06/11/2022, 10.10
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Thai Buddhism between original purity and linguistic evolution

by Steve Suwannarat

The factor of communications has entered the debate on the resilience of the country's most widespread faith. Different influences are undermining adherence to the roots of religious practice. Fewer and fewer monks know Pali, the cultured language of antiquity. The contrast between an elitist language and the simplicity of the Buddha's message. 

Bangkok (AsiaNews) - In the debate on the role and "resilience" of Buddhism, a widely majority religion in Thailand and among the essential elements of its identity, there is also the factor of communication. In this context, the language (as well as the language) used also has great relevance.

In spite of the continuous reference to its 'purity' and adherence to the original preaching of the Buddha (563-483 B.C.), Thai Buddhism is the result of a historical, territorial and doctrinal evolution. An event that is not unique in the panorama of Buddhism, a missionary religion open to acquiring elements of the different cultures and populations with which it has come into contact since the 3rd century BC.

In Thailand, the current practice is the result of three different Buddhist influences: the northern, Chinese one, which followed to some extent the expansion of the Thai from their original locations in southern China to the Gulf of Siam; the local one, assimilated by the Burmese, Mon, Khmer and indigenous populations already converted to the Buddhist faith, mostly of Hinayana origin but with Mahayana elements; later influences from monks and migrants arriving from areas, such as eastern India and Sri Lanka, of strong Hinayana influence, a current that favours the role of the monastic institution and lay initiatives associated with temples and monasteries.

Despite a variety of influences, the Thai Buddhist community wants to be linked to the roots of the Buddhist faith collected in the Buddhist Canon, the Tipitaka (Three Baskets), written from the 1st century B.C. in the cultured language of the time, the Pali, mainly in liturgical use and close to Sanskrit.

It is precisely the use of Pali that explains, not alone of course, the growing detachment from religious practice. Many of the monks who use Pali expressions do not know this language (despite courses famed for their difficulty, to the extent that between 1782 and 2008 only 1,220 monks and novices passed the highest level) or do not fully understand what they are proposing to the faithful.

There is also a growing awareness in the religious hierarchy that using an ancient and foreign language for current religious teaching can have negative effects, especially among young people. There is also a contradiction between the simplicity of the Buddha's original message and his desire to make it comprehensible to all and the use of an elitist tool like the pali. For this reason, several are proposing a reform, perhaps a translation of the Canon into the current language, also to avoid - as suggested recently in the Bangkok Post newspaper by a monk of British origin - that it be perceived as a means to cover up with a façade erudition, examples of conduct that is not morally unexceptionable that seem to be multiplying. 

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