Monks have opinions too, 2

Since it has attracted some discussion – this topic is moved back to the top of the blog list. There is an extra article added below also (read down)

Original post:

From The Star

Article original source

BANGKOK, Thailand — Buddhist monk Ajahn Suthep has been showing up at the anti-government Red Shirts rally site in the city but says he is neutral.

<< Caught in the middle: Monks passing by the anti-government protesters at the Ratchaprasong district in Bangkok Sunday.-Brian Moh/The Star

“I came as an observer. I’ve learnt to stay above it. I know it. I see it. I understand it but I won’t be it,” he said.

Buddhism is the main religion in Thailand and there are 300,000 monks here.

Ajahn, who has been a monk for 22 years, admits that the political situation in the country has broken society into two and that it is hard even for monks to control their thoughts, feelings and rise above the political divide.
So there are red monks who are anti-government and followers of ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and yellow monks who are pro-government and for Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva.

“I wish to stay in the middle,” said Ajahn. For him, the political going-ons is like watching a movie.

“You see the movie and you understand it. But if you feel impressed with the movie or you feel sad or joy, that’s emotion. And that’s illusion.” Saying that if a person attaches himself to something, he will suffer.

“But if you empty your mind, you have no suffering when you deal with what’s happening outside,” he said, adding that Buddhism is also active in helping society change and develop.

“You can’t change society outside only but change them also from the inside,” said Ajahn who also conducts Vipassana meditation courses.

Monk Suwichano is chief of training at University Maha Chulalong-korn and believes that monks should not be taking the position that they are in today in Thailand.

He said ups and down and conflicts are the nature of society and monks should not take sides. But the fact is, he said, that about 70% of the monks are with or sympathise with the Red Shirts.

He said there are various reasons why monks have aligned themselves, adding that monks are after all individuals and human, and so there might be some people who they don’t like or they have gone there to give advice to the people and cool them down.

He said monks should be negotiators in conflicts. So would they get involved to find a peaceful resolution for both sides? At this stage, Suwichano believes that the tensions are too high and “cannot be stopped by monks, words or even the king”.

New Article:

Thailand’s orange-robed monks reveal shades of red

By Rachel O’Brien (AFP) – 1 day ago

BANGKOK — Dozens of Thai monks, clad in vivid orange robes, untangle their hands bound with sacred Buddhist thread after performing a chanting ceremony to protect the anti-government “Red Shirts”.

Since mass protests began in Bangkok in mid-March demanding snap elections, the red-dressed crowds have been speckled with the monks’ distinctive attire despite a long-held monastic custom of keeping out of Thai politics.

“We have been staying with the people from the beginning, more than one month already,” said a 70-year-old monk, Doctor Tuanchai.

“We sleep on the roadside. It’s a very difficult life but we decided to do it for peace and harmony and love for the Thai people.”

He said the monks were “neutral” despite their presence at the rally, though his comments revealed a leaning towards the mainly rural poor and urban working-class Reds, who say they are fighting the Thai elites.

“I hope they will gain victory soon because they ask for democracy and justice. I hope all monks and all Thai people in general, the majority will sympathise with the Red Shirts,” Tuanchai said.

Thai monks are banned from voting or running for office and a body of senior monks, the Supreme Sangha Council, ruled long ago that they cannot join a political rally, an official from the Office of National Buddhism told AFP.

The official, asking not to be named, said a monk faced admonishment from the abbot of his temple — and in extreme cases could be defrocked — for engaging in overt political action.

“It’s seriously frowned upon,” said Justin McDaniel, Associate Professor of Buddhist studies at the University of Pennsylvania.

“Generally monks should not take sides. So you can stand up to human rights abuses but you shouldn’t take a political side.”

While activist monks are relatively few, they have not been hard to find in the recent protests. Some even joined the queue to donate their own blood as part of an attention-grabbing tactic soon after the rolling rallies began.

Now as Reds fortify the imposing barricades around their base amid fears of a crackdown, a handful of monks — though it is difficult to check their authenticity — have been seen on the site brandishing sharpened bamboo sticks.

“When the monks speak, they must speak about calm and non-violence, but I think everyone has the right to defend themselves,” said Jaran Ditapichai, a leading Red Shirt.

“In Thailand we have few monks who play a role in politics but now we request that monks come to join us,” he added.

The fact that monks are not afraid to openly associate with the movement could signal their confidence in the Reds, according to Thailand-based academic Louis Gabaude of the French School of the Far East.

“It seems that the monks, especially from the northeast, feel that they or the Reds are in a position of sufficient strength to dare to expose themselves publicly and not risk a backlash,” he said.

But Yanamed Siriyanmaytee, a monk who sprinkled holy water on the crowds of protesters by the stage, insisted he was only there because the Reds asked for a protective ceremony — a request that a monk is duty-bound to perform.

“The monks do not have any colour. We are from every side,” said Yanamed, one of the “monk police” in Bangkok who check up on the behaviour of their religious brethren.

Thailand expert Paul Chambers, at Heidelberg University in Germany, said traditionally “the Thai monarchy has been able to rein in institutionalised Buddhism” as the king appoints the country’s top monk, the Supreme Patriarch.

Hence Thai monks have been less politically active than in other countries such as neighbouring Myanmar, he said, but “a schism could be growing within Thai Buddhism based upon and around the message of the Red Shirts”.

Some monks, Chambers added, consider themselves “human shields” in the protests, which have already descended into bloody clashes with troops that have left 27 people dead in Thailand’s worst civil violence in 18 years.

“We join the stage warning the Thai prime minister not to use forces against the people, against the Red Shirts, because more bloodshed will occur if they use military means and war-like weapons,” said monk Tuanchai.

“But I don’t fear because we work for the Buddha for world peace. We are ready to die like Jesus Christ.”

20 replies on “Monks have opinions too, 2”

  1. It is interesting to read in “opinions 2” that Ajaan Suthep has been given the opportunity in the media to express his neutrality and his peace-making roles. The problem with the Red-Yellow scenario is that it is totally confrontational, and whilst there might be many different opinions concerning the rights and wrongs of either side non-confrontation is surely the peaceful path of the Buddhist. My interpretation of the previous presentation on opinions was that monks had the right to opinions and to express those opinions. It is the second that I bring into question as I do with all people in how they express their opinions; for a monk with leadership ascribed by their followers there is a greater responsibility as to how those opinions are expressed.

    One has to be careful in the choice of demonstration, and how those demonstrations are organised. For example I believe that the Aldermaston demonstrations were safe (although I wasn’t there to testify to that). The Poll tax demonstration around 1990 was not safe and fringe elements were able to hijack it even though there were many families present there. The G# demonstrations clearly allow violent elements to take over. And that has happened with the Reds. Whilst it is not clear to me where the fault lies, I am as certain as I can be as an observer from 300km, that there were dubious elements from the left and security forces involved leading to the violence and deaths.

    Since the discussion in Opinions 1 I have read this Bangkok Post article dated at the time:-

    It is clear that some monks were peace-makers then, were they all? I interpreted at the time that some monks were partisan – pro-Red.

    In view of the entrenched egos expressed on all sides (including the politicians) – with for example the Yellows now demanding the Reds off the streets, I would hope that all leaders start demanding peace and reconciliation, and hopefully monks can themselves engage in such a call.

  2. I wanted to point out that ‘monks have opinions too’ and that they are therefore going to express them. Not so sure on whether they ‘should’ or ‘are right to’ so much as ‘they are going to anyway’.
    I had not read the Bkk post article at the time, and had no idea about their rally. I wonder if it did any good?
    This new Yellow shirt stuff – this is really dangerous. There is no good intention behind it at all, and if they go ahead and gather in public I worry it will be the start of a rapid downward spiral.

  3. Having lived literally within the old Red Shirt camp at Phan Fa I met these people every day for weeks and never, for a single moment – even when crossing over the Red Shirt baricade on that Saturday night when they clashed with the army – felt anything but safe.

    On Wednesday night I was on the number 15 bus on my way home from Silom to Phan Fa and as it rounded the corner between Silom and Lumpini park I saw a crowd of people standing on the Silom side of the junction cheering every time an army vehicle went by and then shouting slogans towards the Red Shirts on the other side of the road.

    I don’t know what the slogans were, but they were accompanied with waved fists and even middle fingers being flashed – something I’ve never seen from Thais before in all my life. It was one of the nastiest and saddest things I’ve ever seen here.

    On the other side of the road the Red Shirts were watching on from behind their barricade of tyres and sticks. I am certain that the vast majority of them want simply to protest the unfairness and lack of democracy suffered by the poor people of Thailand and do not want a fight with the state and with nasty gangs of people who have come out to insult and threaten them.

    Of course as we all know, later that night the opposition group of people were filmed throwing rocks towards the Red Shirts while the police looked on and did nothing. Goodness only knows what might happen tonight after the granade attacks of yesterday (blamed instantly, within minutes, on the Red Shirts).

    Phra Cittasamvaro Bhikku is absolutely right about the danger the yellow shirt/multi-shirt opposition poses. Unlike the Red Shirts I’ve safely been among for the past few weeks, the opposition to them is – from my own direct observation – virulent and full of a nasty spitting hatred.

    Thankfully, the ordinary people of Bangkok are continuing to do what they have done all along – living around the disruption and remaining calm and peaceful. But these latest groups on the street are clearly escalating the problem and it is my hope, and most people’s I imagine, that there can be a peaceful settlement of all this, or at least a way that will first allow both groups to step down a little without losing face.


  4. Downward spiral indeed. Bup and the kids have a flight scheduled to BKK in mid-June. BUT, the way things are going, I’m not so sure I feel comfortable letting them go.

    Thank you for this post, Pandit. I was wondering about the Sangha’s take on all this secular madness, so I found the bookmark to your blog. Of course, it must be difficult to remain impartial and detached when the bombs start going off!

  5. As a teacher I spent years being told that I was not allowed to express my opinions to the students. It is not unusual for lay society to have disciplines placed on them to control their expressions of opinion. They ” have opinions too” but don’t express them.

    I believe Engaged Buddhism is important but don’t necessarily consider that that means active political participation. On this I take my guide from Thich Naht Hanh who I consider was a peace activist. There is a clear need in Thailand for peace activism at the moment as the hotheads appear to be holding sway.

  6. Thanks for this comment, Marcus.

    Are you suggesting that there are not armed Red shirts?

    I have been surprised by the tone of the intercession of the Yellow shirts. From my observation 300 km away the Yellow shirts at Suvarnabhumi were populist – certainly in my Jangwat. Has there been a change in “yellow shirts”?

    I too am sad to hear of your descriptions of “ordinary Thai people”, but Thai people in Bangkok must be unhappy at the continued disruption of daily life especially given that, as far as I understand it, Bangkok predominantly supported the yellow shirts.

    As far as I understand it I agree with you that the underlying cause is the issue of poverty, and the lack of governmental fairness in addressing this poverty. It is also my view at the moment that electoral democracy is unlikely to yield a solution.

    I do hope a movement for peace and reconciliation will grow, and within that movement a strategy for dealing with the poverty.

  7. Hi guys,

    In the article, Phra Suwichano mentions that ‘there are various reasons why monks have aligned themselves, adding that monks are after all individuals and human, and so there might be some people who they don’t like.’ Aligning themselves, fine, but openly protesting (or beeing seen to be)? Aren’t I correct in saying that, theoretically, monks should be above these kinds of judgements and attachment to ideas, especially if the ideas are negative (i.e. not liking someone)?

    Monks do have opinions too, but it is their responsibility to process them and then deal with them wisely. That said, the monks that engaged in these types of acts are the vast, vast minority; the vast, vast majority in Thailand are more skillful.

  8. Yes Richard, as you say – ‘theoretically’.
    Actually it seems to be a habit of all societies to discuss what their ordained ones ‘should’ be like, ‘ought’ to do etc…. There’s little profit in such discussion as it is always coming from an extreme ideal … Actually ordained ones are just the same as others. Perhaps they ‘should’ do this, and ‘shouldn’t do that’, but really, a Buddhist looks to their own hearts with mindfulness.
    I have a high impression of Thai monks personally. And I can’t blame them for getting involved, even if they ‘shouldn’t’.
    I might add that as you say it is the minority that are seen activly supporting one side or other, but the majority hold strong views that are not kept quiet.

    I’d also echo Marcus – the Reds have been very nice people. Not threatening, and with a justified grievance they want to campaign about. But this new ‘no colours’ (which are likely yellow shirts) are outright nasty in their approach. I don’t feel comfortable anywhere near them. They are spitting hatred, and that is not the right way.

  9. Ven. Cittasamvaro,

    ‘Actually it seems to be a habit of all societies to discuss what their ordained ones ‘should’ be like, ‘ought’ to do etc…. There’s little profit in such discussion as it is always coming from an extreme ideal … Actually ordained ones are just the same as others.’

    Yes, agreed. To an extent…! 🙂

    It is often easy to think of ‘monks’ as being one all-seeing, all-thinking collective of buddhas, which, of course they are not. All monks are part way along a journey – and some have progressed further along that path than others… Afterall, not all monks are ‘arahant’, far from it. So, I suppose that it is unreasonable to expect all monks to faultlessly represent the ideal you mention – although there are some that most definitely do.

  10. Fair points, David. Although I guess that in reality (unfortunately, although perfectly understandably) some monks are better at sticking to the vows than others! Monks, especially in Thailand, come from very diverse backgrounds. Some actively study the Dharma and scriptures, and some don’t! Strange but true…

  11. Venerable,

    I’d respectfully counter that your argument is faulty.

    If the ordained are truly just as others, then there is no monkhood, the differentiation between lay people and the ordained having fallen away. However, the difference does exist – in the vows of ordination, in the expectation to learn, practice and develop in the Dhamma, to live in the Dhamma so others might be encouraged to do the same. Speech and actions which alienate are not consistent with said vows and should rightfully be questioned by both ordained and lay people.

    Of course, monks have opinions. But, I would argue that in consideration of the vows monks take to live and practice Dhamma, it is inconsistent to act on personal opinions, understanding that opinions are not Truth, are not Dhamma. To your point about “a Buddhist looks to their own hearts with mindfulness,” I would say that a monk, who takes a side in an argument is being mindful of his own ego rather than of the Dhamma. However, if the same monk, being mindful of his desire to “participate” and unable to overcome this desire, chooses to leave the monkhood and pursue his desires, then he is showing respect for both the Dhamma and the Sangkha, doing what is best for all parties rather than just for himself.

    So yes, we all have our opinions, we discuss our opinions, we act on our opinions. But we might try to remain mindful that opinions are the opposite of Dhamma; there is no profit in anything that is not Dhamma. And this is especially true for monks and the Sangkha in general.


  12. Well, being on the inside so to speak, I have fewer projections on the monks. Before I ordained i had lots of notions about what monks ‘should’ be like. After a while I found I was neither the best nor the worst of the monks in any temple I visited.
    It takes all sorts. And Thai temples will accept a wide range of ordainees. If you can behave tolerably well you can stay.
    At first I did not like this – criticised other monks dreadfully. Now I appreciate the opportunity given to so many. Otherwise we’d just have an ‘elite’ monkhood (that I probably would not be able to get into).
    Perhaps the monks ‘should’ not be involved in demonstrations or putting forth their views. But while not the ‘same’ as ordinary folk, they are not that different either. They actually have views, and will find ways to express them regardless of ‘shoulds’ and ‘shouldn’ts’ . I think the Thai Sangha is very restrained in this matter. Just talk to Ven Kusalo – our Sri Lankan friend about this.

  13. in respect and devotion,

    I would like to say it is absolutely within the “rights” of the monks to choose a side, but I would say if the monks have taken vows that they plan to commit to long-term, it is quite contradictory and their role as mediators would be lost. I know in Thailand that many monks do not ever intend this long-term life choice, so it is it’s own unique and tangled situation.

    My concern with red-shirt protests…Thaksin. I will openly equate him with George Bush (Sr. and Jr.), Chairman Mao, Stalin, Hitler…you can see where I am going with this. Using vast wealth to buy popularity while ordering the police to kill thousands of drug-traffickers and becoming a billionaire while Thailand’s PM, paying ALL of the red-shirt protestors to protest. Can this be called supporting democracy? I have studied political theory, Buddhism, and Culutural Anthropology at the University level and find the support of Thaksin to be a very dangerous development.

    I fully agree that some red-shirt protesters have justification and the need to express a request for “democracy”, but coming from the U.S., it is also very clear to me that in current life “democracy” is just a marketing tool of capitalism and an excuse to cloak the misuse of power via greed and economic gain/control.

    The King is Thailand’s figurehead because he is the role of the Buddhist King- the role of power holds great responsibility to all of the people. It is of great use to ensure that this is happening and I do support those who seek this, but those who try to point to the King’s wealth as a criticism are sadly mistaken. His wealth is not his own- Thai Kings have hundreds of years worth of illustrious “tribute” gifts and this wealth is not at all a liquid asset like those of Thaksin.

    The corruption that is espoused within the ranks of Thaksin is so much of what is wrong with current politics and economics. How could he possibly be seen as “grassroots”. It is sad.

    I also completely disagree about the feeling around red-shirt protests. I have been practicing meditation and Reiki for over 10 years and have been extremely upset by the unfocused anger around red-shirt protests…I have also participated in several marches on Washington D.C. along 300,000-500, ooo other people. The mood at those protests was so different, but I acknowledge I was different and younger at the time.

    I know this email is long and covering many areas, but I am very grateful to have a forum like this. I respectfully hope those who read it do so, and let the words fade away, like so many drops of rain. I have done the same as I read.

    I also do not come to any solid “conclusion” because the river of life keeps flowing and I hope for the enlightenment of all. Know your heart and know the world!

    with love, Mark

  14. I think the reds shirts have not ‘been nice’ at all.

    They forced the partial closing of Chulalongkorn Hospital
    by using terror against patients and medical staff.
    This lead to forced transferring of very ill people.
    They have held hostage the city for seven weeks, disrupting the lives
    of millions. People have no access to hiv medicine because
    anonymous clinic had to close its doors too, this is located between Rajprasong and
    Silom intersections.
    The red shirts leadership are using the basis which may have fair claims of its own
    as canon fodder, I think its naive to think the red shirt movement
    will change anything for the rural and urban poor.

    Monks who show with these groups are tacitly condoning this and the dyo not have my

  15. One movement no one has mentioned in this thread is the Nonviolence Network. Members are, as far as I can tell, primarily Buddhists. They believe that the violence on either side (promoting duality) cannot solve the problems that underlie these conflicts. The Network includes well-known Engaged Buddhists such as Ven Phaisan Visalo and Sulak Sivaraksa.

    It’s important to note that not all engaged Buddhists, monks or otherwise, engage in partisan politics. The Nonviolence Network is actively trying to mediate, and calls on all sides to step back and begin real dialogue. This is Engaged Buddhism in the mode of monks like Thich Nhat Hanh.

    1. Non-violence, which in the modern era began with Tolstoy, represents Power, where politics is driven by Force – the Power vs Force idea, popularized by David Hawkins, is talked about in a later post :

      While those with specific aims rely on force to change things around, non-violence lifts everything with it. It is just hard to see immediate results when strength and force seem to be so much more effective.

      It is something akin to a tree that takes 200 years to grow, but a few minutes to be blown/chopped down. And yet the power of growth is much stronger.

  16. Is there a link in English for the activities of the Non-Violence Network?

    Hope you are keeping well,

    All the Best,

    Bill Z

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