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This paper probes beneath the surface of the revitalized religiosity and thriving "civic Buddhism" that is identifiable in parts of Thailand's rural periphery today as a result of grassroots processes of change. It exempli- fies Phra Phaisan Visalo's assertion (1999:10) that Thai Buddhism is "re- turning to diversity" and "returning again to the hands of the people." Using in-depth case studies of three influential local monks in the nor- theastern province of Yasothon, it develops three cross-cutting themes that are of significance not only as evidence of a process we term "relo- calization" but also as issues that lie at the heart of contemporary Thai Theravāda Buddhism. The paper explores how the teachings and specific hermeneutics of influential Buddhist thinkers like Buddhadāsa Bhikkhu, Phra Payutto and Samana Phothirak have been communicated, inter- preted, adjusted and implemented by local monks in order to suit specif- ic local realities and needs. Added to this localization of ideas is the localization of practice, wherein the three case studies reveal the quite different approaches and stances adopted by a "folk monk" (Phra Khruu Suphajarawat), a "forest monk" (Phra Mahathongsuk) and what might loosely be termed a "fundamentalist monk" (Phra Phromma Suphattho) at the interface of monastery and village, or the spiritual (supramun-
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Journal of Buddhist Ethics
ISSN 1076-9005
The Relocalization of Buddhism in Thailand
Michael Parnwell and Martin Seeger
Department of East Asian Studies
University of Leeds
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The Relocalization of Buddhism in Thailand
Michael Parnwell and Martin Seeger
This paper probes beneath the surface of the revitalized religiosity and
thriving “civic Buddhism” that is identifiable in parts of Thailand’s rural
periphery today as a result of grassroots processes of change. It exempli-
fies Phra Phaisan Visalo’s assertion (1999:10) that Thai Buddhism is “re-
turning to diversity” and “returning again to the hands of the people.”
Using in-depth case studies of three influential local monks in the nor-
theastern province of Yasothon, it develops three cross-cutting themes
that are of significance not only as evidence of a process we term “relo-
calization” but also as issues that lie at the heart of contemporary Thai
Theravāda Buddhism. The paper explores how the teachings and specific
hermeneutics of influential Buddhist thinkers like Buddhadāsa Bhikkhu,
Phra Payutto and Samana Phothirak have been communicated, inter-
preted, adjusted and implemented by local monks in order to suit specif-
ic local realities and needs. Added to this localization of ideas is the
localization of practice, wherein the three case studies reveal the quite
different approaches and stances adopted by a “folk monk” (Phra Khruu
Suphajarawat), a “forest monk” (Phra Mahathongsuk) and what might
loosely be termed a “fundamentalist monk” (Phra Phromma Suphattho)
at the interface of monastery and village, or the spiritual (supramun-
Department of East Asian Studies, University of Leeds.
Parnwell, Seeger, Relocalization of Buddhism in Thailand 80
dane) and social (mundane) worlds. This articulation of Buddhism and
localism in turn feeds the debate concerning the appropriateness or oth-
erwise of social engagement and activism in connection with a monk’s
individual spiritual development and the normative function of the
monk in modern Thai society.
The last two decades have been a period of significant change in Thai
Buddhism. Observers have described ongoing processes of fragmentation
(Keyes 1999), commercialization (Jackson 1997), diversification (Pattana
2005), decentralization (Taylor 2003), purification and hybridization
(Pattana 2005), often involving the declining centrality of officially sanc-
tioned and regulated institutional Theravāda Buddhism. A series of pub-
lic scandals involving Buddhist monks (see, e.g., Jackson 1997; McCargo
2004; Keyes 1995) and perceived shortcomings of the institutionalized
Sagha (monastic community)
as a moral and authoritative force (Patta-
na 2005) have created a growing popular disenchantment with main-
stream Buddhism and stimulated a search for alternative forms of
religiosity which cater more effectively or convincingly to society’s spi-
ritual, ritual and practical needs. Thai society is changing in response to
processes of development, modernization and globalization, and the so-
cial position of Buddhism is being adjusted and overhauled (Phaisan
1999). This is in part to accommodate and respond to the process of
change itself, and the growing diversity of social niches that must be ca-
tered for, but it is also partly because mainstream Buddhism has not ap-
parently kept pace with its changing social, economic and political
context. Peter Jackson describes (1997:79) the “disintegration of an or-
ganized, overarching religious system” in Thailand, and suggests there
has been an “exodus from institutional Buddhism” and a “decentraliza-
tion of religiosity” (ibid.:76). There is even talk of a transition to a post-
81 Journal of Buddhist Ethics
Buddhist society (Pattana 2005:465), or at the very least a thorough-
going process of Buddhistic transition.
Running parallel to the weakening authority and influence of in-
stitutional Buddhism in Thailand, and set against a back-drop of a demo-
cratization process that has liberated religious practice from the diktats
of state control, has been the emergence, revival or flourishing of a my-
riad of alternative practices, movements and cults, especially in urban
areas where the process of change has been most intense, and among a
growing urban middle class (Suwanna 1990). These have been described
by Pattana (2005:462) as emerging forms of “civic religion” which may
have little to do with mainstream Buddhism, or “civil religion.” Swearer
(1999:224) claims these movements represent efforts to revitalize Budd-
hism as the foundation for Thai social and cultural identity.
Change has occurred in two quite different directions, reflecting
a growing divergence of elite and folk Buddhism. On the one hand we
have transactions in what Jackson (1997:79) has referred to as the “spiri-
tual market place,” where Buddhism, and religious practice more gener-
ally, has accommodated itself to the world of modern capitalist
development, giving rise to the individualization (Jackson 1997:82) and
commodification of religion (Pattana 2005:487; 2007) and a “commercia-
lized Buddhism” (phutthaphanit
(see also McCargo 2004; Rigg 2003; Pat-
tana 2006; Jackson 1999a; 1999b). This path of change is manifest at its
most extreme in the pro-capitalist Thammakai movement that is based
in Pathum Thani (described, inter alia, by Zehner 1990; Swearer 1991;
Aphinya Fuengfusakul 1993a; 1993b; McCargo 2004; Aphinya Fueangfu-
sakul 2541 B.E.),
monks’ increasing material greed (Jackson 1997:83), the
rising commercial acquisitiveness and grandiosity of popular Buddhist
monasteries in and beyond Bangkok, and what Rigg (2003) has described
as “credit card carrying and amulet-selling monks” and Jackson (1997:83)
the “commodification of clerical personalities.”
Parnwell, Seeger, Relocalization of Buddhism in Thailand 82
On the other hand, and partly in reaction to the first set of
changes—a moral riposte to the pernicious social effects of globalization
and capitalism—there have occurred a variety of “purifications” (Pattana
2005:464) and diversifications (O’Connor 1993), and a revitalized religios-
ity. The disenchanted have sought either to return to core fundamentals
or to seek and develop religious niches that move away from what they
see as Buddhism’s contaminated core. These include the heterodox, uto-
pian Santi Asok Buddhist reform movement (Phataraphon 2540 B.E.;
Aphinya 1993a; Essen 2005), the diverse moral paths mapped out by local
charismatic clerics bestowed with sacral and spiritual power, and the
“chaotic reemergence of various forms of animism and supernaturalism”
(Pattana 2005:466), all of which draw to a greater or lesser degree upon
the visions, practices and ideologies of a traditional and fundamentalist
past before they were “tainted” by the process of modern capitalist de-
Another significant phenomenon in this process of transforma-
tion and diversification in contemporary Thai Buddhism is the changing
roles of women. Recently, attempts have been made to establish a
Theravāda bhikkhunī (nun) order that is believed to have vanished some
1000 years ago. These attempts are taking place despite severe criticism
from senior monks who, basing their arguments on Pāli canonical texts,
perceive the ordination of women to be impossible for technical reasons.
Although it seems that the number of proponents for introducing a nun
order is still rather small, the number of feminists, academics, and also
the support of Buddhist lay in this regard is growing. This, together with
the observed approximation of roles between monks and maechis (white-
clad women who have shaved their heads and eyebrows and practice the
eight or ten precepts), the growing number of highly revered female
Buddhist teachers and practitioners, the increasing number of women
who have decided to become ordained in non-Theravāda Buddhist tradi-
tions and the growing efforts to provide more opportunities for religious
83 Journal of Buddhist Ethics
women to practice Buddhism in a manner similar to men, show that the
actual or potential religious space that is available for Thai Buddhist
women is growing (Seeger 2006; 2007b).
According to Phra Phaisan Visalo,
[u]niform or standardized Buddhism is a thing of the past. Thai
Buddhism is returning to diversity again . . . . In the past uniform
Buddhism was possible because of state and central sangha con-
trol. The recent trends suggest that Buddhism is becoming inde-
pendent of the state and the Sangha hierarchy, returning again to
the hands of the people. (Phaisan 1999:10)
It is with this process of “returning again to the hands of the
people” that the present paper is concerned. Hitherto, most attention in
the recent literature on the “crisis” in Thai Buddhism has focused on the
urban and modern context of change. It is here that the underlying
processes of modernization, development and globalization are most
immediate and apparent, and from which influences such as commer-
cialism, materialism, anomie, atomization, acquisitiveness, and disillu-
sionment have mapped the nature and direction of change in Thai
religiosity. Rather less attention has been paid to the context and ma-
nifestations of change away from the metropolitan core of Thailand.
Notwithstanding the fact that modernization and development have
been universally, if highly variably, experienced across Thailand, and
that rural areas have both been drawn inexorably into the realm of in-
fluence of the metropolitan core and have contributed a myriad of pieces
to the mosaic of urban religious diversification and fragmentation, our
research suggests that a different but no less important series of changes
has taken place in the rural periphery in recent years which tell a con-
trasting story to that of the modern urban sector. With the use of case
studies of three locally influential village monks in the northeastern
Thai province of Yasothon, we describe the conflation of localism and
Parnwell, Seeger, Relocalization of Buddhism in Thailand 84
Buddhism which have contributed to ongoing processes of religious pu-
rification, revitalization, and diversification. The case studies might be
seen to be broadly representative of a progressive series of changes that
are taking place within and around mainstream Theravāda Buddhism—a
blending of civic and civil religion.
Another major objective of this paper is to investigate the locali-
zation of ideas of nationally influential Buddhist leaders and thinkers.
This involves exploring how the teachings and specific hermeneutics of
influential Buddhist thinkers like Buddhadāsa Bhikkhu (1906-1993), Phra
Payutto (1939- ), and Samana Phothirak (1934- ) are communicated, im-
plemented, interpreted, and adjusted by local monks in order to suit
specific local realities and needs. This aspect of our paper is quite unique
as there has been hardly any academic work in Western languages that
looks at the localization of ideas taught by leading Thai Buddhist think-
ers and opinion leaders (although see Suchira Payulpitak 1991; 1992; also
Darlington 1990). There is a plethora of anthropological and historical
studies of Thai Buddhism: the former examining either how Buddhism is
understood and practiced in a rural context or exploring specific move-
ments in Thai Buddhism; the latter focusing on urban Buddhism and its
articulation with the state, or on individual influential figures within
Thai Buddhism. In contrast, we approach Thai Buddhism by looking at
how ideas that have been discussed and formulated on a national level
are implemented and accommodated to local contexts. We also investi-
gate this comparatively, showing how these different ideas are used to
fit local communities within a similar economic and geographical set-
The localization of the ideas of influential Buddhist thinkers
forms part of a wider process that we describe in this article as “relocali-
zation,” which in turn is set within the framework of localism discourse.
Localism emerged in Thailand in the 1970s on the coat-tails of the gras-
85 Journal of Buddhist Ethics
sroots development movement (Pasuk and Baker 2000; Connors 2001).
The material benefits of the orthodox top-down, growth-driven ap-
proach to development had started to percolate down to the rural peri-
phery, but were accompanied by increasing problems in the form of
social dislocation, economic dependency, environmental degradation
and constrained local potential. Grassroots development encouraged
specific and targeted development interventions which were in tune
with local resources and needs, and which drew on local knowledge. In
the 1980s through to the early 1990s localism was given a strong cultural
flavor through the work of Chatthip (1991), Saneh (1993), and Prawet
(2530 B.E.; 1995), and its subsequent association with watthanatham chum-
chon, or the “community culture” perspective on development (Hewison
1993; 2000). This privileges locally rooted, locally controlled, and locally
relevant forms of development which have the moral market society and
traditional culture at their core. Thai culture, identity, and self-reliance
were felt to be under threat from the forces of modernization, capitalist
development, globalization, and westernization, and this was to be coun-
tered by the privileging of the village community, which was seen as the
bedrock and final repository of traditional Thai cultural values and social
It is important at this juncture to problematize localism discourse
and the “back to the future” ideologies that it tends to reify as counte-
rintuitive to the general tenor of the present paper—that relocalization
is helping to place both religion and society on a more harmonious, rele-
vant and sustainable footing. Several writers (for example Kevin Hewi-
son [2000], Duncan McCargo [2001] and Jonathan Rigg [1991]) have
variously criticized the localism movement for its romanticism, popul-
ism, reactionism, and nationalism, for the way it misrepresents the reali-
ty of “traditional rural life,” for its lack of realism in the face of the
continuing certainty of global capitalism, for its use as a cathartic sop for
people in denial after the economic crisis, and for its lack of appeal to a
Parnwell, Seeger, Relocalization of Buddhism in Thailand 86
majority of Thai people still intent on the path toward modern develop-
ment. In other words, localism is not a process that involves and appeals
to more than a segment of modern Thai society, and thus relocalization
is only one of several trends occurring in Thailand today. It is nonethe-
less important as a sign of the changes that are occurring, and it has par-
ticular significance for Thai Buddhism.
Localism has in part centered on a project of “Thai-ification”
which has sought to reassert Thai cultural values and identity (Reynolds
2001) and has in part also centered on a movement to return control of
the development process to the hands of the people, specifically local ru-
ral communities. The latter objective was given strong momentum and
legitimacy by King Bhumibol Adulyadej’s New Theory on the Sufficiency
Economy (setthakit phophiang, 1998) which, pronounced in the immediate
aftermath of the economic crisis, called for a redoubling of efforts to fos-
ter self-reliance and economic and social resilience. The New Theory was
informed, if not directly influenced by, a localist ideology which envi-
sioned an anti-acquisitive, post-materialist “Buddhist economy” or
“Buddhist agriculture” (for studies that propound and discuss these con-
cepts, see for example Payutto 1994; Connors 2001:3; Prawet 2530 B.E.:
1999; Aphichai 2541 B.E.; Suwida 2004). Buddhism is central to localist
discourse, which in no small measure is also a culturalist discourse. In
part this is because the civil religion is presented, or at least imagined, as
a cornerstone of Thai culture, and Buddhism is also a key referent in the
distillation of a sense of “community culture” and its operationalization
within the alternative development movement. Buddhism is the embo-
diment of the Thai cultural capital that localists envision will provide the
heartbeat of future development in reaction to the forces of globaliza-
tion and capitalist modernization.
Thus, whilst mainstream Thai Buddhism and Buddhist institu-
tions have increasingly shown signs of strain from the pressures asso-
87 Journal of Buddhist Ethics
ciated with globalization, modernization, centralization, and develop-
ment, Thai Buddhist institutions have also become an important source
of localist comfort for Thai citizens in reaction to the very same pres-
sures and processes. This paper aims to shed some light on this seeming-
ly contradictory situation.
An important subtext to this process of local change concerns the
“appropriate” function of the monastery and the role of the monk within
the local community. As local Buddhist institutions have engaged in the
“clawing back” of roles and functions that had systematically been
crowded out by state encroachment and displacement (Parnwell 2005),
monks are increasingly ministering to communities’ social and livelih-
ood concerns, as well as their spiritual needs. Relocalization has reo-
pened the debate as to whether a monk’s primary preoccupation should
be as a “world renouncer” (Tambiah 1976) seeking detachment from
mundane life in order to promote and deepen his spiritual enlighten-
ment, or a “world reformer” who is actively, even proactively, engaged
with confronting the issues and challenges of modern everyday life, with
and on behalf of their local communities. We will return to this debate
Relocalization and Revitalization
As in the case already described for the urban sector in Thailand, reloca-
lization is a reaction to several of the delocalization tendencies that cha-
racterized Buddhism in Thailand from the time of the modernizing
reforms at the turn of the twentieth century. Historically and tradition-
ally, the monastery (wat
) has been the social, functional, and symbolic
center of the rural Thai community (a theme that is developed by such
authors as Swearer 1999; O’Connor 1993; Phya Anuman Rajadhon 1961;
1986; Tambiah 1976; Hayashi 2003; Kamala 1997; 2003; Mulder 1969; Ishii
1968; 1986; Bunnag 1973; Moerman 1968; Ingersoll 1966; Payutto 2513
B.E.). Monks played the role of teachers, healers, mentors, and counse-
Parnwell, Seeger, Relocalization of Buddhism in Thailand 88
lors, and provided the moral and social heartbeat of the local community
(O’Connor 1993; Payutto 2513 B.E.). The wat wove Buddhism into local
life, and local monks accommodated local needs and interests. The popu-
larization or cultural syncreticism of Theravāda Buddhism (O’Connor
1993) gave it a distinct local interpretational and implementational zest.
Multiple permutations of local culture and custom, combined with the
personality and predilections of local abbots, formed the diverse arrays
and complex flavors of what Swearer (1999:201) called “wat Buddhism,”
especially in the country’s rural periphery. This, perhaps, is the Budd-
hism that stands prominent in the post-modern imaginary of localists,
and which they seek both to engage and revitalize, fostering Thai Budd-
hism’s “return to diversity” (Phaisan 1999:10) or a reflourishing of com-
plexity (Kirsch 1977).
The diverse local manifestations of popularized Thai Buddhism,
which included an almost seamless, syncretic incorporation of animistic
practices, was arguably hardly an issue until the turn of the twentieth
century, when state-initiated reforms to Thai Buddhism, integral to
projects of modernization and nation-building, started to assert a strong
centralizing and homogenizing influence on the religious institutions
and practices of the rural periphery. Schools and hospitals were built,
taking traditional roles away from local monks and monasteries; secular
authorities superseded monks and the social roles they formerly played.
King Mongkut (1851-1868) set about trying to promote a Buddhism that
was demythologized to a certain degree, purging religious practice of
animistic tendencies (Swearer 1999:196). King Chulalongkorn (1868-
1910) sought to progress the standardization of monastic practice, and
attempted to incorporate the provincial areas—and their diverse reli-
gious practices—into a unified Thai nation-state with a homogenized na-
tional religion and a standardized system of clerical education (Swearer
1999:201). These reforms, codified in the Sagha Administration Act of
1902, fostered the centralization (and Bangkok-centrism), purification,
89 Journal of Buddhist Ethics
standardization, formalization, and bureaucratization of Thai Buddhism,
and structured it in a hierarchical system of authority. Following the fur-
ther reforms of King Vajiravudh (1910-1925), monks increasingly specia-
lized as ritualists rather than teachers, in the process undermining the
place of the Buddhist Sagha and the village wat in Thai society (Swearer
1999:208), and diluting the role of the monk at the heart of the lay com-
munity. These centralizing reforms “ . . . took the wat away from locals
and, by driving folk practices out of the temple, fostered today’s reli-
gious ‘free market’” (O’Connor 1993:330). The temple became an agent of
the nation state—less local and more national: “Bangkok overwhelmed
localism” (ibid.:336).
Such a process took on an even greater speed and profundity
with the promotion of modern development from the 1960s, which was
associated with the intense “crowding out” of local institutions by the
political organs and bureaucratic tentacles of the state (Parnwell 2005).
The autocratic prime minister Field Marshal Sarit Thanarat (1959-1963),
seizing on the conflict between the two congregations in Thai Buddhism,
Dhammayuttika-nikāya and Mahānikāya,
to sweep away the democratic
reforms to the Sagha introduced in the 1940s, promulgated the Sagha
Act of 1962/63, which reestablished a highly centralized and hierarchi-
cally organized Sagha with power concentrated in the hands of the Su-
preme Patriarch (Sagharāja). The state subsequently co-opted and
manipulated this authority as a device for the promotion of its program
of nation-building, especially through state-sponsored development
programs (Swearer 1999:209): “as local monks wielded great influence in
the villages, the military government co-opted them into promoting
government programmes—mobilizing villagers to contribute their la-
bour.” Two platforms provided the basis for monks’ involvement in the
state’s development and national-integration programs (both of which
had strong anti-communist underpinnings): the thammathut (“dham-
mic/Dhamma ambassadors”) program, which was linked to the communi-
Parnwell, Seeger, Relocalization of Buddhism in Thailand 90
ty development program of Mahachulalongkorn Buddhist University in
Bangkok, sent monks to rural areas during the dry season to assist
people with their livelihood needs and encouraging their participation
in local public works schemes (which the monks described as merit-
making activities), whilst strengthening their attachment to the civil re-
ligion (Keyes 1971). The thammathut program was described by Mulder
(1969) as a “moral rearmament mission” in the face of communist sub-
version, whilst Keyes (1971:561) concluded that “ . . . the main impact of
the program has been to provide villagers . . . with clear evidence that
the Sangha approves and supports the economic development efforts of
the government.” The thammacarik (“wandering Dhamma-preachers”)
scheme focused on the conversion of the montagnard peoples of the
northern region to Buddhism (Keyes 1971; Swearer 1999:214). In addi-
tion, the phaendin tham, phaendin thong (“land of Dhamma, land of gold”)
program aimed to incorporate monks working independently of gov-
ernment sponsored development initiatives into the nation-building
project and in so doing promote the government’s image as a patron of
Buddhist social activism (Swearer 1999:215).
The co-optation of the Sagha by the state, and the “crowding
out” of its traditional local institutional functions by the bureaucratic
and political structures of the government, worked to the severe detri-
ment of the public regard for the monastic order (Swearer 1999:214). It
also elicited a reaction from within the Sagha. Although some monks
went along with it, in part induced or enticed by the promotions and re-
wards offered by the government-imposed ecclesiastical system, others
started to question and react against it. Jackson (1989:60) identified a dif-
ference between monks who perceived their primary responsibility to be
toward the state (or the state’s agenda) and those who dedicated them-
selves to working for the common good. The latter saw “statist Budd-
hism” as irrelevant to contemporary Thai life (Phaisan 1999; cited in
91 Journal of Buddhist Ethics
Lynch 2004), and ushered in a period of reform in doctrinal theory and
Nithi Aesurivongse (1993: cited in McCargo 2004) has argued that
Buddhism in Thailand can only be revitalized by severing the intimate
bonds between the Sagha and the state that developed since the reign of
King Chulalongkorn. According to Swearer (1999:203) there was some
opposition to the centralizing tendencies during the modernization
phase, such as by a northern monk, Khruba Sriwichai, and from the for-
est monk tradition exemplified by Ajan Man in northeastern Thailand,
who adopted a stance of non-cooperation with the Sagha Administra-
tion Act of 1902. More recently the impetus for religious revitalization
and reform as a counter to the centralized agenda of the state has come
from monks who are critical of the establishment and the Buddhist civil
religion that it has fashioned (Swearer 1999:216). For instance,
Buddhadāsa Bhikkhu adopted a critical stance toward the mainstream
religious, social and political structures of institutional Buddhism, and
offered a fresh range of hermeneutics of Pāli canonical teachings which
confronted established Buddhist practice in Thailand.
Since the 1970s, an increasing number of Buddhist groups on the
periphery both of the country and of civic Buddhism have emerged to
challenge the increasingly secular, materialist ethos of Thai society
(Swearer 1999:218). These include a growing corpus of “development
monks” and “ecology monks” (Darlington 2000) who see it as their social
duty to confront the social, economic, and environmental, and occasio-
nally or unavoidably political, challenges that are increasingly associated
with modern capitalist development. A further intensification of reac-
tionism and the flourishing of new Buddhist movements has occurred
during the democratization period since the early 1990s, with its asso-
ciated press and political freedoms, which has, as we have seen earlier,
coincided with the growing momentum of localism (O’Connor 1993:18).
Parnwell, Seeger, Relocalization of Buddhism in Thailand 92
Another core focus of this article is the tension (and its proposed resolu-
tion) between a monk’s striving for spiritual perfection (arahant-
ship/nibbāna) or for his “own [spiritual] benefit” (attahitāya), and the
need or expectation for a monk to engage with his host community and
confront various social and developmental ills; that is, work for the
“benefit of others” (parahitāya). This issue is explored through case stu-
dies of three monks who live in close proximity to one another in rural
North-East Thailand, but who adhere to very different ideologies of so-
cial engagement. One is a “folk monk” (phra chau ban/phra ban nok) who
believes that a monk has a responsibility to serve his local community
directly and proactively and who, as a “development monk” has pro-
vided the inspiration and leadership for a number of community-
centered, localized alternative development initiatives. Another is also a
Mahānikāya monk who nonetheless is a strong admirer of the founder of
the controversial Santi Asok movement, Samana Phothirak, (who has
been expelled from the institutionalized Thai Sagha)
and who is help-
ing to craft a local Buddhist community which follows some of the
movement’s core principles and practices, eschewing many of the trap-
pings of modern development. This monk is thus representative of a
more fundamentalist or puritanical tendency in some quarters of Thai
Buddhism (Swearer 1995; Olsen 1991). The third monk is a follower both
of Buddhadāsa Bhikkhu and Phra Payutto, and is, at the same time,
broadly representative of the “forest monk” tradition which places a pa-
ramount emphasis on detachment from society and thus only limited
engagement with the issues of daily life. These three monks, each repre-
sentative of a wider movement, thought system or tradition within Thai
Buddhism, provide interesting insight into the question of the “right”
position of the monk/sagha in relation to society, economy and politics,
set against a back-drop of relocalization.
93 Journal of Buddhist Ethics
There is a strong divergence of opinion as to the rightful or “ap-
propriate” role that a monk, or more generally the sagha, should play
within society, and what might be considered a suitable degree of social
engagement. When argued from the standpoint of Buddhism as outlined
in the Pāli canonical scriptures, we come across widely differing views
on this question. Authors such as Maithrimurthi (2003:30) claim that
Buddha was concerned neither with political nor social matters, but
purely with the salvation of individuals: “It was to them that the Buddha
directed his message without being much concerned about society as a
whole” (Maithrimurthi 2003:35). The late Bhikkhu Paññāvaḍḍho
( seemed to challenge
the possibility that a socially engaged person can live a fully spiritual life
(Rothberg 1994), and King (1964:177) writes “[t]o tell the truth the Budd-
ha had little, either of concern for society as such or firm conviction of
its possible improvability.” Max Weber (1963) saw Buddhism as other-
worldly, asocial, world-denying monasticism which largely failed even to
address the religious needs of the mass of the population, giving rise to a
distinction between official doctrine and the “religion of the masses,” or
“pure” and “everyday” or “peasant” Buddhism—a distinction that this
paper further develops. Ortner (1978:157; cited in Darlington 1990:111)
views orthodox, canonical Buddhism as “a religion of anti-social indivi-
Meanwhile, Bhikkhu hānissaro suggests that the Buddha did not
overly emphasize altruism per se, and ascribed greater importance to an
individual’s pursuit of spiritual welfare than to cases where spiritual wel-
fare is given up in the interests of the welfare of others. Here, he is refer-
ring to the Chavālātasutta
. For Bhikkhu hānissaro, “the true path of
practice pursues happiness through social withdrawal . . . . Thus individ-
ual attainment, rather than social function, is the true measure of a per-
son’s worth” (Bhikkhu hānissaro 1995).
Parnwell, Seeger, Relocalization of Buddhism in Thailand 94
At the same time, however, Bhikkhu hānissaro does not men-
tion in this context that in the very same Chavālātasutta it is also said
that the one who is working both for his own welfare and for the welfare
of others (attahitāya ceva paipanno parahitāya) is amongst all these four
different individuals (imesa catunna puggalāna): — (1) one who works
neither for his nor for the welfare of others; (2) one who works for the
welfare of others but not for his; (3) one who works for his welfare but
not for the welfare of others; and (4) one who works both for his own
and the welfare of others — regarded as the highest (aggo), the best
(seṭṭho), the foremost (pāmokkho), the greatest (uttamo), and noblest (pa-
varo). (For a discussion of the relevant canonical passages, see Schmi-
thausen 2004.) Darlington (2000:46) reports the widely-held view from
Thailand that monks make a contribution to the welfare of society
through following the Holy Life, seeking to escape from the cycle of re-
birth and suffering, and through striving for nibbāna: this is their as-
cribed role.
In quite stark contrast, a rather different body of opinion, influ-
enced by and reflective of a growing movement of socially-engaged
Buddhist activism, finds plenty of evidence to refute this description of
detachment and disinterest in social problems/reality. One of the most
influential Buddhist thinkers in twentieth century Thailand has been
Buddhadāsa Bhikkhu, whose interpretations (Gabaude 1988; Jackson
2003) of canonical teachings have laid the foundation for the reform of
Buddhism and social activism in the country. He challenged the wide-
spread view in Thailand that the highest principles of Buddhism, and the
pursuit of nibbāna, require a withdrawal from the mundane world
(Swearer 1999:217), claiming that nibbāna can be a goal for everyone, not
just the world-renouncing monk. Buddhadāsa Bhikkhu was very influen-
tial in bringing core Buddhist concepts to bear on the problems of devel-
opment and modern life, and helping to nurture a corps of social activist
monks (Swearer 1999).
95 Journal of Buddhist Ethics
The relationship between the pursuit of strictly individual per-
fection (arahant-ship/nibbāna) and the social good has very frequently
been a central point not only within Western Buddhist studies but also
within the tradition itself. Buddhism is often characterized as having a
weak social ethic, and a soteriology based on a highly individualized path
to awakening (Poethig 2002:20). Phinit Lapthananon (2529 B.E.:31) writes
that the Thai Sagha has been criticized for failing to address the in-
creasing gap between monks and society, and the monk’s lost role as the
spiritual leader of the community. In this context, he reports that monks
have been described as the “cuckoo eggs” of society (phra pen ka fak
sangkhom) (ibid.). In order to reverse the growing irrelevance of institu-
tional Buddhism to modern life, and integral to relocalization, the false
dichotomy that is created between spiritual and worldly life, and be-
tween materiality and spirituality (Keefe 1997:62), has to be removed.
Keefe (ibid.) calls for a “this-worldly spirituality”—a socially engaged
Buddhism working to promote the interests of society at large, and con-
fronting problems of inequality, injustice and suffering—based on the in-
terdependence of the social and spiritual realms:
For socially engaged Buddhists, pratitya-samutpada [dependent
co-origination] means that personal transformation is always in-
terdependent with social transformation, inner peace with world
peace . . . we cannot awaken to things as they are by retreating
into a sea of personal tranquility. (Keefe 1997:63).
Nonetheless, Elizabeth Harris sees a significant tension between the spi-
ritual imperative for detachment and the social imperative for Buddhists
to engage with the challenges of modern living:
If compassion means to relieve suffering in a positive way, and
detachment to remain aloof from the world, how can the two be
practiced together? Does detachment in Buddhism imply lack of
concern for humanity? Is the concept of compassion in Buddhism
Parnwell, Seeger, Relocalization of Buddhism in Thailand 96
too passive, connected only with the inward-looking eye of medi-
tation, or can it create real change in society? (Harris 1997:1)
How spiritual and social imperatives can be addressed simulta-
neously by the Thai Sagha is far from straightforward. Thailand’s fore-
most current Buddhist thinker, Phra Payutto is, according to Phra
Phaisan (Phaisan 2542 B.E.:29), arguably the Thai monk who in his inter-
pretation of canonical Buddhism “has more than any other Thai monk
tried to enlarge the sphere of Buddhism so that it not only comprises the
level of the [individual] mind but also the social sphere.” Phra Payutto
states that viewing Buddhism as “avoiding the world” or exclusively
concerned with “personal ethics” or “mind ethics [of the individual]” or
that monks have “no responsibility toward society” reflects a mistaken
understanding of Buddhism (Payutto 2540a B.E.:13; 2538a B.E.:807-837).
For him (2540 B.E.:15) “Buddhism regards both the person and the sys-
tem, both the individual and society, both the external environment and
the internal mind as important. [Both sides] have to work with and com-
plement each other.” He writes that “Buddhism teaches the solution of
problems, both of the external and internal, both on the social level and
the individual mind-level.” (2538a B.E.:917; see also: Rājavaramuni 1990).
Phra Phaisan (1990) identifies variations in the degree of compliance
with strict rules or interpretations concerning monks’ engagement with
lay society. For instance, he argues that
Values and functions of the forest monastery are aimed at fulfil-
ling the ideal of the sangha as created by the Buddha . . . . Howev-
er, town monasteries, intending to serve people in various ways,
have developed some new roles and forms of involvement with
the lay community. Some of these roles were at times developed
at the expense of the original function of practicing Dharma and
of enabling people to reach and embody the highest good (para-
mattha [that is, nibbāna]). That is, these roles were typically con-
97 Journal of Buddhist Ethics
fined to the level of temporal welfare . . . such as improving the
living conditions of poor people, providing education to those
who had no access to state-run schooling, and giving counsel to
the worried and the depressed. (Phaisan 1990:292)
There is thus a clear tension between these two roles and requirements
for detachment and engagement. Thai social critic and Buddhist social
activist, Sulak Sivaraksa, concurs:
In making Buddhism more relevant for the contemporary world,
it is important not to compromise on the essentials, such as the
ethical precepts (sila) . . . . The Buddha’s intention was . . . to help
liberate not only individuals but the whole society . . . . Of course,
it is a great danger that those who are socially engaged lack spiri-
tual depth, inner calm, and peace; some activist Buddhist monks
(for instance in Sri Lanka and Burma) have sometimes even be-
come violent . . . . Monks should act somewhere between the min-
imum (following the basic ethical precepts) and the maximum
(practicing for liberation); most are in between . . . . Without the
spiritual dimension, however, those working socially will burn
out . . . If we are to connect ethical norms and social justice, we
must have time for spiritual development, time to meditate, time
to integrate head and heart, and then time for renewal and re-
treat. (Rothberg 1993:n.p.)
Nevertheless, Harris (1997) draws attention to the way that “detach-
ment” is often misinterpreted in modern Buddhism. She explores the
Pāli terminology for detachment. Viveka can be read as separation,
aloofness, seclusion, but a distinction can be drawn between physical
withdrawal (kāya-viveka) which can reduce the mind’s ability to discern,
mental withdrawal (citta-viveka) and withdrawal from the roots of suffer-
ing (upadhi-viveka). She claims that “detachment” in Buddhism should
not constitute an extreme withdrawal from the things that nurture hu-
Parnwell, Seeger, Relocalization of Buddhism in Thailand 98
man life, and argues that the Buddha rejected a form of self-distancing
that refused to take sides or to speak out against what should be de-
nounced. The Buddha condemned attempts to keep the truth inviolate
and unspoken through a wish not to become involved in society.
When they get actively involved in local development or function
as the catalyst or initiator of local development activities or programs, a
growing corpus of socially-engaged Buddhist monks today understand
themselves as following Buddha’s instruction to his monks: “Go, monks,
for the good and happiness of the many and out of compassion for the
world, for the benefit and happiness of gods and men.” (referring to
Vin.I.21: “Caratha, bhikkhave, cārika bahujanahitāya bahujanasukhāya
lokānukampāya atthāya hitāya sukhāya devamanussāna”). A growing num-
ber of socially-engaged Buddhist monks today are “going forth for the
good of the many,” faced with an escalating crisis of environmental de-
gradation, economic struggle and social conflict (Isager and Ivarsson
. . . for Buddhism to be an effective moral force in Thai society, it
needs to do more than preach about morality. It also needs to
help create the social conditions required to sustain and support the
morality it preaches. . . . monks must learn to develop networks
among themselves on local and more distant levels, and then ex-
pand the networks to include villagers, NGOs, progressive busi-
ness people, and others. Thai society needs a Buddhist
perspective to replace consumerism. (Phaisan 1999:250, emphasis
Translating this principle into practice is a difficult task, as Darlington
has noted:
Within the Sangha elements are pushing for and against partici-
pation in the development process. The dialogue between the
99 Journal of Buddhist Ethics
factions within the Sangha further forces the members to ex-
amine the relationship between doctrine and development activi-
ties . . . . Many recognize the need to participate but are unclear
as to the manner in which they should do this. The need arises
for people in a position of authority to outline the forms such ac-
tivities can take within the guidelines of Buddhist orthodoxy.
(Darlington 2000:47)
Activist Buddhist monks appear to have resolved this dilemma, and
share a vision of a fair and just, non-violent and compassionate society.
The call for social engagement is legitimated by referring to core Budd-
hist principles of mettā (loving kindness) and karuṇā (compassion), equa-
nimity, non-duality and non-attachment (see Poethig 2002). So-called
“development monks” (phra nak phatthana) represent an important and
high-profile manifestation of monks’ social engagement in the face of
development challenges, especially those facing Thailand’s peripheral
rural areas. Phra Phaisan (2546 B.E.:460) explains that a large number of
monks still perceive the monastery as the center of the (rural) communi-
ty, but a change has occurred from a situation in the past when monks
would wait for lay people to come to the monastery for help with the
challenges of everyday life, to one where monks increasingly and proac-
tively go out into the community to engage directly with the develop-
ment and welfare challenges of their fellow villagers. Since the early
1970s a growing number of development monks, and more recently
“ecology monks” (phra nak anurak) have initiated local development
projects based on their interpretations of Buddhist teachings (Darlington
2000). Their initiatives have also sought to reverse a growing decline in
traditional Buddhist values within their communities:
Actively seeking out the causes of suffering [resulting from envi-
ronmental degradation] has led [monks] to redefine the underly-
ing concepts of development and progress. Their awareness has
Parnwell, Seeger, Relocalization of Buddhism in Thailand 100
led them to re-examine Buddhist teachings to support their work
rather than follow any inherent ecological principles within the
scriptures. As Buddhists have done since the Buddha’s time, they
adapt their interpretations and practices of the religion to fit the
changing sociopolitical—and natural—environment . . . . (Darling-
ton 2000:n.p.)
Phra Phaisan (2546 B.E.:460) claims that the growing engagement of
monks with the problems and challenges of modern living, far from
representing a sea change in the way that monks interact with their
home communities, in fact constitutes little more than “ . . . monks revi-
talizing the traditional social roles of monks” in the fields of education,
healthcare, welfare, community work and leadership. This forms an im-
portant part of our hypothesis of “relocalization.”
Isager and Ivarsson (2002) argue that monks’ direct involvement
in development activities is consistent with the sagha’s responsibility to
serve society, but also as a riposte to processes of secularization which
are turning people away from religion, and most particularly from insti-
tutional Buddhism: the future prosperity of the sagha depends on the
longer-term spiritual prosperity of society. But the official Thai Sagha
seems to be unwilling to address the problems of local communities
(Phaisan 2546 B.E.:462). In promoting a Buddhist social ethic in modern
development, and a Buddhist moral economy, monks have increasingly
drawn on local culture, knowledge, values and co-operation (Tannen-
baum 2000:118; Darlington 2000). In other words, localism has become an
important focus of socially engaged Buddhism, and it is at this point that
the relocalization and reengagement trends converge. This paper shows
how the liberating tendencies of relocalization and democratization
have given rise to a wide variety of interpretations as to the appropriate
path forward and beyond the historical constraints of a homogenized
and centralized civic Buddhism.
101 Journal of Buddhist Ethics
Case Studies
The following case studies were collected during the course of a research
investigation entitled “The Buddhistic Underpinnings of Neolocalism in
North-East Thailand”
which attempted to explore how and to what ex-
tent Buddhist monks and local Buddhist institutions have been involved
in fostering alternative visions of economic and social development
which are culturally constructed and centered on local communities.
The study area is one of the poorest parts of the impoverished northeas-
tern region of Thailand, with low-quality soils supporting an insecure
agricultural economy that is regularly beset by problems of flooding and
drought, a situation that has not been helped by extensive deforestation
over the last thirty years or so. During the 1960s and 1970s the study
area was part of a so-called “pink zone” (sympathetic but not engaged in
direct conflict with the state, as in the “red zones”) during the period of
communist insurgency and regional separatist movements (see Parnwell
2007 for more details, including an interesting local account of the study
communities’ interpretation of “socialism”), since when, and as a conse-
quence, the state has intensified its development and integration efforts.
Localism has been a response to associated processes of marketization
and increased state intervention.
The main initial focus of our research was on Phra Khru Suphaja-
rawat (1944- ), who has become quite well-known nationally for his ef-
forts to rekindle sammakhi
(community harmony) and to foster economic
self-reliance and sustainable local development. During the course of our
interviews with several abbots and locally influential monks in and
nearby Kutchum District,
we became aware of the hermeneutical diver-
sity in these monks’ interpretation and implementation of Buddhist doc-
trine, and, in very close connection and consequence of this, in both the
manner and extent of their interaction with their local lay communities.
Also, it was remarkable that these monks had a very comprehensive and
Parnwell, Seeger, Relocalization of Buddhism in Thailand 102
deep knowledge of the Pāli canonical texts: all three monks in our case
studies frequently referred to the canon in order to legitimate and subs-
tantiate their teachings, practice, and relationship to lay people. It is
clearly not possible in a relatively short academic paper to convey the
full extent of this diversity, nor can we even start to claim that a trio of
case studies is representative of the situation across rural Thailand to-
day. Nonetheless, the diversity that is evident in just three case studies,
derived mere kilometers from each other, and set against the topical
theme of localism, is indicative of a trend toward a “return to diversity”
which is associated with the process of “relocalization.” The case studies
also allow us to show how the ideas of important Buddhist thinkers in
Thailand (Buddhadāsa Bhikkhu, Phra Payutto and Samana Phothirak, as
well as a more generic movement of activist “development monks”) have
been implemented at the local level, and localized.
103 Journal of Buddhist Ethics
Parnwell, Seeger, Relocalization of Buddhism in Thailand 104
Figure one depicts in a simplified form the framework within which the
case studies were investigated and around which they are elaborated be-
low. It posits a series of seamlessly-connected continua which take the
form of broadly oppositional “fields” between two competing sets of
countervailing forces, the mundane and the supra-mundane. We take
Buddhism as comparatively investigated in our three case studies broad-
ly and heuristically from its “normative” soteriological principles or
“nibbanic Buddhism” (Spiro 1970) as outlined in the Pāli canonical
to what we call “folk Buddhism,” which we understand in our
context here to comprise what Spiro calls “kammatic” and “apotropaic”
Buddhism, where it becomes profoundly mixed with local “flavors.”
Whilst using Spiro’s terminology, we nonetheless depart significantly
from his depiction of nibbanic and kammatic/apotropaic Buddhism as
parallel, distinct and discontinuous phenomena (see also King 1964): in
this context we are closer to Keown (2001) in seeing them as comple-
mentary and compatible points along a continuum, as depicted in figure
one. Within the same framework we have depicted what we have charac-
terized as an oppositional tension between a monk’s functional need for
detachment from the cravings of the mundane world, as a “world re-
nouncer,” and either the practical or the political need to engage with
the society and community within which he is placed, as a “world refor-
Our earlier discussion has suggested that the leading Buddhist
thinkers with which this paper is concerned, Buddhadāsa Bhikkhu, Phra
Payutto and Samana Phothirak, interpret these countervailing forces in
different ways (for a comparison of the views of these three thinkers on
Buddha images and magic beliefs, see Swearer 2004:238-248). By using
his hermeneutical dichotomy of everyday language and Dhamma lan-
guage, Buddhadāsa Bhikkhu demythologizes canonical teachings and ac-
counts of supernatural phenomena, like physical rebirth, into different
realms of being, gods, heavens, and hells. According to Buddhadāsa
105 Journal of Buddhist Ethics
Bhikkhu these things in their literal meaning play no role in “authentic”
Buddhism but have to be understood in a metaphorical sense, that is, as
psychological states, in order to be in conformity with Buddhasge-
nuine” teaching. This vehemently goes against and undermines a great
number of traditionally held beliefs and practices in Thai Buddhism
where these concepts in their literal meaning play a vital role (Gabaude
1990; Jackson 2003:123-127; Seeger 2005a:233-291; 2005b). Although not
directly denying the actual existence of these supernatural phenomena,
in Buddhadāsa’s understanding of Buddhism these things are not re-
garded as really Buddhistic. Buddhadāsa’s radical teachings in this re-
gard and his strong criticism of supernatural practices have therefore
been described as asking too much from “normal” Thai Buddhists (Muld-
er 2000:104; Gabaude 1990).
In contrast to this, Phra Payutto’s hermeneutical approach to the
Pāli canonical texts accepts these supernatural things both in their liter-
al and metaphorical meaning as being authentic Buddhism (for a de-
tailed account of Phra Payutto’s interpretational approach that
recognizes various semantic levels of the relevant canonical teachings,
see Seeger 2005a:109-119;233-291; Seeger 2005b). For him it is even poss-
ible that the belief in spirits, demons, and deities and the incorporation
of amulets can be justified from a Buddhological point of view. According
to Phra Payutto, Buddhism must not isolate itself from the beliefs in spi-
rits (phisang), magic (saiyasat), and other supernatural phenomena. As
long as “we have a clear understanding in our objectives and are
grounded in our practice [paipadā], that which we call impure is just like
a staircase . . . toward purity. If, however, we do not understand our ob-
jectives and are not grounded in them, even those things that are “pure”
(borisut) might become transformed into “impure” things” (cited in:
Phaisan 2542 B.E.:49). In this way, and while being very critical of “wrong
practice” (see: Payutto 2538b B.E.; Payutto 2540b B.E.), Phra Payutto’s
approach allows a more flexible and inclusive dealing with traditional
Parnwell, Seeger, Relocalization of Buddhism in Thailand 106
beliefs and practices that are connected to supernatural phenomena. For
Phra Payutto it is possible to integrate these beliefs and practices into
the “very flexible” structure of Buddhism, as long as the fundamental so-
teriological principles of Buddhism are not sacrificed or distorted by
them (Payutto 2538a B.E.:455-479; Phaisan 2542 B.E.:47-50; Seeger
2005a:233-291; Seeger 2005b; Seeger 2007a).
Phra Payutto has been criticized for this flexible stance by Aporn
Phukaman, a follower of Samana Phothirak, who pursues a more “purist”
approach (Olson 1989:345-347; Olson 1991). Phothirak’s movement, Santi
Asok, excels by its outspokenness and critical stance toward not only the
social, religious and cultural sector of Thai society but also toward poli-
tics, and by its strong emphasis on moral behavior and vegetarianism.
Also, Santi Asok is quite critical of the many magical and supernatural
elements in Thai Buddhism: “Santi Asok . . . denies the supernatural ele-
ments of Buddhism and considers the magic of Buddhist statues or belief
in phii (spirits) as ridiculous things” (Fukushima 1993:139). In stark con-
trast to traditional Thai Buddhist practices, Buddha images are com-
pletely absent from Santi Asok assembly halls (Swearer 1991:667),
rituals are performed without Buddha images and other elements that
are perceived to be un-Buddhistic (Apinya 1993). Traditional magical
practices in Thai Buddhism, like the consecration of amulets, are inter-
preted in a way that criticizes Thai traditional practices: the “Buddha
within ourselves” is sacralized rather than external paraphernalia that
are believed by many rural folk to be chargeable with magically effica-
cious energy by chanting the appropriate stanzas in Pāli (Apinya
Similarly, the three case study monks appear to respond to the
oppositional fields in quite divergent ways and manifest in diverse
forms. Phra Khru Suphajarawat is a so-called “development monk” who
has dedicated the last twenty-five years to the developmental emancipa-
107 Journal of Buddhist Ethics
tion of his community, based on his interpretation of the Buddhist ca-
non. He comes quite close to Phra Payutto’s pragmatic position on the
need to work with and through local cultural beliefs and practices in or-
der to integrate Buddhist principles into people’s daily lives and livelih-
oods. Phra Mahathongsuk is a follower of Buddhadāsa Bhikkhu and Phra
Payutto and follows the “forest monk” tradition, giving greatest priority
to his own spiritual emancipation, whilst recognizing the need to couch
his preachings and actions in lay cultural terms and forms. Nonetheless,
in his biography a shift in attitude is observable: he seems to be moving
away from Buddhadāsa’s radical approach toward a more flexible, inclu-
sive dealing with local beliefs and practices. This, however, does not
mean that, for him, one is being replaced by the other (that is,
Buddhadāsa Bhikkhu by Phra Payutto): in certain aspects, it represents a
shift of emphasis and an integration of the teachings and hermeneutics
of both. This shift has occurred as a consequence of his understanding of
local religious needs and realities.
Like the other two monks in our case studies, Phra Phromma Su-
phattho is a Mahānikāya monk. This, however, does not prevent him
from being a strong admirer of the founder and spiritual leader of Santi
Asok, Samana Phothirak, and, although his monastery does not actually
officially belong to Santi Asok, it nonetheless adheres to many of the
fundamentalist or puritanical principles that are espoused by this
movement. In our study, the three monks are “juxtaposed for compari-
son” (Olson 1991:77). Seen together, these monks’ differential responses
to the countervailing forces depicted in figure one suggest not only a
considerable diversity of local experience but also an interesting insight
into local rural Buddhism in Thailand today.
Parnwell, Seeger, Relocalization of Buddhism in Thailand 108
Phra Khru Suphajarawat, Wat Thalat, Tambon Naso, Amphoe Kutchum, Yaso-
In our triumvirate, Phra Khru Suphajarawat (PKS) represents the “folk
monk” (phra ban nok/phra chau ban)
who has been working against the
erosion of the centrality of the monastery in the daily lives of the com-
munity, and where Buddhist principles, intricately interwoven with Isan
(Thai-Lao, associated with the northeastern region of Thailand) tradi-
tional culture, provided the fabric of a vibrant moral community. He has
undertaken this primarily through his work as a “development monk”
(phra nak phatthana) who has been striving to integrate (or in his view
reintegrate) Dhamma into the practice of development. In the process he
has sought to “claw back” community control of the development
process through a series of neo-localist initiatives which have aimed to
ease the influence of three decades of state control of development, to
challenge the seemingly inexorable advancement of consumerism and
associated materialistic values, and to make the monastery more accoun-
table to and influential on the local community. PKS views as inseparable
the institution of the monkhood and the local community of which it is
part, and he believes that monks hold a responsibility to engage directly
with life and livelihood issues of the community—even if this involves
confronting the powerful and influential—and to provide spiritual and
moral guidance to the people who support and sponsor the local temple.
Since the early 1980s, PKS has taken an increasingly critical
stance against the deleterious effects of modern development, manifest
as extensive deforestation, soil degradation and water quality decline
through intensive application of chemicals, the erosion of social modes
of environmental regulation, dependence on the external economy, in-
debtedness, social divisiveness and disharmony, gambling, drinking and
drug abuse. He sees a strong social causality to all of these problems,
notably the spread of individualism, consumerism, materialism, social
109 Journal of Buddhist Ethics
atomization, competitiveness, the weakening of parental authority, ac-
quisitiveness and greed, and a parallel unraveling of the local moral
economy. PKS has led a movement to confront the pernicious effects of
social change, drawing extensively from the Dhamma and imbued with
social manifestations of traditional Isan culture in his efforts to rebuild a
community and reconstruct its institutions and social practices. Core
moral Buddhist principles (sīla) and values upon which his future vision
is built include moderation, self-reliance and respect for nature, sāmaggī
(community harmony; “sammakkhi” in Thai), paññā (wisdom), dāna (be-
neficence, righteous sharing), mettā (loving kindness, good will), karuṇā
(compassion), upekkhā (equanimity), sucarita (right conduct) and santo-
sa/santuṭṭhi (contentment with what one has). These are seen by PKS to
represent an integral part of a local Isan culture with remnant elements
of animistic beliefs and practices, into which has been woven a
Theravāda Buddhist worldview (see for example, Keyes 1983). This tradi-
tional culture informs everyday social practice and codifies the social in-
stitutions which provide the core structure of the community.
PKS was born in Ban Thalat in 1940 into a poor rice farming fami-
ly with many children, and in 1961 was ordained as a monk (bhikkhu) in
the village monastery of Ban Sokkhumphun, a community just one and a
half kilometers away from his current temple. During the late 1960s he
extended his monastic education in the Central Region of Thailand, and
during this time he became acutely aware of the relative economic
backwardness of his home area. Having returned home in 1967 he devel-
oped charisma within the local community based on his skills in teach-
ing Buddhist doctrine and meditation, and finally became abbot of Wat
Ban Thalat in 1972 (Prida 2535 B.E.:6-7). He committed himself to helping
ameliorate the community’s problems. Initially he supported the gov-
ernment’s own development program by joining an emerging corpus of
“modern monks” (phra than samai) who “felt that the Sangha should re-
fine and adapt its traditional role in order to keep pace with and accom-
Parnwell, Seeger, Relocalization of Buddhism in Thailand 110
modate changing socio-political conditions” (Somboon 1988:31-32), and
who became directly involved in national development programs and
considered themselves, or were considered by society, as “modern.” But
he sensed that external support was crowding out people’s ability to take
care of themselves, and that the competitive approach that was pro-
moted by the government (for example, inter-village beautification and
public health contests) was not conducive to collective action. He was al-
so very concerned that many villagers were facing enormous problems
of indebtedness as they had to borrow money for chemical fertilizers
and pesticides to increase productivity as they increasingly became in-
volved in mass production of agricultural products for the market, and
subject to a more consumerist and materialistic ethos. It was also evident
that the Sagha had been co-opted by the state to legitimize its modern
development and anti-communist agendas (ibid.:30; Prida 2535 B.E.:8-11).
PKS became increasingly skeptical of the achievements of modern de-
PKS sees himself as following the example of the Buddha when he is in-
volved in rural development:
The Buddha was concerned about educable people [veneyyasatta] .
. . He sent out his followers [buddhasāvaka] . . . [with the purpose]
“to be of benefit for and bring happiness to a large number of
people . . . ” Why do I not pursue nibbāna, carrying my alms-bowl
[patta] into the jungle, in order to sit in meditation with closed
eyes, so that I can attain happiness or nibbāna, only for myself? I
think it is not appropriate if I go solely for my own happiness or
attainment of nibbāna . . . . I have to open up a big, broad path
along which many people can proceed at the same time and at-
tain the same happiness.” (Phra Khru Suphajarawat 2542 B.E.:8)
111 Journal of Buddhist Ethics
In addition to this, for PKS it follows, given Thai monks’ central
religious and cultural role in community life, the high respect they re-
ceive and their awareness and deep understanding of local communities,
that they cannot be indifferent (du dai mai dai) to the problems of the vil-
lagers, and must therefore help in rural development (Phra Khru Supha-
jarawat 2542 B.E.:8-9).
PKS has sought to nurture an alternative development agenda
which is driven by the local community and built upon local conditions
and capabilities. He felt that the community should be proactive in rela-
tion to its own development, rather than passive recipients of external
development largesse and unquestioning absorbers of an external devel-
opment ideology. PKS was an early advocate of “grassroots develop-
ment” and a promoter of watthanatham chumchon (community culture),
which during the 1980s emerged as a nation-wide alternative develop-
ment movement with strong localist undertones. From 1983 PKS
emerged as a local champion of localized development. In 1991 he
formed a network of some thirty to forty development monks (sangkha
asa phatthana)
following an initiative by Phra Maha Narong
Cittasobhao, the then-Deputy Director-General of Mahachulalongkor-
nrajavidyalaya Buddhist University in Bangkok, who was looking for lo-
cal monks to participate in the committees of various development
projects (Prida 2535 B.E.:39). PKS was already fully involved in his local
community’s development by that stage, and so was an obvious person
to recruit into this wider initiative. “Development monks” operated
largely independently of, and actually received a great deal of criticism
from the Thai Sagha.
In his development work, PKS looked to the locality, to tradition-
al culture, and to the past, to seek out solutions to the problems of the
present and the future. His idea was that development ideology, rather
than being universal and absorbed from outside, should instead be par-
Parnwell, Seeger, Relocalization of Buddhism in Thailand 112
ticular to the community concerned and should build from the bottom-
upwards. It should focus on building people’s self-confidence (Yano
1999:188) in order to challenge the characterization of rural Isan folk as
poor, backward and unsophisticated, and it should center first and fore-
most on (re)building community relationships and social capital. “We
were trying to form a community, trying to identify who could play a
role in the community projects—who were the good people, who were
honest and not corrupt. I didn’t want anyone to take advantage of the
villagers.” His vision is modeled on the traditional moral community of
the past, and is encapsulated in the Thai aphorism liau lang lae na (literal-
ly “turn to look behind as you head forward” or in this context “learn
from the past as you build your future”). Far from being a conservative
reversion to a state before the progress of recent development, and ad-
vocating a freezing of traditional culture, PKS is seeking to chart a mid-
dle path between samai kau (the way ofthe past) and samai mai
(modernity) (see also Yano 1999:165;169; Ratana 2003:283). In this under-
taking the role of the sagha is vital as monks are, due to their charisma,
the motivators, mediators, conciliators and scrutinizers (of moral and
righteous behavior) and give direction in development projects (see Phra
Khru Suphajarawat 2542 B.E.:14-15:18; see also Prida 2535 B.E.:45-46).
PKS reminds people of the actual goal of development: “[when] we do
development [activities] we have to take the villagers, the community as
our goal.” This community focus becomes especially important as eco-
nomic development progresses and people start to become selfish and
forget about the original objectives and the process of development. He
believes that local cultural and spiritual values such as integrity, morali-
ty, compassion, and community harmony can help people deal with the
challenges of modern life. Accordingly he has championed the revival of
community spirit, communal institutions and community self-reliance,
using traditional culture, Buddhist doctrines and moral leadership as his
principal tools.
113 Journal of Buddhist Ethics
Kutchum District has become renowned in Thailand for a series
of local development initiatives that PKS helped to inspire through his
moral community approach. These started with a project to revive tradi-
tional herbal medicines and the role of local monks as “bare-headed doc-
tors” (Gosling 1985). From an early age PKS had studied herbal medicines
(ya chum chiaw or samun phrai) with local traditional healers (mo boran),
and after taking the robes had dispensed herbal medicines from the
temple. In the early 1980s a national campaign was started to reverse the
provision in the 1962/63 Sagha Act, which had prohibited monks from
acting as traditional healers (Yano 1999:174; Prida 2535 B.E.:12), and to
find “healing monks” (mo phra) who still held knowledge of traditional
medicines. In 1984 PKS formed a Natural Medicine and Herb Interest
Group (chom rom samun phrai) in the local village, Ban Thalat. Through
this initiative traditional knowledge has been preserved and liberalized
(by knowledge dissemination and exchange, as formerly this kind of
knowledge was traditionally transmitted secretively and exclusively)
and has become a source of pride and confidence in the villagers’ local
wisdom (phum panya thongthin) (Prida 2535 B.E.:24-25). It also led to the
formation of a number of co-operative networks with various local and
translocal private and state organizations. The herbal medicines project
also led to a program of forest rehabilitation, and then to the introduc-
tion of organic farming, and later the establishment of a community mill,
the realization of which (for example, financing and building) relied de-
cisively on Phra Khru Suphajarawat’s involvement (Phra Khru Suphaja-
rawat 2542 B.E.:14), community markets and a community currency
system (for more details of these developments, see Parnwell 2005; 2006;
2007; Phra Khru Suphajarawat 2542 B.E.; Prida 2542b B.E.; for the com-
munity mill, see Kanoksak 2544 B.E.:111-159; Prida 2535 B.E.:37-39) and a
whole series of local development initiatives which were created by the
community (sometimes with external assistance) and for the community
with the aim of becoming more self-reliant. These initiatives required
the direct involvement and intervention of monks in local development.
Parnwell, Seeger, Relocalization of Buddhism in Thailand 114
Through his work with the sangkha asa phatthana PKS set up a
Dhamma tour” (thammayatra/thammasancon) where the monks visited
local villages, preaching to the communities about the importance of
Buddhist values in their livelihoods and everyday lives. PKS explains:
“The sangkha asa phatthana was initiated because we saw that the com-
munity had become distanced from the wat. For this reason we were
looking for a method by which we could draw the community [back] into
the wat.” (Phra Khru Suphajarawat 2542 B.E.:12-13). The sangkha asa phat-
thana disseminates knowledge in various fields: herbal medicine (by
demonstration), organic farming, culture and ritual, consumerism, envi-
ronmental issues, and so forth. The sangkha asa phatthana go out on their
Dhamma tours one to two times a month. Apart from teaching and train-
ing, other objectives are the formation/consolidation of community and
the study of local problems by interviewing villagers (Phra Khru Supha-
jarawat 2542 B.E.:13; see also Prida 2535 B.E.:39-42:44).
The organic farming project is an example of local livelihood be-
ing consistent with Dhamma principles:
The practice of organic farming was compatible with the Dhamma
teachings. I helped to encourage farmers not to use chemicals,
using lessons from the Dhamma for this purpose. Linking organic
farming with the monkhood is quite easy—the two things go to-
gether quite well. Organic farming means nothing harmful takes
place (in theory). Creatures, plants, all living things will be saved.
This is the key. People, soil, living creatures and plants are all
mutually dependent, all connected. So, I tried to bring some
Dhamma virtues into my discussions with some people—to try to
convince them that this is an opportune time to stop degrading
the soil.
115 Journal of Buddhist Ethics
Kutchum District has subsequently become one of the most im-
portant centers for a growing movement of organic and pesticide-free
farming in Thailand.
Direct engagement with local development issues was argued by
PKS to reflect local cultural practices:
Monks doing everything with the villagers is because of Isan cul-
ture—where people pay a lot of respect to monks. Respect and
obedience is traditional, more than other regions. Even though
there have been scandals, the Isan people still pay respect to the
monks. So, if a monk initiates something it is quite easy to get
people to follow. The role of monks in the region is one of leader-
ship—it is established and accepted that monks should be the
leaders . . . . Monks take the offerings from the villagers, so there-
fore we should participate in the villagers’ activities. The villag-
ers do not have the time to listen to the Dhamma, because they
are busy with their work in the rice-fields. [So] we will go their
PKS, and the other monks who make up the sangkha asa phatthana,
teaches the villagers about self-sufficient agriculture in line with the
Thai King’s “New Theory,” and consistent with the concept of “Buddhist
agriculture” (phutthakaset: see Prawet 2530 B.E.; 1999). He calls the devel-
opment scheme that he is trying to promote “phutthaphatthana,” that is,
“Buddhist Development” (the Thai phatthana
[development] is derived
from the Pāli “vaḍḍhana” which means increase), and he sees his actions
in this regard as being consistent with the dhammavinaya. He tries to fol-
low the example of the Buddha who not only aimed at nibbāna but was
also concerned about others and their communities. Santikaro claims
that PKS has also been following “the footsteps of Buddhadhasa . . . com-
bining theory with practice, and providing wisdom with a context”
(cited in Yano 1999:189) and Prida explains that PKS’s community can ac-
Parnwell, Seeger, Relocalization of Buddhism in Thailand 116
tually be called “a Dhammic community” (thammika chum chon), a term
he derives from Buddhadāsa’s concept of “Dhammic Socialism” (thammi-
ka sangkhom niyom) (Prida 2542 B.E.:53). PKS argues that a monk’s per-
sonal development is enhanced by engaging with the local community,
and he criticizes monks who “develop the inside of the monasteries only,
and not the surroundings of the monastery, and are not interested in the
welfare of the villagers.” (Phra Khru Suphajarawat 2542 B.E.:11) At the
same time, however, he says he is criticized by elder monks who say that
his teaching and development are not in conformity with the dhammavi-
naya. PKS recounts that state officials have also criticized monks who are
involved in rural development:
They say: “Why does the sagha get involved in this? this is not
appropriate [for the monks]. They have to be passive [tong yu
choei choei] . . . . [Monks] have to practice meditation [samādhi],
walking meditation [doen congkrom], they have to give the pre-
cepts, to give preachings [desanā] to the laypeople . . . . Monks
should not do manual work.
The Dhamma values he is trying to espouse are locally rooted. He under-
stands local people. This he attributes to the role of his local mentor,
Phra Khru Wijityasothon (PKW). PKW emphasized the need for local
monks to lead by example by displaying exemplary moral behavior:
If monks are trusted, honest, decent and respected, they will be
able to provide moral leadership. PKW set a very good example. I
followed him in every respect. His conduct set a model for spiri-
tual development, and I have tried to follow the same approach.
This extends to other forms of development as well.
PKW was also a “folk philosopher” who was able to use his knowledge of
the Isan folk way of life to contextualize his efforts to sustain the moral
backbone of the community. He understood the psychology of local
117 Journal of Buddhist Ethics
people. He also held the view, which clearly influenced PKS’s own work,
that the monastery should serve the community. All resources donated
to the monastery (for example, through the pha pa [“forest robe,” that is,
pasukūla-cīvara] ceremony) should be available for the community’s
benefit, not just retained for the monastery’s use. PKS is critical of the
way that monks have come to covet the resources that flow into monas-
teries today.
The pha pa ceremony, which traditionally had been used to pro-
vide cloth for monks’ robes but in more recent times has become
adapted to provide the resources for monasteries’ physical maintenance
and development, had been further modified by PKS to support his al-
ternative development agenda (see also Seri 1988). In 1989 he organized
a pha pa donation ceremony (pha pa phan mai su chau isan) to increase the
stock of medicinal plants to support the development of the herbal med-
icine program. Also, with the money that was donated (nearly 275,000
Thai Baht) a Fund for Trees was established and a “rotating credit fund”
was created for villagers who wanted to implement PKS’s principles of
“balanced and integrated farming” but lacked the financial means to do
so (Prida 2535 B.E.:32). The use of pha pa in this way was also intended as
a statement against the way that the ceremony had come to serve in-
creasingly materialistic purposes.
PKS’s views on the interface of Buddhism and animism were quite
informative on the role played by beliefs in regulating the impact of the
community on the natural environment. In the past people’s fear of hell,
ghosts and spirits, and their belief in heaven, bun
(puñña, merit) and the
afterlife, had a strong influence on their adherence both to community
social norms (the fear that deviance would be noticed by supernatural
forces) and the social regulation of natural resource use. For instance,
the forests were believed to belong to the ancestral spirits (phi pu ta), and
the inappropriate exploitation of forest resources would bring misfor-
Parnwell, Seeger, Relocalization of Buddhism in Thailand 118
tune to the perpetrators and to the community as a whole. Permission to
exploit forest resources had to be granted by the “grandpa spirit” via a
local spirit medium. Today, according to PKS, people are far less inclined
to adhere to these traditional beliefs and superstitions.
PKS claims that
deforestation and environmental degradation have increased exponen-
tially as a result. The ghosts and spirits are not as fearful as in the past:
“The ancestral spirit phi pu ta just disappeared—only a handful of people
still believe in it.” In connection with the declining role of saiyasat in for-
est conservation, PKS explains: “Nowadays, there are three kinds of mo-
tivations [for villagers to preserve the forest and the environment]: (1)
fear of holy things [singsaksit]; (2) fear of other villagers [as the forest is
communal property]; and (3) fear of the state.” PKS attributes such
changes to a shift in beliefs and in villagers’ perspectives, with a greater
focus on the world outside the village. More youths are migrating to
work in other provinces, especially Bangkok, leading independent, ato-
mized lives outside the sphere of parental influence. Parents no longer
have the power to discipline their children. According to PKS, the au-
thority of leaders, parents, village elders and monks is also not as strong
as it was in the past.
The solution to such problems lies in the revitalization of culture
and the reintegration of holy values in people’s beliefs and practices:
In places where the community spirit is strong or belief in sacred
things is still alive, forest still remains. If you want to restore be-
liefs in holy spirits or guardians of forests, you need to revive the
culture . . . folk philosophy may be able to mobilize others to fol-
low the lead and beliefs [of one who has charisma, namely a local
119 Journal of Buddhist Ethics
PKS has been one such charismatic folk philosopher, and his efforts have
led, inter alia, to the restoration of the community forest in the vicinity
of his village, and to the rehabilitation of soils and water courses
through the organic farming project.
PKS’s development work frequently brings him up against the
powerful and influential, and also people who disagree with his vision of
development or whose interests are confronted by his alternative devel-
opment agenda. This is an aspect of social engagement by Buddhist ac-
tivists that has drawn criticism from the more conservative members of
the Thai Sagha, who insist that monks should desist from politically-
sensitive or -engaged activities. PKS is quite relaxed about this. He is me-
ticulous in his politics of impartiality. His high profile, both locally and
nationally, draws people who wish to use his standing and charisma to
endorse or promote particular political agendas, but PKS refuses all
overtures and inducements. Such people:
. . . have to come to the temple first to win the hearts of the vil-
lagers. If I say no, it is likely that the villagers will say no as well.
But I declare publicly that I am neutral. I’m happy to give advice,
but I’m not going to take any side. If a Governor or a General
comes to the temple, such as for the pha pa ceremony, I get them
to sit on a mat on the floor with the rest of the villagers, not a
chair. If I am invited to a village I’m more interested in talking to
the villagers than the headman or the kamnan
or the [representa-
tives of the Tambon Administrative Organization] TAO. Some
monks are not like me—they hang out with the influential people
in a community. The villagers are there but they don’t pay atten-
tion to them. This is not my style, not my type. Some parts of my
sermons may shake people’s positions a bit, and they disagree,
say this is not nice. People also try to buy my silence with money,
Parnwell, Seeger, Relocalization of Buddhism in Thailand 120
so I won’t comment on certain practices or situations. I can’t go
along with this. It would cause distrust among the people.
In spite of all his constructive community development work, PKS is ra-
ther pessimistic about the future. He is in declining health and he has yet
to find someone who can carry on his life’s work, particularly within the
monastery. The abbot is very critical of the way that the monastic insti-
tution has changed in recent years, and of the attitudes and behavior of
many monks:
I would say that monks today nurture people’s desires because of
consumerism and materialism. Some monks go along with it;
they think that they are doing something for society by endors-
ing desire, craving and wealth accumulation. But I emphasize
that desire is there and operates at all levels, and within all social
strata. At the same time, our sponsors [the villagers] give a lot of
material things to us (for example, TVs, cars). They think the
temple needs to be in better condition and better equipped, so
they give us these things. The monks inevitably get dragged into
this circle of desire. Sometimes it can escalate, so that the monks
come under the control of influential people and politicians in
the province, and are used and manipulated by them. The pre-
dominant social function of Buddhism nowadays is in ritual ser-
vice, while its moral and spiritual influence has been drastically
reduced. The influence of Buddhism is actually much weaker
than in the past. In reality, we have worldly materials set as an
object, so it’s very difficult to restore a mind-set based on Budd-
hist virtues, the spiritual orientation of people.
121 Journal of Buddhist Ethics
PKS reveals his attitude toward certain rituals that local villagers expect
him to perform:
[I don’t like] putting sacred marks on cars or other things [coem
rot coem arai] [in order to charge them with positive energies],
[performing rituals in which gods are invoked] in order to end
one’s addiction to drugs or alcohol, or other rituals like warding
off bad luck by using incantations [suat sadokhro], . . . [producing]
nam mon [holy water]. I know that deep down they are clinging to
desires. Although I am open-minded [mai titcai], I ask not to do
[these kinds of things]. But I will do these things finally, despite
feeling “tired” inside of chanting these incantations, as [I see]
that people take us [monks] as their refuge and that these things
can help them mentally. They believe these rituals that we per-
form are efficacious. While not agreeing with these things, I also
do not look down upon them [mai loplu].
PKS is also very critical of what he calls phra sakdina (administration
monks; literally “monks of power and rank”), who are so wrapped up in
the protocols and formal, routine duties that have been imposed by a
centralized Thai Sagha, and whose focus and aspirations lie further up
the monastic hierarchy and away from their localities (see also Phra
Khru Suphajarawat 2542 B.E.:11). He is also highly critical of monks who
leave their village temples to further their monastic education, and who
rarely return to their home communities or bring back knowledge that is
of local relevance. He also feels that, locally, a monastic education does
not have the standing and status that it held in the past, vis à vis a secu-
lar education, and thus it is becoming increasingly difficult to recruit lo-
cal men to ordain into the monkhood. He is also very skeptical of the
quality of village youth today, their suitability for ordination, and their
capability and commitment to continue the work that he has started.
“Society has become softer. Some monks are only interested in enter-
Parnwell, Seeger, Relocalization of Buddhism in Thailand 122
tainment, smoking, pai thiau (travelling around, having fun), folk dances,
bun bang fai (the rocket festival); or they may play the lottery, or eat
things they’re not supposed to. Monks these days are different from the
old days.” There are few “public disciples” to carry this work forward.
Not enough people today are interested in learning about the folk way of
life. The villagers’ attitudes toward the monastery have also changed:
In the past, what belonged to the monks was sacrosanct—people
respected that. Nowadays, people come to the monastery and
take things away. The temple is losing its sacredness. They eat
what belongs to the monks; they just come along and help them-
selves. Holiness disappeared from the world. We need to bring
the virtues back; raise awareness of their importance and decline.
Sacredness had an important function: it brought about ethical
behavior. Ethical behavior toward other humans and toward na-
ture. How can we restore this sanctity? . . . The combination of
laws and virtues [sīla] has to compensate for the loss of belief in
the sacred that in the past helped to sustain ethical behavior. But
here [regarding the law] we now have the problem of corruption.
If we restore belief in Buddhist virtues—sinlatham [sīla]—we can
restore the community and the environment. We need spiritual
development . . . . I work toward the restoration of the mind, the
virtues, ethics. But in reality we have worldly materials set as an
object, so it is very difficult to restore the mind-set, the spiritual
orientation of the people. People ordain now to get money from
people’s donations, or for other benefits. Also, some of the strict
Buddhist disciplines scare some people away from ordination. It
becomes increasingly difficult to recruit people to ordain; or the
people who ordain are rarely of an appropriate caliber, some
have problems with the law, or are debt/tax fugitives. Some
monks—especially the senior admin monks—are quite materialis-
tic. They have the power to put out orders, and they order com-
123 Journal of Buddhist Ethics
puters or IT facilities, cell phones, and so forth. In fact, if high-
ranking monks are not so-equipped they actually get criticized
for this! Material possessions have become almost the norm. It is
difficult to refuse inappropriate people’s ordination. Sometimes
influential people like kamnan or phu yai ban will put pressure to
have their sons ordained. Some of their kids are actually drunk
when they ordain. So, recruitment and ordination are totally up
to society.
Phra Mahathongsuk (Santacitto),
Samnak Buddhadhamma, Tambon Huai-
jaeng, Amphoe Kutchum, Yasothon
Phra Mahathongsuk (PMTS) is an admirer of Buddhadāsa Bhikkhu and
Phra Payutto, and, at the same time, follows the forest tradition by hav-
ing strong reverence for a number of representatives of this tradition in
Thailand, such as Ajan Man, Ajan Cha, Luang Pu La. As such, his case con-
trasts quite strongly with that of PKS in some important respects. He be-
lieves that too much involvement in community development inevitably
constrains his personal spiritual development, and thus he seeks to
maintain a certain distance between himself and routine community life.
He adopts a quite singular approach to the articulation of phutthasat,
“the science of the Awakened one/Buddha,” and saiyasat, that is, the be-
lief and practices that are concerned with magic and supernatural phe-
nomena. He incorporates mundane folk elements only as a pragmatic
local device in the pursuit of core spiritual objectives. Local beliefs are
interpreted dhammically. As we will see in the following discussion, he
has developed a quite sophisticated approach to folk rituals, and places
particular emphasis on meditation practice and the notion of “tempo-
rary nibbāna” and “nibbāna here and now.”
Parnwell, Seeger, Relocalization of Buddhism in Thailand 124
PMTS has been in charge of the samnak (monastic residence, that
is, it is not officially registered as a monastery) Buddhadhammārāma
since the mid 1990s. The name of this samnak is derived from the title of
Phra Payutto’s magnum opus “Buddhadhamma” (Payutto 2538a B.E.),
which clearly indicates PMTS’s intellectual orientation and inspiration.
It also expresses his intention to implement the ideas propounded in
Buddhadhamma within the local rural context, and as such fits centrally
with the localization theme with which this paper is concerned. The
samnak was founded in the mid 1980s, and is built on a former communi-
ty graveyard (pa cha) where corpses have been, and continue to be, cre-
mated and buried. At the time of the research (April 2006), the samnak
covered an area of fifty-four rai, and housed eight monks and three mae
chis. PMTS is a native of the area, and has been a monk for twenty rains
(vassa), having been ordained at the age of twenty. He has achieved
prayok sam (third grade) in the Thai traditional system of Pāli studies that
comprises nine grades altogether (see Ishii 1986:84-85;91-92;95-96). His
large collection of books by Buddhadāsa Bhikkhu and Phra Payutto gives
evidence of his erudition and scholarly knowledge. He does not want this
samnak to become an official monastery (wat: the villagers nevertheless
call it “wat” and perceive it as such) because he “fears” this will lead to
his becoming drawn inexorably into Sagha administrative work. Fur-
thermore, all the local villages already have monasteries, so adding a fur-
ther one might imply competition and may become a cause of
He describes his “wat” as a “forest monastery” (wat pa) as distinct
from the local “village monasteries” (wat ban). He explains that “village
monasteries” take on folk rituals and ceremonies (for example, bun bang-
fai, bun phawet, bun khau, the abbot acts as an exorcist (mo phi), ordina-
tion ceremonies are accompanied by music produced by “long drums”),
whereas instead his samnak organizes meditation teachings or Dhamma
talks. According to PMTS, “village monasteries” have to comply with vil-
125 Journal of Buddhist Ethics
lagers’ needs for such activities. Forest monasteries, however, can refuse
to perform those kinds of festivals.
He approaches spiritual development holistically, integrating
well-being of mind with well-being of body. Once a year, his “monas-
tery” holds a seven day meditation course which is attended by about
300 people (of whom 100 stay in the temple overnight) and in which
breathing meditation (ānāpānasati) according to the instructions of
Buddhadāsa Bhikkhu is taught. The meditation instruction and Dhamma
teaching covering Buddhist doctrine are organized jointly with long-
standing monks from other monasteries. In this way, the different kind
of local monasteries complement each other and work together.
Motivated by his faith in the teachings of Buddhadāsa Bhikkhu,
he spent two rains of intensive Dhamma study at Buddhadāsa’s monas-
tery, Suan Mok in Surat Thani province. He also spent some time as a
“wandering monk” (phra thudong). Coinciding with the death of the for-
mer abbot, PMTS visited his relatives and friends and was asked by the
villagers to take over the position of the late abbot. In his teachings he
extensively uses Buddhadāsa Bhikkhu’s interpretation of suññatā (emp-
tiness/voidness) and tathatā (suchness [of things]). If villagers practice
according to these concepts they can temporarily experience nibbāna
(dai rotchat nipphan
; literally “get the taste of nibbāna”). These concepts,
however, are rather difficult for the ordinary villagers to grasp. For this
reason, PMTS has to translate them from a sacred, aloof language into a
“concrete” language that takes into account villagers’ basic economic
needs. He says that canonical terms are for “veneration” (bucha/pūjā).
Therefore, his approach is one of linguistic de-sacredization. He is thus a
translator and localizer of canonical language. At the same time, howev-
er, when he is invited to perform exorcisms he uses this “aloof” lan-
guage, the Pāli language, which the villagers do not understand. He
chants canonical texts with doctrinal meaning, and the villagers believe
Parnwell, Seeger, Relocalization of Buddhism in Thailand 126
in their efficacy in warding off evil spirits, believing these texts to be
magic spells:
I make use of both saiyasat and phutthasat. That means I try to
bring people from saiyasat to phutthasat . . . . [For example] when I
am invited to exorcise evil spirits [from the building site] before a
new house is built . . . I chant [Pāli texts that] praise the Buddha:
“there is no one greater than the Buddha, the Dhamma and the
sagha.” I also sprinkle [the villagers] with Holy Water [nam mon]
and they appreciate this [they say: “sādhu”] . . . I go there as their
friend [pen mit kap khau] . . . . When a child is crying they want me
to come to chase away the spirit by which the child is possessed
and I chant Pāli texts praising the Buddha, the Dhamma and the
sagha. I also bind a sacred thread [that is, a saisin
] around the
wrist [of the possessed] and [the villagers] say that I am success-
ful in warding off the spirits. So it works . . . . This is [my] inclu-
sive approach . . . . I don’t use principles [and rituals] of exorcists
[mo phi] but the principles of the Buddha . . . . This is a flexible
and inclusive approach . . . .
Although Phra Mahathongsuk is like the other two monks in this
study in that his routine life brings him into regular contact with villag-
ers and their life and livelihood challenges, he opines that his spiritual
practice to attain permanent nibbāna is constrained by his activities in
community development (man cha long
). Therefore, he tries to stay with-
in his monastery as much as he can in order to “develop himself rigo-
rously” (rau phatthana tua eng yang khem nguat). This, however, does not
mean that he tries to escape from society or won’t try to help people
who come to visit him: the challenge is to find a suitable distance be-
tween him and society. In this connection, he compares his strategy with
that of “a hospital doctor” (tham tua khlai khlai kap mo yu rongphayaban
kon): if “seriously sick” people need treatment they will come to see him,
127 Journal of Buddhist Ethics
but “I do not carry my medicine bag around [in the world outside his
samnak] to inject medicine.” In contrast to Phra Phromma Suphattho
(the final case study), Phra Mahathongsuk has removed from the monas-
tery all technical devices that he once used for his teaching. In another
context, he repeatedly expresses the opinion that in Thailand there are
more than enough Dhamma-teachers whereas the number of Dhamma-
practitioners seems to be “very worryingly” quite small.
According to PMTS the villagers have a narrow understanding of
the authentic meaning of merit (puñña), namely they understand it as
the giving of material things (hai than; dāna) or the ordination of a son.
This distorted or narrowed understanding of puñña goes as far as the be-
lief that killing a buffalo or a cow and organizing artistic performances
or film shows as a part of an ordination ceremony, or the giving of rela-
tively large sums of money, are generating merit. In his teachings he
tries to return this term “puñña” to its original meaning: that is the ten
According to PMTS, a lot of local Isan wisdom (phaya) is coherent
with Buddhadāsa Bhikkhu’s teachings and hermeneutics. There are ample
examples of how PMTS localizes Buddhist concepts that stem either directly
from the Pāli canon or from Buddhadāsa. For example, Phra Mahathongsuk
connects the teachings of Buddhadāsa Bhikkhu with local sayings and gives
them a Buddhist meaning in this way, for example, the saying “despite stat-
ing an aspiration, one’s outstretched hands can’t reach it” (ปากวาแลว มือยื่นบถึง)
which he explains to villagers as follows: as long as people are attached to
worldly things like rank, praise and material possessions, they won’t reach
nibbāna as they do not wholeheartedly strive for it. Also, local beliefs are in-
terpreted in a way that connects them to canonical Buddhism. As we will
see in the following, Buddhadāsa Bhikkhu’s aforementioned hermeneutical
dichotomy of Dhamma language (phasa tham) and common language (phasa
khon) seems to have been very influential for him in this respect.
Parnwell, Seeger, Relocalization of Buddhism in Thailand 128
Phra Mahathongsuk’s samnak is laid out according to the prin-
ciples of what we call herespatial symbolism.” This practice, together
with his use of local sayings, seem also to have been strongly influenced
by Buddhadāsa Bhikkhu’s approach: probably Buddhadāsa Bhikkhu’s
most famous motif in this respect is that of the coconut tree on an island
as a symbol for nibbāna standing in the “sea” of rebirth:
the tree symbo-
lizes the uniqueness of nibbāna which is transcendent (lokuttara) and the
only thing that is firm in the middle of constant change (anicca) and suf-
fering (dukkha) (Buddhadāsa 2542 B.E.:173-175; Buddhadāsa 2549a
B.E.:205-218). This interpretation spatially and symbolically demon-
strates Buddhadāsa Bhikkhu’s understanding that nibbāna can be found
in the middle of the world and not outside of it, in the same way as the
coconut palm stands in the middle of the pond and not outside of it. This
spatially and symbolically expresses Buddhadāsa Bhikkhu’s “nibbāna
here and now” teaching. For Buddhadāsa Bhikkhu this “spatial symbol-
ism” is intended to provoke and motivate people in order to gain deeper
insights into Dhamma.
PMTS makes use of “spatial symbolism” in a similar manner, but
interpreted in his own way so as to make it congruent with the locality
through “discursive localization.” Some of the devices he uses in his
samnak are as follows:
(1) A bodhi tree (it was a bodhi tree under which the Buddha-to-be
became the Awakened One): villagers symbolically support
the tree with wood in the belief that this will prolong their
lives. PMTS interprets this practice as supporting Buddhism,
securing the longevity of Buddhism, as this tree is a symbol of
(2) A toilet that is called the “toilet of voidness” or “toilet of
suññatā” (hongnam sunyata), meaning that this toilet expresses
the idea of mental voidness (compare with Buddhadāsa
129 Journal of Buddhist Ethics
Bhikkhu’s central teaching of “citwang”/“void-mind”: Jackson
2003:129-200): when we go to the toilet in order to defecate or
urinate we give (up) and “feel good” (sabai) while doing this;
and we give without expectations: the giving in this way al-
lows the realization of nibbāna in this very life. This interpre-
tation by PMTS links Buddhadāsa Bhikkhu with the very
popular (and contentious) Luang Pho Khun, a local Isan monk
who had taught this method of reflection on “right” giving,
and who became well known for “his skills in combining the
principles of the Buddha’s Dhamma with “Thai local wisdom”
(phumpanya Thai) in order to communicate the customs and
dialect of the people of Khorat [a northeastern Thai prov-
ince].” (Jackson 1999a:12);
(3) A bathroom that is called the “four iddhipāda
again in order to teach people that meditation practice should
be undertaken anytime and anywhere, even while on the toi-
let or taking a shower. Also, PMTS is using a word-play here:
in the Isan dialect “to go to the toilet” is “pai than” (ไปฐาน)—
this is a homonym to than that is used in the compound kam-
mathan which literally is “work of business” and is the Thai
form of the Pāli technical term “kammaṭṭhāna”, that is, medi-
tation exercises. In this way, PMTS teaches that going to toilet
should involve insight meditation practice (vipassanā);
(4) The kitchen is called the “suññatādāna kitchen,” meaning that
everyone is invited to eat for free and the food is given out
with an empty mind, so that while giving nothing is expected
in return;
(5) There is a “Four-Noble-Truths pavilion” (cattāri ariyasaccāni-
sālā), having four pillars, where PMTS invites people to con-
template and analyze their problems in accordance with the
Parnwell, Seeger, Relocalization of Buddhism in Thailand 130
structure of the Four Noble Truths (cattāri ariyasaccāni); if the
person is not able to solve their problems on their own, then
people are invited to use the next building . . .
(6) The so-called “dhammasabhā” (the Dhamma parlia-
ment/council), where problems can be discussed with monks
who try to help to solve individual problems.
Another example of PMTS’s vivid use of religious terminology which he
translates in a way that communicates a message to his local community
is the so-called “pasakula” cloth that normally refers to discarded cloth
that is used by monks to manufacture their robes or designates the fu-
neral robes that are dedicated to deceased persons. These robes are also
traditionally used to contemplate on the Buddhist concept of imperma-
nence (aniccatā). In addition to its canonical meaning, however, PMTS
uses this word when he refers to a recycling scheme where people give
things that no longer have any use or value, like building materials
(wood or bricks), to the monastery. These discarded things are then used
as building materials in his monastery.
There are further examples of PMTS’s engagement in a process of
“doctrinal localization,” or interpreting local practices according to the
Dhamma: concerning the use of various kinds of trees, a lay exorcist (mo
phi) uses bamboo and other wood to prevent the spirit of a person who
died an unnatural/sudden/abnormal death (taihong), such as in an acci-
dent, from escaping from the grave so that the spirit is not able to dis-
turb the villagers. Unlike dead bodies from people who died a
“normal/natural death,” the corpses of sudden death are buried in a sec-
luded place in the forest. Only after a certain period of time, namely
three years, has passed will the body be cremated (see Tambiah
1970:179;189-190; Formoso 1998:7-16; Ladwig 2003:81-83). PMTS inter-
prets these local or folk mechanisms of exorcism in a dhammic way, that
is, the bamboo symbolizes not-self (anattā) or emptiness (suññatā), as
131 Journal of Buddhist Ethics
bamboo, despite having a solid form and appearance, has no nucleus; the
wooden pole that is used to indicate the location of the grave together
with the name of the deceased and the day of death is interpreted as the
“pillar of Dhamma” that demonstrates that death is inevitable for all
people, whether poor or rich. The wood that is used to keep away ani-
mals that might dig for the corpse is called maikhomheng (literally: “the
wood that suppresses”)
and symbolizes that humans suppress one
another in the struggle for economic resources, commit adultery, usurp
power from each other, and so on. This should serve as a reminder that
the actual goal of/in life should be nibbāna. Most of these interpretations
are actually based on widespread sayings and aphorisms of Isan culture
and have not been developed specifically by PMTS. But he uses them in a
Buddhadāsa-like manner as “provocative food for thought.” This is a fur-
ther example of how a national discourse on Buddhist practice has been
localized, or made understandable and identifiable for lay folk, hence
doctrinal localization.
The flexibility and inclusiveness of this approach is very nicely
demonstrated in the next example of PMTS’s approach to dealing with
local beliefs and practices that seemingly have nothing to do with Budd-
hist soteriology. In the graveyard of this “monastery” the villagers have
carved the shape of a vagina into the tree opposite the grave of a local
man. The local belief is that the man buried in this spot had neither a
wife nor a girlfriend in his life, and villagers wished him to find one in
his afterlife. In connection with this it is also believed that the spirit of
the deceased is not reborn immediately but inhabits a “state between”
(antarābhava), before being born in another life. This is actually, from a
traditional Theravāda doctrinal point of view, a heretical belief, as
Theravāda believes that rebirth takes place immediately after death (see
Kv.364-366). Despite the fact that this traditionally held belief of locals
contradicts Theravāda doctrine, PMTS does not go against this belief of
rebirth but bases his teaching on it in order to show to villagers that
Parnwell, Seeger, Relocalization of Buddhism in Thailand 132
kamma performed in this life has consequences in the afterlife, however
this might appear. The pedagogical aim here is to prevent the beliefs of
eternalism (sassata-diṭṭhi) or annihilationism (uccheda-diṭṭhi) which from
a Theravāda point of view are mistaken views (see: S.III.97). That is, he
tries to integrate the Buddhist teaching of impermanence, not-self, and
suffering, and the law of kamma (together with its moral implications)
into local beliefs without undermining locally held beliefs and practices,
even if they are in stark contradiction to some fundamental Theravāda
doctrines, as here concerning the process of rebirth. Only if the funda-
mentals of Theravāda are distorted to an “unacceptable” extent would
PMTS disapprove or refuse to lend support. In this way, so PMTS be-
lieves, villagers can gradually develop their understanding of authentic
Buddhism and their moral behavior. The aim is to lead them to the core
teachings of Buddhism in a way that ties in with existing local beliefs.
That means existing beliefs are not replaced, but are given a new mean-
ing that helps villagers to progress gradually to “authentic” Buddhist
His approach in this regard, together with the corresponding fa-
cilities in his temple, could be explained in Phra Payutto’s dichotomy of
Dhamma-practice on the big/small scale, and is a way of translating the
Dhamma into a language that can be understood by the villagers. On both
scales (big and small) the basic components of the Eightfold Path have to
be present (sīla, samādhi and paññā), and as long as the ultimate aim re-
mains the same: liberation/escaping from vaṭṭasasāra (cycle of rebirth),
or in other words nibbāna. In this way, the basic structure of the Four
Noble Truths can be applied both on a social and an individual level.
PMTS’s basic concept and strategy of teaching complex Theravāda doc-
trines to his local community is strongly informed by Phra Payutto’s un-
derstanding of the practice of the Noble Eightfold Path, which Phra
Payutto explains as follows:
133 Journal of Buddhist Ethics
In everything we do at all times, no matter what our actions or
undertakings, we are able to train, develop, observe and watch
ourselves in all three aspects of this Threefold Training
(sikkhāttaya). This means to train ourselves in all three aspects, in
morality (sīla), concentration (samādhi) and wisdom (paññā) at the
same time and all the time . . . . At any time, at all times, there is
the application of the threefold training on the “small scale”
[cunlaphak], that is, all the three are practiced in the same action
or activity. At the same time, there is development of the three-
fold training on the “large scale” [mahapphak], that is, gradual de-
velopment step by step, appearing from the outside like a
dedicated training of each level, in order, one by one. The appli-
cation of the threefold training on the small scale supports its
strong development on the large scale; and conversely the devel-
opment of the threefold training on the large scale supports its
application on the small scale, until there is a growing stability
and perfection that leads to the highest stage. (Payutto 2540c
PMTS gives an example for this approach at the community level in the
form of the amelioration of addiction to alcohol, which is a kind of “low
level” cycle of rebirth.
Initially, when he came back from Suan Mok, he refused to per-
form magical rituals like “to make auspicious markings on cars” (coem ro-
t), or consecrate water (suat nam mon), as he wasronwicha” (literally:
“hot in his knowledge”, that is, extremely eager to show his knowledge).
But he quickly learned that this approach would not be accepted by the
villagers, for whom these rituals are vital. He therefore started to do
these markings and consecrations but only by connecting them with
Dhamma teachings, that is, to teach and remind villagers to drive mind-
fully (i.e., with sati, mindfulness, and sampajañña, clear comprehension)
Parnwell, Seeger, Relocalization of Buddhism in Thailand 134
and amicably. Now, he also uses “magic formulas” (khatha khlang): for
example, if someone expresses the wish to become a millionaire he gives
the formula “u ā ka sa” and based on the Pāli canon (A.IV.281) explains
that these abbreviations stand for diligence (uṭṭhānasampadā), protection
(ārakkhasampadā), the association with good friends (kalyāṇamittatā), and
a balanced way of life (samajīvikatā) (see also Seeger 2005a:268-269).
This is done to motivate them to practice the Buddhist Path. This is
another example of his flexibility and inclusive, integrative hermeneu-
tics that are very similar to Phra Payutto’s approach in this respect. This
again represents an attempt to localize a wider set of discourses and
teachings, in this case those emanating from Suan Mok and Phra Payut-
to’s interpretive approach, to fit local realities. Very similar to Phra
Payutto, PMTS sees villagers as being at very different levels of spiritual
development. Some still need the belief in the efficacy of magical things
whereas others have developed to higher levels of spiritual development
as outlined in the Pāli canonical scriptures (Seeger 2005a:275). In order
to keep things harmonious and inclusive, he tries to integrate these
people by accommodating their various religious beliefs, but also with
the aim of further spiritual development. And very similarly to Phra
Payutto, as we have already repeatedly seen, he perceives Buddhism as
being “very flexible”: the important thing is directing people to the
principles of Buddhism while, at the same time, not corrupting these
principles (compare with Payutto 2542 B.E.:95-96 where Phra Payutto
explains that there exist two Buddhisms: “authentic Buddhism” (phut-
thasatsana tua thae cing) and “folk Buddhism” (phutthasatsana baep chau
ban). Between both there exists a “connecting bridge” (saphanchueam),
that is, the engaging of “authentic Buddhism” with the aim to teach its
principles and gradually develop people while taking into account the
variety and different levels of people’s spiritual development. In this
way, even Thai descriptions of nibbāna as a “great city of non-dying” (a-
matamahanakhon), as opposed to the canonical teaching that nibbāna is a
self-less state of mind, can be accepted from a Theravāda doctrinal point
135 Journal of Buddhist Ethics
of view, as long as the “authentic principles of Buddhism are not de-
stroyed” or “distorted”).
PMTS thus recognizes the prevalence and persistence of folk be-
liefs and practices, but while accommodating Buddhism to local culture
and reaching out to the local community, as PKS does, PMTS also uses lo-
cal referents and understanding as a cognitive route to a deeper appreci-
ation of core Buddhist principles and ideals. In other words, whereas PKS
conflates phutthasat and saiyasat, PMTS uses saiyasat as a conduit to phut-
Although their approach and underlying philosophy show many
differences, PMTS has also recently started to become involved in local
environmental projects in a broadly similar manner to PKS. Nonetheless,
the way he orchestrates villagers’ interaction with the local environ-
ment differs in degree and method. PMTS has carried out a chemical-free
reforestation project on a sixteen-rai (2.56-hectare) plot adjacent to his
samnak, and he styles the forest as “the supermarket of the villagers”
(suppoemaket khong chau ban). For dietary supplement the villagers can
obtain red ants eggs, mushrooms and young bamboo shoots from the
forest area, as well as various types of herbs, the cultivation and
processing of which is intended to preserve and maintain local know-
ledge of herbal medicine. The villagers are allowed to take whatever
they need. There is only one rule: it is forbidden to take life. The recipes
and procedures for these medicines have been transmitted orally or can
be found in “old books.” Herbs are also used for the treatment of addic-
tions (mostly alcohol and cigarettes, and formerly amphetamines) in ac-
cordance with the “slogan”: “The Dhamma cures the mind, the herbs cure
the body.” Yearly, about 100 drug addicts of both genders come to his
and ask for help. In addition to the traditional herbal medicine
which makes them vomit, and a promise to Buddha, Dhamma and sagha,
threats are also used in the treatment process: “If I am not able to quit,
Parnwell, Seeger, Relocalization of Buddhism in Thailand 136
let me die!” Some of the drug addicts might sit in meditation. Conse-
crated water (nam mon) is also used as part of the healing process, in or-
der to “motivate people” (hai kamlang cai). This is an example of how
saiyasat is used to bring the people to phutthasat, and contrasts with the
widespread practice whereby phutthasat sometimes takes people to, or at
least fails to deliver them from, saiyasat: PMTS cites the commercializa-
tion of Buddhism by selling amulets as his primary example. His ap-
proach also tries to reconnect to the past where, so he believes, saiyasat
was used to bring people to phutthasat, and not the other way around as
is often the case nowadays. This attitude is the key to our notion of “re-
He adopts a similarly flexible approach in relation to villagers’
daily lives. PMTS teaches that any work should be performed in a way
that is Dhamma-practice. This means that the three aspects of the Noble
Eightfold Path, morality (sīla), meditation (samādhi) and wisdom (paññā),
can be integral to one’s daily life and work. This is consistent with Phra
Payutto’s teaching on the flexibility of the Eightfold Path, which allows
practice of all three aspects anytime, anywhere. When villagers follow
the Buddhist rules of morality (sīla); are happy with their daily work and
are determined in it (samādhi); and understand the interconnectedness
of their work, and critically examine information that is presented to
them through the various media (radio, TV), that is, sutamaya-paññā
(wisdom resulting from study) and cintāmaya-paññā (wisdom from reflec-
tion) (here he is referring to D.III.219), villagers can practice the
Eightfold Path in their daily lives (Payutto 2538a B.E.:571-572; Payutto
2540c B.E.).
This is also reflected in his meditation teaching. As already men-
tioned, PMTS annually offers seven-day sessions during which medita-
tion is taught. Several hundred people attend these sessions, both locals
and also people from further afield. He invites various meditation mas-
137 Journal of Buddhist Ethics
ters to teach meditation. PMTS himself teaches two kinds of meditation:
that which can be practiced in all of one’s daily activities, and that which
is more focused, intensive and technical. This too can be connected to
Phra Payutto’s understanding of the flexibility of Buddhist practice, on a
small scale and on a large scale.
PMTS teaches how to ameliorate the actual problems of villagers
(such as addiction problems, family problems) in accordance with the
structure of the Four Noble Truths, that is, to identify the roots of the
problems (samudaya) and methods/strategies (magga) in order to escape
from the individual (metaphorical) rebirth cycle (vaṭṭasasāra) and to
eliminate (nirodha) the problems. He uses the Four iddhipāda in his teach-
ing in order to give advice on how villagers can gain happiness from
their work. In his view, work should be done without the expectation of
salary: villagers should investigate things in order to understand what
their “true and artificial values” are, what their material and what their
spiritual (gua) value is.
They are encouraged to propagate the happi-
ness that comes from non-material things (nirāmisa-sukha) as opposed to
carnal happiness (sāmisa-sukha). These two approaches, too, seem to be
strongly influenced by Phra Payutto, who has extensively written on
these two concepts (see for example,: Payutto 2538 B.E.:543;694-695;
Payutto 2548a B.E.). Problems should not be perceived as “obstacles” (u-
pasak) but as opportunities to develop one’s wisdom. He explains that in
this way the villagers can experience nibbāna because their life becomes
“cool.” In order to explain this concept he uses kusalopāya, “wholesome
means,” which is actually rather a Mahāyānist concept. Kusalopāya also
includes the distribution of amulets or the use of sacred water in order
to drive away malevolent spirits (phi), holy spells (kāthā, for example, or
u ā ka sa” discussed above), making auspicious markings on vehicles,
and exorcism. This, however, is connected with the teaching of Buddhist
principles. He also teaches “communal kamma” (kamruamkan): chemicals
that are used in the growing of food can cause cancer to the consumers.
Parnwell, Seeger, Relocalization of Buddhism in Thailand 138
Morality has to comprise society like “a big family.” Misbehavior or
goodness of one single community member might affect the reputation
of the whole community.
PMTS thus differs from PKS, not least in relation to their relative
degrees of detachment/engagement. Whereas PKS actively goes out into
his community to address and become involved in secular aspects of
their development, albeit with strong but not clearly overt spiritual un-
derpinnings, PMTS requires local people to come to him, ostensibly on
his terms, and principally in order that they also seek religious meaning
through their interactions with him, albeit couched in a locally compre-
hensible manner. The difference between them is subtle but still very vi-
tal, and points to a very different viewpoint, especially in connection
with Phra Mahathongsuk’s understanding that “going out” might slow
down the process of one’s own spiritual self-perfection. This understand-
ing is actually the outcome of a process: PMTS had been “going out of his
monastery” in the past and he had also been involved in the sangkha asa
In this respect, PMTS is building on the traditional role of the
monastery, that is, people come and are welcome.
But in quite sharp contrast, PMTS is also engaged in activities and
practices which are much more congruent with his characterization as a
“forest monk” and can be understood as belonging to the intensive prac-
tice of the Eightfold-Path, that is, what Phra Payutto calls the practice on
the “large scale.” PMTS has a close connection with, and supports, a for-
est temple in a 3,000-rai
forest conservation area, called phuyim, “smiling
mountain” (of which 2,000 rai are looked after by his follower monks).
Due to its remoteness this monastery offers the opportunity for very in-
tensive meditation practice: there is no electricity, the monks live in
caves, it is remote and difficult to access, and thus it offers plenty of op-
portunities for practice in the wilderness in extreme solitude. Further
examples for the practice on the “large scale” are a small hut in his sam-
139 Journal of Buddhist Ethics
nak where monks/people can engage in highly intensive meditation
practice while being locked in for a long period of time (for several days
or even a week): water is provided by a pipe through a wall, and there is
a small hole in the floor with a concrete lid where the practitioner can
urinate/defecate. The purpose is to allow the practitioner to fast and not
see or talk to anyone for a long period of time, and thus exclusively focus
on his/her meditation practice. There is also a tree trunk that has been
placed horizontally about one meter above the ground, on which walk-
ing meditation is practiced. All of the above elements clearly express the
intensity and high level of meditation practice that is pursued in this wat
These more intense or austere aspects of his Buddhist practice
are influenced by the teachings of eminent monks of the forest tradition,
such as Ajan Cha and Ajan La, which are used exclusively for the inten-
sive practice that leads toward permanent nibbāna. PMTS is thus able to
use in a complementary manner, and also localize, the socially engaged
Buddhism of Buddhadāsa Bhikkhu and Phra Payutto as well as the indi-
vidual liberation approach of important forest tradition monks.
For PMTS it is vital that monks preserve local culture and reflect
critically on new things, in order to counter-balance modern things.
Phra Phromma Suphattho, Wat Suanthamruamcai, Tambon Phosai, Amphoe Pa-
tiu, Yasothon
Phra Phromma Suphattho (PPS) is a strong admirer and follower of the
Santi Asok movement’s leader, Samana Phothirak. He believes in the
strict separation of phutthasat
and saiyasat, and finds no place for ritual,
ceremony, superstition and “god-ism” (thewaniyom) in his temple. He
promotes high ethical standards and strict adherence to the pāṭimokkha,
practicing vegetarianism, organic farming, and demonetization. He be-
Parnwell, Seeger, Relocalization of Buddhism in Thailand 140
lieves monks should contribute to society through leading by example,
and should not shy away from political issues. Although lay followers are
strictly selected, and many find it difficult to adhere to PPS’s somewhat
puritanical regime, the temple reaches out to a very wide local audience
via the abbot’s community radio station. This case study provides an ex-
ample of the localization of reform Buddhism, taking some of the core
principles of the Santi Asok movement and applying them in a local con-
text outside the movement’s formal structure and network.
PPS has been a monk for twenty-two years (as of 2005) and was
ordained at the age of twenty. For him, the current world has distanced
itself quite enormously from “authentic” Buddhism and actually goes
against some of its core principles. Buddhism as practiced in Thailand is
dominated by ritual and has hardly any space left for “real” Buddhism.
For him Samana Phothirak, the founder of the Santi Asok movement,
whom he knows personally, is the most important Dhamma teacher in
Thailand and he tries to emulate his example. Samana Phothirak’s teach-
ing exerts an enormous influence on the ideas, thinking, teaching and
practice of PPS. Nevertheless, he still formally belongs to the
Mahānikāya denomination in Thai Buddhism and is not formally affi-
liated with Santi Asok, which has been expelled from Thai institutional
Buddhism and now operates outside it.
The monastery ground comprises more than 100 rai
. There are
five monks and one novice living in the temple, and also approximately
fifteen lay people (mostly women) who live in the monastery compound,
albeit in a strictly separated area; there is also gender separation. Thus,
compared with PKS, who leaves the monastery to position himself in the
middle of the social world, and PMTS, who tries to distance himself from
the mundane world to enhance his personal spiritual development, PPS
welcomes the world into the monastery, albeit with strict conditions for
moral behavior. It is a principle that within the monastery vegetarianism
141 Journal of Buddhist Ethics
must be practiced. PPS argues that, if monks eat meat, they become an
indirect “cause” (pen het hai) of other people killing animals, through the
economic principle of “demand” (upasong) and “supply” (upathan). He
thus adopts a holistic view of the interconnectedness of things
PPS has intensively studied the Pāli canon in this re-
spect, including canonical accounts that suggest the Buddha has alleged-
ly eaten meat, for example, “sūkaramaddava” (“soft pork” or the name of
a sort of edible mushroom?)
in the Mahāparinibbānasutta (D.II.127). Be
this as it may, he believes (attanomati) that the Buddha did not eat meat
(admitting however that the Buddha did not explicitly state this): as this
would be problematic given the first training rule. For this view, he re-
fers to the four mahāpadesa (that is, the principle of coherency) in the
Mahāparinibbānasutta (D.II.123-126) and Jīvakasutta (M.I.368-371). The lat-
ter text, however, is also referred to by those who argue that meat can
be consumed as long as it clear that the offered meat is tikoiparisuddha
(that is, “pure from three angles”), which means “the monk had not seen
nor heard that the animal had been killed particularly for him, nor had
any reason for suspecting so.” (Schmithausen 2005:189). For PPS, howev-
er, it follows from Buddha’s first training rule (sikkhāpada) that refrain-
ing from killing implies that monks should not consume meat. He applies
this principle in order to help the villagers to gain merit by not killing
living beings. PPS perceives that the point when he first refrained from
consuming meat constituted his entrance into “real” Dhamma practice.
He says that the realization of these high ethical standards is probably
not possible in society on a large scale, but is doable on a small scale, on
an individual level or in small communities such are found within the
Santi Asok movement.
Although strictly separated from the monks, villagers live in the
temple grounds, practicing organic farming (which is described as “phut-
thakaset,” Buddhist agriculture) of rice, fruits and herbs. They operate
within the constraints of the five sīla and the five vaijjā (trades which
Parnwell, Seeger, Relocalization of Buddhism in Thailand 142
should not be performed by lay disciples: see A.III.207). In terms of keep-
ing the five precepts, intention (cetanā) is decisive (for example, uninten-
tionally destroying living beings while digging the earth). The villagers
share their products for free and do not employ people.
According to PPS, Buddhism prescribes social engagement and
interaction with others. To him, highly concentrative meditation in soli-
tude in a deep forest or a cave is worthless and a waste of potential:
“Buddhism that doesn’t leave the world behind is the highest form of
science as it allows us to learn, to experience and to teach and learn from
each other.” Interacting and living with the world is thus the best way
for spiritual progress. Getting into dispute and disagreement with others
can reveal one’s own kilesa (impurities) and thereby help one to study
them in order to make spiritual progress: “When you are alone [in a for-
est or cave], who can provoke your anger: the trees, and dogs?” In a later
interview PPS was rather reserved in answering a question about
sammāsamādhi (Right Concentration, the eighth component of the cen-
tral concept of Buddhist practice, that is, the Noble-Eightfold Path,
aṭṭhagika-magga, see for example: D.II.312; M.I.61; M.III.251): “This is a
very scholarly question”, he said. He feared answering this question in-
correctly. According to him, the widespread understanding in Thailand
that in order to practice meditation you have to perform sitting medita-
tion is distorted. But this doesn’t mean that he denies this form of medi-
tation practice. In his teaching he emphasizes the keeping of sīla, and to
a much lesser extent the practice of meditation. The meditation in his
monastery is not very intensive: work is in the foreground, and medita-
tion takes place during and through work. This is very much in line with
Santi Asok’s understanding of sammāsamādhi.
PPS runs a radio station in his monastery, which he calls the
“community radio” (withayu chum chon
, allowed for in the then Thai Con-
stitution of 1997), through which he both engages with the wider society
143 Journal of Buddhist Ethics
and responds to people’s life and livelihood needs, as well as their spiri-
tual needs. The radio programs comprise Dhamma talks and other kinds
of “good things,” such as playing “meaningful” songs: there are no songs
aired that “mislead/brainwash” (mommau) or are “non-sensical.” There
are no advertisements. The radio is supported by people’s donations and
from voluntary work. The station has been in existence since 2002,
broadcasts within a thirty kilometer radius, and has an audience of
around 10,000 listeners. He recently (i.e., 2005) conducted a survey
amongst the listeners (8,000 questionnaires were sent out of which 7,000
were returned). The station has been an overwhelming success, and is
now the most popular radio station in Yasothon province. During its ini-
tial phase, the radio station was nearly ordered by the state to close
down because of its content. PPS makes phone calls to phu yai, that is,
“important/influential people,” for example, senators and politicians,
and airs the interviews on the radio station. Programs about politics are
very popular amongst the listeners, where PPS analyses and criticizes
political and social phenomena. Through the radio station PPS actively
engages with the local society. Nonetheless, there are a lot of people who
do not understand why a monk is talking to society about worldly things
and not “Dhamma.”
With regard to the rightful role of monks in politics, he believes
that monks have a duty to teach politicians not to be corrupt, but at the
same time the monk must not “play politics” (len kan mueang). Due to
their charisma (barami) monks have a very important role: they “have to
teach” politicians: “monks have to explain to villagers which politician
has done right and who has done wrong.” But he sees a danger of monks
being used by politicians as canvassers. In his view monks can support
political parties: “if a party is good, then a monk can support it.” But he
also admits that it is rather difficult if not unrealistic to find an “ideal po-
litical party.” Nevertheless he would refrain from doing this through his
radio station: “it does not look good.” There are many other ways of
Parnwell, Seeger, Relocalization of Buddhism in Thailand 144
doing this, such as through seminars. As is the case with Samana Phothi-
rak, he is well-informed and at the same time very critical about the po-
litical, economic and social scene and happenings on a national and
international level. For PPS, the world is currently in inexorable moral
decline: “the Buddha said that in BE2500 the world will continue to dete-
riorate more and more. It is difficult to get back to the past.”
PPS strongly emphasizes that monks have to abide strictly by the
original 227 rules of the bhikkhu-pāṭimokkha, and any adaptation of these
rules is impossible. Whenever, during a monk’s work, a rule might be
broken in order to do this specific task, villagers will take over these spe-
cific tasks, for example, cutting grass, digging the earth, producing her-
bal medicine for consumption by the villagers (monks are only allowed
to produce herbal medicine for other monks), and so forth. He upholds a
strict divide between phutthasat and saiyasat. PPS opines that, as Buddha
images historically developed 300-700 years after the time of the Budd-
ha, they cannot be representative of “original” Buddhism. In his monas-
tery no consecration rituals of Buddha statues or amulets are performed
as these rituals belong to the realm of saiyasat. Saiyasat, so PPS holds, is a
major problem in Thai society, and his efforts to eliminate it represent a
form of “purification” of Buddhism at the local level. He cites examples
of scandals in connection with the widespread amulet cult in Thailand,
such as the amulet business linked with amulets of Luang Pho Khun,
which even led to murder, and to Luang Pho Khun fleeing his monastery
because of the conflicts that were caused by differing business interests.
This is used as an example of the bad effects of the amulet cult, namely
the commercialization of Buddhism (phutthaphanit). According to PPS,
saiyasat” (magic spells, amulets, holy things) cannot be found or legiti-
mated by the original teaching. Here, we find a clear contrast with Phra
Mahathongsuk’s, Phra Khru Suphajarawat’s and Phra Payutto’s ap-
proach. According to PPS, these two realms “have to be separated clearly
[tong yaek hai chat]. I like to have a clear separation, black is black, white
145 Journal of Buddhist Ethics
is white.” However, he later on [after Phra Payutto’s views on this matter
has been explained] admits that amulets can give mental support and
can give encouragement (soem kamlang cai): “OK, it can be connected [to
pure Buddhism] . . . it depends on how you use amulets.” In this respect,
he believes that the tipiaka (Pāli canon) has been partly corrupted by
later accretions. Saiyasat elements and “cultural elements” might have
been added to the original body of texts by later tradition.
Before his study of Samana Phothirak’s teaching PPS used to wear
amulets (“tem kho”—literally “my neck was full of them”). For him Thai
Buddhist ceremonies, such as the consecration of sai sin water with the
power of sacred stanzas, are a distortion of original Buddhism. He perce-
ives in such ceremonies a form of “god-ism” (thewaniyom) that has to be
abolished. Due to the strict practice of dismissing superstitious things,
cigarettes and betel, people who come into his monastery are carefully
“selected”: that is, they have to keep the five precepts and abstain from
the six apāyamukha (that is, drug addiction, roaming the street at un-
seemly hours, frequenting shows, gambling, association with bad com-
panions, habit of idleness, D.III.182-184).
In terms of the precepts they
have to live up to a certain standard (later on, he admits that people
whose profession is butchery or fishing also come to his monastery and
donate vegetarian food, that is, in practice he seems to be more tole-
rant/flexible). Also, he refuses to go to religious events in lay people’s
houses when he knows that animals will be killed for this occasion or
where alcohol will be consumed. For this reason, there are not many
people who invite him. Due to his refusal to produce “consecrated wa-
ter,” many villagers have withdrawn from his monastery. The typical
people who come to his monastery are community leaders and social ac-
In his monastery only a minimum of ceremonies are performed.
He criticizes other monks who comply with villagers’ desire for tradi-
Parnwell, Seeger, Relocalization of Buddhism in Thailand 146
tional rituals and ceremonies, and instead encourages the elimination of
many “superfluous” ceremonies. In this sense he differs from Phra Khru
Suphajarawat, in practice if not in principle. For PPS rituals and ceremo-
nies are a form of “social psychology” with little or no impact on spiri-
tual development. According to PPS the widespread use of money by
monks depurifies the sagha. He is also strongly and overtly critical of
Thai politics, of capitalism and of materialistic development concepts in
Thailand—something which also makes him stand out from the majority
of monks within the mainstream Sagha for whom the politicization of
religion is a strict taboo. He is also well-informed about Thai politics and
global politics. This is in line with Santi Asok world-engagement and its
highly politicized profile (see McCargo 1997:74-103).
He is very critical of the widespread, distorted understanding of
the word “bun” (puñña): for example, the consumption of alcohol during
the bun bangfai festival, or monks who organize boxing events for the
creation of “bun.” He performs only a minimum of funeral rites. He ex-
plains to the villagers that merit transfer to the deceased is not possible
and he is not willing to perform such rites for the deceased. With regard
to the practice of the Noble Eightfold Path, he is in total agreement with
Samana Phothirak.
When PPS chants (and he tries to chant as little as possible) he
always gives a translation from the Pāli so that the chanting gets demy-
thologized; that is, it ceases to be chanting to dispel phi
(ghosts) and be-
comes a teaching that is to be implemented by the listeners (see
Tambiah 1970:195ff. on the words that are meant to be heard but not
meant to be understood). His funeral rituals are reduced to a minimum,
whereas villagers typically place great ritual emphasis on death: “Death
is in fact the most important rite of passage.” (Tambiah 1970:179).
According to PPS, monks should help society in the right way ac-
cording to the Pāli “attā hi attano nātho” (“you are your own refuge”;
147 Journal of Buddhist Ethics
Dp.160). This he applies to such concepts as the self-sufficiency econo-
my. More than 100 of the villagers have formed a group to practice the
five sīla and abstain from apāyamukha through the cultivation of khau
khunatham (“righteous/virtuous rice,” namely chemical-free rice). This
project has received funding from Kasetsat University. As in the case of
PKS, PPS is the leader of this project. He teaches the villagers to become
self-reliant (unlike politicians, so PPS claims, who distribute things and
in this way make the people weak and dependent and devoid of wisdom).
He produces neither watthumongkhon (“auspicious things”) nor phayan
(cloth with magical drawings); also, he doesn’t use katha (magically effi-
cacious stanzas). He opines that the Buddha did not force his monks to
get engaged in these development activities but he says that his religion
is the religion of compassion (hitāya sukhāya anukampāya) which should
support the world in a Buddhist way, that is, help people to become self-
The community has a shop, “Sahadhamma,” which is the main
source of income for the monastery and where various basic commodi-
ties (self-produced shampoo, rice, some herbs, and vegetables grown
within the temple grounds) are sold in the temple compound. Commodi-
ties are sold at a cheaper price than on the open market. This is in accor-
dance with the Santi Asok ideal of bunniyom (“meritism”) which the
movement wants to offer as an alternative system to capitalism. Heik-
kilä-Horn explains Santi Asok’s concept of bunniyom as follows: “Bun-
niyom does not emphasise profit, but emphasises instead the spiritual
merit gained when donating goods to the customers or when receiving
as low profit as possible from the customers” (Heikkilä-Horn 2002:48; see
also Sunai 2534 B.E.:91-107). The money is used to support the monas-
tery’s activities, and to purchase food and electricity. The reason for
running the shop is that the monastery—unlike the other monasteries—
does not have donation boxes and does not perform the traditional pha
pa ritual when lay followers usually offer substantial amounts of money
Parnwell, Seeger, Relocalization of Buddhism in Thailand 148
to the temple (pha pa is not refused but the participants have to abstain
from apāyamukha). The monastery has a rice mill which is also used by
the villagers. The monastery teaches about how to produce natural ferti-
lizer/micro-organisms in order to get better results from agriculture.
“Although not everything I implement is from Santi Asok, many
things are . . . . The villagers say that the practice in this monastery is
good but they say they can not live up to [these high standards].”
lives harmoniously with other monks and monasteries in the vicinity: he
does not criticize their practice, even though he sees “conservative
Buddhists” who are attached to rituals (that is offerings of flow-
ers/incense to the Buddha), which he does not have in his monastery. He
differentiates between āmisapūjā and paipattipūjā: “here, we stress
paipattipūjā (that is the practice of Buddhist teaching is perceived as
worship) whereas normally elsewhere they emphasise āmisapūjā (that is
taking material things for worship).” When asked if he is networking
with other monasteries, he says that other monasteries in this area differ
from the activities of his monastery. Most of the other monasteries are
“traditional monasteries” or “conservative monasteries.” He works in-
tensively with the state organization Rural Development Bank, and gives
a lot of training to villagers who are in debt. Also, he works together
with several charitable and developmental foundations.
Despite their similar philosophical position on questions of local
development, there are no joint activities between PPS and Phra Khru
Suphajarawat, although he often visits him and they exchange their re-
spective experiences. For him, PKS can be regarded as an example in
terms of helping the villagers with their livelihoods and with sustainable
development, such as the production of herbs for the natural medication
project. He praises and likes him. According to PPS, PKS is arguably the
first development monk in Yasothon province. Pho Wicit, from Ban
Sokkhumphun [another of our study villages, adjoining Ban Thalat, and
149 Journal of Buddhist Ethics
where PKS originally ordained as a monk], is the president of the founda-
tion of the monastery (Foundation thammaruamcai), and thus there is a
point of connection between the two communities.
PPS works very
closely with Pho Wicit (for example, in seminars about politics and agri-
culture). He also admires the practice of Phra Mahathongsuk. He calls his
monastery a wat pa (forest monastery), whereas that of Phra Khru Su-
phajarawat in Wat Thalat is a traditional village monastery (wat ban). He
indicates that his thinking is very much in line with that of Phra Maha-
thongsuk, yet he says that there are also a lot of differences. These can
be explained by local culture and beliefs which can be constraining, and
influence the practice of the monastery. PPS’s monastery refuses a lot of
traditions which are “unnecessary and useless.” But
. . . in the case of all the aforementioned monasteries [Wat Thalat;
Samnak Buddhadhamma], they have pressure/reasons not to
refuse these things [rituals and ceremonies], unlike my monas-
tery. The pressure is explained by the beliefs of villagers not yet
having reached a (spiritual) development level that would allow
them to go without these traditions/beliefs. Also, it can be ex-
plained by the fact that we dare revolutionize, promote reform in
a way that deviates from traditional beliefs. We do away with
these things. We are leading the society and we are not a monas-
tery that follows the society, no matter how the society is. We
show and lead: what is wrong is what we do not accept. What is
right is what we want people to follow. The other [aforemen-
tioned] monasteries do not yet have this extent of clarity. A wat
pa is a wat pa because of the landscape and here we have forest
and are separated from the village. That’s all. Wat ban and wat pa
should not differ in their practice. But most people say that there
are differences between both and this is indeed the case.
Parnwell, Seeger, Relocalization of Buddhism in Thailand 150
The case studies presented in this paper have hinted at some of the
changes that are taking place within Thai Buddhism today. They suggest
a diversity of Buddhist doctrinal hermeneutics in rural Thailand, not
least concerning the appropriate role of the monk and monastery within
the local community and the complex articulation of Buddhism with lo-
cal culture. The studies appear to support the suggestion with which we
commenced this paper that a uniform or standardized Buddhism is in
the process of being superseded by trends of fragmentation, diversifica-
tion and purification, with civic religion increasingly overlain by civil re-
ligion, notwithstanding their common core. All three monks, to different
degrees, appear to evince a certain tension with the diktats, bureaucra-
cy, hierarchy and lack of local groundedness of the institutionalized
Sagha. The case studies, far from suggesting that Thai Buddhism is in
“crisis,” propose that quite progressive and innovative developments are
taking place away from the metropolitan core, at least among the “faith
communities” that surround influential local clerics. The discussion has
also illustrated interesting connections between Buddhism, localism and
alternative forms of local development that have recently flourished in
rural Thailand. Quite whether the phenomenon of “relocalization”
equates to a process of “revitalization” is a little difficult to judge on the
basis of just three highly personalized cases.
The case studies show how three local individuals have adopted a
wide and interesting diversity of approaches both in their use and inter-
pretation of Buddhist doctrine and in their community interaction. PKS
might be described as a pragmatist: he understands the needs and capa-
bilities of his local community and responds accordingly by trying to in-
culcate Buddhist values into people’s daily life routines. He recognizes
that men will not wish to join his monastery if he aspires to disciplinary
standards that are “too rigid” (khaeng koen pai
), and he also makes com-
151 Journal of Buddhist Ethics
promises in the way that he accommodates locals’ beliefs and value sys-
tems (anulom pai tam sangkhom).
But this, in turn, enables him to reach
out and interact widely and freely with his local community. However,
his pragmatic compromises have a considerable personal cost. PKS con-
veyed to us a sense that he has sacrificed his own individual progress
toward nibbāna by trying to open up a broader path to Awakening that
others in his community might follow (see also: Prida 2542a B.E.:6). He
has also, on occasions, felt the need to “escape” from his monastery as
the demands and expectations of local villagers have become too much,
or to step back from some of the projects that he helped initiate as com-
peting interests have challenged the principles that he has espoused.
And he also has sleepless nights due to worries about community dis-
In quite stark contrast, PPS requires his followers to comply with
a relatively strict disciplinary regime which reflects a purist approach
that draws clear lines of demarcation between what is and is not “ge-
nuine” Buddhism. Whilst this has limited the number of genuinely local
devotees who come to his monastery and partake in its activities, his ra-
dio station allows him to reach out to a very wide provincial audience
and also to engage with a myriad of non-local, national and even global
issues. Additionally, there are also a number of what PPS calls “leaders
and activists” who come to his monastery from communities elsewhere
in Yasothon Province, and who generally can cope with and may even be
attracted by the monastery’s pure and strict regime. PPS describes these
people as “convinced and committed” who, in taking his message back to
their home communities, also suggest that PPS’s teachings are influen-
cing a wider local constituency.
When he first arrived in the locality, fresh from Buddhadāsa
Bhikkhu’s temple Suan Mok, PMTS adopted a somewhat idealistic ap-
proach which did not fit very easily within the local context, but over
Parnwell, Seeger, Relocalization of Buddhism in Thailand 152
time he has adopted a more inclusive strategy, maintaining his core
Buddhist principles whilst communicating them to the local community
in innovative and imaginative ways. He provides an interesting illustra-
tion of the tensions associated with localization. Since becoming a local
leader he has been in a constant process of adjusting and readjusting,
seeking the “right” balance between his individual and the community’s
development. He first became involved in community activities outside
the “monastery” (for example, being part of the sangkha asa phatthana),
before later withdrawing because he realized this would slow down his
spiritual development, but now he feels obligated to help deal with vil-
lagers’ social, developmental and environmental problems that increa-
singly confront him.
Despite the differences between these local monks, there are also
clear points of congruence which reflect other contemporary trends in
Thai Buddhism to which each is responding. An example of this is their
respective understanding of the way that the concept of “bun” (puñña)
has been seriously distorted through its popular local usage. Beliefs and
practices concerning the “generation of merit” (tham bun) have increa-
singly come to reflect the tendency toward materialism, commercializa-
tion and commodification which have not only characterized modern
Thailand during its recent phase of intensive capitalist development, but
which are also perceived to have contributed to the “crisis” in Thai
Buddhism which we touched on at the beginning of this paper. All three
monks are highly critical of and have been trying to reform the local
practice and understanding of tham bun (merit-making). PKS complained
that when villagers came to talk to him about bun after his sermons they
were interested only in the material implications: “they didn’t seem to
understand the spiritual aspect of these terms.”
PKS and PMTS both
point to the need to return to the Pāli canonical concept of the three
puññakiriyā-vatthu (that is, bases of meritorious action; for example,
D.III.218, A.IV. 239) that in the commentary text Sumagalavilāsinī (D-
153 Journal of Buddhist Ethics
a.III.999) has been further elaborated into the ten puññakiriyā-vatthu.
These two sets of puññakiriyā-vatthu imply a practice that actually consti-
tutes the Noble Eightfold Path (aṭṭhagika-magga).
Their efforts in this
regard can be interpreted as part of the “purification” and “reining in”
processes that can be identified operating in tandem with relocalization,
taking the Pāli canon as the authoritative normative source.
Whatever their similarities and differences, the case studies have
lent some weight to Phra Phaisan Visalo’s suggestion (1999:10) of a “re-
turn to diversity” in Thai Buddhism. They demonstrate the extent to
which an individual monk’s personality, charisma and background influ-
ence the way that Buddhism is viewed, received, interpreted, taught and
practiced at the local level. Although an important theme in this paper
was the way that each monk has been influenced by the thoughts and
ideas of important modern Thai Buddhist thinkers, their philosophies
and teachings in this regard have also been molded by the intimate, but
variable, interfacing of monastery and community at the local level.
Wat Buddhism” in Thailand is characterized by a distinct particularism
and individualism which often distinguishes it from a more “universal”
institutional Buddhism. The three monks also appear to be characterized
by different dynamics: Phra Phaisan Visalo identifies (2546 B.E.:175) a
growing tendency for Thais to revere individual monks more than the
sagha as a whole. This raises a very important question about both the
sustainability and coherency of institutional Buddhism in Thailand. The
case studies have suggested that, whilst the institution as a whole may
be in “crisis,” beset by problems of scandal, corruption, commercializa-
tion and declining authority, at the local level many of the vital signs are
quite strong. Nonetheless, where local Buddhism is strongly influenced
by an individual monk’s charisma, personality and energy, its sustaina-
bility relies quite heavily on the commitment of continuity of the indi-
vidual. PKS is a case in point. He is in ailing health, and expressed deep
concern about whom, in the local area, would be willing and able to con-
Parnwell, Seeger, Relocalization of Buddhism in Thailand 154
tinue his local work as a development monk. In some important respects,
he has been swimming against the tide of a crisis in Thai Buddhism
which threatens, ultimately, to inundate his life’s work when he is no
longer around to sustain it:
Monks these days are different from the old days. I can transfer
knowledge only to someone who acknowledges it or is receptive
to it…. I encourage the younger monks to engage in development
work. Their question would be “where would I stand?” They
don’t have my charisma. Their speeches, sermons, cautions are
useless, they feel. I’m not so confident about their potential, and
their role toward our relatives here in the community . . . .
But, more optimistically, we can also identify a process whereby
the vitality and energy that local monks have contributed to their local
initiatives are, through increasingly extensive and expansive networks,
coalescing with those that can be found in local wat throughout the
length and breadth of the country.
In this way, and following Phra
Phaisan Visalo’s observation (2546 B.E.:468) that in Thai Theravāda mo-
nastic history (outside state-driven initiatives such as the various Sagha
Acts) reform has always come from the periphery, the grassroots process
of “relocalization” may hold the prospect of a genuinely “bottom-up”
revitalization of Thai Theravāda Buddhism.
(1) In this paper the capitalized “Sagha” refers to the institution of the monkhood in
Thailand, and the lower case “sagha” refers to the brotherhood of monks in Theravāda
Buddhism generically.
(2) Throughout this paper Thai words are differentiated from Pāli words by underlining
(Pāli words are italicized; Thai words are italicized and underlined). We have adopted a
155 Journal of Buddhist Ethics
standardized phoneticization of Thai script except with some familiar and commonly-
used words, especially names, such as King Bhumibol or Phra Khru Suphajarawat.
(3) B.E.: Buddhist Era. Articles and books published in Thai are typically dated according
to B.E. rather than A.D., and where this is the case we have retained this signification.
B.E. = A.D. + 543 years.
(4) The ecclesiastic titles used by monks in Thailand often change during the course of
their monastic careers. For referencing purposes we have indicated their most com-
monly used ordination name/title, and have omitted the title “Phra” from the text ref-
(5) These are the two Thai Buddhist congregations. Dhammayuttika-nikāya was in-
itiated by King Rama IV prior to his reign during his twenty-seven-year period in the
monkhood (1824-1851). Quantitatively, compared with the Mahānikāya, the Dham-
mayuttika-nikāya is in the minority, constituting only ten percent of the monks in
Thailand (see Ishii 1986:154-160).
(6) For a biography of Samana Phothirak and history of Santi Asok, see: Phataraphon Si-
rikancana, 2540:6-68; Gombrich and Obeyesekere, 1988:350-352; Jackson, 1989:159-198;
Taylor, 1990; Fukushima, 1993:131-152; Apinya, 1993; Keyes, 1999:129-138; Sanitsuda
Ekachai, 2001:86-92; Essen, 2004:1-20.
(7) A.II.95-96: Tatra bhikkhave yvāya puggalo attahitāya paipanno no parahitāya, aya
imesa tiṇṇa puggalāna abhikkantataro ca paṇītataro ca. The abbreviations for the Pāli
canonical texts used in this article correspond to those used by the Pali Text Society
(8) The research was conducted jointly by Martin Seeger and Mike Parnwell of the Uni-
versity of Leeds, England, with financial support from the U.K. Economic and Social Re-
search Council (RES 000 22 1421). The project built on earlier field-work by Parnwell as
part of a collaborative EU-funded INCO-DEV research project in 2003 (ICA4-CT-2000-
30013). We would like to express our deep appreciation to Ajan Suriya Veeravongse, of
the Chulalongkorn University Social Research Institute, who played an immensely im-
Parnwell, Seeger, Relocalization of Buddhism in Thailand 156
portant role in the field investigation, which took place in Yasothon Province, nor-
theastern Thailand, during June and July 2005. We are also profoundly grateful to the
villagers of the four study communities in which we worked, and to the monks who are
featured in this article, all of whom generously contributed their time, energy and en-
thusiasm for our work. We have tried to represent their words and ideas as faithfully as
possible; any errors of translation or interpretation are the sole responsibility of the co-
(9) The research principally consisted of conducting semi-structured recorded conver-
sations with local monks and other key informants. Phra Khru Suphajarawat was inter-
viewed on four separate occasions (8, 11, 13 and 19 July 2005); Phra Mahathongsuk on
two occasions (8 August 2005, then a follow-up visit by Martin Seeger on 17 and 18 April
2006); Phra Phromma Suphattho on two occasions (14 July 2005; then a telephone in-
terview on 3 August 2006). The recorded interviews were transcribed by staff at the So-
cial Research Institute at Chulalongkorn University, Bangkok, and some were
translated by Chirasiri Kasemsin. Martin Seeger has exclusively used the original Thai-
language transcripts.
(10) This of course does not mean that we overlook the fact that canonical Buddhism it-
self is rather varied and comprises many elements that could be described as “kammat-
ic” or “apotropaic” Buddhism.
(11) At the same time it should be mentioned, however, that Buddhadāsa Bhikkhu ad-
mitted that only fully awakened beings (arahant) are able to eradicate completely their
dependence on saiyasat. Due to their still existent fear and wrong concept of self (attā),
all other human beings would necessarily still have to be dependent on some form of
saiyasat (Buddhadāsa 2529:37). If used properly, saiyasat could even be deployed benefi-
cially (Buddhadāsa 2529:37). Here it must noted, however, that Buddhadāsa Bhikkhu de-
fined the term “saiyasat” rather broadly, namely as “the attachment to tradition and
ritual, the imploring to God, imploring to holy things and not knowing what truth is.”
(Buddhadāsa 2529:15).
157 Journal of Buddhist Ethics
(12) Fukushima reported that at the Santi Asok center in Bangkok there is “no Buddhist
statue or shrine.” (Fukushima 1993:136). However, during a recent visit (2007) to Santi
Asok headquarters in Bangkok, Martin Seeger observed that Buddha images are now
more in evidence, a tendency with which some of the followers of Santi Asok seem not
to be happy at all.
(13) The following information on Phra Khru Suphajarawat’s work as a “development
monk,” his involvement in his local community and his interpretation of Buddhist doc-
trine is derived from interviews with him that took place on 8, 11, 13 and 19 July 2005.
Some of the quotations in the following discussion are paraphrases of parts of these in-
terviews: where this is the case this fact is indicated in a footnote. All the other texts in
this article are direct translations.
(14) He uses the term “phra chau ban
” to describe himself, by which he means a local
monk who is immersed in the traditional culture of his local community and whose
Dhamma practice is informed by an intimate understanding of the local situation (Phra
Khru Suphajarawat 2542 B.E.:8).
(15) Interview with Phra Khru Suphajarawat, 8 July 2005. In his biography, authored by
Prida Rueangwichathon, it is said that the “sangkha asa phatthana
” was founded on 4
August 1989 with twenty members (Prida 2535 B.E.:40). However, a research team from
Mahachulalongkorn University that has conducted extensive research on development
monks in the Northeast of Thailand gives 1985 as the year of origin of this group (Nora-
set Phisitphanphon and Sak Prasandi 2534 B.E.:31).
(16) “If a monk says something, everything becomes easy: a hundred words spoken by a
layperson are no match for a single word spoken by a monk.” (interview with Phra
Khru Suphajarawat, 8 July 2005). For liau lang lae na
, see also: interview, Phra Khru Su-
phajarawat, 13 July 2005.
(17) Paraphrasing of interview with Phra Khru Suphajarawat, 8 July 2005.
(18) Interview with Phra Khru Suphajarawat, 8 July 2005.
(19) Interview with Phra Khru Suphajarawat, 11 July 2005.
Parnwell, Seeger, Relocalization of Buddhism in Thailand 158
(20) Interview with Phra Khru Suphajarawat, 19 July 2005.
(21) One respondent noted how the influx of televisions had almost eliminated casual
chatting and social interaction, which traditionally had been an occasion when older
villagers in particular would talk about their dreams, through which the spirit world is
locally thought to communicate with humans.
(22) Interview with Phra Khru Suphajarawat, 19 July 2005.
(23) Paraphrasing of interview with Phra Khru Suphajarawat, 8 and 11 July 2005.
(24) Paraphrasing of interviews with Phra Khru Suphajarawat, 8 and 11 July 2005.
(25) Paraphrasing of interviews with Phra Khru Suphajarawat, 8 and 11 July 2005.
(26) Paraphrase of interview with Phra Khru Suphajarawat, 19 July 2005.
(27) The following information regarding Phra Mahathongsuk’s biography, social con-
text and his understanding and practice of Buddhist doctrines are derived from inter-
views with him that took place on 8 July 2005 and 17 and 18 April 2006.
(28) A “saisin
” is a white cotton thread that is used during rituals (see Terwiel 1994:194-
(29) Interview with Phra Mahathongsuk, 17 April 2006.
(30) This is one famous example of Buddhadāsa Bhikkhu’s many koans/Dhamma riddles
ปรศนาธรรม). Buddhadāsa Bhikkhu interprets an old local (southern Thai) poem (บทกลอม)
with the title “coconut tree” and expresses his interpretation spatially.
(31) Another famous example of Buddhadāsa Bhikkhu’s approach of using physical as-
pects of his monastery to provoke the thoughts of visitors is the Theatre of Spiritual
Entertainment, an innovation that contains enigmatic and provocative pictures that
are intended to help gain a deeper understanding of the “meaning” of the Dhamma.
(32) The Four “iddhipāda” or Four “Basis of Success” are chanda (aspiration), viriya (per-
severance), citta (active thought) and vīmasā (investigation) (D.III.221; Vbh.216).
159 Journal of Buddhist Ethics
(33) This wood is also used during the cremation of the body: it is to prevent the corpse
from falling off the funeral pyre.
(34) This is taken from the complete translation of Phra Payutto’s book “A Brief Intro-
duction to the Dhamma” that has been prepared jointly by Bhikkhu Nirodho and Martin
Seeger with the help of Phra Payutto. This translation will be published shortly.
(35) Phra Khru Suphajarawat is also using this teaching approach (interview with Phra
Khru Suphajarawat, 8 July 2005).
(36) Phra Payutto explains this as follows “Given that there are two kinds of desire [i.e.,
chanda, “loving interest” and tahā, “craving”], it follows that there are two kinds of
value, which we might term true value and artificial value. True value is created by
chanda. In other words, a commodity’s true value is determined by its ability to meet
the need for well-being. Conversely, artificial value is created by tanha—it is a commod-
ity’s capacity to satisfy the desire for pleasure.
To assess an object’s value, we must ask ourselves which kind of desire—tanha or chan-
da—defines it. Fashionable clothes, jewellery, luxury cars and other status symbols con-
tain a high degree of artificial value because they cater to people’s vanity and desire for
pleasure. A luxury car may serve the same function as a cheaper car, but it commands a
higher price largely because of its artificial value. Many of the pleasures taken for
granted in today’s consumer society—the games, media thrills and untold forms of junk
foods available—are created solely for the purpose of satisfying tanha, have no practical
purpose at all and are often downright detrimental to well-being. For the most part,
advertising promotes this artificial value. Advertisers stimulate desires by projecting
pleasurable images onto the products they sell. They induce us to believe, for example,
that whoever can afford a luxury car will stand out from the crowd and be a member of
high society, or that by drinking a certain brand of soft drink we will have lots of
friends and be happy.
The true value of an object is typically overshadowed by its artificial value. Craving and
conceit, and the desire for the fashionable and sensually appealing, cloud any reckon-
Parnwell, Seeger, Relocalization of Buddhism in Thailand 160
ing of the true value of things. How many people, for instance, reflect on the true value
or reasons for eating food or wearing clothes?”
(37) He withdrew because several members of the group were smoking cigarettes: his
view is that monks are the leaders of the community and should therefore set a good
example for the villagers by demonstrating that “to abandon superfluous things allows
you to gain the most happiness, the least suffering.” Phra Mahathongsuk does not
perceive himself to be a “development monk,” although he has been operating a “buf-
falo bank” for local villagers who keep the precepts, are affiliated to the monastery
(that is come regularly to the monastery) and are in economic need (on the condition
that the buffaloes are neither killed nor sold). Since 2002 he has been giving away to
villagers buffaloes that have been donated to the samnak
. When the buffaloes have
offspring, these young buffaloes will also be distributed. Annual money donations are
also used to buy cows for villagers.
(38) The following information regarding Phra Phromma Suphattho’s biography, social
context and his understanding of Buddhist doctrines are derived from interviews with
him that took place on 14 July 2005. Also, a telephone interview with Phra Phromma
Suphattho was conducted on 3 August 2006.
(39) Sunai Setbunsang, who is one of the main theoretical thinkers of the Santi Asok
movement and gained his M.A. at Chulalongkorn University with a thesis on Santi
Asok’s language use, explains the concept of Santi Asok’s vegetarianism, which is much
criticized in Thai society, as follows: according to Samana Phothirak, animal flesh can
only be eaten if the animal the meat derives from died because of a natural death or if
the death is caused by other animals (pavattamasa: “flesh/meat fallen down”). If kill-
ing with the purpose of producing food for humans is involved (udissamasa: “dedicat-
ed meat”), however, monks are not allowed to accept this food. Also, Buddhists should
refrain from consuming meat as they would support the breaching of the first training
rule that prescribes the refraining from killing (pāṇātipātā veramaṇī) (Sunai 2537 B.E.:60-
62). This interpretation differs from a traditional understanding of Theravāda texts
where the Buddha seems not to “require the bhikkhus to observe a vegetarian diet, but
161 Journal of Buddhist Ethics
permits them to consume meat when they are confident that the animal has not been
slaughtered especially to provide them with food.” (Ñāṇamoli/Bodhi 1995:1254; see also
Schmithausen 2005:188; Buddhadāsa 2549b B.E.).
(40) There is no agreement on the exact meaning of this word (see Malandra 1979:222-
(41) Again, Sunai Setbunsang gives a useful summary of Santi Asok’s understanding of
sammāsamādhi (Sunai 2537 B.E.:63-66). He criticizes the traditional understanding of
sammāsamādhi, which he sees perpetuated by “mainstream [Thai] Buddhism (phuttha-
satsana krasae lak). According to Santi Asok, sammāsamādhi does not imply escape from
society for the practice of highly concentrative meditation techniques practiced in the
solitude (viveka) of the forest or a cave. Quite the opposite is the case: basing their un-
derstanding on the Mahācattārīsakasutta (M.III.71-89) Santi Asok teaches the “right”
Buddhist practice of the Noble-Eightfold Path as “necessarily practiced in the context
of social interaction [
การมปฏิสังสรรคในสงคม] . . . Meditative states of absorption [jhāna] at-
tained through sitting in meditation [samādhi] with closed eyes are called by followers
of Santi Asok ‘jhāna of ascetics [isi]’ and not ‘jhāna of the Buddha.’”
(42) As an example for such a possible textual corruption PPS gives the canonical story
in which the Buddha gave his monks permission to step on a white cloth as an auspi-
cious act when lay people ask the monks to do so (anujānāmi, bhikkhave, gihīna
magalatthāya yāciyamānena celappaika akkamitun’ti). This permission was given after
monks, following a previous prohibition by the Buddha, refused to comply with the re-
quest of a woman who has lost her unborn baby (itthī apagatagabbhā) to step on a piece
of cloth for the purpose of auspiciousness (magalatthāya) (Vin.II.127). And it is this
very canonical account that is referred to by Phra Payutto in order to legitimate the
idea that monks can yield to the religious needs for ritual and “auspicious” things, like
amulets and other sacred things (singsaksit
) (see Payutto 2538a B.E.:474-475).
(43) Taken from Payutto, 2548b B.E.:150-152.
(44) Telephone interview with PPS, 3 August 2006.
Parnwell, Seeger, Relocalization of Buddhism in Thailand 162
(45) Telephone interview with PPS, 3 August 2006.
(46) There is also a point of congruence between the respective development philoso-
phies of the Sokkhumphun and Suanthamruamcai Buddhist communities, inasmuch as
both seek to integrate Buddhist principles into daily livelihood activities (phutthasettha-
sat, Buddhist Economy). Pho Wicit is one of several members of the Sokkhumphun
“faith community” (Candland 2000) who regularly attends meetings at Wat Suantha-
mruamcai and, as one of the more ideologically inclined members of the community,
he expressed the view that his own community, which is already a national model for
“alternative development,” can learn much from the more fundamentalist approach of
Phra Phromma Suphattho (interview with Pho Wicit, 20 July 2005).
(47) Telephone interview with PPS, 3 August 2006.
(48) Interview with PKS, 19 July 2005.
(49) The community mill is a case in point: originally established to provide rice far-
mers with a fair price for their produce and to break their dependence on usurious rice
mill owners, a faction within the community mill is seeking to operate it on much more
practical business lines, which has caused local divisions and tensions.
(50) Interview with PKS, 19 July 2005.
(51) Interview with PPS, 14 July 2005.
(52) Interview with PKS, 11 July 2005.
(53) The three components of puññakiriyā-vatthu are: dānamaya puññakiriyā-vatthu (me-
ritorious action consisting in giving); sīlamaya puññakiriyā-vatthu (meritorious action
consisting in observing the precepts); and bhāvanāmaya puññakiriyā-vatthu (meritorious
action consisting [of] mental development) (English translations from: Payutto
2538a:596-597; see also; Payutto 2548b:93-94; Seeger 2005a:72-83). For the equipollency
of the three puññakiriyā-vatthu/ten puññakiriyā-vatthu and the Noble Eightfold Path:
Payutto 2538a:596-597; Payutto 2540c:24-28; especially Payutto 2542 B.E.:255-321 where
Phra Payutto gives a very detailed account of puññakiriyā-vatthu.
163 Journal of Buddhist Ethics
(54) There are nonetheless several important and influential members of the lay com-
munity who remain deeply committed to the various development projects that PKS
helped to initiate and inspire.
(55) Paraphrasing of interview with PKS, 19 July 2005.
(56) PKS and his local sangkha asa phatthana
are linked to a nation-wide sekkhiyatham
network of monks and lay people who are working to integrate Buddhism and social
development. Also, we have observed that all three monks of our case studies work
quite closely together, despite, or maybe because of, their varying approaches and un-
derstandings: they exchange ideas, practices, and traditional knowledge (for example
regarding herbal medicines) and stimulate and motivate each other.
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