SANTI ASOKE TIMELINE
1934 (June 5): Mongkol “Rak” Rakpong was born Samana Photirak in Ubon Ratchathani province in Northeastern Thailand.
1970: Rakpong was ordained in the Thammayutnikai sect.
1975: The Asoke group became an independent group.
1988: The Asoke group was detained and accused of being heretic
1989-1996: There was an ongoing court case against Asoke monks and nuns.
1996: Asoke monks received a suspended sentence for two years; nuns were freed from
2000: The Asoke group cooperated with Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.
2000: Training courses in organic farming and Buddhist economics were established at Asoke villages.
2005: Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra visited Sisa Asoke village.
2006: The Asoke group joined the demonstrations against Thaksin Shinawatra.
2008: The Asoke group joined in the occupation of Bangkok airports.
2011: The Asoke group staged the “Neo-Protest.”
Santi Asoke is a controversial Buddhist group based in Bangkok that was formed in the early 1970s by Mongkol “Rak’ Rakpong,” [Image at right] who was a composer of popular music and a handsome television celebrity. He was born Samana Photirak on June 5, 1934 in Ubon Ratchathani province in Northeastern Thailand to a Sino-Thai family. He lost his father at an early age and his mother struggled to support Rakpong and his siblings. The mother is idolised in the Asoke centres, particularly in Ratchathani Asoke in Ubon Ratchathani, which are decorated with pictures and paintings of the mother in her prime years. The young, handsome Rakpong also is recaptured on the walls of various buildings in the Ratchathani Asoke village.
Rak Rakpong’s life history is clearly patterned along the standard Buddhist sacred biography, in which a successful young man/prince turning thirty enters into a life crisis questioning the meaning of his superficial luxurious life and dispatches subsequently on a spiritual journey in search of solutions to his existential quest. Just like the founder of Buddhism, Siddharta Gautama, it took a number of years for Rak Rakpong to be recognised as a genuine spiritual teacher.
First, he stopped eating meat, which in the Thai Theravada Buddhist tradition is regarded as an extravagance that Lord Buddha himself never practised. This has remained one of the most contested issues in the Asoke form of Buddhism, which strongly emphasises absolute vegetarianism or veganism Rak Rakpong practised meditation, dressed simply in shorts and a t-shirt and tried to persuade his fans and friends to become vegetarians as well.
According to his own narrative, he was finally ordained as a monk as this appeared to be the only possible way to gain some authority as a Buddhist teacher (Sanitsuda 1988). He was ordained in the Thammayutnikai sect in 1970, but he resigned from the Thammayutnikai and was reordained three years later in the Mahanikai sect. The two “sects” (nikai) known in Thai Buddhism can only cautiously be treated as “sects.” Thammayutnikai was a new “reformed” group of monks established by King Mongkut (Rama IV) while being ordained as a monk. The Thammayutnikai was allegedly established by the prince/monk to reform Siamese Buddhism to distance it from non-Buddhist or non-normative elements such as supernatural beliefs and magic practices. Ultimately, his reforms emphasised the way the Buddhist monks should dress, walk, behave and recite Pali texts. The reforms neither prioritised the importance of right understanding of the basic Buddhist teaching nor the following of teachings, such as the Noble Eightfold Path and Buddhist Precepts (sila).
Rak Rakpong, now known as Phra Bodhiraksa, was not satisfied with the standard Thai Buddhist teachings and the behaviour of the Mahanikai monks, and he often openly criticised them for their carnivorous dietary habits, magic practices and consumerism. The missteps of the Buddhist sangha are by no means uniquely Thai. The most common breaks of the Buddhist monastic conduct (vinaya) are drinking alcohol, gambling, perfoming magic rituals for money, involvment in hetero- or homosexual acts, watching movies and engaging in other entertainment.
Bodhiraksa had attracted a number of faithful followers while residing at the Wat Asokaram in Samut Prakarn. Among these followers were women, one of them being the future Sikkhamat Thipdevi. This group of Bodhiraksa’s followers left the Wat Asokaram temple, and they were hence known as the Asoke group (chao Asoke). The early Asoke group emphasised particularly the Buddha’s lifestyle of homelessness and practised the forest monk tradition of thudong, particularly in Central Thailand. Within a couple of years the group had been donated land in various provinces. The first Buddhist Asoke village was founded in Nakhon Pathom Province and was called Daen Asoke. The new Buddhist group attracted and increased in following not only among Bangkokian and other urban educated Sino-Thais but also among the rural less educated Norheasterners. Many mainstream monks and white-clad nuns (mae chi) joined the Asoke group.
This practice of establishing a separate centre, criticising the mainstream sangha for lax behaviour, adopting a vegetarian diet, not shaving their eyebrows, and wearing brown robes provoked criticism from the sangha authorities. On August 6, 1975, Bodhiraksa announced his intention not to submit to the authority of the Council of Elders (mahatherasamakom). He established an independent group; and all the monks and nuns ordained before August 6, 1975 were re-registered, and new monastic identity cards were issued. Bodhiraksa ordained monks and nuns himself, even though it is normally required that a man should have been a monk for ten years before he may ordain others. This breach in the monastic rules was later used against him.
Bodhiraksa had returned his monk’s certificate to the authorities when he left the Thammayutnikai, but he did not submit his certificate after he had left the Mahanikai and established his own group.
After Daen Asoke, the Asoke group was given another piece of land, this time in the outskirts of Bangkok in Bungkum. The owner of the piece of land, a mosquito infested marshland, was known as Khun Santi, and hence the new village was named Santi Asoke. The early Asoke centres had very simple wooden huts (kuti ) for the monks and the female ordained nuns (sikkhamat) [Image at right]. The sala, where the monks, nuns and the lay people gather to listen to the preachings and to eat their meals, were simple wooden platforms with a thatch or tin roof.
Bodhiraksa continued his teachings, and the basic rules and regulations of the Asoke group were created during these early years. The monks and the nuns wear brown robes, contrary to the bright orange robes worn by the mainstream state sangha. There are other groups in Thailand wearing brown robes as well; many of these monks are regarded as “forest monks.” Somboom Suksamram categorises the Thai monks in the early history as araññavasin (forest monks) and gramavasin (town monks). There are no monks in modern Southeast Asia who could be genuinly regarded as itinerant monks in the classical Buddhist sense of homelessness. The state authorities in all Theravada Buddhist countries have made it obligatory for all monks to register at one particular temple, where they are assumed or even required to spend the rainy season (varsa).
The Asoke group falls somewhere in between the forest monks and the city monks. The brown robes connect them to the tradition of the forest monks, whereas the urban Asoke centres started early to concentrate on Buddhist studies and particularly studies of the Buddhist text, the Tripitaka.
Santi Asoke became a centre of Buddhist studies where Bodhiraksa was interpreting the Pali canon according to his own understanding of the text. This caused increasing criticism among the mainstream establishment, which blamed Bodhiraksa for misunderstanding and misinterpreting the holy scriptures due to his lack of formal Pali studies. Bodhiraksa still teaches the Pali canon and often admits openly that he is “not good” (mai keng) in Pali. His somewhat un-scholarly interpretation of the Pali canon, however, seemed to have made Buddhist teachings more comprehensible to many people, and his following increased. Many lay followers praise Bodhiraksa for “speaking straight to the point” (phuut trong).
The significant characteristics of the Asoke Buddhist interpretation were codified in these early years: absolute vegetarianism, simple life in the form of walking barefoot [Image right], lay people wearing dark peasant clothes, eating only one meal a day, sleeping on the rough floor, and devoting one’s labour force to the temple rather than donating money as is usual in Thai Buddhism.
Asoke was from the early beginnings anti-state and anti-capitalist. It was anti-state, as the group was anti-establishment, and was in the due course “outlawed” from the state Buddhist hierarchy. It was anti-state in its fervent criticism of the corruption of the mainstream sangha practices, and it was anti-capitalist in its open contempt of money and wealth. During Thailand’s economic boom years in the 1980s and 1990s, when Thailand was expected to become another NIC (Newly Industrialised Country) and a “tiger economy,” the Asoke people’s slogan was “dare to be poor.”
An important marker for an Asoke temple was also the total lack of Buddha images; there were no Buddha images in the sala in front of which the faithful could prostate themselves. This anomaly unsurprisingly was used as an accusation during the trial starting in 1989 through claiming that the Asoke group was not Buddhist. The first sign of new Asoke followers tends still to be that they take off their Buddha amulets. They proudly and visibly were wearing during their first visits to the Asoke centres as an obvious display that they already consider themselves as serious Buddhist practitioners.
The Asoke group was political since the early beginnings in its resistance to the state sangha authorities [Image at right].During the turbulent years of the student uprising from 1973 to 1976, the Asoke monks often camped at the university campuses, preaching Buddhism and organising exhibitions. Many young university students joined the group during those years. Some of them were later ordained as monks or nuns; some of them remained as lay followers.
Bodhiraksa made an effort to connect with some respected monks in the state sangha, such as Buddhadasa Bhikkhu and Panyananda Bhikkhu. Bodhiraksa and the Asoke group have expressed great admiration for the teaching of Buddhadasa Bhikkhu and visited Suan Mokkh to pay respect to Buddhadasa Bhikkhu. They admire his critique on idolatry. They also embraced his interpretation of enlightenment as something that can be reached in this life rather than after death. They only regret that Buddhadasa was not a vegetarian and did not practise what he preached.
The Asoke group established several magazines, which they originally printed and bound by hand. Many of the centres were without electricity in the early years to emphasise the importance of “simple life.”
The increasing criticism and propaganda against Bodhiraksa and his teachings reached its peak in 1989 when he and the entire group of monks and sikkhamats were detained for a short period (Heikkilä-Horn 1996).
Asoke Buddhism emphasises the Four Noble Truths as the absolute cornerstone of Buddhist teachings. An Asoke Buddhist is encouraged to interpret his personal suffering (dukkha) through the principles of the Four Noble Truths. On a practical level, this means that, in Asoke, people must search internally for the origins of their personal suffering (samudya) by reflecting on their own behaviour rather than placing blame on external forces. Because of these teachings all spiritual, cult-related activities are regarded as useless and even foolish as personal suffering is not caused by outside forces such as malevolent spirits (phi) or ghosts but rather by the action of persons themselves.
The second noble truth traces human suffering back to individual craving and greed, which is responded to in the Asoke group with absolute anti-consumerism and anti-materialism. The purpose of this response lies in the long term perspective in which a person reduces craving for little luxuries, new commodities and sensual pleasures. When living in poverty is presented as an ideal, the suffering caused by craving is easily reduced to the minimum. The third noble truth teaches that there is a way out of this suffering (nirodha), and anyone who wishes to find this path out of suffering should obviously carefully study the fourth noble truth that introduces the path out of suffering (magga). The fourth noble truth further elaborates the ideas of reducing suffering by introducing the Noble Eightfold Path.
The Noble Eighfold Path (consisting of right understanding; right thoughts; right speech; right actions; right livelihood; right effort; right mindfulness; right concentration) is regarded as the concrete method and the roadmap to follow in order to reduce individual suffering. The first step on this path is “right understanding” (samma ditthi). With right understanding the Buddhist literature usually indicates that the root causes of suffering need to be understood. The real causes of human suffering, according to Buddhism, originate from the individual craving for more. As understanding is the first step on the Noble Eightfold Path, it is dictated that a person must actually already understand the importance of the three earlier Noble Truths. If the person still imagines that all his troubles and “bad luck” are caused by outside forces, he cannot properly and correctly follow the Noble Eightfold Path but instead is doomed to go astray on the first step. The Asoke group emphasises the right understanding, and many supporters of the group emphasise that one should see the world as it is, with no delusion (moha). The “right understanding” also refers to the understanding of karma, dana, rituals and the way to becoming an arahan.
The second step on the Noble Eightfold Path is “right thought” or also translated as “right intention” (samma sankappa). This in the Asoke and in wider Buddhist interpretation is often concretely translated as having a “right intention.” To have a “right intention” as such is positive, even if the outcome is negative. Hence the idea of “good intentions” is often repeated in the Asoke circles. A person with good intentions is a “good person” even if the outcome of his action might result in something negative and damaging. The other translation for the second step is “right thoughts,” meaning that one should not entertain any misunderstandings and misinterpretations in one’s mind but develop the “right thought” about a particular situation. In this context, the famous Buddhist slogan on the “middle path” is often mentioned. The concept of the “middle path” tends to offer a non-committed alternative to practise as anything one does can be seen as the “middle way.” There is always a more extreme way to anything. In the Asoke interpretation, one extreme is life in luxurious consumerism; the other extreme would be torturing one’s mind, for instance, by living isolated in a cave. The “middle path” means being a member of a group where a person can test his Buddhist practice on a daily basis when encountering other people and the materialistic world.
The third step on the Noble Eightfold Path is “right speech” (samma vaca). In the Asoke tradition this is usually interpreted as not lying and boasting. In the Asoke Buddhist version, polite speech is also very much appreciated. The way Bodhiraksa preaches is usually regarded as “speaking the truth.” Hence it has become one step on the Nobel Eightfold Path to speak the truth, criticising openly when there is something to be criticised and not avoiding the truth just for the sake of social harmony.
The fourth point of the Noble Eigthfold Path is right action (samma kammanta), sometimes translated as “right conduct” or “right behavior.” This right action is entirely based on the right understanding and right speech. Hence one cannot jump from step to step as one cannot simply have “right action” based on entirely wrong understanding and wrong intentions. Every step on the Noble Eightfold Path is equally important, and misunderstanding the first one or the second one will automatically lead to misunderstanding the rest of the teachings. A misunderstanding of the basic truths can only lead to a wrong action. The syncretistic elements within Buddhist practice are entirely rejected by the Asoke people. Wearing amulets, sprinkling holy water upon the Buddhists or participating in some other vernacular localised rituals appear simply a total waste of time and money for the Asoke people.
One of the most important and controversial points of the Noble Eightfold Path is the “right livelihood” or “right occupation” (samma ajiva). Basic Buddhist texts list occupations that are not recommended for practising Buddhists. Activities that cannot be practised are, for instance, any occupation that causes bloodshed. That would include both soldiers and butchers and also some other occupations where the risk of using violent means is imminent. Raising cattle might be problematic as the cattle are after all raised to be slaughtered at a later time. Selling alcohol is not acceptable for a Buddhist; meaning all the bars and restaurants should not be run by practising Buddhists. Trafficking slaves and women is not accepted in Buddhism, but ironically Thailand is rather notorious for the prostitution industry and as a centre of human trafficking of labour force from the rural areas and from the neighbouring countries.
For the Asoke group, the recommendation of a “right occupation” is very clear and simple to follow. Alcohol consumption is strictly banned, and as vegetarians they do not come in contact with dead meat and slaughtered animals. Mainstream Buddhism has more problems in interpreting these points as they seem impractical from the point of view of modern Thai economy, which relies on the tourism industry and on exports of chicken, fish and shrimp products to the world market. The fifth point in the Noble Eightfold Path is probably the clearest point for the Asoke followers and Asoke communities and villages. Asoke communities offer practitioners a very concrete way to follow these teachings (Essen 2005).
The sixth point is “right effort” or “right endeavor” (samma vayama), which is somewhat more abstract. It encourages the practitioners to avoid evil and reject lies. It also encourages the practitioners to “know thyself” and practise according to the person’s individual abilities and capabilities and to progress at their own pace. This is done in the Asoke group in the sense that each individual follows a somewhat different path of practice. Some eat one meal a day, some eat two meals a day, and some eat three meals a day. Some Asoke practitioners leave their worldly possessions and move into the temples either to be ordained or stay as temple residents. Others live outside the temple with their families, go to work, and devote only their free time to the Asoke activities. The Asoke community is in this sense unequal as the Asoke followers are on different levels due to the austerity of their practice. This in the Asoke group is interpreted by some laypersons as a spiritual stratification into castes (varna) depending on one’s level of practice.
The two last steps of the Noble Eightfold Path are connected with a peace of mind and an ability to concentrate. The seventh step (samma sati) is translated into English as “right contemplation” or “right mindfulness.” The eighth step (samma samadhi) is sometimes confusingly also translated as “right contemplation” or “right concentration.” The eighth step is often interpreted as right meditation, and hence this interpretation encourages the practice of meditation. The question, however, remains whether one can meditate if one has not followed the previous seven steps on the Noble Eightfold Path. Moreover, what is the benefit of meditating if the earlier steps have been neglected? Can a person who goes entirely against the right occupation still sit down and calm his mind to “right concentration?” The Asoke group emphasises mindfulness (sati), and many Asoke supporters state that their aim is to be more “awake, alert, and aware” of their environment and surroundings. This partly explains the “this-worldliness” of the Asoke group. An Asoke practitioner is expected to follow the news, world events, environmental disasters at home and abroad and to discuss the impact of these developments on their own life in the Asoke community. The Asoke people, however, do not like to be regarded as lokiya (this-worldly) but rather as lokuttara (otherworldy). The practitioners are interested in worldly affairs, but they are not “addicted” to the world; hence they regard themselves not to be l okiya. Nevertheless, an Asoke person should not remain ignorant of worldly reality. Asoke Buddhism is Buddhism with open eyes.
The Asoke group does not meditate in the traditional sense of the word. They reject the idea that sitting still in one place and closing one’s eyes for twenty minutes a day would somehow be connected to the basic Buddhist teachings, such as understanding the causes of suffering. Asoke people emphasise more the aspect of “concentration,” and thus their meditation is concentration in whatever they do whether it be eating, working or sleeping. Every action is carried out with careful concentration, which is their meditation.
Aside from the Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path as cornerstones of all Buddhist practice, the precepts (sila) are also emphasised. Usually all Asoke practitioners are expected to follow the Five Precepts. Considering that the precepts are not commands by higher spiritual authorities, the precepts should be understood more as recommendations. Persons who wish to be a Buddhist and live their lives as a Buddhist should try and follow the five basic recommendations. Thus the best translation for the precepts would be that the person declares a commitment to avoid acting against these recommendations. The five precepts are not and should not be considered as a set of prohibitions.
The first precept emphasises the value of all life and hence recommends that a practising Buddhist avoid destruction of any forms of life. The recommendation includes both human and animal worlds. It even includes the plants, but as the plants are regarded to have fairly low levels of energy (kandha) they are not treated with quite the same level of reverence as humans and animals.
The first precept is closely linked to the Buddhist understanding of “self.” The individual self (atta) is rejected in Buddhist teachings in favour of a more complex set of elements or aggregates of the self. These five aggregates or energies of self are the physical body (rupanama), feelings (vedana), awareness (samjña), thoughts (samskara) and consciousness (vijñana). When considering plants, they do possess “matter” and a shape but are assumed to be quite low in terms of “feelings,” not to mention “thoughts” or “consciousness.” These five energies are the basis of all life, and they follow each other in successive order. All life is based on interaction between these five elements. These five energies are continuously taking shape and being born and reborn in another form in another physical body. These are the principles of impermanence (anicca); a self is impermanent, and clinging to this illusory self is a major cause of all suffering.
In the Asoke group the first precept is taken very seriously. No life should be destroyed, no animals eaten, no animals killed. Insects and pests such as snakes and spiders are chased away; mosquitos are gently blown away if they decide to sit on one’s arm. Spiderwebs are carefully moved away to avoid causing injuries to the spider itself. Cats and dogs are not catered to in the Asoke temples as this would be an interference in their lives. To feed a dog or cat is to make the animal dependent on human beings and lead possibly to its no longer being able to survive on its own.
When the importance of the first precept is correctly understood, and the person has become fully capable of strictly following the first precept, the following precepts will have become very much easier to follow. Using intoxicants is unthinkable in the Asoke circles. Standard practice dictates that meals are eaten before noon, and no Asoke person goes loitering in and about night entertainment establishments. The temptation to cheat and be unfaithful towards one’s partner is also lessened when one does not visit bars and nightclubs. Some jealousies do arise among couples in the Asoke villages, but these have been handled within the community and with little public drama. Typical advice nuns give in cases like these is to face the truth and talk openly about the issues.
To take something that is not yours still happens in the Asoke centres, particularly among the students. I have seldom heard these problems occurring among the adults. Much of the property in the Asoke centres belongs to the temple and the foundations which maintain the temples; It has become public property, which everyone can use but not own individually as private property. The emphasis on anti-materialism and anti-consumerism also makes it less appealing for the Asoke people to engage in thievery among each other or to otherwise by illegal means increase their private properties. The Asoke version of Buddhist economics or bunniyom (meritism) also runs contrary to capitalism, consumerism and greed. The Asoke group’s recent emphasis on the corruption of Thai politicians should be contextualised in their passionately anti-capitalistic worldview. To be “corrupted” is equal to being a thief.
The fourth precept is to avoid speaking in a harmful way towards or about others. It coincides with the third step on the Noble Eightfold Path (samma vaca) and encourages people to always tell the truth and speak with respect about other people.
The prior five precepts are the basic recommendations for a practising Buddhist. The next five precepts give a more demanding set of recommendations further limiting consumerism and obsession with materialism. Many of the Asoke laypeople follow the eight precepts, meaning they do not eat anything after noon, they avoid dancing and joining in other types of entertainment, and they do not wear perfume or jewelry. The first sign of a new Asoke convert is that the person strips himself of all jewelry (Buddhist amulets, fancy golden watches and rings). With all these concrete methods of stripping down to basics, individual craving is reduced, and in the long run suffering will be reduced.
The remaining two precepts are compulsory only for monks and nuns in the Asoke group. The ordained are not supposed to use luxurious, elevated seats and beds, and they are not permitted to deal with money. It is quite common in Thailand and elsewhere in Asia to sit on the floor, eat on the floor and sleep on the floor, hence the ninth precept is not very difficult to follow in any Asian culture.
The tenth precept about not dealing with gold and silver (meaning money) has turned out to be rather difficult to observe in the modern Thai society. In the Asoke group it is an absolute rule, but in the outside Buddhist circles it is less strictly enforced. It is not unusual to see Thai Buddhist monks paying for a taxi ride or paying cash for a new computer programme in a shopping mall. Monks in Thailand do not usually have to pay for a bus ride or a train trip, but the generosity of the Thai state or private companies does not usually reach beyond that. In practice, a monk should have a layperson with him to pay the required money. This system is practised in Asoke where the monks and the nuns always travel with laypeople. Laypeople accompany them to hospitals or to opticians so the Asoke monks and nuns receive all the care they need without using money.
The five basic precepts or even the additional more demanding precepts are fairly easy to follow for a person living in the Asoke temples. They might be more demanding for those Asoke followers who live outside the temples and go out with their colleagues in the evenings or live in modern apartment houses with all the trappings of modern comfort and luxury.
The five precepts are paired with five positive actions that the person should do for further practice. The first precept does not only recommend that the person avoid destroying life, but the opposite is also emphasised, meaning the person should nurture and sustain life. This can most easily be done, for instance, with a small garden where the person can grow plants and practise living in harmony with nature. In accordance to the second precept, the person should give away things, be generous and with this practice learn not to be attached to material things. For the third precept, Asoke recommends brotherly and sisterly relations between genders. Asoke as such could be treated as one big family with the shared family name as discussed earlier.
To counteract speaking harmfully about the others means to speak positively about others and always remain polite. This is, of course, a general rule for good behaviour in any society and particularly emphasised in Thai society. In this context, the Asoke people practise among themselves by greeting each other with a polite “wai”‘ on all occasions and to thank each other with a wai when, for instance, sharing the food and receiving the food cart from another person in line.
A set of other Buddhist teachings are also discussed and well known in Asoke. The practical aspects offered to Asoke people as an introduction to the Asoke Buddhist practice give them the basic guidelines within which they operate and progress.
Asoke group strongly goes against the colouful tarditional Thai Buddhist rituals. The monks and nuns do not engage in magico- animistic rituals, in fortune-telling or predicting lottery numbers. There is no sprinkling of holy water or sharing merit by a white thread as common in many other Theravada Buddhist temples. Asoke group has developed its own rituals and ceremonies. Every morning at 4 AM the monks and the nuns preach in the Asoke village temples. At about 6 AM the monks and the nuns go out for their alms rounds (pindapada) [Image at right] and return before 8 AM. The Asoke people eat their one and only meal before noon usually gathering in the temple (sala) for some more preaching at about 9 AM. In the evening there might be a gathering at 6 PM presided by the monks and the nuns.
There are several annual week-long retreats where about two thousand people regularly attend. These gatherings are around the general Buddhist holy days, like the full-moon days of February, April and November. These retreats are known as Pluksek , Phutthaphisek and Mahapawarana respectively. Pluksek refers to waking up, Phutthapisek comes from Buddha abhiseka (consecrating Buddha images), but this Asoke ceremony emphasises the teachings rather than the images. Mahapawarana after the rainy season or Buddhist Lent decides where the monks and nuns will reside and elects the new abbots. They celebrate their own history around Bodhiraksa’s birthday in June with a week-long retreat. The retreats take place in different Asoke villages. All ceremonies emphasise the Asoke lifestyle that encourages the lay people to live according to the Asoke austere monastic principles.
Bodhiraksa is the spiritual adviser of the group, symbolically the Venerable Father known in the group as Poh Than , but the practical issues are carried out by annually elected abbots and vice-abbots to each Buddhist centre.
Santi Asoke has several rural branches all over Thailand. The most important ones are Pathom Asoke in Nakhon Pathom, Sima Asoke in Nakhon Ratchasima, Sali Asoke in Nakhon Sawan, Sisa Asoke in Sisaket and Ratchathani Asoke in Nakhon Ratchasima. There are additional smaller villages like Lanna Asoke in Chiang Mai; Phu Pa Fa Nam in Chiang Rai and Hin Pa Fa Nam in Chaiyaphum. Altogether there are currently twenty-seven Asoke centres in Thailand.
The group’s schools, factories, workshops and restaurants are run by foundations headed by laypeople. There are dozens of foundations connected to the Asoke group, some most important ones are the Dharma Army (gongthub dharm), which is in charge of the vehicles, and the Dhamma-spreading association (thammathat samakhom), which is in charge of the printing and distribution of publications (Heikkilä-Horn 1996).
The group continues actively running primary and secondary schools, small cottage industries where they produce organic shampoos, detergents, fertilizers and medicines. They have established several waste treatment and recycling workshops. They have opened informal adult education institutes in their Northeastern village Ratchathani Asoke to teach agriculture and Buddhist economics. They run several vegetarian restaurants in Thailand and have their own TV channel. The Asoke centres are innovative and under constant change, organising art exhibitions, seminars, discussions and Eight Precept retreats for the outsiders.
Asoke group is controversial due to its strict adherence to veganism, austere lifestyle and its open criticism of capitalism, consumerism, commodification of Buddhism and the lax practices of the mainstream sangha. In the beginning, the group did nothave any Buddha images in its temples as it wanted to emphasise the teachings and not the images. This led to the accusations that the group is not Buddhist. Since 2005, they have placed some Buddha statues in their temples [Image at right] but not in front of the sala to be worshiped. In 1975, Bodhiraksa was forced to resign from the state sangha organisation (mahatherasamakhom), and the entire Asoke group is subsequently regarded as “outlawed.” The Asoke monks and nuns battled a court case in the early 1990s when they were accused of being “heretics.” Intially, the Asoke group was also controversial for ordaining women as ten-precept nuns, known as sikkhamats in the group. (Heikkilä-Horn 2015) In recent years the Asoke people have been actively involved in political demonstrations on the side of the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD) or “yellow shirts.”
The Asoke group became openly involved in Thai national politics in late 1990s by supporting the Sino-Thai telecom tycoon Thaksin Shinawatra and his nationalistic political party, Thai Rak Thai (Thais love Thais). As Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra was supported by many Asoke people, and he visited one of the Asoke villages in Sisaket in July 2005. Major-General Chamlong Srimuang (as a key lay member of the Asoke group) defended Thaksin throughout his controversial premiership. The first visible fall-out between the two came in August 2005, when a Thai beer company was to be listed on the stock market. Chamlong and followers of Bodhiraksa staged a demonstration against the listing on moral grounds: drinking alcohol should not be encouraged as it is against the Buddhist Precepts (sila).
The final break-up came in January 2006 when Thaksin sold his telecom company to Singapore. After that, Chamlong joined the small, already existing anti-Thaksin opposition led by a Sino-Thai media tycoon Sondhi Limthongkul, who also was a former supporter of Thaksin. One of the first big showcases of resistance was a mass gathering of anti-Thaksin forces at Sanam Luang, a park in downtown Bangkok, on February 26, 2006 [Image at right]. A majority of the Asoke monks and nuns joined the demonstrations together with hundreds of Asoke laypeople. The Asoke group was now presented in the media as the “Dharma Army” (gongthub dharm), which caused considerable excitement among foreign journalists. The demonstrators threatened to camp on Sanam Luang until Thaksin stepped down.
Thaksin resigned on April 4, 2006 allegedly due to the “whispers from the palace.” Asoke people packed their belongings to return to the Asoke villages. However, Thaksin returned in June to preside over the sixtieth anniversary of King Bhumipol’s reign, explaining that he had only taken a “break” from politics. Thaksin was ousted by a military coup in September 2006 while he was abroad, where he decided to remain temporarily. The military coup brought Thai political developments back to the dark era of military dictatorships.
Asoke laypeople attending the demonstrations were mainly engaged in the kitchen, cooking vegetarian food for the demonstrators, distributing drinking water and cleaning the premises.
In May 2008, a new sit-in was initiated by the “yellow-shirts” (PAD) against Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej, who proudly announced himself to be a Thaksin “nominee,” and in August 2008 the Government compound was seized. Samak was forced to resign, and Thaksin’s brother-in-law Somchai Wongsawat was nominated as the Prime Minister. In late November 2008, the crowds occupied Bangkok Suwannabhumi International Airport in order to prevent the Prime Minister from landing in Bangkok, as his main agenda was suspected to be making crucial pro-Thaksin amendments to the Constitution. The Prime Minister flew to Chiang Mai instead, and half of the airport occupiers moved to the domestic airport Don Muang in Bangkok to prevent him from landing there. The conflict was temporarily ended when the Constitutional Court dissolved the ruling party and banned the Prime Minister and all his ministers and Members of Parliament (MPs) from politics for the next five years because of corruption and vote-buying charges. The Asoke people left the airport and the streets and returned to their villages and centres (Heikkilä-Horn 2010).
The Asoke returned to the streets of Bangkok in January 2011 [Image at right] to protest against the arrest of some of their supporters who had illegally crossed to the Cambodian side of the border, allegedly to study the border demarcations on that side. The conflict was regarded as a continuation of the dispute concerning the land surrounding the Khmer-style Hindu temple Preah Vihear in Cambodia, which during the years of wars in Cambodia had been more easily accessible from Thailand than from Cambodia.
The Thai Patriots Network organised the first demonstrations in January 2011, and the Asoke people joined these demonstrations. As a result of the Thai Patriots Network and Palang Dharma links, there is an overlap between the Thai Patriots Network and the Asoke people. Some of the first pictures published in the Thai media from the demonstrations showed people loosely linked to the Asoke group marching for the Thai Patriots Network.
This relationship to the Thai Patriots Network shows how difficult it is to define the Asoke group as such. One of the persons in the picture marching proudly for the Thai Patriots Network is a former Asoke sikkhamat, who disrobed nearly thirty years ago but never severed her links with the Asoke group. She still lives close to Santi Asoke and visits the temple on an irregular basis. She also actively participated in some other religious groups such as organising Supreme Master (Suma) Ching Hai’s Buddhist gatherings in Bangkok. She is in many ways unrepresentative of the Asoke group but, at the same time, serves as a typical example of a layperson (yati tham) loosely associated to the Asoke group and occasionally joining some of its activities.
The Asoke sit-in was called “Neo-Protest” in English and was supposed to introduce a peaceful and orderly way to protest, with no violence or foul language. Bodhiraksa emphasised that their protest together with the Thai Patriots Network, in fact, added meaning to democratic society. In a democratic society people can exercise their rights peacefully to inform the public about a variety of issues concerning the society. Hence people have the duty and a right to protest but to protest peacefully and orderly.
The “Neo-Protest” failed to gather larger support. The open-ended sit-in started in January and lasted until the general elections in July. The motives for the Asoke “Neo-Protest” remained obscure and elusive, and the emphasis on releasing the politicians who had entered Cambodia illegally shifted to irredentist demands to redraw the entire Thai borders, which the demonstrators surprisingly only now realised had been actually drawn by the colonial powers about 100 years ago. The final demands were presented in a “Vote No” campaign encouraging the people not to vote for anyone in the July elections as none of the candidates was a “good person.” This final campaign also failed.
The Asoke group has lost many supporters due to their involvement in the tumultuous Thai national politics (Sanitsuda 2011). The group was not visible in the latest street protests knowns as “Bangkok shut-down” in 2014 against Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, Thaksin’s younger sister. However, some of the people with links to the Thai Patriots Network were also involved in the 2014 protests, which ultimately led to a military coup against Yingluck Shinawatra’s government. The group has also gained new supporters through these street protests.
Ekachai, Sanitsuda. 2011. “Wrong Move By Bodhiraksa.” Bangkok Post, 21 January.
Ekachai, Sanitsuda. 1988. “The Man Behind Santi Asoke.” Bangkok Post, 22 July.
Essen, Juliana. 2005. Right Development: The Santi Asoke Buddhist Reform Movement of Thailand. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books.
Heikkilä-Horn, Marja-Leena. 2015. “ Religious Discrimination and Women in the Asoke Buddhist Group in Thailand,” Pp. 191-203 in “Enabling Gender Equality: Future Generations of the Global World.” Research in Political Sociology, Vol. 23, edited by Eunice Rodriguez and Barbara Wejnert. Bingley, United Kingdom: Emerald Group Publishing.
Heikkilä-Horn, Marja-Leena. 2010. “Santi Asoke Buddhism and the Occupation of Bangkok International Airport.” Austrian Journal of South-East Asian Studies 3:31-47 .
Heikkilä-Horn, Marja-Leena. 2002. “Small Is Beautiful in Asoke Villages.” Pp. 25-63 in Insight into Santi Asoke, edited by M-L Heikkilä-Horn and Rassamee Krisanamis. Bangkok: Fah Aphai.
Heikkilä-Horn, Marja-Leena. 1996. Santi Asoke Buddhism and Thai State Response. Turku: Åbo Akademi University Press.
Nyanatiloka, Ven. 2004. Buddhist Dictionary: A Manual of Buddhist Terms and Doctrines. Chiang Mai:Silkworm Books.
Image #1: Photograph of Bohdiraksa in the Bangkok Post in January 2011.
Image #2: Photograph of Sikkhamats’ kutis. Photograph taken by and used with the permission of Marja-Leena Heikkilä-Horn.
Image #3: A new monk in Lanna Asoke. Photograph taken by and used with the permission of Marja-Leena Heikkilä-Horn.
Image #4: Bodhiraksa (called Samana Pho Than in the group) walking in a demonstration with his monks. Photograph taken by and used with the permission of Marja-Leena Heikkilä-Horn.
Image #5: Asoke Sikkhamats (nuns) on an alms round in Sisa Asoke. Photograph taken by and used with the permission of Marja-Leena Heikkilä-Horn.
Image #6: Buddha image in an Asoke village. Villages have Buddha images in their temple compounds only since mid 2000s.
Image #7: Dhamma Army demonstrators in 2006. Photograph taken by and used with the permission of Marja-Leena Heikkilä-Horn.
Image # : Bodhiraksa speaking at the ‘Neo-Protest’ in Bangkok in 2011. Photograph taken by and used with the permission of Marja-Leena Heikkilä-Horn. Photograph taken by and used with the permission of Marja-Leena Heikkilä-Horn.
30 March 2016