A Longitudinal Study of Psychosocial Changes among Thai Adolescents Participating in a Buddhist Ordination Program for Novices

Article excerpt

ABSTRACT

Little is known about the effects of intense spiritual practice among teenage youth. In the present study, 170 adolescent males in Thailand were assessed regarding the immediate and long-term behavioral, emotional, and devotional consequences of participation in a six-week Buddhist monastic program. An additional 114 males of equivalent age, who were assessed in regard to changes following a demanding extracurricular English language course, served as controls. Their parents' perceptions were also examined. The results indicated that the changes reported by the youths in the ordination group were highly positive, enduring, and of a different pattern from that of the controls. The ratings of the two parent groups were also significantly different from each other, and analogous to those of their children. The practical and theoretical implications of the findings are discussed.

The involvement of adolescents in religious activities has been associated with responsible and prosocial values (Donahue, 1995; Ellis & Peterson, 1996; Wallace & Williams, 1997), increased well-being (Mc-Intosh, 1995), and positive mental health (McBride, Mutch, & Chitwood, 1996; Neeleman, Halpern, Leon, & Lewis, 1997). In spite of the scope of these benefits, research into the influence of religion in the lives of adolescents is relatively scant (Furnham & Barrie, 1991; Santrock, 1996). This is particularly true for fervent youthful religiosity, which is often suspect, having been found to be related to subsequent identity upheaval (Daher, 1981), neurotic dependency (Wallace, 1983), and schizoid tendencies (Goldwert, 1990). Clearly, more research regarding adolescents with deep religious convictions is needed.

While adolescents in Western societies are no longer encouraged to join the clergy or enter religious orders (Flannery, 1975; Schoenheer, Young, & Cheng, 1993; Stone, 1989), this is not the case in the Theravada Buddhist nations of Southeast Asia (Swearer, 1995). Traditionally, prior to marrying and beginning his adult life, a young man entered the sangha (the Buddhist monastic order) and spent time (e.g., three months during the rainy season) as a novice. This practice continues today, although with less frequency (Wijayaratna, 1988/1990).

The deportment of Buddhist monks and novices is governed by many exacting rules (Hazra, 1988), and phenomenological accounts of this celibate, contemplative way of life are available in a number of texts (e.g., Kamala, 1997; Randall, 1990). In most monastic communities, the day begins very early and is divided into periods of meditation, communal chanting, begging rounds, and the provision of liturgical services. Some monasteries, including the one from which subjects were drawn in this investigation, specialize in the practice of vipassana meditation, where community members spend the majority of their time in the silent practice of mindfulness (Hamilton-Merritt, 1976; Kornfield & Breiter, 1985; Taylor, 1993). For contemporary youths, the rigors of Buddhist monastic life are challenging, and those who enter the sangha are, for the most part, highly dedicated to their faith (Jumsai, 1980; Robinson & Johnson, 1982).

Unfortunately, there is little longitudinal research concerning psychosocial changes occurring after entrance into seminaries or novitiates, with most studies being limited to the single administration of such tests as the MMPI (e.g., Patrick, 1991; Plante, Manuel, & Tandez, 1996). In general, personality measures have yielded positive results, suggesting that the majority of ministry candidates, while somewhat defensive, are well-adjusted and capable. In one of the few longitudinal studies, MacPhillamy (1986) examined changes over time using the MMPI in a small group of Zen seminarians. Substantial improvement on measures of ego strength, dependency, and general well-being were found. In related research by Emavardhana and Tori (1997), the pre-and posttesting of 438 young, Thai, vipassana meditators, who for a week followed the same daily schedule as meditation monks, revealed positive changes in self-concept, improved coping, and heightened religiosity. …