At a desk inside Wat Buaniwet, one of Thailand's most prestigious Buddhist temples, Abhinito, a monk, rubs his shaved head as he stares intently at his work for the afternoon. His morning duties--begging for food, consuming basic meals, chanting--are finished, and he can concentrate on a project that consumes up to six hours of his time daily. Abhinito settles into his chair and begins the laborious process of updating Buddhist scriptures on his Web site and answering questions posted on the site by young Buddhists. I ask him a question, and he sagely searches his mind for an answer. "Yes," he says. "I think PageMaker is the best desktop publishing software out there."
Fearing Buddhism is losing relevance as Thailand develops, maverick Thai monks and laypeople have launched the religion into cyberspace. In the past three years, the number of Buddhist Web sites in Thailand has more than tripled. The majority of Thai Buddhist sites target young, urban men and women, who are not only Internet-savvy but also more likely to feel that Buddhism's traditional structures have little bearing on their lives.
For over a decade, Thailand boasted one of the world's fastest growing economies--until the Asian financial crisis detonated in Bangkok in 1997. The economy now is solidly recovering from the crisis. Under the booming economy, Buddhism, which has a 2,000-year history in Thailand, has been put under significant pressure. Many young Thais have begun to view dhamma, Buddhist doctrine, as irrelevant to modern existence in the country's frenetic, often chaotic, capital city.
Most Thais still regard themselves as Buddhist, but this Buddhism has become a religion of small, symbolic gestures, Abhinito says. Thais still frequently visit temples to release birds, pray briefly, and make donations to religious institutions, gestures that supposedly generate merit to help them be reincarnated into higher states.
But as Thai workdays have grown longer and entertainment options more varied, fewer young people today take the time to study the religion in depth. In the past, many men living in Bangkok interned as novice monks for three months. (Only males can be Buddhist monks in Thailand.) Even Thailand's king was briefly a monk. But according to monks like Abhinito, under 10 percent participate in the program today, and the number who stay in the monkhood permanently is declining precipitously. Many young people have abandoned Buddhism altogether, converting to other faiths or professing no religious preferences.
The actions of some monks have helped deplete veneration for Buddhism. In recent years, Thais have been shocked by a series of scandals in which a few monks have embezzled temple funds, fathered children, raped female followers, and even allegedly committed murders.
A response to ebbing faith
Alarmed by this decrease in Buddhist observance, in 1997 and '98 several tech-savvy Thais set up the country's first Buddhist Web sites. By this time, monks and lay organizations in Singapore, the United States, Canada, and South Korea had already launched Web sites.
But even in high-tech Singapore and America, Buddhism has had to play catch-up to other religions on the Internet. As far back as 1987, the pope announced that "computer culture" would herald an "evangelization." By the late 1990s, groups tracking Internet spirituality estimated that more than 85 percent of mainstream religious Web sites were Christian. They also found that churches and Christian lay organizations were far more advanced in terms of providing Web content and soliciting donations online than their Buddhist peers.
One of the initial Thai Buddhism Web sites, www.dhammathai.org, was created by Luenchay Vongvanij, a wealthy young businessman whose family has long-standing ties to Buddhist philanthropic organizations. He learned about Web content while working with American financial services firms. Now one of the most comprehensive sites, www.dhammathai.org offers chat groups, downloadable scriptures in Thai and English, question-and-answer sessions with monks, a biography of Buddha, and online forums.
Like many of Thailand's Internet Buddhism pioneers, Vongvanij believes the Web can help keep Buddha's teachings vital in an increasingly demanding and compartmentalized world. Webmasters frequently contend that Buddhism on the Internet reaches both young and old by personalizing religion, allowing each Web user to absorb tenets of the religion relevant to his (or her) life in a way that traditional practices no longer can. "The Internet is key to showing people that Buddhism matters, since the Web is flexible and you can tailor the religion to suit people's modern lifestyles," Vongvanij says. "Our site is the supermarket of Buddhism. People can cheaply and easily surf our site and pick out what aspects of Buddhism are meaningful to them. It's more convenient than visiting a temple." Dhammathai and similar sites try to remain cutting edge by dealing with hot topics, including how to live a Buddhist existence in a consumer culture, how Buddhism views abortion, and how religion and politics intersect.
After dhammathai was started, several other sites sprung up. Abhinito attached his Web page, which offers scripture, forums, links, and question-and-answer sessions, to www.accesstoinsight.org, a site grouping Buddhist pages from around the world. A reformist movement led Isara Sukongkaratanaku to create www.budpage.com. To preserve the works of a famous deceased monk, www. suanmokkh.org was set up.
Many sites, like Sukongkaratanaku's, are devoted not only to sharing Buddhist knowledge but to pressing for reforms in the Thai monk leadership, or Sangha, which some Webphiles believe has lost touch with the general populace. "Some monks still see themselves as preachers. ... They don't know how to make Buddhism meaningful to people with modern problems," says Sukongkaratanaku, who emphasizes that his site can never replace monks entirely. Rather, by discovering Buddhist material for themselves, Internet users will be better informed about Buddhism in the modern world and topics about which monks are truly knowledgeable, he says.
Hits on Thai Buddhist Web sites have increased at a steady pace over the past three years. Although it is impossible to determine what percentage of the hits are from young people, the majority of Thai Internet users are under forty years old, and Webmasters report that Buddhist chat groups are dominated by people under thirty. A recent open forum on Buddhism in cyberspace held at the World Fellowship of Buddhists, a leading Bangkok Buddhist lay organization, drew more than thirty participants--including several teenagers--on a Sunday morning, when most Bangkokians are still in bed.
Internet proponents argue that this demonstrates that young Thais are receptive to Buddhism, if the religion is "sold" to them in terms they understand. The lack of ordinations into the monkhood and the decline in formal Buddhist study have created the idea that it is impossible to pique young people's interest in Buddhism. Vongvanij believes this idea may be dispelled by youth participation in heated and insightful online Buddhist chat groups. "You have to market Buddhism, approach it like a commodity, like a diamond. It's not enough to just say here is the religion. It should mean something to you," he observes. "If you do that, if you market, younger people will still gravitate toward the religion--they just won't gravitate toward a belief system that doesn't change."
The growth of Web-based Buddhism has engendered significant debate and discord. Traditionalist critics charge that putting Buddhism on the Internet exposes monks to dangerous influences. Some Thais are horrified to see young novice monks, who are visiting malls to shop for Web-publishing programs, trying out violent and explicit virtual reality games while they shop for software. In response to the recent embezzlement and paternity scandals, some sects have argued that monks need to retreat from the modern world, rather than embrace it, in order to return to Buddha's original ideas. Several "forest Buddhism" sects have developed in Thailand in which clergy move to isolated rural areas and live more ascetic lives than their Bangkok counterparts.
"Although monks are allowed to use computers to propagate Buddhism, some people cannot accept ... us buying software or surfing the Web, because there are [pornographic] Web sites not appropriate for monks, which we could have access to," Abhinito says. "So we do not get enough money for Buddhism on the Web from [philanthropic] foundations."
A more serious charge is that the Internet gives Thais an oversimplified version of the religion. Skeptics question whether the Web is a suitable spiritual medium. Since they feel teaching Buddhism over the Internet is superficial, they believe people would be better off not studying the dhamma at all. "Much of the Sangha still believes that anything short of older, long-form ways of studying the religion is inadequate," says one senior monk. "Convenience is not necessarily a better thing in religion. If Buddhism is too convenient, if information is too easy to obtain, Buddhists will get nothing out of the search for knowledge and will not be forced to confront themselves in any important way," he says.
Some monks and Buddhism scholars worry that, because of the Internet, visits to temples will decline so dramatically that some religious institutions, which rely largely on donations to survive and which still generate research, will be forced to shut their doors. There is evidence of this trend in countries with greater Internet penetration than Thailand. In the United States, polls have predicted that by 2010 between 15 and 20 percent of Christians will have stopped attending churches, relying solely on the Internet for their spiritual needs. Abhinito and other Webmasters counter that although they attempt to cater to modern society's tight schedule, their Web pages still promote face-to-face learning by encouraging users to visit temples and set up meetings with other young Buddhists.
Internet proponents also argue that entrenched senior monks and laypeople view cyberspace Buddhism as a threat to their positions. They say Internet Buddhism conveys the core ideas, if not all the details, of the Buddha's teachings. According to some monks, senior members of the Thai Buddhist clergy are worried that the availability of do-it- yourself information on the Web will change Thai society, which traditionally gives considerable--some would say too much--respect to authority figures. "If society changes, if the expertise of Buddhist leaders is challenged, the leaders will have to change and could lose their status in society," says Alan Lopez, a Buddhism scholar based in Bangkok. "But it's better to understand Buddhist concepts than just go through the motions of visiting a shrine. Today, people can access so much information through new media, so only religions that are adaptable will survive. "
The battle over cyberspace Buddhism in Thailand is unlikely to fizzle out. Though information technology is in its infancy there, the number of Internet users in the country is predicted to increase by 40 percent annually for the next five years. As Internet use rises and fees for Web access and hosting decline, there will likely be a concurrent mushrooming of Thai-language Buddhism Web sites. And as more Thais become proficient in English--improving English skills is a priority of the country's Ministry of Education--they will be better equipped to read Buddhism pages from around the world.
As Internet Buddhism becomes more popular, some former skeptics have become converts to online religion. "Perhaps you have to be more cynical because of the volume of Buddhist information on the Internet," says Nantasarn Seesalab, a Bangkok-based Buddhism scholar who used to believe that putting dhamma on the Web undermined its impact. "But cynicism is not wrong. The Buddha taught his disciples not to believe because of what your teacher says but because of your own wisdom. If what is on the Web has the basic idea and means something to you, it can be Buddhist." Yet the opponents of cyberspace Buddhism remain powerful and dedicated. Though Thailand does not have an official state religion, more than 95 percent of the country's roughly sixty million inhabitants are Buddhist. Accordingly, Buddhist leaders are very influential and will struggle to keep control.
Controversy over Web-based dhamma is not necessarily a negative development. In the past, Buddhism in Thailand has become more vital and proactive when it is challenged by social and technological change. In response to the massive clear-cutting of Thailand's forests, some monks became environmental activists, giving lectures on the convergence of Buddhist thought and ecological preservation and wrapping their saffron robes around trees to protect them from loggers. Perhaps the launching of Buddhism into cyberspace will prompt Thailand's Sangha to adapt and to raise their standards of study, practice, and preaching. Otherwise, the Sangha will continue to lose followers at a rapid pace.n
Joshua Kurlantzick is a journalist based in Bangkok. He has covered Southeast Asia for the Economist, New Republic, the Washington Times, and Agence France-Presse.…