Thai Buddhist Monks Draw Condemnation and Praise over Current Affairs Discussion
Two Thai monks, Phra Maha Sompong Talaputto and Phra Maha Praiwan Worawano, aired a live current affairs disussion and Dharma teaching on Facebook over the first weekend in September in which they joked and used slang terms in an attempt, they said, to reach a wider audience. The show proved very popular, with some 200,000 people tuning in at one point, however complaints also followed, with many concerned that the casual vocabulary and humor were unbecoming of members of the monastic sangha.
After the broadcast, the National Office of Buddhism (NOB) launched an investigation into the two monks. The secretary-general of the Association for the Protection of the Thai Constitution, Srisuwan Janya, told news outlets that his association had complained to the NOB and the Supreme Sangha Council about what he described as “shameless” acts of the monks trivializing the teachings through their jokes.
“If they are unable to keep up with the rules, they are nothing more than two people with shaved heads, wrapped in saffron robes,” Srisuwan said. Voicing concern about how young people learn the Dharma, he added: “The Dhamma cannot be imparted by monks posing as comedians.” (Bangkok Post)
In defense of the two monks, the assistant abbot of Wat Rakhang Khositaram, Phra Khru Samu Watchara, suggested that no serious religious offences were committed during the Facebook Live teaching.
Elaborating, he said that while the talks may have been low on useful content, they offered a modern way of communication that reached young people, which may be especially important during the pandemic. In contrast, conventional ways of teaching often fail to connect with people. “They sometimes even ask the monks outright to keep it [preaching] concise,” Phra Khru Samu Watchara said. (Bangkok Post)
On 9 September, the two monks appeared before a government committee on religion, art, and culture to explain their choices, during which they agreed to focus less on comedy and more on direct teaching of the Dharma. Panel chairman Suchart Usaha noted that the two monks were clear in their explanations and that the meetings were amicable in spirit. Representatives from the NOB were also satisfied with the meeting and its outcome.
While some more conservative voices were concerned with the result, members of the LGBT+ community have praised the two monks for speaking openly about related topics and using terminology previously withheld from popular discourse.
Speaking of Phra Maha Praiwan Worawano, Thitipan Raksasat, an LGBT+ film director with more than half a million followers on TikTok, said: “I have never wanted to ask a monk questions, but this time I have the courage to ask things like whether a katoey [transgender woman] can be ordained. He knows katoey lingo even more than a katoey.” (Deccan Herald)
The monk’s talks and resulting publicity have also drawn scholarly interest, with Buddhist scholar Jaturong Jongarsa noting: “His acceptance towards LGBT+ and marginalized people makes him different from the typical monk who chooses to approach rich people and high-ranking government officials. That’s why he has become popular.” (Deccan Herald)
It is not the first time that Phra Maha Praiwan Worawano has upset conservative elements of Thai society, at one time urging the government to release students who had been arrested around the 2014 military coup. He has defended his speech by saying that the purpose of raising contemporary issues on his show was to draw more people to the Buddhist teachings.
“[The] Dhamma is usually hard to understand. I want to be able to speak Thai that people understand. I want to speak the same language as all groups of people,” he said. (Deccan Herald)
Monks in hot water over livestream (Bangkok Post)
Drama over monks' giggly live-stream chat show settled (Bangkok Post)
With laughter and slang, Buddhist monk proves a hit with LGBT+ Thais (Deccan Herald)
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