New Buddhist Movements In Southeast Asia Cultural Studies Essay

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In recent times, there has been an increase in the growth of new Buddhist movements emerging from the conservative Buddhist traditions in Southeast Asia. These new movements represent a clear shift away from the conventional way of thinking about Buddhism and whilst they keep the main framework and important aspects of the Buddhist tradition, a distinct feature is that they offer a new way of looking at old subjects and practices. There are many reasons for the increase in new Buddhist movements, namely, a desire to 'move with the times' and be a progressive culture. The influence and consequences of colonial interference and the general Western presence both contribute to the need to develop the tradition. The "overthrow of the absolute monarchy" in 1932 was also an upheaval for the country's hierarchical system politically and religiously (Hewison,1997,p.11). This loss, which could be seen as a colonial consequence, left the authority within the culture to be unofficially divided between the sangha community and the political system. Santi Asok is one example of a new Buddhist movement that has grown out of a Theravada Buddhist Thai context and shows clearly where the current form of the conventional and traditional aspects of Theravada have been altered, in this case, act as a return to a more original and arguably simple tradition, a focus on self-sufficiency, for example, (Cantwell & Kawanami, 2002,p.54). The Theravada practiced most widely has been questioned by some people, for instance, the monks who have chosen to form their own movements in response to dissatisfaction with this version of Buddhism being practiced. Peter A. Jackson describes the founder of Santi Asok movement, Phra Phothirak as a "controversial reformist monk" (1989,p.159) and his movement as providing "a clear demonstration of the fundamental practical and organisational incompatibility between middle-class reformist Buddhism and the establishment form of the religion controlled by the sangha hierarchy"(1989,p.159). The fact that a level of incompatibility between people's perception of religion and its role in society and the hard fact that there is an element of corruption in some places and strong links to political parties meant that it was unavoidable that new reformist movements should appear. Santi Asok both seeks to change the way Buddhism is practised in Thailand for a better society and also to see a return to the way they believe Buddhism was intended, with close adherence to the precepts. This juxtaposition of the traditional and reform represents an increasingly popular aspect of modern Buddhist movements.

As Jackson suggests in Buddhism, Legitimation and Conflict, "Buddhism and Thailand is not only structured by the official state-imposed system of the sangha administration" but is "patterned by a complex and fluid system of unofficial relations between the Buddhist laity and individual monks and monasteries" (1989,p.115). This interdependence and connection of the laity and the monks maintains a strong Buddhist presence in everyday life for the common people which keeps Buddhism grounded in its original form. This traditional version of Buddhism saw a community of monks that were fully detached from the outside world and living a pious religious life. However, in the context of Thailand, many scholars, including Jackson, had argued that there has been an increase in a more politicised Buddhism, where some monks are known to have political allegiances or the Sangha itself having strong connections to state institutions. Jackson further this by suggesting that the "state-promoted image of Thai Buddhism as a…unifying national force, is…a façade…created by the force of state domination and control of the sangha administration" (1989,p.7-8). He claims that the study of "urban Buddhist movements and their lay audiences" are as integral as study of the "formal state-sangha relations" and that it is important in the context and understanding of "contemporary Thai Buddhism" (1989,p.116). This split between the two forms of Buddhism has primarily come about due to the Sangha's connection and involvement in state affairs, which both goes against the idea of detachment but also is not entirely always pro-active for the Buddhist lay people. It is through this separation that Jackson argues that there are "two mechanisms" by which a monk could find himself dissatisfied with the current culture of Thai Buddhism and decide to form a new movement or way of practising Buddhism. He goes on to suggest that one key feature of this following is that the monk relates specifically to a particular group or class of people and by doing so ensures their support by producing features that are geared towards them. Jackson describes this process as the "conscious development of an outlook on Buddhism specifically tailored to the requirements of one group" (1989,p.117). This "conscious tailoring of a system of teaching and practice to a specific target audience" is a common feature in most of the "larger religious movements sponsored by both the establishment and the middle class" (Jackson,1989,p.117). Jackson argues that this feature is more important to the more right-wing monks who are "supportive of the establishment (1989,p.117) than others. He also suggests that "espousing conservative interpretations of Buddhist doctrine and …cultivating the …support of influential patrons" secures favour (1989,p.17). The second way in which a target audience is gained is through the "less explicitly political approach of attempting to develop "relevant" interpretations of the religion" (Jackson,1989,p.118). "Many Thai monks and lay people are concerned to prevent the decay of the teachings, practises and traditional institutional relations of Thai Buddhism in the face of rapid socio-economic change" (Jackson,1989,p.118). This shows the significance of the more pious traditional form of Buddhism, as close to how it was originally practiced as possible, in the wave of new movements. It is the idea that the "perceived threat of social change to the traditional place of Buddhism in Thai society" needs urgent address and is of concern to many people, in both monastic and lay communities (Jackson, 1989,p.118). This fear is assuaged with the development of "interpretations of doctrine and approaches to religious practice which attempt to demonstrate the value and relevance of the religion" to aspects of modernity such as "contemporary beliefs, patterns of life and work, and institutional structures" (Jackson,1989,p.118).

In relation to the new Buddhist movement Santi Asok , founded in 1970 by Phra Phothirak, this idea of designing a movement to appeal to a certain group of people moves away from the traditional forms of Buddhism. In the context of Theravada Buddhism from which Santi Asok was born, the idea of modifying ideas, practices or culture to fit a group of lay people was unacceptable as Amore and Ching write, the "Theravada tradition was conservative, as its name suggests, and considers that it preserves Buddhism in its original form" (2002,p. 227). This arguably inflexible and resistant form of Buddhism, in the context of time and demographical region of Southeast Asia specifically Thailand, could be seen as partially responsible for the growth in new movements. The influences of modernity's progress and with it the majority of laity being exposed to it, could be seen to lead to this era of change. However, Santi Asok concentrates on a return to the original way of Buddhism in an attempt to re-establish the religious practice and culture as the Buddha wanted. Despite the appeals of modern thinking in some new Buddhist movements, another important appeal is the direction of some movements to re-establish the traditional way of Buddhism. The problem of possibly corrupt Sangha institutions or individuals has become a major concern for many people, both lay and monastic followers. It could be suggested that this "disenchantment" (Cantwell & Kawanami,2002,p.54) in the existing type of Buddhism by default gives favour to the new Buddhist movements. In addition, because of this lack of faith in certain areas of the traditional religious culture, the number of laity seeking a more pure and pious form of Buddhism to follow and practice thus committing themselves to or being open to new Buddhist movements, even if they simply want a return to a more monastic lifestyle. Therefore, the disappointment in the established practice of Buddhism also serves as an appeal for the new Buddhist movements as the bad feeling towards one form produces a reaction to and possible support for new types. The idea that new Buddhist movements could provide the laity with what they were lacking with the traditional culture and promote a move away from the old with either focus on a return to origins and strict adherence or a modernised version including female rights and equality . Furthermore, the fact that the target audiences and followers for some new movement is a middle-class one could imply that the movements are geared towards classes that have stereotypically more access to education and freedom. This is seen in the monk Buddhadasa's "interpretation of canonical texts" that "attracted an educated elite" and consequently an "ideological base for contemporary Buddhist activism" (Cantwell and Kawanami,2002,p.54).

New Buddhist movements containing an element of political activism is also a defining feature as well as an appeal for many followers. Santi Asok "manifested as a sectarian protest movement" that grew in public knowledge and influence in Thailand by "repeatedly criticising the national Sangha" (Cantwell & Kawanami,2002,p.54). This reformist identity defined the fundamental aspects of the movement. The core elements of "hard work and stoical discipline, frugal communal living and agricultural self-sufficiency" were favoured over the existing traditional ritualistic practices (Cantwell and Kawanami,2002,p.54). This shift away from the Buddhism widely practiced in Thailand was seen as a "radical moral critique of contemporary Thai society and the Sangha by living an alternative lifestyle" (Cantwell & Kawanami,2002,p.54). This shows another favourable aspect of the Santi Asok movement as people who have become disillusioned with the political society or religious culture can find alternative groups within Thai society to be affiliated with; this level of increasing choice and freedom coming about with the growth of new expressions and forms of traditional ideas.

It could be argued that the causes of such changes in thinking and the practice of the traditional Buddhism of Thailand came about, for a main part, in response to the "diminished" public opinion of the Sangha in Thailand due to the "close relationship between the government, military, big business and the Sangha" (Cantwell & Kawanami,2002,p.54). To fully appreciate the features and appeals of new Buddhist movements they must be viewed in relation to the context of Thailand; its history, culture and religious practice. Buddhadasa was one of the "most important religious reformers in the twentieth century" and "integrated modernist rationalism and a distinctive forest tradition" (Cantwell & Kawanami,2002,p.54). The Forest tradition was an important feature of Santi Asok and a great interest of Phra Phothirak. His emphasis on the "ascetic practices of the forest monks" and the "influence of the dhutanga practices" led to specific features of his movement such as wearing the robes "associated with forest monks" not "most Thai monks"(Jackson,1989,p.160). Other strictly adhered to disciplines that were characterisations of Santi Asok, were being a vegetarian, for example, a subject on which Phra Photirak criticised non-conforming monks as not being "pure Buddhists (Jackson,1989,p.160). The notion of a firmly ascetic movement gained popularity in some groups and represented a new way of religion, even though it was characteristically a traditional form. It was due to the decreasing public attitudes towards the main authorities within society, "urban middle class lay activists and students" in the 1970's formed these new Buddhist movements primarily to "forces the Sangha to overcome corruption and assert religious leadership" (Cantwell & Kawanamai,2002,p.54)

There are many features of new Buddhist movements that, in a Thai and Theravada context specifically but a Southeast Asia one more broadly, differ from Buddhist aspects elsewhere. Taking into account the environment in which these movements were born is important as it highlights the shifts in political, social and religious cultures specific to Thai Buddhism. It is from these contrasts between the Buddhism currently practiced on a wide scale, and almost universally accepted within Thailand, and the comparatively new movements that show how the affects of a progressive world juxtapose with the adherence to this ancient religion. It could then be argued that the "interactions with modernity" are a major contributing factor in this flourish of new Buddhist movements and that combined with the response to "colonialism" and Western ideas has led to an influx in new interpretations or a change in the way of practicing some aspects of traditional Buddhism (Cantwell & Kawanami,2002,p.50). One of the major changes in relation to Southeast Asia is the rise of the "nation state" and as a consequence "education and welfare have ceased to be the exclusive preserve of religion, while patronage by kings and religious patrons has been lost" (Cantwell Kawanami,2002,p.50). As a result of this, the Sangha were expected to maintain some stability whilst being "under increasing pressure to guide the public" into this modern world and it was because of these factors that "Buddhist activists" gained "unprecedented importance in new Buddhist movements of a reformist and modernist hue" (Cantwell & Kawanami,2002,p.50).