Photo: A common morning "merit making" ritual across Thailand where people give food to monks. Credit: Kalinga Seneviratne. - Photo: 2022

Thailand: Secularism Hinders Buddhists to Address Mental Health Crisis

By Kalinga Seneviratne

BANGKOK (IDN) — Wile the massacre of 37 people that included 26 preschool children in a remote north-eastern township of Thailand on October 7 has shocked the nation and exposed the inadequacy of the public mental health system, it is yet to trigger a debate about whether Buddhism could step in to help solve a major social crisis in the majority Buddhist country.

Good Health and Well-Being are a major Sustainable Development Goal (SDG), but the secular nature of the SDGs may hinder spiritual wisdom contributing to achieving this goal.  The current situation in Thailand is a good example. SDG 17 that calls for “partnerships for the goals” may be utilized to incorporate the country’s traditional Buddhist wisdom to address a major mental health crisis in the kingdom.

Buddhism has become popular at an unprecedented global level in recent years due to its message of calming the mind to achieve peaceful living through the practice of meditation and especially mindfulness meditation, which has become a fad in the West.

In a country that has had a tradition of such mindfulness practices for centuries and which has over a hundred specialized mindful (Vipassana) meditation centres across the country today, which attracts thousands of spiritual tourists each year, especially from the West, Thais are afraid to introduce it to the public health system to address a contemporary mental health crisis.

The massacre has focused attention on a serious social crisis in Thailand that includes drug abuse, gun violence, and police corruption. Added to this is another looming mental health crisis, with the country’s rapidly ageing population having to cope with old-age depression.

The perpetrator of the massacre was a 34-year-old former police officer, Panya Kamrap, who was dismissed from the service in June for possessing methamphetamine. Yet, he was a model village boy, who went to university in Bangkok, and joined the police force. He is now being diagnosed as suffering from a mental health problem that could have been addressed a long time ago.

In the aftermath of the massacre, the Thai media focused on monks conducting merit-making rituals for the dead across the country, even members of the royal family taking part in some ceremonies. Both Buddhist monks and the media have been silent on how Buddhism could be incorporated into the process of treating mental stress and addressing the crisis of gun violence.

“Thai journalists adhere to nonpartisanship concept and by detaching themselves from religious practice (as in this case, a possible solution) in a way they are showing that they are not favouring one religion over other religions,” Pipope Panitchpakdi, former Deputy Director of Thai PBS network and a community media specialist told IDN.

“It is perhaps considered old fashion to provide a religious solution which can be viewed as a kind of cop-out of the solving the problems instead of relying on modern (western) science like psychology to fix the problem,” he added.

Thailand has just 7.29 mental health workers for every 100,000 people, according to WHO statistics. There was no psychiatrist available in Panya’s village Nong Bua Lam Phu, and if needed, he would have had to travel more than 100 km to reach one. But, thousands of monks and temples are well equipped to handle mental health issues, and only if the people are guided to recognize it by the media and the medical profession, say some critics.

Thailand has over 200,000 Buddhist monks, and fewer than 1000 psychiatrists point out Dr Mano Laohavanich, a Thai social activist who is campaigning for the reformation of Thai Buddhism. “Thailand is known to have thousands of meditation centres. Sadly, all the centres focus on self-development and spiritual awakening. None of them has community awareness (outreach),” he argues.

In an interview with IDN, Dr Laohavanich noted that a weakness of Thai Buddhism is that it focuses on themselves (spiritual development) and not on the concerns and problems of society. “In this regard, in Thailand, Buddhism is a part of social problems, not their solution”, he notes.

“There is a problem in Thailand because fewer of the monks come out of the temple to engage with the community (as healers). Less of that is happening, and that’s why we have these (social) problems,” admits Phra Maha Pranom Dhammalangkaro, Abbot of Wat Chak Daeng in Bangkok.

“Temples will have to encourage more of the monks to be more active in teaching Buddha dhamma(teachings) to the public. As well as leading meditation for the public, and that will help.”

Fra Anil Sakya, a senior monk at the Wat Bovornniwet Vihara and the Rector of the Bangkok-based World Buddhist University, in an interview with IDN, argued that it is wrong to blame Buddhism for a severe social problem in the kingdom. “It has nothing to do with Buddhists or non-Buddhists; it’s a normal social problem… when we talk about social problems, it is rooted in economics, politics (and) it has developed (because) the moral ethics of the old value of family has been lost.”

“In the upbringing of society at the moment, religion is less involved in bearing up the child … people try to avoid the word religion” he added. He explained that in Thai culture, there is a term called ‘Boworn’ that involves the home, the school, the village, and the government. “In traditional Thai society, villages, temples and schools are involved together to hold society in a harmonious way.”

Sakya argues that psychological counsellor is a new western word, and Buddhist monks have played this role since the time of the Buddha. He explained that the Buddhist approach to psychological counselling is to have the empathy of the mind with the people, and you need to understand what suffering is to address its causes. “2500 years ago, this was the main task of a Buddhist monk,” he notes.

Referring to the modern mental health system, Sakya says, “once you are hospitalized as a mental patient, it is secularized, and they will look after you through modern medicine… that is the problem”. He explains that Buddhist psychology is about “cleansing your mind from all the defilements, that is, greed, hatred, and ignorance”.

In addition to problems with drug abuse and gun violence, Thailand’s rapidly ageing population is facing an acute depression problem among the elderly, which health authorities are yet to come to grips with. According to the Thai mental health department, about 14 per cent of 12 million senior citizens in the country are at risk of suffering from depression, and the problem is expected to worsen.

Sakya believes that this issue could be tackled if the mental health authorities recognize the values of the traditional Buddhist societies in a predominantly Buddhist country.

Neurotologist Dr Nattawan Utoomprurkporn of King Chulalongkorn Memorial Hospital in Bangkok told IDN that when she worked in London, the hospital there had a mindfulness course using Buddhist beliefs, but at her hospital in Bangkok, they are careful that activities to stimulate their (patient’s) mind and mental activity are not related to religion. “In Thailand, we want to be very inclusive. Most of the activities we have here are secular … like rehabilitation, we try to be very inclusive.”

Development economist Dr Nitinant Wisaweisuan of Thammasat University believes that Buddhist teachings on mind development could be combined with health sciences in community development if Buddhism is not seen merely as a ceremony. “Buddhism can teach self-development that should extend benefits to society … this should be a key element to achieving SDGs.”

She explained to IDN how the Thammasat University Foundation works with cancer patients using Buddhist philosophy and meditation to help them to die “with values without despair, sorrow or pain.  Buddhism in the health sector can help to improve their mental energy”.

Sakya argues that young people and health professionals do not see Buddhist practices and philosophy as a modern path to healing mental stress because the Thai government a long time ago stopped teaching Buddhist morality and ethics in schools. He says that monks are now trying to reintroduce it into schools with two leading Buddhist universities in Thailand—Mahamakut and MahaChulalongkorn—training monks for the task ahead.

“It is an extra-curriculum activity (in the school system); we can’t force it; the school has to decide if they want it. We don’t call Buddhism; it’s called ‘sila dhamma’ (morality teachings),” explained Sakya, while also pointing out the fact that many temples in the villages have elderly homes and the elderly spent most of the day in temple activities, which is a form of mental therapy.

“That is how Buddhists have been living (now); you secularize (and you) take all those out of the social setting, and you say it is a problem of religion,” points out Sakya, who is an influential monk in Thailand advising many provincial governors in the kingdom. [IDN-InDepthNews – 04 November 2022]

Photo: A standard morning “merit-making” ritual across Thailand where people give food to monks. Credit: Kalinga Seneviratne.

IDN is the flagship agency of the Non-profit International Press Syndicate.

This article was produced as a part of the joint media project between The Non-profit International Press Syndicate Group and Soka Gakkai International in Consultative Status with ECOSOC on 04 November 2022.

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