Editor’s note: Whether it’s the call to prayer echoing off Jakarta’s high-rises or the saffron-robed monks striding silently through the Phnom Penh streets on their morning alms round, it’s clear that religion continues to play a major role in the daily lives of many people across Southeast Asia. But decades of flourishing economic and technological growth brought on by the relentless march of globalisation are forcing many of these ancient institutions to adapt to the needs of a new generation filled with questions that millennia-old scripture seems increasingly ill-equipped to answer. In 2008, Southeast Asia Globe examined the shrinking ranks of the faithful in a once-celebrated Buddhist pagoda – and the lengths to which they’ve gone to preserve their sacred past.
The temple hall is hot and sticky. The air is heavy with mosquitos swirling around in the dim afternoon light. A small crowd of old ladies and children, whispering and full of expectation, sit on the rough carpet in the hall. They are waiting for Luang Phoo Budda Thawaro, the monastery’s former abbot, to make his annual appearance. Luang Phoo is an affectionate term meaning grandfather, but this is no ordinary monk and this is no ordinary day.
Phra Somchai is in charge of the ceremony. He directs his fellow monks to lift Luang Phoo. They pull and heave; the wooden chairs they stand on wobble and shake. Suddenly, in perfect accord, they step off their pedestals, each clasping a fragile limb or shoulder of the revered monk. The children are hushed by their parents.
The onlookers put their hands together in a respectful wai – the traditional Thai greeting. An old man dressed in a simple fieldworker’s overalls stands to the side, his eyes brimming with tears. For the locals this may not be a miracle, but it is the most extraordinary day of their year. Supported by his fellow monks, the 101-year-old Luang Phoo stands motionless before his congregation. He has been dead for 13 years.
Wat Krang Chu Si Charoensuk is near Singburi, a provincial town in central Thailand a couple of hours north of Bangkok. The sprawling and dilapidated temple complex lies along a quiet and picturesque canal, fringed by bamboo brush. Green paddy fields adjoin the temple grounds. The main road leading past the temple sees little traffic.
Despite the proximity to the capital, the villages and temples of central Thailand have hardly changed in hundreds of years. Faith and superstition run strong in these areas. No surprise then that one of Thailand’s strangest Buddhist ceremonies takes place in the temple grounds every year, as the local community celebrates the birthday of their former abbot.
Phra Somchai has travelled all the way from his monastery in Ko Phangan in southern Thailand for the event.
“We believe Monk Budda Thawaro was an enlightened being. In his lifetime more than 50,000 people used to turn up to celebrate with him. They came from all walks of life, thousands a day,” he says.
Phra Somchai was a practising monk at the wat for six years and feels deeply indebted to Luang Phoo. “In the 1980s, when Luang Phoo was well known, the temple was rich. More than 100 monks lived and meditated here. In 1994 the abbot passed away. Since then the temple has fallen on hard times. People have stopped visiting,” he says.
It is hard to imagine huge crowds at Wat Krang Chu Si Charoensuk. The temple grounds are unkempt and the small wooden houses that accommodate the monks are slowly sinking into the dusty soil. An eerie silence hangs over the area. No novices lighten the atmosphere; the remaining ten monks are all past middle age. Old and severe-looking women from the surrounding villages form the last guard for Luang Phoo.
The younger generation takes little interest in temple life. In general, Buddhism is in dire straits in Thailand. The young now pour into the cities in pursuit of money and riches. American-style “mall culture” has gripped the kingdom. Nepotism, cronyism and graft have seeped into almost every transaction and political decision. The intense, freewheeling capitalism the country has experienced in the past ten years has influenced Buddhism and the values of its adherents profoundly.
Many wats are no longer community centres but businesses selling expensive amulets and other religious merchandise. Some wats cater exclusively to the super-rich, others suggest lottery numbers to the gullible poor on a weekly basis. Several temples even offer magical tattoos to their congregations that are supposed to stop bullets and ward off evil.
Meanwhile, the monks are out in the streets taking part in daily life as they hadn’t done before. They populate the internet cafés and the huts of young monks are adorned with Metallica posters, which is a long way from Nirvana, so to speak.
Monks can be seen yammering into mobile phones inside the shopping centres or picking through gold bracelets at Chinese jewellers. The Thai tabloids regularly report on monks conning women into sex, visiting karaoke bars or engaging in crime.
The ceremony at Wat Krang Chu Si Charoensuk is a throwback to better times. Born in 1894 in Lopburi and ordained in 1922, the revered monk acted as abbot for several monasteries, surviving wars, civil conflict, dictatorships and military coups. His charisma brought people to the temple. Under the guidance of Luang Phoo, life at the wat blossomed.
On the edge of a paddy field nearby stands an old hut once used as a meditation retreat. The walls are lined with faded photographs of surgical procedures and autopsies.
The graphic images are meant to teach the monks that everyone is the same on the inside. But nobody has been in the hut for years. Phra Somchai fondly remembers the past: “The yard used to be brushed clean. All the buildings were well maintained.”
Today, Luang Phoo is in a glass coffin in the wat’s prayer hall. Incredibly, he has not decomposed. Rather, his body has mummified, allegedly because Luang Phoo dehydrated himself on his deathbed. It is believed that a monk who does not decompose should be preserved and worshipped.
Local authorities often disagree with this, and there have been conflicts over whether to burn some monks’ remains or preserve them in glass coffins, such as those in Krang Chu Si Charoensuk.
As Luang Phoo is held before the crowd, everyone pushes to the front to pay their respects. Camera flashes illuminate the scene while the monks undress the dead abbot and put a new orange robe on him. A woolly hat is pulled over his skull. A second hat is pushed on top. Even his socks are changed.
Finally, the crowd pushes in, tiny flakes of gold in their hands. The prayer hall is ringing with excitement and laughter. Children run around and families have their pictures taken with the corpse. The gold is stuck on Luang Phoo’s face – on top of last year’s layer.
Finally, Phra Somchai and the other monks pick up Luang Phoo as carefully as possible and manoeuvre him back to his glass coffin. Despite this year’s socks not matching, the monks manage to return the corpse to its repository with an air of dignity.
The temple’s new abbot directs the remaining monks to pray for Luang Phoo. Microphones crackle and the abbot and his helpers collect money with wide smiles. Slowly, the crowd disperses into the night.
Phra Somchai is pleased to have seen his former teacher. “It is good to honour the past like this. Who knows how many people will honour Luang Phoo next year? The memory is so short.”