Insight Into Santi Asoke
The Asoke people do not meditate in the traditional way by sitting or
walking. This is regarded by the Asoke people as a waste of time, and
a way of escaping the reality of the world. Instead, they practise with
open eyes, engaging energetically in any type of work. The main point
with work, is hence nor the result neither the gain, but the process itself.
To work in a team, requires compassion to your fellow workers, it requires
concentration to carry out the work despite the possible disturbance and
noise of the surroundings.
Publisher : Fah-aphai Co.Ltd. 644 Soi 44 (Thiam-phon)
This is a revised edition of the earlier publications "Insight into Santi Asoke" Part I and II. Insight into Santi Asoke Part I was edited by Porn Poompanna in November 1989 after the Asoke group had encountered the legal problems. Part II was edited by the same person in 1991 and it deals exclusively with the court case.
In this revised edition we have chosen to make some radical changes. We have preserved the introductory article "The Man Behind Santi Asoke" by the well-known journalist Sanitsuda Ekachai from the "Bangkok Post". The article gives some background information about the founder of the Asoke group, Bodhiraksa, alternatively spelled as Phra Bhodhirak or Photirak. We have decided not to reprint other parts of the earlier editions as the material tends to be somewhat outdated. The court case ended in 1996 in the lower court and in 1997 in the Appeals Court. There is a short article by Sanitsuda Ekachai commenting on the final suspended sentence given to the leader of the group in 1997. The court case caused quite a sensation in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Many Thai and Western academics and journalists were then interested in the group, and in the list provided at the end of the booklet, we bring the titles and names of the authors of some of the books and articles which resulted from this interest.
After the court case, the Asoke group has expanded and intensified its work. There are several Asoke centres in Thailand practising natural agriculture, self-sufficiency and simple, modest life style without any luxuries. The movement has become an alternative, anti-consumerist community and receives daily dozens of visitors from near and far. Asoke centres organise training courses for Thai peasants in natural agriculture and Buddhist life style, they produce herbal shampoos, medicines, teas and detergents. They run several vegetarian restaurants in Thailand. They have hundreds of primary and secondary school students in their "Samma Sikkha"-schools.
The Asoke group, which includes the Bangkok-based Santi Asoke, Pathom Asoke, Sali Asoke, Sima Asoke, Sisa Asoke and Ratchathani Asoke, has ordained more than 100 monks and about 25 Ten-Precept nuns called Sikkhamats. Thousands of volunteers work and live in Asoke centres.
The third article in this revised edition of Insight into Santi Asoke discusses the above-mentioned developments and compares the Asoke communities with the Buddhist Economics promoted by E.F. Schumacher in his famous book "Small Is Beautiful".
Bangkok, December 2002
THE MAN BEHIND SANTI ASOKE
Phra Bhodhirak of Santi Asoke Buddhist Centre is a man you will either love or hate. But the outspoken monk could care less. Though ostracised by the mainstream Sangha, he remains as outrageous as ever, firing away criticisms against consumer society and the lax behaviour of mainstream Buddhist monks.
"My mission is to revive Buddhism in Thailand," the self-taught monk declares in his autobiography Truths about My Life.
Admirers say he is fearless and straightforward. His opponents say he is ignorant and arrogant. But even neutral observers are shocked when he delivered one of his characteristic thunderclaps, claiming that he is "Phra Bodhisattva", a reincarnation of the spirit on his/her way across lifetimes to Enlightenment.
According to orthodox teaching, it is not permitted for monks to talk about the level of spiritual achievement they have attained, let alone to claim to be on the way to becoming another Buddha.
But the outspoken monk has his reasons for such an outrageous pronouncement, as well as answers to the other criticisms he receives, which range from possessing an unmonk-like arrogance, being ignorant of Buddhist teachings, and being the cause of serious rifts in ecclesiastical harmony.
"Yes, I have a sharp tongue. But it is only because there are already plenty of monks using the carrot. So it is my job to use the stick.
"The world is now in imbalance. No one dares to criticise. They are afraid. Afraid of being criticised back. Afraid of not being liked. I just strike a balance.
"I am a teacher. I have to keep scolding and criticising. I shock the people with my criticisms, as powerful as thunder, so that they start thinking and checking their behaviour. So that they change," so he writes in his biography.
Efforts to "get" Phra Bhodhirak started up a long time after he declared independence from the Ecclesiastical Council in 1975. It was obvious that the clergy felt that the threats from Santi Asoke were real and getting more immediate with the increasing popularity of the Palang Dhamma Party. It was feared that if the party got their hands on the country's religious affairs, Phra Bhodhirak might finally have the power to "rock the boat", as he had been vowing to do.
Indeed, Phra Bhodhirak could have peacefully continued with his work and experiment on an alternative, self-reliant community based on selflessness, hard work and simple, religious life against mainstream materialism and consumerism if he - like other proliferating religious groups - lets well enough alone and does not challenge the clergy.
But he has made it clear that he will not let his mission be confined by such timidity.
"I'm frank. And loud. I'm not a nanny. My job is not to cradle the baby gently."
Phra Bhodhirak was the eldest son in large family always struggling to make ends meet. But that only made the independent and hard-working boy more determined to rise above his means.
From the age of 10 he had to work odd jobs in order to support his family. And when his mother died, he replaced her as family leader and on his own shouldered the responsibility of supporting and educating all his six brothers and sisters.
The enterprising boy, however, was also noted for his artistic leanings. When in the Poh Chang College of Arts and Crafts, he changed his name Mongkol to Rak, meaning "love", and determined to excel in writing to make his name in the entertainment circle. Which he did.
He quickly became successful as TV programmer, song composer, and writer. Rak Rakpong became a household name for TV viewers. He had a big house, expensive cars, and enjoyed a bachelor's indulgences. But in the meantime, he remained a loving and responsible eldest brother.
Rak went through numerous "quests" before he finally turned his back on fame, success, and other worldly pleasures.
A fascination with psychic powers led him to study hypnotism and black magic. He became a spirit medium and faith healer for a number of years before shifting his interest to dhamma practice.
"When I decided to practise dhamma, I was already earning 20,000 baht. My career as song composer was at its height. I, like the Lord Buddha, did not succumb to wealth, fame and comfort.
"I'm not the type of the person who clings. I can always cut off whenever I like. Just like that."
He shocked his family and friends by shaving his head, wearing only simple white clothes, and going around barefoot. By the time he finally decided to resign from his job, he had been a strict vegetarian for a number of years.
"People thought I was mad," he recalls, adding, however, that he became "accomplished" only two years after he started practising dhamma and before his ordination.
"I was fast because I put my mind to it," he says, stressing the importance of willpower in mind purification, and that he is his own teacher - no one else.
He resigned from his job in 1970 and was ordained a few months later in the Dhammayutika Sect, but not before he forewarned the abbot not to let other monks "disturb" his quietude.
"People just would not listen because I was not a monk. So I became a monk, although the saffron robe did not really matter to me."
He resigned from the Dhammayutika Sect three years later when the abbot would not let him organise a meeting for his followers which would be also attended by monks from the Mahanikaya Sect.
After that he set up a Buddhist centre in Nakhon Pathom, where monks wore brownish robes and strictly followed the monks' disciplines as in ancient times.
But as his popularity increased among those who were tired of the ineffectiveness of the orthodox ecclesiastical order, Phra Bhodhirak's "holier than thou" criticisms created a strong opposition from the order itself.
The last straw came when the order threatened to demolish his centre and forced his ordainer, who was critically ill, to expel him from the sangha.
In 1975, he declared independence and formed Santi Asoke, which, he stresses, does not mean that he is no longer a Buddhist monk.
"I have never left the monkhood. I've never said I would leave the monkhood, never performed a ceremony to do so. My heart has never left."
What he did, he argues, was only to return the certificates to the clergy which cannot disqualify him as a monk because he has not broken any rules stated by Buddha.
Phra Bhodhirak then gradually built up his new religious territory where he laid all the ground rules and performed ordinations himself although he had been ordained less than the normally required 10 years.
Santi Asoke has four centres, and an "ant army" of followers which, among other things, churns out 560,000 books for free distribution annually to spread Phra Bhodhirak's teachings.
At Santi Asoke, people strictly follow Buddhist principles with a strong emphasis on simplicity, hard work, and self sacrifice. Followers and monks eat only one meal a day. And only vegetarian food. Monks and nuns wear brownish robes and do not shave their eyebrows as convention dictates.
While modest and hard-working, all seem to be determined to be different from the rotten lot. They are even selective in accepting donations and new members. One has to join their activities at least seven times in order to be able to donate.
Going back to Buddha's fundamental teachings, Santi Asoke counters the mainstream materialism and consumerism and has set up an "utopian Buddhist society" in Nakhon Pathom where members live, work, and produce food on the basis of communal harmony.
Apart from its model Buddhist villages, Santi Asoke members - predominantly professionals, middle class, to lower middle class - have also set up a model grocery store and herbal product business based on their intention to help consumers rather than make profits.
The Santi Asoke projects have drawn much attention and admiration from academics for their projection of an alternative lifestyle according to Buddhist beliefs vis-a-vis Western-style consumerism, so much so that they are willing to dismiss his antagonistic approach.
But not the clergy.
According to them, Phra Bhodhirak is illegal, ignorant, aggressive and divisive.
The outspoken monk, they say, also violates one of the basic principles of the Buddhist monkhood - never to boast of one's spiritual achievements.
In his biography, Phra Bhodhirak argues that he needs no formal training since he has accumulated knowledge and merit from his past lives.
He mentions the name Phra Sariputta, one of Lord Buddha's main disciples, several times in his biography, implying that he is the reincarnation of or, at the very least, a follower in the footsteps of Phra Sariputta.
He also attacks the clergy and other schools of Buddhist practice in Thailand, explains away his arrogance, and dismisses the charges of divisiveness brought against his behaviour.
He argues that he was not causing rift but only trying to bring the good things in both the Mahayana and Theravada traditions together once again - by going back to the fundamental teachings and practices of ancient times as he understands them.
Vegetarianism, he says, is one good thing he has borrowed from Mahayana. But he does not spare any bullets when it comes to the clergy.
"Those in high positions are simply of no use. They have not achieved spiritual salvation and they even misunderstand Buddhist teachings."
Or the forest monks who devote themselves to mind purification. "They end up being like hermits. And ones without wisdom. Simply no use to people."
His criticism of other schools of Buddhism has not won him any popularity contests, either.
Apart from Santi Asoke, there are two other prominent reformist schools which command large followings among the powerful middle-class professionals: the Dhammakaya, which stresses concentration meditation, and Suan Mokkh led by Buddhadasa Bhikkhu, who calls for mindfulness and eradication of the sense of self.
Phra Bhodhirak says his approach is to teach people, step by step, to get rid of suffering, first from Sila or self-control, then go on to Samadhi or meditation, and then to Pa ñña or the understanding of nature.
Although Phra Bhodhirak does not name names, it is understood that he is criticising those two schools as incomplete and unmethodical, and this quickly drew attacks from the other schools' followers.
He refuses to tone down his approach. "Manner is a child of hypocrisy. There is no sincerity, no courage left to defend righteousness."
He says he is already as humble as he can be.
"I'm not making myself high. I'm high on dhamma. But people want to push me down.
"Truths hurt. And there is a misconception that Buddha only said nice things that fell easily on the ears. Once, after one of his sermons, 60 monks died suddenly because of the hard-hitting teachings, 60 resigned, and the other 60 attained enlightenment.
"No one has died or resigned because of my preaching yet.
"What I do is only to reveal a few of the diamonds I have. Not all that I have. But already people cannot stand the sparkle of them.
"I am not showing off. I am actually Phra Sotapanna, Phra Sakadagami. What is wrong with talking about what is true?" he asks, referring to the states of spiritual purification before attaining enlightenment.
He also cites a prayer in Pali saying that there exist special ones who find the truths of the world themselves. "I am such a person. You are lucky to meet that person."
As for comments that he lacks formal learning in Pali and Buddhist teachings: "I've never studied Pali formally. But I can translate it with my own intuition.
"There are past lives. If I didn't know about my past life I would be amazed, too.
"I can explain Buddhist teachings like threading beautiful flower garlands, varied, important, and profound. Why brush them away? Would you not lend me an ear?
"What I am doing is to make Buddhism into one. But I am not going to demolish existing sects. I'm only declaring the truths. And truths have nothing to do with secthood.
"People criticise me for being too strict and equating it with virtue. But we have to go against the strong currents of evil. That's why we have to be strict.
"I apologise for being harsh. But I will continue the whipping, again and again.
"Day by day, I feel more confident, more determined. I'm sure that although my work cannot match what Buddha did, it is in the same track, the same direction.
"I am the nutrionist giving food for the soul, a pharmacist giving medicine for the spirit.
"People do not understand me. But one day they will."
Bangkok Post 22 July 1988
PHOTIRAK MAY HAVE THE LAST LAUGH
Former cleric Photirak of Santi Asoke lost another fight to be a monk. But short of religious reform, the winning mainstream clergy will eventually be the real loser.
Last week, the Appeals Court upheld the six-month prison sentence with two-year suspension on the former monk for violating Buddha's teachings and disobeying the Sangha Council's defrocking order.
I often wonder why the Sangha is so harsh with the Santi Asoke leader, who essentially is trying to inject simplicity and strict moral discipline back into our extremely lax and commercialised clergy. In fact, we could say the birth and popularity of Santi Asoke stems from the weaknesses of the mainstream clergy.
Buddha teaches simplicity, compassion and tolerance, prohibiting greed, anger and illusion of self. Buddha also makes it clear the monk community must be egalitarian with the Vinaya, or code of monastic discipline, being the ultimate mandate.
Look around and see how far our monks have strayed from Buddha's words. We repeatedly hear of junior monks selling morning alms to vendors. But this is peanuts compared to famous monks and temples who have made a big business out of religious symbols and preying on people's superstitions. We also see monks watching boxing on TV, living in posh quarters, travelling in luxury cars, and pocketing donations for themselves. So much so, that we've come to accept this as normal.
More often than not, it's the powerful monks who set a bad example. Those who disagree must keep mum for fear of persecution from the Sangha, although its feudalistic, dictatorial governing structure is an outright violation of Buddha's democratic principles.
What Photirak, 63, has done is offer dissatisfied Buddhists an alternative. In contrast to mainstream monks, Santi Asoke disciples follow strict moral discipline, eating only one vegetarian meal a day and living a Spartan life.They also reject object worship and superstitious rituals, a direct critique of the commercialisation of Buddhism by the clergy.
While the feudalistic clergy has lost touch with the world, Santi Asoke effectively attracts those disillusioned with materialism by offering them a sense of mission and belonging to a close-knit community.
Photirak's acumen also is reflected in Santi Asoke's work with natural farming and education reform, which stress the balance between matter and mind, man and nature.
The reformist cleric also has effectively used books and magazines to build a sense of community among his followers, while the wealthy clergy could not care less about its widening gap with lay Buddhists.
This is not to say Photirak is without faults. He's hardly humble and is proud of Santi Asoke's military-like strictness and uses it to attack others as morally inferior. Also, monastic rule requires a preceptor to be at least 10 years in the monkhood. Based on his own biography, he ordained followers when he was in the monkhood for only six years. He also asserts his extraordinary spiritual attainment and enrages Buddhist scholars by giving new meanings to ancient Pali words in his unconventional teachings.
Despite these flaws, believe me, the Santi Asoke leader wouldn't have had any problems had it not been for his fierce criticisms of the Sangha Council. His real crime is not in violating the discipline but in challenging the power.
Gnawing rust occurs from within, goes a Thai saying. By suppressing dissent without paying attention to its foibles, the clergy has only itself to blame for declining public faith. And eventually, Photirak may have the last laugh.
SMALL IS BEAUTIFUL IN ASOKE VILLAGES