Buddhism, Education and Politics in Burma and Thailand

From the Seventeenth Century to the Present

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Khammai Dhammasami
  • New York, NY: 
    Bloomsbury Academic
    , January
     288 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


This book is not only an academic history of Theravada Buddhist monastic education. It is also written prescriptively about the proper attitude the members of the Buddhist monastic community (sangha) should take towards their role as educators in Burmese and Thai societies. The author, Khammai Dhammasami is in an interesting position as a senior Theravada monk, former monk-student, and current teacher in Buddhist monastic schools. As an insider and someone who has multiple stakes in his topic, he arguesthat the correct approach of monastic education is to balance serving the needs of society with deeply engaging Buddhist teachings. 

This book is based on Dhammasami’s dissertation, which is titled “Idealism and Pragmatism: A Study of Monastic Education in Burma and Thailand from the 17th Century to the Present.” He continues his debate between idealism and pragmatism in his book, delineating both positions and their motivations. The idealists are conservative in their orientation towards Buddhist education. Dhammasami characterizes them as focused on the ideal of monastic renunciation to the detriment of the real needs of society. The pragmatists, by contrast, allow for a Buddhist education that would serve all of society, including secular as well as Buddhist subjects. A large part of this debate centers on the monastic examination systems, which Dhammasami disagrees with. He finds that the system compels students to study for the test, rather than to understand important Buddhist texts. His own preference for monastic education would incorporate more of the influences from premodern, informal education, including secular subjects while also opening up space for student-monks to delve deeply into Buddhist texts for their own moral development. 

Dhammasami recounts how this informal kind of education changed to a situation where the monarchy linked monastic education with exams, something he regards as unfortunate. The exams became connected with promotion to higher levels within the sangha hierarchy. However, Dhammasami finds that because the focus is on the test, monk-students do not study its meaning deeply, a practice which is detrimental to the sanghaas a whole. This earlier informal method of study, which in the author’s view is better than the current method of study, has almost disappeared in Thailand and Burma. Dhammasami finds that the flexibility and ability to tailor education to the students’ needs was an important strength of monastic education that has since been lost.

For Dhammasami, the responsibility for the current state of monastic education does not lie with outside forces of the monarchy, national governments, secularism, or colonialism, but with the sangha itself. Before modern nation-states, Dhammasami describes the ideological conflict as taking place between the idealism of the monarchy and the pragmatism of the sangha. Burmese Kings in particular thought the objective of monastic education should be exclusively for the monk to seek salvation. But the sangha resisted this position, teaching secular subjects to those monks who might want to later live as laymen until the late 19th century. After colonialism came into play, the sangha began to align with nationalist interests and came to accept the idealistic purpose of monasticism. Dhammasami faults the sangha for making this decision “as monasteries chose to shun Western secular subjects at the very moment they needed to modernize their curricula by including those subjects” (7). Throughout the book, Dhammasami paints a vivid picture of the historical forces that led to this important question: Is the sangha’srole as an educator for the future of the Buddhist religion or as an educator for the needs of all society? Dhammasami faults the sangha for never defining their objective in education and remaining locked between idealism and pragmatism.

The arguments Dhammasami presents, especially in the introduction and afterword, are most reminiscent of Kamala Tiyavanich’s Forest Recollections: Wandering Monks in Twentieth Century Thailand (University of Hawaii Press, 1997). In her monograph, Tiyavanich laments the loss of the past way of life in the Thai Forest monastic tradition that took place when monks were free to wander. Today, because of forest depletion, national borders, and government control, forest monks have settled into temples. Similarly, Dhammasami mourns the loss of informal education. The historical change he outlines seems to mirror informal types of premodern meditation in Theravada Buddhism. Kate Crosby (Traditional Theravada Meditation and its Modern-era Suppression, Buddhist Dharma Centre of Hong Kong, 2013), has detailed the ways that that formalized and standardized meditation techniques replaced individualized and teacher-student based methods. These trajectories within Theravada Buddhist history from informal to formal, open to controlled, and autonomous to standardized, can be seen in monastic education, monastic life, and meditation. Some authors describe these changes against the backdrop of colonialism and the rise of modern nation-states, but others, like Dhammasami, argue that these premodern practices had more value than what they have been replaced with.

The polemical parts of Buddhism, Education and Politics in Burma and Thailand are the most accessible and offer the author’s unique perspective. Including more examples of his own experiences as a monk partaking in this education system and as a teacher would have added a more compelling narrative to this account. The middle chapters on the history of monarchs and nation building contain much historical detail. For the less specialized reader, I imagine these parts would be too complex. 

This is a rare book because of its topic and author. A Buddhist monastic for over thirty years who can read both Thai and Burmese primary sources and write in English is rare within Buddhist studies. Venerable Khammai Dhammasami has incorporated a wide range of primary sources that I believe hardly any other scholar could utilize to such a large degree. There is much important information here for scholars of Theravada Buddhism. Chapter 6, “Idealism and Pragmatism: Dilemmas in the Current Monastic Education System in Burma and Thailand,” would be especially useful in an advanced undergraduate or graduate classroom to study the current debates about the nature and purpose of monasticism within Theravada Buddhism.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Brooke Schedneck is Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Rhodes College.

Date of Review: 
July 30, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Venerable Khammai Dhammasami is Buddhist Chaplain of Oxford University, United Kingdom.


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