Pope Paul VI to the Archbishop of Canterbury Dr Michael Ramsey

"(B)y entering into our house, you are entering your own house, we are happy to open our door and heart to you." - Pope Paul VI to Dr Michael Ramsey, Archbishop of Canterbury.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Secularism in a Buddhist society

Bangkok, Thailand- I had an interesting chat with a professor from Thammasat University in Bangkok, Thailand. He notes with alarm that since undergrads have to study specialized subjects for their degrees, Buddhist ethics has been swept away in the curricular revisions. The professor teaches sociology of religion. He notes that as Thailand becomes more affluent, urbanized and secular, the "pillars" of Thai society, a big one is Buddhism and of which he believes is slowly being marginalized. This I find quite surprising but there is some reason to believe the professor.

While Buddhism appears to be as far as I can get in a blog post on Anglican Use, I can't help it but relate this to Pope Benedict XVI's recent trip to Britain where he warned about a secularism that marginalizes religious belief from the public sphere. The Pope's visit and the magnificent ceremonials, in state and church functions, tells much about the Christian foundations of British democracy.

In a sense Thailand is like England. Buddhism is the state religion and the country has a monarch whose duties include maintaining Buddhism. Buddhism however unlike state established Christianity or Islam, has been historically tolerant of other beliefs. Thus there is freedom of belief in Thailand. In fact one of the murals at the Royal Palace shows a 19th Century Thai King meeting with papal envoys from Rome.

The professor has an interest in how the secular and religious interact in the Philippines. The Philippines is by law a secular state but in reality there is no clear dividing line between the secular and the religious. Also, he notes that Filipinos like Thais are largely tolerant of religious diversity even if there is a majority faith in society. The professor asked me about how the secular has gained grounds in Filipino society. I said that it is related to affluence and the changes in what the family is all about.

Religious instruction in Thailand and the Philippines begins with the family. If the family unit changes in its nature, then expect the nature of religious belief and expression to change. In Thailand, it is customary for young men to spend some time as monks, the King not excepted when he was a young man. But as society becomes urbanized, less and less young people spend time as monks. So one may note that fewer and fewer saffron robed monks walk the streets of Bangkok.

He told me that a reason for the political troubles in recent months which led to acts of violence that shocked many Thais and friends of Thailand, is the gradual abandonment of Buddhist values and ethics in favour of a more materialistic worldview. I myself could not believe that such can happen in a tolerant Buddhist kingdom. 

At the hotel, while channel surfing the cable TV, I hit upon a Buddhist network and with the English subtitles of monks preaching their message, it hit me that there is a strong "evangelical" message of protecting the idea of family, respecting mother and father and ultimately honouring the King.

It seems that Buddhism and Christianity may have a lot more in common even if appearances are different.

Anglican Use "fans" as I put it likely share with the Thai Buddhists  the need to protect the idea of family. And this is best done in the context of a faith tradition.

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