A well-known abbot from Chiang Mai was sitting in my guest area this afternoon. Among the observations that he made was that lots of Buddhists here in North Thailand still participate in merit making, but many fewer than used to be the case “practice the vows”. This year at his temple there were none staying overnight during the Lenten retreat going on now during the rainy season. They come to hear the sermon and join in the chanting but go around to other temples for the nightly sessions.
In other words they are working to accumulate merit, but not to improve their spiritual lives. Meditation is a major feature of Lenten practice for those who stay in temples either throughout Lent as ordinands or for 48 hour periods on the holy days on the quarters of the moon. Lent begins with Asanha Pucha Day, which was July 11 this year, and ends with the full moon in October, which will be October 8. Traditionally monks stay in their temples following the instruction of the Compassionate Buddha to keep his followers from trampling through the rice fields during the rainy period when the new rice was being planted. This gives the monks a chance to improve their knowledge and skills, as well. Laity take 5 or 8 vows (5 if they are going to have 3 meals a day, but 8 if they plan to live more ascetically).
Our young friend in the picture entered a temple at the beginning of Lent. He was taken to the temple by family and friends and left there. The journey was a reiteration of that made by the Lord Buddha when he left his palace-home and royal family to seek the Truth. He left home a prince, was shorn of his luxurious locks, and donned the rags of an ascetic. In some ethnic sub-cultures this trip from home to temple is a major cultural event. Rather than white, the “princes” are dressed in rich royal brocades and lace. In any case it is a re-enactment of that original sacred journey (“sacramental”, Christians would say), a vicarious renunciation of mundane attachments, and a mystic union with the Lord Buddha.
We visited our friend that night in the temple. The next morning he was ordained and exchanged the white garments of purity for the saffron robes of a monk, or in his case the robes of a novice. In this process he earned “inestimable merit” and transferred it solemnly to his mother and ancestors, while retaining some for himself and gaining more through the ceremonies of the two days of initiation. That, in fact, was what this exercise was about. He did not remain a monk for the whole Lenten period as some of us had urged him to do. He did not stay in the temple long enough to master any of the many forms of mindfulness meditation, to learn Pali language to become a scholar of Buddhist texts, to memorize enough chants to serve as a lay liturgist (i.e. ajan wat), or to master self control (which he certainly could use, in fact). He was a short-term monk. It was the most his mother could hope for but it compensated her for some of the concerns he had visited upon her as a troubled son.
There is another group of young people who also enter the temple for reasons having little to do with learning the complex truths of Dharma. They are there because of the need for an education they could not otherwise obtain. Many temples try to receive a few deserving fellows and provide them the things they need to study. Most of the boys taken care of in this way around here are ordained as novices and stay in the temple during the several years they are in school. It amounts to the community providing funding for these students. Since they are ordained, the merit the community makes is an order greater than it would be if they were just “temple kids” (i.e. dek wat).
Naturally, this popular emphasis on merit over Dharma is seen as a problem, as it was for our esteemed guest this afternoon. It is always a concern for religious leaders when people give lesser matters the greater emphasis. It’s just that the people who do that are the ones who provide the finances and human resources to sustain the institution of Buddhism hereabouts. It is wrong to insist that religious events are all about doctrine and religion. Merit is a concept that is far older than Buddhism. How merit is earned and works is arguably not strictly a Buddhist concept; it is certainly not a precept. But it is part of the faith strands that are braided to form Thai Buddhism.
Let me try to be clear about what this means. Culture and doctrine are inextricably mixed to form a living religion. They cannot be extruded one from the other. There is no religionless culture, even if it is atheistic and ostensibly godless (but that is another topic for another essay). The point here is that there is no cultureless religion. Yet, when a religion is taken into another culture, a new culture is brewed. When Buddhism came to the Dvaravati city-state federation, the dominant Mon culture of the region was due to change. When the Roman Empire adopted Christianity, at about the same time as mainland South East Asia became Buddhist, there were adaptations. But those changes were not total. When it works best and most thoroughly, core doctrines and identifying practices become infused in the new milieu over the course of centuries. Whenever some other process than gradual infusion is forced, unspeakable violence is inevitable. You do not have to read history books to see this. Just turn on the TV.
Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.