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Orange-robed and shaven-headed monks making their early morning alms rounds, families visiting temples to make merit, shrines outside almost every building; Thailand certainly appears to be a country built on well-established religious faith, but just how strong are those beliefs?

There is genuine concern in the Kingdom of Thailand that one of the very pillars on which the whole nation is built could be eroding from neglect and abuse.

On November 24, 2007, The Bangkok Post reported from a study by Associate Professor Channarong Boonnoom of Silpakorn University that the number of monks per capita in Thailand was falling markedly. What wasn’t mentioned was that even the monks who ordain tend to serve a fraction of the time that their fathers served.

Assoc. Prof. Channarong claimed that in 1963 there were 237,770 monks in Thailand, which had a total population of 28.07 million. This equated to one monk for every 118 lay people. By 2006, the number of monks had risen to 313,267. However, as Thailand’s population had rocketed to 62 million, this represented a much lower ratio of only one monk for every 200 lay people.

In the past, boys would join the monk-hood soon after their 20th birthday and serve 2-year apprentices. This was deemed a great honour for the family and completed the transition for the young monk on his journey from boy to man. These days, there is still great honour for the family to have their kin don the orange robes, but the 3-month apprenticeship has been severely reduced to a mere 2 weeks, and in some cases a solitary week is enough!!!

Monks who do enrol tend to treat their abstinence from all worldly possessions as a guideline rather than a strict rule, judging by the number of them wandering amidst pirates at Thailand’s leading technology mall, Panthip Plaza.

I decided to conduct my own research and spoke at length with a good friend who is a time-served Thai monk. He told me how he had joined almost 50 full-time monks and 2 other novices for a 2-week stint at a temple near his home. It was Buddhist Lent just after his 20th birthday and he had joined up to make his family proud of him.

His day would begin at 5am when he would embark on his daily alms rounds. Being at a temple near his home meant that this task was relatively easy as he would take a boat to his family home, where his mother and aunts would proudly fill his alms bowl with offerings.

Upon his return to the temple, he had to spend 15 minutes listening to preaching and services. Then at 6:15am, he would join the others to clean the temple before getting showered and returning to the temple to eat.

Once the meal was finished, he would sleep again until late morning, at which time he would reawaken for his second and final meal of the day before noon. After that, it was back to sleep for as long as he could manage. He did say that there were some books but that these were boring religious tomes and he couldn’t read them. He had left his mobile phone at home and there was no Internet, so there wasn’t much else to do. He’d had a go at meditation but found he couldn’t do it, so he would chat with one of the other novices or try and sleep as much as possible during the long days and evenings.

By the end of the 2 weeks, my friend was going stir crazy. He told me how, before he left, he had to make a speech saying goodbye to the monks. An auspicious time was selected, and if he missed his slot, he would have to wait around until the senior monks chose another suitable time, which could be weeks away. As a result, he made sure he was early.

With his speech completed, he wanted nothing more than to leave and return to his worldly life. He said that he just couldn’t sleep anymore no matter how hard he tried, and there was simply nothing else to do. Like a caged and broken bear, he paced around the perimeter of the temple again and again until his father finally came to collect him.

When I asked if this was an unusual experience, he seemed to feel, from talking with his friends, that it was pretty much the norm for novices in modern Thailand. The face of Buddhism is alive and well in Thailand, but the effects of an increasingly material world appear to be taking their toll.

Paul Snowdon – November 24, 2007

Related Article – Thai Religion

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