In the last several months, stories have emerged about the ways that Covid-19 has affected Buddhists in Asia. While the long-term consequences on religious communities remain unclear, scholars are reporting on the effects of the pandemic on Buddhist practices across Asia. Many of these public facing essays focus on what are overtly religious practices, such as the online migration of Buddhist ceremonies in Singapore or dharma teaching in Nepal, or the use of protective rites against Covid from around the Buddhist world. This focus is most explicit in an essay by Pierre Salguerro that highlights how different types of Buddhists have protected themselves against the disease. The essay argues that journalistic accounts have primarily highlighted meditation as a Buddhist response and ignored apotropaic practices. While this is a useful intervention, the essay perhaps unintentionally reinforces a secular-religious distinction in matters of public health by suggesting that states engage in medical/scientific practices (encouraging face masks and hand washing, for example) while religions engage in magical protective rites. As a genre these essays—the first drafts of the scholarly efforts to make sense of the impact of Covid-19—tend to ignore institutional responses or actions, particularly those that are at the intersection of state and religious institutions.
A clear example of this oversight is evident in Thailand. In late April, the National Office of Buddhism (NOB) in Thailand released an eBook (in Thai) that detailed some of the efforts of the Thai Sangha (the monastic community) to mitigate the national impact of the corona virus, most of which date from late March. This document does not talk about prayer, rites, faith, or comparable matters. Rather, it is concerned with public health. It describes how the Supreme Patriarch of Thailand signed a declaration specifying measures and practices that monks and novices should follow to help prevent the spread of the disease. These measures include: limiting the movement of people into and out of the temple and forbidding novices to leave except to go out for daily alms; ensuring people wash their hands when returning to the temple; postponing important ceremonies (such as the 150th anniversary of the Supreme Patriarch’s own temple, Wat Ratchabophit); and following other public health measures of the government. The document also describes how the secretary of the Supreme Patriarch and the National Office of Buddhism put out a call to temples throughout the country to coordinate with local governments to establish centers to distribute food to people affected by Covid-19. Most of this eBook is a compilation of short reports of temples from throughout the country showing monks behind piles of food to distribute, laywomen working in temples to sew masks, and similar kinds of events.
In April and May, the NOB’s website also highlighted other work being conducted by the Supreme Sangha Council (SSC) to alleviate the suffering of the Thai people and to mitigate the spread of the disease. These have included publicizing the receipt of a cash donation from executives of 7-11 meant to be redistributed around the country, donating masks to novices throughout the country, and postponing summer ordination programs and the annual Pali exams.
There is nothing extraordinary about any of these responses. They are all appropriate institutional responses to a public health crisis. Indeed, the relief efforts that are described on the NOB website are pretty prosaic, boring even. They deal with basic needs, such as food. They display posters that highlight guidelines for maintaining a social distance. They emphasize masks. While some Thai monks are engaged in apotropaic rites in response to Covid-19, this is not what the NOB and the SSC are communicating as their primary response. Rather, the official, institutional response has focused on public health and mundane, ordinary human needs.
It is striking to me that most of the discussions of Buddhist responses to Covid particularly in Southeast Asia (and especially monks and gift giving, here and here) have ignored institutions, as well as how these institutions have advocated public health responses (though see here on the public health efforts of the Taiwanese group Tzi Chi). The reasons for this are complex, but I would highlight three.
First, the operations of Thai monastic institutions, particularly in their interactions with state agencies, have not been well or fully described in the literature studying Thai Buddhism. In part, this is because these institutions have a hybrid nature: they are shaped by state law, but they are not really or not directly a part of the state. The organization of the SSC is established in a law commonly referred to as the “Sangha Act.” The current version of this law was enacted in 1962, though significant revisions were made as recently as 2018. The Sangha Act delegates to the SSC the authority to manage the daily affairs of Thai monks, and the NOB, a governmental agency housed in the office of the prime minister, serves as its secretariat. The NOB is responsible for distributing the policies and rules established by and through the SSC, but it does not enforce them. The NOB’s website serves as a, if not the, official face of Buddhism in Thailand. However, serving as the official face of Buddhism in the country does not mean that it represents the interests of all monks, let alone all Buddhists.
In addition, the scope of the power wielded by the SSC is ambiguous. There is a clear bureaucratic edifice to the Thai Sangha, with the SSC at its head, which is also established in the Sangha Act. However, the responsibilities and reach of this ecclesiastical bureaucracy are spelled out in subsequent regulations only in very general terms. This has important repercussions for governing monks in Thailand. For example, when monks commit infractions, jurisdiction for trying and punishing these monks is often ambiguous, leading to delays or the avoidance of punishment altogether.
Thus, while Thai monks are formally under the authority of the Supreme Patriarch and the SSC, the Sangha Act also gives individual abbots a great deal of autonomy to run their temples as they see fit. Because of the autonomy that individual abbots wield, even with something like the Supreme Patriarch’s call for temples to provide food for laity described above, authority is murky. The Supreme Patriarch is a powerful figure, and monks do listen to his instructions, but individual abbots are not required to take up his instructions. Clearly, some temples followed them, but not out of compulsion.
Scholarship on Buddhism has seemingly not known how to describe the institutions of Thai Buddhism, as it is neither state nor not state. As a result, we have very little understanding of how the institutions work, of how monks govern one another beyond the disciplinary rules of the Vinaya, or how the monastic institutions interact with state institutions. In other words, we do not really understand how power and authority function in Thai Buddhism.
A second reason for the oversight by scholars of Thai Buddhism is clearly the effect of disciplinary orientation: most scholars of Buddhism in Southeast Asia have been trained either as anthropologists or as historians of religion. Our units of analysis, thus, are more likely to be the individual monastic, the texts they have produced, or monasteries, rather than the wider institutions that they build or inhabit. Erick White has suggested that since the early 1980s scholarly attention has turned away from the “mundane, conventional, everyday world of monastic affairs,” and argued for turning to look at how a variety of bureaucratic organizations—such as Buddhist schools and universities, among others—structure the lives of Thai monks and novices. As he highlights, much more work needs to be done on the way that the bodies like the SSC both govern Thai monks and intersect with state institutions. While recent work in the study of religion in Japan and Tibet has argued for the need to ask sociological and legal questions, with a few exceptions, this work remains limited in the study of Buddhism in Thailand and Southeast Asia.
Beyond disciplinary orientations, a third reason, I suspect, is that Buddhist studies, at least in Thailand, may also continue to have a romance problem; that is, the field still echoes the orientalist assumptions that were present at its founding. We are more likely to see Buddhists as religious actors primarily, rather than as people who also do Buddhism. This inclines us to look to their religious actions first, and may end up missing the prosaic relief efforts that do not always look religious, but could emerge from a variety of institutions. This means we tend to look at who we want Buddhists to be, rather than paying attention to what they may actually be doing.