.

Hindu beliefs from Cambodia also serves are a significant influence on Buddhism in Thailand especially during the Sukothai period. The Thai kingship institution was largely influenced by Vedic Hinduism just as it did in Cambodia which as a result exerted influence in the creation of law and order in the society and religion of Thailand. There are certain rituals that are still practiced in modern Thailand by monks or specialists in Hindu rituals that can clearly be related to Hind practices or of Hindu origin. Essentially, Hindu influence can still be seen within Buddhist ceremonies and institutions in Thailand despite the fact that the visibility of Hinduism within Thai society has diminished significantly during the Chakri DynastyCITATION Suk10 p 34 l 1033 (Suksamran 34).

Folk religion is the third major influence on Thai Buddhism as seen in the Buddhist rituals and precepts that are used in trying to appease the local spirits. Although the Thais who have received Western education often tend to define the line between practices of folk religion and Thai Buddhism, this is quite a gray area given the practices of the rural locales.

An in-depth analysis of these three influences can clearly be traced through the current development and practices within the political system of Thailand. One of the most striking things that one notices upon arrival in Thailand is the magnificent Buddhist temple with its exquisite architecture coupled with the sight of monks and novices in yellow clad especially in the wee hours of the day. This sight serves as an inevitable reminder to both residents and foreigners of the dominance of Buddhism in the Thai nation

Despite the fact that Thailand currently exists as a constitutional monarchy, its political system is quite a reflection of the string Southeast Asian tradition of Buddhist supremacy nature that link the legitimacy of the government to its support and protection for Buddhist institutions. This link has progressed into the modern era as seen in cases where Buddhist clergy and institutions are given special treatment by the Thai government as well as being subjected to a special government oversightCITATION Jac07 p 90 l 1033 (Jackson 90).

Besides the cleric leadership of the Sangha, Buddhist temples and monks in Thailand are supervised by a profane government ministry. Good examples of these occurrences have been seen in the legal state of reform movements and Buddhist sects. For example , the case of Santi Asoke received legal prohibition from referring to itself as a Buddhist denomination and in the prosecution of monks who have been persecuted in the case of ordaining women by trying to revive lineage of the Theravada bhikkhuni and in so doing tried to impersonate clergy members hence their demiseCITATION Mac07 p 111 l 1033 (Mackenzie 111). A further examination of the Buddhist ways reveals certain themes and guidelines in the religious teachings of Buddha. The Srakakayana literally translates as the disciples. This is important to the Thai faith because as Buddhists listen to the teachings of Buddha and practice the teachings therefore becoming disciples. They thus listen to the text and scriptures then they can find their way to salvation. Generally, this concentration allows them to realize Dharma through listening and practicing.

For a monk in Thailand to obtain a passport in order to travel abroad, one must have a Buddhist monk identification card, an official letter granting the permission to travel outside Thailand from the Sangha Supreme Council, any initial Thai passport or a certified equivalent thereof and a copy of House Registration. Beside these insurmountable acts of state recognition and support from the Thai state like the official gifts to monasteries from officials within the royal family and the government , Buddhist monks have quite a number of special rights bestowed upon them. Buddhist monks have access to free public transportation in airports and train stations where they often have special seating allocations. There is no law that directly forbids members of Buddhist institutions like monks and nuns from being candidates in the enrollment for recruitment as government officers. However, both the Sangha Supreme Council which serves as the supervising agency for Thai Buddhist communities and the Council of Ministers have placed such prohibition in cases of appropriateness in accordance with the Memorandum of the Administrative Department of the CabinetCITATION Suk10 p 127 l 1033 (Suksamran 127) . On the contrary, it is a crime for ordained monastic to stand for office or vote in elections. No member of the Buddhist community or other religious communities is entitled to either elect or be elected for any government position. The Thai constitution disfranchises a monk, novice, clergy member or priest of Buddhist religion from holding any government post. In addition, any member who is elected as a representative will lose membership upon becoming a Buddhist monk, nun or clergy. This illustrates a clear fact that Buddhist members are not in any way appropriate for Thai politics. The existence of Buddhists members like monks and nuns highly depends on the respect of the public and as a result, society expects them to behave in a way that calls for respect for the entire public and not a specific affiliate communityCITATION Jac07 p 221 l 1033 (Jackson 221). Any involvement by a Buddhist member either in support or participation of an election is considered a breach of the unusual conduct of the law and the Buddhist member is considered to have disgraced his religion, community as well as himself. Thus failure of monk or nun to uphold these stipulated rules is ground enough for them to condemned, disrespected and balked at in various ways.

Since 2007 there have been several calls by Thai Buddhists to acquire recognition within the new constitution of Thailand as a state religion. Initially, this suggestion received rejection from the committee that was responsible for drafting the new constitution which consequently triggered quite a number of protests from those who supported the initiative such as a hunger strike by twelve of the Buddhist monk and various protest marches within the capital of ThailandCITATION Mac07 p 210 l 1033 (Mackenzie 210). Opponents of the plan, including Sulak Sivaraksa who is a renowned Thai social critic and scholar, did so based on claims that political gain is the driving force behind the call to declare Buddhism as a national religion and that it may have manipulated by the Thai supported Thaksin Sinawatra who had just been ousted as the country’s Prime Minister. As expected the Committee drafting the constitution later on failed to vote in support of the special status of Buddhism and in so doing provoked intense reaction from religious groups which criticized the committee for being impartial to religious affiliates. The issue also caught the attention of the Queen of Thailand who raised concerns over the matter and on her birthday, she delivered a speech through which she highlighted the notion that Buddhism goes way beyond politics.

The reclusive politics of Thailand is in complete upheaval. The Sangha can no longer be dismissed as political force and simply perceived as a legitimacy fount for the country and for the monarchy. The role played by hundreds of monks in ProThaksin redshirts between March and May of 2010 are a clear proof of the growing apprehension within Buddhism. However, beyond these intense displays of complete lack of satisfaction, an important fact is the Buddhism and in this case the Sangha, faces quite a number of serious challenges. From a Buddhist perspective, the solution of Thailand’s approach to Buddhism is twofold. First and foremost, there should be a link between Buddhist base communities in Thailand to create a relatively decentralized society that can thereafter serve as a model for religion. The second solution lays in the attainment of a society that is more just on a national level through fighting for political reforms steered by Buddhist thinkers. The newly established Thai constitution that includes a democratic process that is reformed with a balance of power and structural check serves as a stepping stone towards structural change within Thailand’s political system.


Jackson , Peter A. Buddhism, Legitimation, and Conflict: The Political Functions of Urban Thai Buddhism. Bangkok: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 2007.

Mackenzie, Rory . New Buddhist Movements in Thailand: Towards an Understanding of Wat Phra Dhammakaya and Santi Asoke. New York: Routledge, 2007.

Suksamran, Somboon . Buddhism and Politics in Thailand: A Study of Socio-political Change and Political Activism of the Thai Sangha. Bangkok: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 2010.

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