Tuesday, March 20, 2018

The King and Pai, Part 18: Buddhism

By Ann Norman

Even in Thailand, where over 90% of the population is Buddhist, it would be a mistake to go around assuming that everyone is Buddhist. There are also Muslims, Christians, and Atheists (of both the Buddhist and non-Buddhist variety). The Thai Alliance includes Buddhists, Christians, and Atheists. We all get along united by humanist values, and the guidelines for our choices as an organization are listed in the UN Universal Declaration of Human. One of these values is Freedom of Religion:

Article 18: Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.

No ruling group should be imposing its preferred religion on all the other groups, or announcing what is and isn’t blasphemy. No religion or religious group should be persecuted.

Pai Daodin seems to be a Buddhist. His father has posted a picture of him, head shaved wearing orange robes, sitting cross-legged on top of a mountain. It is traditional, for Thai young men to be ordained as a monk for a short period before going back to their normal lives. Pai’s father also posted a picture of Pai bowing at the feet of his teacher at the temple Wat Pong Chang, the same temple where he was ordained. At the moment he was arrested, for sharing a mainstream news article on Facebook, he also happened to be at this temple participating in a “dhammayatra activity,” which is a pilgrimage in accordance with the Buddhist principles of right mindfulness, right intention, right speech, and right action. In the Facebook Live video he posted as he was being arrested, we see that Pai is stunned to learn he is being accused of lese majesty just for sharing a BBC news article on Facebook, yet he is polite to the arresting offers, and his last words as they take him away are “This is the atmosphere” and his camera scans across a quiet scene outdoors with many orange-robed monks in the distance under trees. It seemed like a plea: “Why are you bothering me when I have done nothing wrong and am just practicing my religion?”

I only know about Buddhism from the example and explanation of my friends who are Buddhists, but I gather it is about moderation, tolerance, acceptance of impermanence, and a personal journey to find enlightenment in which a person should test everything they are told. A quick google search finds that “Five precepts, or ‘guides’, are often given as advice as to actions that will often most lead to beneficial outcomes. They are: not to lie, steal or defraud, kill or injure others, hurt via sexual relationships, and to not further cloud your mind with too many intoxicants.”

If this is what Buddhism is about, King Vajiralongkorn, a hedonistic, multi-billionare, sadistic, playboy, who lives like a mafia boss, in every sense of the word, is not a very good Buddhist. He appears to be a serial offender of most, if not all, of the five precepts. (If you think I am exaggerating just look at his biography. You can begin HERE with the English version of the article Pai shared.) And yet King Vajiralongkorn is a Buddhist by definition because Section 7 of the new Thai Constitution (written by the junta) clearly states:

“The King is a Buddhist and Upholder of religions.”

Some of you may be puzzling at the “s” on the end of “religions”. How can anyone be an Upholder of Buddhism, Islam, AND Christianity in Thailand? The explanation is that earlier versions of the Thai Constitution had the King be an Upholder of Buddhism and the current junta wants you to know they care about diversity.

It is impossible to protest that Vajiralonkorn is completely unfit for the job of upholding Buddhism and all the other religions in Thailand, because the preceding Section 6 of the Thai Constitution forbids us from pointing it out:

“The King shall be enthroned in a position of revered worship and shall not be violated. No person shall expose the King to any sort of accusation or action.”

There is a lot more wrong with this junta-written constitution, as Pai Daodin and his fellow law student activists valiantly tried to point out (this is the real reason Pai is being persecuted). But for now we will focus on the unfairness of declaring the decadent and lawless King Vajiralongkorn upholder of religions in Thailand. Because, this absurd statement is more than empty, meaningless blah, blah, blah. It has already had consequences in the real world.

In December, 2016, the National Legislative Assembly (appointed by the junta to rubber stamp all its wishes) passed a bill “to amend the 1992 Sangha Act and restore an old tradition in which the King reserves the right to appoint the supreme patriarch.” The King immediately intervened to decide who would be the next Supreme Patriarch of Thailand. Surprise! It would be Somdet Amborn Ambaro, from the more royalist sect of Buddhism, and not Somdet Chuang Varapunno, from the other main sect of Buddhism, despite the fact Somdet Chuang Varapunno was next in line for the appointment by seniority and had been duly nominated by the Supreme Sangha Council (the religious governing body for Buddhism in Thailand). I know, none of this is very interesting to anyone outside of Thai Buddhism, so to make it more understandable for Americans, suppose that the US Constitution gave President Donald Trump the right to pick the next Pope of the Catholic Church in the United States---and another clause of the constitution said you aren’t allowed to complain about it.

Vajiralongkorn also intervened during the siege of the temple Wat Pra Dhammakaya, the temple that looks like a spaceship: the junta used 4,000 troops to surround the Wat Pra Dhammakaya compound, which was filled with 1000s of followers all vowing to defend the temple with their lives. The 4,000 troops were searching for the honorary abbot of the temple, the elderly Abbot Phra Dhammachayo so they could charge him with money laundering. Not coincidentally, Abbot Phra Dhammachayo had been close to Somdet Chuang Varapunno (the monk who had passed over for the position of Supreme Patriarch). The scene was set for disaster on a huge scale, and in the end three people lost their lives—one girl was accidentally run over by a military vehicle, one man hung himself in protest of the siege, and one of the protesters within the temple died of an asthma attack when emergency medical personal couldn’t reach her in time because of the blockade. The abbot they were looking for was never found, but near the end of the siege, he was stripped of his rank by King Vajiralongkorn.

One suspects that Vajiralongkorn isn’t very interested in Buddhist doctrine. Rather than follow a Middle Path, he follows a Path of Wild Excess. So when Vajiralongkorn intervenes in religion, it is probably not because he understands or cares about issues at stake; it is because someone has asked him to do it. The lese majesty law is being used by a dictatorship to intervene in Thai Buddhism for its own purposes, while someone who really does care about Buddhist, and the truth, is arrested at his temple and thrown in jail. Everything is so screwed up.

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