Social pressures, echoes of corruption hamper an age-old religion
To tourists, Thailand is the most religious of countries, with 92 percent of Thais officially deemed to follow the state religion. The king must be a Buddhist, with Buddhist rituals enwrapped within royal ceremonies amid some of the most spectacular religious architecture in the world, which as much as anything gives the country its national character.
It is a religion that seemingly permeates the very fiber of the country. Wrongdoers repair to the monkhood to atone. Buddhist artefacts adorn government buildings. Young males are expected to spend three months as novice monks. Thais can be seen every morning, giving alms to monks along the roadside to the tinkling of bells around all parts of the country.
Falling out of favor
But visits to most of the nation’s 40,000 temples, or wats, that dot the countryside outside the tourist district find them empty, with many now only peopled by one or two monks. Some smaller ones don’t even have a monk in attendance. Wats in suburban areas and villages now tend to cater for funerals as the primary activity with other buildings on site having fallen into disrepair, due to lack of use.
It is hardly just Buddhism. The forces of modernity, especially aided and abetted by the shortening of attention spans and the need for entertainment engendered by social media play a major role, with the major media outlets preoccupied with the decline of religion. But while academicians and scholars say the decline is superficial, in fact it is real. The temples were once the social center of their communities, where families congregated.
However, growing prosperity and the ability of families to travel elsewhere for entertainment have led to a severe drop in their use. They held fun fairs and took in travelers. Monks offered advice to people within the community and held morning and evening prayers. Novices would reside in the wat, learning under senior clergy who taught them dharma, the nature of reality regarded as a universal truth taught by the Buddha in an age-old ritual.
These activities have declined dramatically. There has been a marked fall in the number of youths becoming novices, and a distinct plunge in the number of people going to wats for retreats. Those who actually perform the novice ceremony only stay for one to 15 days, rather than the traditional three months. Many stay fewer than 24 hours.
The pandemic sped up this decline
During the Covid-19 pandemic, many wats closed their doors to the public and remained in isolation. No one could leave or enter, for as long as two years in some cases. However, after the pandemic, numbers are not rising back to those before the pandemic.
I have spoken to a number of monks over the last few months as the wats have reopened. Ajarn (teacher) Sun, a monk based in the southern coastal resort area of Krabi, said that older people have who used to frequent his wat have been generally hesitant to return to meditation and dharma retreats, out of fear of the pandemic.
Ajarn Wan, from Chumphon, a bucolic province on the Gulf of Thailand, elaborated on the issue, saying those returning to the wats are usually those who seek blessings to change their fortune. Others look for assistance in finding a partner, or even resolving some form of problem. They make short visits, seek assistance, give a donation and leave. Wat Chedi in Nakhon Si Thammarat Province, nearly 800 km south of Bangkok, is full during weekends and public holidays, especially with families who seek additions to their family or blessings for their businesses.
Even the teachings of the legendary Buddhadasa Bhikkhu in Sun Moke, Surat Thani, who regarded ritualism and hierarchy in Buddhism as misguided and preached a rationalist perspective of spiritual growth, have almost disappeared for the monastery.
A big disconnect with the younger generation
However, it’s the younger generation who are noticeably staying away. This demographic is abandoning Buddhism. Ajarn Akae from Surat Thani said the young have other, more interesting pursuits. Even if they do come, they soon get bored and just stop doing the activity and walk off. Ajarn Akae said it is extremely difficult to teach those with very short attention spans. The young appear to be addicted to phone apps, Akae said — although they are physically present, their attention and spirit are far away. They are not interested in learning Dharma.
A major reason is the institutionalization of Buddhism under the current government, with corruption, alcohol, drug trafficking, sex scandals and wealth amassed by a few scamming monks turning off the young. Media coverage of scandalous monks has not helped the reputation of the Sangha, the supreme council.
The regime headed Prayuth Chan-ocha did in 2017 try in vain to clean up the clergy. The former army chief tackled issues of corruption, but has ignored other social issues related to Thailand’s wats. The Sangha is a powerful organization, even for the Thai miliary to tackle.
Selflessness, as taught by the Dharma is the nemesis of the material society in which the young today live. Ajarn Akae said he has given up trying to teach Gen-Z the Dharma. It is impossible to lower their ego and get through to them.
Some monks, trying to reach out to Gen-Z through social media have used Tik Tok to post selfies and other attention-seeking antics, such as drinking in coffee shops, which appear to have all backfired. The only thing some are interested in is finding methods that will make them attractive to others, said Ajarn Akae. People want to be popular, and pass their exams.
The only youth groups who visit wats are school groups. However, in places like Wat Suan Moke in Surat Thani, school excursions now only tend to focus on seeing the exhibits there, rather than learning Dharma and meditation. These are superficial. Teachers report that overnight stays within the wat precinct lead to fraternizing between students, which is a major issue in temple compounds. One monk said that looking after these groups is becoming tiresome and not worth the effort, as there appears to be no intention on the part of the students to learn anything.
Wats are dumping grounds for the elderly
Wats are now becoming the dumping grounds of unwanted elderly. Many are taken the temples, settled in by their children and either sparingly visited or abandoned. Many wats are filled with people suffering from dementia or Alzheimer’s, with no one to care for them.
Thailand will soon be in a situation where some wats may be totally abandoned, the monks say. The government can do little, as many are set up through family foundations, and thus on private land. The general disrepair of buildings can be clearly seen. Smaller wats with few donations can do nothing to repair them. It is difficult for monks, who many are elderly themselves to maintain these wats, built upon two or three hectares or more.
The top-end, well-known wats, where well known monks are in residence, are engaged in massive building programs, financed by the donations of daily visitors, and other wealthy donors. These wats know they must build attractions to bring in donors. People tend to come to them for blessings for good fortune, rather than any spiritual enrichment.
According to another monk, who didn’t want his identity known, some monks play on guilt to garner large donations from the middle-upper Thai class. There are no mechanisms to share some of this donation money to smaller wats in need.
New spiritual centers on the block
There is one growth area in Thai Buddhism. Specialized forest meditation centers are springing up as an alternative. More comfortable than basic wats, the middle classes are attracted to them. Monks and lay people at these facilities tend to teach Dharma and meditation using modern techniques that connect with their followers. With more than 300 of these centers, and with more opening, they tend to be booked out well in advance for weekend retreats.
Originally published in the Asia Sentinel 25th October 2022