Wednesday, July 20, 2005

I was a "Jesuit" Buddhist Monk

This is part two of my memoirs of my Buddhist childhood.

This is a more detailed description of the Monks and Thailand itself. My previous post described Theravada and its most basic teachings. Now comes the details as they pertain to Thailand.

Going along with my "I was a Catholic Buddhist" then I was a "Jesuit Buddhist Monk" ... Theravada is divided into three main chunks. Going back to the Catholic analogy, that's like saying Irish Catholic, Roman Catholic, and Mexican Catholic. All three are Catholics but they're slightly different in minor ways.

The three main chunks of Theravada are in Sri-Lanka, Thailand, and Burma. Sri-Lanka was first, they were invited into Thailand by King Ramkhamhaeng of the Sukhothai Era (13th century) and established the monkhood and ordinations and organziation that would flourish there in Thailand. After the Portugese smegheads destroyed Sri Lankan culture, Thailand returned the favor and Thai monks returned to Sri Lanka to re-establish the monkhood in Sri Lanka. Burma did its own thing ...

... remember... about 12 days after the world was created it was clear about two things. One, that the Irish and the English would never get along and two, that Thailand and Burma wouldn't either. That's a joke. It's also, just about the truth. I'm Thai... not Burmese. Take that into account when I write about Burma.

Well anyway, in Thailand, there are two main orders of the Monkhood. Kinda like Franciscan (or Dominican) and a Jesuit. They're called the Thammayut Nikaya (sometimes spelled Dhammayut) and Maha Nikaya. The Maha Nikaya is older and bigger. It traces its roots back directly to the Lankhan establishment of the 13th century. It's the chilled out, laid back, easy going one. It's more like the Franciscans. Most of the temples in Thailand are Maha Nikaya and most of the Monks are too. The other one, Thammayut Nikaya, is younger. King Mongkut formed it...

that's the same King from "Anna and the King" starring Jodi Foster and Chow Yun Fat or "The King and I" starring Yule Brenner... ps... Anna H. Leonowens was a big liar. Those movies are fiction, not fact. However, they're still good movies.

...when, as a student of the Nikayas, he realized that the practice of the monkhood in Thailand and what the true order of the Monkhood were HORRIBLY out of whack. He then, by Royal Decree, established the Thammayut Nikaya, and did what he felt was some needed housecleaning. The Thammayut Nikaya is a more strict and disciplined order of the monkhood and it was the order to which I was a member.

In effect, I was a Jesuit Buddhist Monk. Now, just because there are two orders, doesn't mean they don't get along. Buddhists in Thailand and across the Theravada world pretty much get along with each other. The differences between them are extremely small. That's why there's no big friction. The current Supreme Patriarch of Thailand and senior big boss of the Thai Monkhoods is a Thammayut Nikaya monk. But he could have just as easily been chosen from the Maha Nikaya order. The Buddhist Temple here in Texas, in Keller out on highway 377, is Maha Nikaya so is a lot more freeform thatn what I was when I was a monk. That said, the head abbot of this Monastery is Thammayut!

Within Theravada itself, there are lots of little... erm... "customs" that have grown up as you can probably imagine with a religion that's two and a half millenia old. Basically, there are three main outlets for a person's devotion:
  1. Concern with and against "evil spirits"
  2. Concern with good kharma and avoiding bad kharma
  3. Nibbanic practice to escape the cycle of life-death-rebirth. Just about everyone in Thailand is a little bit of one, a little bit of another, and a whole lot of a third.

The superstitous folks do a lot to ward evil spirits. The folks in the monasteries are seeking Nibbanic escape. Most folks are just worried about kharma and not getting bad kharma. They all interplay together. The Monks are usually the ones that people will go to for advice or help with the first two. Monks are part wizard, part priest, part psychiatrist, part marriage counselor, and part philosopher. For the third step, they will usually suggest that the person consider joining an order after studying the Nikaya texts and Lotus Sutras themselves.

Well... there ya go.

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