The Shortcut Path - Thai Monks Launch into Cyberspace

Article excerpt

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. …