Insight Into Santi Asoke

* Marja-Leena Heikkilä-Horn


"As the world's resources of non-renewable fuels - coal, oil, and natural gas - are exceedingly unevenly distributed over the globe and undoubtedly limited in quantity, it is clear that their exploitation at an ever-increasing rate is an act of violence against nature which must almost inevitably lead to violence between men."
(Schumacher 1973)

"While the materialist is mainly interested in goods, the Buddhist is mainly interested in liberation."
(Schumacher 1973)

The new millennium has started with increasing anti-globalisation protests, devastating terror attacks and wars. These developments have highlighted the importance of local economic self-sufficiency in terms of basic needs such as food and fuel. As Ernst Schumacher, a well-known German-born economist, puts it in his famous essay on Buddhist Economics in the book "Small Is Beautiful. Economics as if People Mattered", originally published in 1973:

"As physical resources are everywhere limited, people satisfying their needs by means of modest use of resources are obviously less likely to be at each other's throats than people depending upon a high rate of use. Equally, people who live in highly self-sufficient local communities are less likely to get involved in large-scale violence than people whose existence depends on world-wide systems of trade."
(Schumacher, edition 1999, 42)


The Buddhist Asoke group has been somewhat of a pioneer in Thailand in practising self-sufficiency in the village community level. The group has been highly successful in its endeavour and has become a showcase to the Thai government, particularly after the disastrous collapse of the "bubble economy" in 1997, and after the famous speech by H.M. the King, in December 1997, supporting and encouraging the Thai society to become more self-sufficient.

The Asoke group is a Buddhist group, established by Bodhiraksa. 1
< 1 In Thai he is known as: Samana Phothirak or Pho Than Phothirak. >

Bodhiraksa is a Buddhist monk, who ordained in the state sangha some 30 years ago. He was not happy with the practice of the mainstream Buddhist monks and ended up forming his own group of disciples. The group is strictly vegetarian, puts emphasis on the monastic vinaya rules, ordains women as Ten-Precept nuns, and presents sometimes very radical interpretations of Buddhist Pali concepts, thus annoying the state Buddhist monastic order (sangha) and the traditionally rather lax and fun-loving Thai monks and lay Buddhists.

Asoke group's economic visions, however, have been met more positively. The group was founded in the 1970s, and the first Thai books and articles about the group, usually classified the Asoke group with its village communities as "Utopian". 2
< 2 Suwanna Satha-anand (1990) refers to the two articles written earlier in Thai by Sombat Chantronwong "The Pathom Asoke Community. A Study of Buddhist Utopia", and Prawet Wasi "Suan Mok, Thammakai, Santi Asok" both from 1988. Apinya Fuengfusakul used the same term as late as in 1993 in her article "Empire of Crystal and Utopian Commune: Two types of contemporary Theravada reform in Thailand." >

The group has established several Buddhist centres in various parts of Thailand: Bangkok, Nakhon Pathom, Nakhon Ratchasima, Sisaket, Ubon Ratchathani, Nakhon Sawan and Chiang Mai. Several new budding centres are waiting to blossom in Trang, Chaiyaphum, Nakhon Phanom, Udon Thani, Roi Et and Loei.

The communities are economically based on organic agriculture. They have bought or rented fields for rice cultivation and gardens for vegetables. Each centre usually also produces its own tofu, mushrooms and drinking water. Additionally the centres produce and sell herbal shampoos, detergents, mosquito repellants, herbal medicine and herbal teas. These products are then sold to the public in cooperative shops on very small profit. Yet this income enables the centres also to invest in computers, cars, dental clinics and leaves them enough with resources to run primary, secondary and vocational schools free of charge, and, in case of emergency, to send the community members to a well-equipped modern hospital.

The Asoke group publishes also several monthly magazines which discuss both Buddhist and general topics from politics to traveling.

Buddhism as interpreted by the leader of the group,Bodhiraksa, is their greatest source of spiritual inspiration. One can also detect on the intellectual level the inspiration of Ernst Schumacher, the chapter on Buddhist Economics has been translated into Thai by Asoke sympathisers. 3
< 3 The book was translated more than 20 years ago by a group of Asoke sympathisers. >

In this study, I will discuss some of the ideas of Schumacher, and show how they have been implemented by the Asoke group.


1. Right Livelihood - Samma Ajiva


"Right Livelihood" is one of the requirements of the Buddha's Noble Eightfold Path. It is clear, therefore, that there must be such a thing as Buddhist economics."
(Schumacher 1999, 37)


The Noble Eightfold Path mentions as the 5th step that a practising Buddhist should carefully choose his or her profession. There are certain professions and occupations which are totally banned for a Buddhist. A Buddhist should not trade in arms, drugs and other intoxicants. Neither should a Buddhist be involved in trafficking in human beings. Selling animals as well as selling meat is banned, as refraining from destroying any life is the first precept for a Buddhist to follow. The five improper occupations (Miccha Ajiva) are also stealing, cheating, deceiving, working for a bad person and working only for a money.

There are no recommendations which professions are advisable, but usually Buddhism emphasises the opposite virtues of killing and hating i.e. compassion, mercy and nurturing life.

"To refrain from destroying life" is the first precept. The precepts do have an opposite set of recommendations, where the first recommendation consequently emphasises nurturing and protecting all life. This has been taken as the guideline for many Thai Buddhist monks who, for instance, have been trying to protect the pristine forests together with the local communities against the greedy loggers and their military cohorts. 4
< 4 The most famous case being Phra Prachak Kuttachitto, a Buddhist monk in Buriram trying to protect the forests. Eventually he had to flee for his life. Jim Taylor 1993; Rigg 1997, 58-59. >

Asoke goes deeper into the roots of this concept in nurturing and protecting all life. Many a barren land plot has turned into a lush garden in the hands of Asoke practitioners. The centres in Isan, in the Northeastern Thailand, notorious for its droughts and unfriendly natural conditions, has been one of the central areas for Asoke's agricultural experiments. Asoke group has, at the moment, three highly successful centres in the Northeast, Sima Asoke, Sisa Asoke and Ratchathani Asoke, all of which, have become showcases for the local authorities, and all of which are also involved in actively training local people in the art of natural agriculture, self-sufficiency and sustainable development. The main purpose of these training courses is to train the people to become self-sufficient farmers. The training courses are financed by the Bank of Agriculture and Agricultural Cooperatives (BAAC). The training also emphasises sanitary conditions, the Five Precepts, getting rid of the six vices 5
< 5 The six vices are; addiction, roaming at unseemly hours, frequenting shows, gambling, association of bad companions, and idleness. >
in order to free them from getting further in debt.

To become a farmer, is practically the choice number one of a "right livelihood" for an Asoke practitioner. Another alternative, in more urban surroundings, is to become a - at least part-time - gardener.

The export-oriented cash-crop monoculture economy has not only impoverished the peasants of Thailand, but it has equally impoverished the soil. The peasants are up to their neck indebted to the money-lenders and landowners, who have recommended the use of expensive foreign fertilizers, pesticides and insecticides. These fertilizers have then run into the rivers and rice fields killing all life in those waters. Even the groundwater has been polluted in some areas. Therefore, the second respectable occupation, for a serious Asoke practitioner, is "natural fertilizer".

Pollution has become a serious problem both in urban and rural areas - not to mention the beach resorts. With the modern disposable junk-food culture, garbage is piling up all over the country. In all Asoke centres, garbage is carefully assorted in different boxes or sacks. The third "right occupation" is therefore garbage collector and assorter. Much of this garbage is reused either as composting it into fertilizers, or into micro-organisms, used for detergents. Old paper, bottles, broken glass and metal scrap are resold. Plastic bags are reused in the Asoke shops for packing in the goods for the customer. Some garbage is burned and reproduced as cooking gas, for instance, in Pathom Asoke.


1.1 No to imported goods

"From the point of view of Buddhist economics, therefore, production from local resources for local needs is the most rational way of economic life, while dependence on imports from afar and the consequent need to produce for export to unknown and distant peoples is highly uneconomic and justifiable only in exceptional cases and on a small scale"
(Schumacher 1999, 42)


All production at Asoke centres is primarily oriented to their own people, and secondarily to the wider Thai community. There has been some demand for Thai herbal medicine abroad, for instance, in Japan, but so far this interest has been met with restrain. The Thai market itself is large enough for the Asoke products, and export would also involve problems with expiry, preservatives, packing, customs, and trading partners in foreign countries.

Asoke centres do not purposely boycott foreign goods, neither do they participate in any "buy local" -campaigns, which have become somewhat more popular even in Thailand after 1997. Yet, one could say that they practise "spiritual boycott" against foreign brand names due to their emphasis on Buddhist frugality. Their avoidance of foreign goods springs from their general negative attitude to luxury goods and any kind of luxurious life. Hence, foreign soft drinks - either imported or locally produced under a license, are not favoured. Instead, Asoke people drink locally made fruit drinks such as passion fruit, guava, tamarind and other fruit juices. They usually produce their own soymilk. Eating chocolate, ice-cream, sweets or cakes is rather unpopular in the Asoke.

Modesty (maknoy sandot) is one of the key-concepts of the Asoke and all imported or even locally made candies and sweets are generally avoided. The Asoke monks and nuns are allowed to eat only one meal a day, meaning no breakfast, only a lunch - or a brunch - sometime before the noon. When a person eats only one meal a day, it would be rather foolish to fill one's stomach with sweet things which have no nutritious benefits. Many Asoke lay people try to follow the same pattern as good as they can, very few serious Asoke practitioners would eat more than twice a day. The same emphasis on nutritious, healthy food thus applies.

All Asoke members refrain from smoking and drinking, which again reduces their consumption of any foreign imported goods.

At the same time, Asoke people are rather flexible. It is by no means forbidden to use toothpaste or toothbrushes of foreign brand names. Same applies to higher technology - cars, computers, cameras, TVs and other electric appliances are usually of foreign origin, as Thailand has very little own production in this field. Some brand names might have been assembled in Thailand.


1.2 Switch off the lights

"Non-renewable goods must be used only if they are indispensable, and then only with the greatest care and the most meticulous concern for conservation. To use them heedlessly or extravagantly is an act of violence, and while complete non-violence may not be attainable on this earth, there is nonetheless an ineluctable duty on man to aim at the ideal of non-violence in all he does."
(Schumacher 1999, 43-44)


The early Asoke centres were usually without electricity, which was quite a shock to the visiting city-dwellers, and partly is behind the image, that the Asoke group is strict and conservative to the extreme. 6
< 6 Grant Olson presents some of the first observations on the Asoke group in his MA thesis "Sangha Reform in Thailand. Limitations, Liberation and the Middle Path" from 1983. >
In fact, of course, many remote areas in Thailand are still without electricity.

Nowadays, however, all Asoke centres do have electricity. Usually they also have a TV in the meeting hall (sala), where the members gather in the evening to watch TV or videos for a couple of hours.

Most of the centres also have computer rooms, often air-conditioned, as computers are known to be rather sensitive to the hot and humid climate of Thailand. Usually, no private home is air-conditioned, as air conditioners are notorious for consuming plenty of energy, hence the electricity bills for any household during the hot season tend to be double or triple to the normal. Not to have private air conditioners, is simply a way of living in simplicity, practising maknoy sandot, but also consciously saving energy.

Many private houses do have electric fans, refrigerators and maybe even private TVs, particularly in the condominiums in the urban centre, in Santi Asoke. In the rural centres, the houses are built in traditional Thai style, which means that they do not get as hot as modern Western-style houses. Unfortunately, some houses in the Asoke villages, have tin roofs, which make the houses hopelessly hot during the hot season and noisy when the monsoon rains are pouring down.

The seventh precept in Buddhism, encourages the practitioners to avoid all kind of entertainment, such as listening to music, watching films or singing songs. Many Asoke lay people try to follow the Eight Precepts, which is a sign of a more serious practitioner, whereas Five Precepts, is regarded to be the general rule for all Buddhists. Again, as we saw, the group is rather flexible to this rule. The monks, nuns and lay people do gather to watch films together nearly every evening for a couple of hours. The films, have been chosen by the monks, and therefore have some educational purposes. Also during the meal, documentaries are often shown in the preaching hall (sala).

The Asoke people wake up between 3-4 am, which further discourages people from watching TV late into the night or indulging into other night entertainment. The benefit of waking up early, is also, that the air is quite cool, and hence, no air conditioner or even fans are needed. Late in the evening, the weather can be still quite hot and sticky, but one cannot be too bothered by it when sleeping. Therefore for the late-night activities, more energy consumption is needed, than for the early morning activities.


2. Why were you born?

"To organise work in such a manner that it becomes meaningless, boring, stultifying, or nerve-racking for the worker would be little short of criminal; it would indicate a greater concern with goods than with people, an evil lack of compassion and a soul-destroying degree of attachment to the most primitive side of this worldly existence."
(Schumacher 1999, 38)


Work in all Asoke centres is organised on voluntarily basis. Nobody is forced to work in a work base which does not please him or her. There are practically no skill requirements to any work, as all work is carried out as a team-work.

As mentioned earlier, a high priority is given to certain professions such as being a farmer, gardener, fertilizer and garbage collector. There are, however, dozens of work-bases in every centre. The monks are not allowed to work in gardening, as working with the soil, might involve unintentionally destroying life of some insects. Monks as well as the nuns, therefore usually work in the offices, schools, printing houses in editing, translating, typing, teaching, writing, preaching and counselling the lay people.

For the lay people, there are several alternatives: all Asoke centres have primary or secondary schools, some even vocational schools. People with any teaching background tend to work in the schools. However, quite a few Asoke people feel that they have done their share as teachers in the outside schools already, and prefer to work somewhere else after joining Asoke. Permission is granted, and people are free to move as they wish.

Nearly all Asoke centres have shops, which require several persons as shop assistants and cashiers. Several centres have vegetarian restaurants which need work force for preparing the food, serving and selling it, washing the dishes, cleaning the tables and as cashiers.

Printing and publishing houses and companies require a large number of various type labour force: young people handy with the computers, elderly for manually folding the publications.

Majority of all labour force in Asoke centres is constituted of volunteers. When there is need of ad hoc assistance in some work bases, then all people available rush to help that particular base. Labour is hence very freely structured. People switch bases regularly, there is no systematic rotation organised by the supervisors, rotation is rather spontaneous. Everyone is free to choose his or her work base and equally free to change it into another work base.

This, in practical terms, means that the job is not always chosen according to the qualifications the person has from outside. Qualifications are simply not the main criteria here, because work is used just as a tool for spiritual practice.


2.1 Practice by working

"The Buddhist point of view takes the function of work to be at least threefold: to give a man a chance to utilise and develop his faculties; to enable him to overcome his ego-centredness by joining with other people in a common task; and to bring forth the goods and services needed for a becoming existence."
(Schumacher 1999, 38)


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.

Working also teaches selflessness, as ad hoc assistance to any other work base is encouraged. Instead of criticising that work base for laziness and inertia, the Asoke person is expected to join his fellow workers joyfully without wasting time and energy in criticism.

Equally, engaging in work where the person does not necessarily have his or her training, reduces the ego and the feeling of pride and superiority towards the co-workers.


3. Bunniyom as moral economics

"The ownership and consumption of goods is a means to an end, and Buddhist economics is the systematic study of how to attain given ends with the minimum means."
(Schumacher 1999, 41)


Asoke regards bunniyom or "meritism" as an alternative economic system to thunniyom i.e. capitalism. In capitalism, people are seen to use the following four criteria to measure success in life: material riches, worldly position, fame and mundane pleasures. Capitalists want big houses and more money, whereas those who follow the bunniyom-system are satisfied with small houses, and they do not need much money in order to be happy. Capitalists demand more clothes and decorations, whereas followers of bunniyom are satisfied with simplicity and modesty. The capitalists prefer to work less for more money, whereas the bunniyom group works more and takes less. The capitalists use high technology for their construction and at the same time destroy the ecological system, whereas bunniyom is not interested in big buildings and high technology. Bunniyom is hence also regarded as an environmentally friendly alternative. 7
< 7 Insight into Santi Asoke III, an un-published manuscript, 122 pp, Bangkok 1992. >

In the practical terms, the bunniyom shops in all Asoke centres try to follow the policy of meritism. One of its manifestations is that the goods have two prices labeled on them: the original price for which it was purchased and the new price which the shop is selling the goods for. The difference between the prices is extremely low.

Bunniyom does not emphasise profit, but emphasises instead the spiritual merit gained when donating goods to the customers or when receiving as low profit as possible from the customers. The four guiding principles of bunniyom economy are
- selling for low profit
- changing for equal price
- changing for lower price
- giving for free.

Private property is not glorified in Asoke, instead many resources are owned collectively by various foundations, associations or organisations, such as by Dharma Santi Foundation and Gongtub Dharm Foundation. Asoke practitioners who work outside regularly contribute to these foundations. The foundations then support the activities of the various organisations. The three companies, Palang Bun super market, For Life retailer and Fah Aphai publishing and printing house are linked to the foundations. The workers in those three companies receive a very low salary, whereas the workers in the vegetarian restaurant, for instance, work for free. 8
< 8 More in detail in Heikkilä-Horn: Buddhism with Open Eyes. Belief and Practice of Santi Asoke. pp. 137-140, 1997. >

Money is pooled together in a central office (Sadharana bhogi), from where different work bases can borrow money for their projects. Recently, the Asoke group has also started their own private saving group (Sacca omsap), from where the individual members can borrow money for various purposes. The projects must be both viable and ethically sound. The money has to be paid back in a reasonable time, with low interest. In other words, it is very similar to some informal credit unions and micro loan projects in other developing countries.

Many centres have gasoline stations which are leased from a local gasoline company. Many centres also have libraries, health care centres and dental clinics. Some centres have pharmacy shops, rice mills, and Santi Asoke has two houses with condominiums.

The centres can borrow money from the outside institutions for their construction projects or for other purposes. Some centres have received money from the Cooperatives Promotion Department of the Ministry of Agriculture and Cooperatives, or from the Thai Traditional Medical Institute. It is equally possible to borrow from other Asoke centres or from the central office (Sadharana bhogi) located in Santi Asoke.

The other centre, where Asoke communities can borrow money with no interest is the Welfare Fund (Gongboon sawaddikan).

Ultimately bunniyom is regarded as a method to create strong local communities which give a solid ground for the entire country to survive and avoid economic crises and to gain some level of national self-sufficiency. According to the Asoke ideology, freedom from materialism is the real freedom and freedom from greed leads to a peaceful society. Bunniyom is regarded as a practical and concrete way to decrease selfishness.


3.1 Anti-consumerism

"Since consumption is merely a means to human well-being, the aim should be to obtain the maximum of well-being with the minimum of consumption. Thus, if the purpose of clothing is a certain amount of temperature comfort and attractive appearance, the task is to attain this purpose with the smallest possible effort, that is, with the smallest annual destruction of cloth and with the help of designs that involve the smallest possible input of toil."
(Schumacher 1999, 41)


One part of Asoke anti-consumerism is to refuse to follow the whims of fashion. According to Buddhism, human beings have only four basic needs: food, clothing, shelter and medicine. The monks and nuns have 2-3 sets of robes, which they wash every day, and wear until the cloth wears out. Many lay people follow the same behaviour.

Many Asoke practitioners, particularly the people who live permanently in the temple compounds, have only a couple of sets of clothes. For men, a pair of traditional Shan pants, and a Thai-Lao peasant shirt called mohom. For women, a blue or gray sarong and also a mohom. Many lay people walk barefoot just like the monks and the nuns. No wristwatches are favoured, and giving up jewellery is one of the first signs of a serious Asoke practitioner.

School children wear blue uniforms similar to the lay people. They also have only 2-3 sets which they must wash every day.

Paper is recycled, old pocket calendars are not thrown away, but used as notebooks. Monthly pages of large wall calendars are used to cover books and practically every piece of paper or plastic is reused one way or another. Wasteful consumption is thus geared into the minimum.

All Asoke practitioners usually wear their hair short. Expensive foreign shampoos are not recommended, most of the people use the shampoos, soaps, and detergents produced by their own village community. Asoke men have traditional, Thai style, rather militaristic haircuts, and for women the hair is also cut as short as possible. The same applies to the Asoke school children, but on the other side, their hair style is, in fact, exactly the same as the compulsory hairstyle of all Thai school children. Thailand - like many of her Asian neighbours - is the promised land of uniforms and uniformity.


4. Buddhist education

"Equally, to strive for leisure as an alternative to work would be considered a complete misunderstanding of one of the basic truths of human existence, namely that work and leisure are complementary parts of the same living process and cannot be separated without destroying the joy of work and the bliss of leisure."
(Schumacher 1999, 38-39)


The tragedy of the developing countries is that they have been encouraged by the West during the colonial era, and by their own Western-educated elites in the post-colonial era, to copy the Western social institutions into the smallest detail. In most cases they have failed miserably, whether they were copying the British parliamentarian system or the Western educational system.

The educational system has usually failed in the developing countries, often simply because too little money is invested in it, governments are too poor or disinterested in investing more; textbooks are propagandistic and outdated; educational authorities ignorant and corrupted, teachers underpaid and undertrained. The Western-type of approach alienates the children from their own environment.

Traditional education was destroyed by the colonial authorities, or, in the modernisation process, by the Westernised elite. Traditional education has, however, experienced a revival in many parts of the world, where Western education has turned out to be a failure. In the Theravada Buddhist world, traditional education was given by the monks to the boys in the temples.

Nowadays, many Thai children study in schools located in the temple compounds, but they follow the Western-inspired curriculum. In the Asoke schools, the children do study English, natural sciences and computer skills, but they also learn to appreciate the traditional skills of the rural Thais.


4.1 Samma sikkha - the right study

"It is clear therefore, that Buddhist economics must be very different from the economics of modern materialism, since the Buddhist sees the essence of civilisation not in multiplication of wants but in the purification of human character, at the same time, is formed primarily by a man's work. And work, properly conducted in conditions of human dignity and freedom, blesses those who do it and equally their products."
(Schumacher 1999, 39)


The Asoke schools are called Samma Sikkha schools, with reference to the Noble Eightfold Path and its steps of Right Understanding, Right Thought etc. The secondary schools were established some 10 years ago and, at the moment, there are more than 500 students in the Samma Sikkha secondary schools. Recently, also primary schools and vocational schools have been opened.

All teachers work as volunteers. Some of the teachers originate from the outside schools and try sometimes push the Asoke schools more to the line of state schools. Many monks and nuns work as teachers in the Asoke schools, teaching everything from Buddhism to English and Mathematics.

The Samma Sikkha schools are in constant process of change as new teachers join the schools wanting to reform them along the lines of their private visions. The children learn to become quite tough and are well-prepared to defend their rights and interests. The school children have regular meetings where they learn to discuss their problems, negotiate solutions to conflicts and take certain responsibility for their own behaviour and for the behaviour of their fellow students. This process is supported by the teachers.

Many students leave Asoke schools for various reasons. The ones who stay, often stay on in the Asoke communities even after graduating. Some join the vocational schools at the Asoke centres, some study at the Asoke "university" (Sammasikkhalaya Wang Jiwit) or at the open universities like Ramkhamhaeng University. Very few leave the community permanently, it is more common to stay in the geographic and spiritual vicinity.

Asoke schools take a holistic approach to education where theoretical knowledge goes together with practical skills such as gardening, cooking, cleaning, producing and selling goods, repairing cars and engines, sewing, and nursing. The Asoke centres are presently also training their own "barefoot doctors" in cooperation with a hospital in the Northeast.

Asoke school is a place for the lay practitioners to show devotion, which is regarded as an important part of Asoke Buddhism. To donate money to the Asoke temples or foundations is not enforced. Visitors who come for the first time are not at all allowed to donate money before they have visited the temple seven times and understand the teachings of the temple. Working for the temple is valued higher than any material contribution, as work is regarded as spiritual practice.


4.2 Nirvana - now!

"Simplicity and non-violence are obviously closely related. The optimal pattern of consumption, producing a high degree of human satisfaction by means of relatively low rate of consumption, allows people to live without great pressure and strain and to fulfill the primary injunction of Buddhist teaching: Cease to do evil; try to do good."
(Schumacher 1999, 42)


To donate one's devotion and labour to the temple originates from the Asoke teaching about Enlightenment or Nirvana. (Thai: Niphaan). Enlightenment is the highest goal of all Buddhists, but, in many Buddhist countries, it is usually regarded as unattainable for an ordinary lay person. An American researcher specialised in Burmese Buddhism, Melford Spiro has therefore divided Buddhist practice into two different categories: Karmic Buddhism and Nibbanic Buddhism. Karmic Buddhism strives to improve one's karma for this life and for the next life, whereas Nibbanic Buddhism is reserved only for the monks. 9
< 9 Melford Spiro 1970. Michael Ames talks about laukika and lokuttara as this-worldly and other-worldly orientations in Buddhism. Ames 1964. >

Asoke interpretation has demystified the concept by dividing nirvana into "small" and "big" nirvana (parinirvana). The small nirvana is here and now and can be reached by getting rid of defilements (kilet). In the present life, nirvana is signified as a state of mind. The development into the state of nirvana goes through certain stages, which Buddhists can reach through their own struggle.

In mainstream Buddhism these stages are seen as steps on the long path of several rebirths (samsara). The first stage is a sotapanna (Thai: Sodaban), a stream enterer who will become a saint (araha) within seven rebirths. The next stage is a sakadagami (Thai: Sakitakhami) a once-returner, who has destroyed the intermediate forms of sensual delight and ill-will. The next stage will be an anagami (Thai: Anakhami), a non-returner, and the highest stage is finally an araha, who will enter nirvana at the time of his death.10
< 10 Ruth-Inge Heinze 1977. >

The Asoke members are all encouraged to strive to become enlightened. According to the Asoke interpretation, these stages can be reached within this present life: the lowest stage sotapanna requires that the person is free from the following six vices: addiction, roaming at unseemly hours, frequenting shows, gambling, association of bad companions, and idleness. In addition, the person should be able to follow the five precepts - abstain from killing, stealing, practising illicit sex, lying and becoming addicted. The person should also pay respect to the "Triple Gem" (Ratana Trai), i.e. to be a good practising Buddhist respecting the Buddha, the dhamma and the sangha. According to the Asoke interpretation even a married person can practise to become a sotapanna. To practise by working in the temple gives the person a chance to reach the nirvana of a sotapanna.

The next stage, sakadagami, can be reached by becoming free of passion and anger. The person should be able to follow the eight precepts. This requires that the person can, first of all, follow the five precepts, and furthermore this requires him or her to reduce the number of daily meals, refrain from singing, dancing and decorating him/herself, and to refrain from sleeping on elevated beds and sofas. The third precept in this case requires celibacy.

The next step is anagami, when the person has become free from all worldly affairs, the person feels no temptation to worldly pleasures and worldly events do not have any effect on him or her. The person at this level still has some defilements within his or her mind, but they are not shown outside. The final stage is araha, when the person is completely free from the idea of "self", and can work for the benefit of others because he or she is not selfish any longer. This stage is nirvana, which is a state of mind, in which the person has no selfishness, anger, greediness or delusion. 11
< 11 For a further discussion, see Heikkilä-Horn: Buddhism with Open Eyes. Belief and Practice of Santi Asoke. pp. 111-121, 1997. >

The concept of nirvana differs in the Asoke ideology from the general ideas of the Thai Buddhists. Nirvana is traditionally described as being something very distant, unimaginable and unreachable. Only monks might have a realistic chance of reaching nirvana. Ordinary lay people do not even orientate themselves towards nirvana, instead they concentrate on earning enough merit (bun) to be born in more favourable socio-economic conditions in the next life. Asoke group teaches that nirvana can be reached in this life since it is a state of mind. Nirvana is not something supernatural or otherworldly. To be enlightened means to be peaceful and calm due to having no more selfishness.


The Asoke group has managed to create very healthy and functioning village communities in the traditionally poorest regions of Thailand.

The villages are self-sufficient in food, in such household commodities as shampoos, detergents and herbal medicines. More expensive goods are collectively owned and money is pooled through various foundations for new investments.

The Asoke villages have become showcases for the local authorities and all Asoke centres are involved in training thousands of Thai peasants in organic farming, economic self-sufficiency and Buddhist ethics.

Whether the central government and the Bangkokian elite really want to have strong local communities with proud and self-confident peasants, who would refuse to buy foreign imported goods, remains to be seen. It has still been the policy of the recent governments to emphasise exports of cash crops, environmentally unsustainable tourism and further globalisation which are all totally contradictory to the ideas of Schumacher's Buddhist economics and Asoke's self-sufficient village communities.


(See also books about the Asoke Movement)

Ames, Michael (1964) Magic-Animism and Buddhism. A structural analysis of the Sinhalese religious system. Journal of Asian Studies Vol. XXIII. pp. 21-51.

Heinze, Ruth-Inge (1977) The Role of the Sangha in modern Thailand. California.

Insight into Santi Asoke III (1992) Unpublished manuscript. 120 pp. Bangkok.

Rigg, Jonathan (1997) Southeast Asia, the human landscape of modernization and development. Routledge. London.

Schumacher, E.F. (1973) Small is beautiful: a study of economics as if people mattered. Special edition: 25 years later...with commentaries. Hartley&Marks, Vancouver 1999.

Spiro, Melford (1967) Burmese Supernaturalism. A study in the explanation and reduction of suffering. New Jersey.



Apinya Fuengfusakul (1993) Empire of Crystal and Utopian Commune: Two types of contemporary Theravada reform in Thailand. Sojourn Volume 8, Number 1, pp. 153-183.

Heikkilä-Horn, Marja-Leena (1997) Buddhism with Open Eyes. Belief and Practice of Santi Asoke. Fah Aphai, Bangkok.

Jackson, Peter (1989) Buddhism, Legitimation, and Conflict. The political functions of urban Buddhism. ISEAS. Singapore.

Olson, Grant (1983) Sangha Reform in Thailand: Limitation, Liberation and the Middle Path. Chapter VII. The people of Asoke: Purity Through Strict Discipline and Vegetables. Unpublished MA-Thesis May 1983, University of Hawaii.

Suwanna Satha-anand (1990) Religious Movements in Contemporary Thailand. Buddhist struggles for modern relevance. Asian Survey Vol. XXX, No 4, April 1990, pp. 395-408.

Swearer, Donald K. (1991) Fundamentalistic Movements in Theravada Buddhism. in Marty, Martin E. & R. Scott Appleby (eds) Fundamentalisms Observed. Chicago. pp. 628-690.

Taylor, Jim L. (1990) New Buddhist Movements in Thailand: An 'Individualistic Revolution'. Reform and Political Dissonance. Journal of Southeast Asian Studies Vol XXI, No 1 March 1990, pp. 135-154.

Taylor, Jim L. (1993) Buddhist Revitalization, Modernization, and Social Change in Contemporary Thailand. Sojourn Vol. 8. No. 1. pp .62-91.


*** Marja-Leena Heikkilä-Horn (Ph.D.) teaches Asian History and Religions at Mahidol University International College and has written several books in Finnish on Southeast Asian History and Cultures.


*** Rassamee Krisanamis (M.A.) teaches Spanish at Faculty of Arts Chulalongkorn University and has translated several children's Books from Spanish into Thai.


"while the materialist is mainly interested in goods, the Buddhist in mainly interested in liberation."
(Schumacher 1973)