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THE CULTURAL DIMENSION OF EDUCATION
Buddhism and Education
The Thai Experience
Since the advent of Buddhism in Thailand nearly 1,000 years ago, monks have had crucial roles especially in the moral education of the public. The Thai mind, in general, is thus inculcated with compassion, friendliness, and love of peace.
Nevertheless, having lacked knowledge of the Buddhist scriptures and modern academic knowledge, the Thais were superstitious and unable to improve their way of life. King Rama V (1868-1910) was aware of his people’s inadequate knowledge susceptible to Western imperialism. He began the process of educational reform in the country. The two Buddhist colleges, Mahamakuta and Mahachula, were built in order to properly train monks to be efficient Buddhist teachers and good followers of the dhamma. After their graduation, monks went to work in temple schools in villages throughout the country. They taught Buddhist ethics, Thai language, mathematics, history, and so on, and tried to improve folk ways of life. In the reign of King Rama V, Thai people were more educated and contented with their prosperity.
Problems of Education in Thailand Today
Though Thai education has been improved since the reign of King Rama V, the government is still unable to push all children through the process of compulsory formal education. The failure of educational management and administration as well as a rapid increase of population call for non-formal education, e.g., a Temple Pre-school Centre, a Buddhist Sunday School, etc.
It is obvious that only a well-to-do family is able to send children to a good school. Many poor children in Bangkok and those in villages far away are condemned to stay with their parents to work for the rest of their lives. The sight of youngsters selling newspapers and garlands in the street is just an ordinary experience for everyone in Bangkok. Similarly, outside Bangkok, far away in the countryside, small boys and girls watch cattle in the fields without any chance to enter school.
The Roles of the Government and Monks
In order to prepare children for school and provide the socially disadvantaged with the chance to be literate, the Ministry of Education initiated Temple Pre-school Centres in 1963. The project gained good support from the Buddhist Sangha, which allowed any temple to establish a temple school. Monks became teachers of pre-school children. The outcome of the project was successfully accepted by the public.
The Temple Pre-school Centre is a kind of social welfare promoted by the government. It invites people of all ages to come to the temple, be morally cultivated, and fulfil their human qualities. It widely interests the public with its following features:
Since 1988, the Temple Pre-school Centre has changed to ‘the Centre of Pre-school Children in the Temple’. It is open to children three-to-six years old.
Apart from the project of the Ministry of Education, there are some other projects for poor children launched by developer monks. One worth mentioning is Phra Khamkhian Suvanno of Sukhato Forest hermitage in north-eastern Thailand.
Phra Khamkhian Suvanno founded the Centre for Child Development in 1978 in order to take care of small children whose parents had to work in the fields all day. Most north-eastern villagers were poor farmers. They had to bring their children to the fields because there was nobody at home to look after them. Waiting for their parents to finish work, children played in the rain or were exposed to the sun the whole day. Some were severely ill and died. Phra Khamkhian thus decided to set up the Centre so that children would be taken care of and would learn to read and write elementary Thai language. At first, there were 20 children in the Centre. Phra Khamkhian brought up these children himself. They were fed with the food given to monks everyday. They had soy milk to drink and sweetmeats to eat regularly. The Centre gave a free service to the community for 8 months of the year from March to November. It was closed on the Buddhist Sabbath days. Some years later, a few volunteer assistants came to teach the children. Parents could leave their children in the centre and go to work happily in the fields.
Apart from 2,554 pre-school centres around the country, the government and the Buddhist order also carry on the project of the Buddhist Sunday School. The Buddhist Sunday School originated in Sri Lanka in 1886. It teaches various fields of Buddhist knowledge and languages. From 1953 to 1957, Phra Bimaladharma of Mahachulalongkorn Buddhist College, Bangkok, had visited Sri Lanka and witnessed moral and cultural teaching in the Sunday School. He deeply appreciated the success of its work. After his return to Thailand, he established the first Buddhist Sunday School in Mahachulalongkorn Buddhist College in 1958.
The Buddhist Sunday School was founded and has been carried on until today in order to inculcate moral discipline and general knowledge in children. Many social problems, e.g., juvenile delinquency, drug addiction, etc., arise from a lack of moral training and moral cultivation. If children are acquainted with the Buddhist teachings and properly follow the Buddhist precepts, they will be able to attain peaceful happiness and live successful lives.
In order to save young people from ignorance and worthless life, Mahachulalongkorn Buddhist College thus began the Buddhist Sunday School with the following objectives:
Nowadays there are 995 branches of the Buddhist Sunday School around the country. Class levels are arranged according to students’ grades as follows:
It takes 12 years to complete the entire course. Monks and some lay teachers, due to their compassion and loving kindness towards students, work in the programme on a voluntary basis. Their work is much appreciated by all Buddhists and considerably helps improve public morality.
Apart from Mahachulalongkorn Buddhist College’s public service of education, there are some other Buddhist leaders, both monks and lay people, who actively work for the sake of disadvantaged children. Worth mentioning here are Phra Vidya Cittadhammo of Mount Sarb Temple School and Mr Pai Soisaklang, the head of Sa Koon village.
According to Thai Buddhist tradition, only a male has the privilege of becoming a novice or a monk and is able to stay in a monastery for further education. A female can be merely a lay attendant and cannot closely associate with monks. Thus, male children have a good chance to fulfil their education through ordination. The case of Mount Sarb Temple School may well illustrate the point.
Phra Vidya Cittadhammo, the developer monk who runs the school, explains that all other secondary schools in the country emphasise only academic knowledge. They pay less attention to the moral cultivation of students’ minds. Mount Sarb Temple School, on the contrary, accepts all underprivileged boys whose parents are too poor to send them to a formal school. These children are ordained in the temple and have studied in its secondary school, free of charge, for 3 years. The subjects are Thai, English, mathematics, and social studies. Children and young people who are novices hold to the ten Buddhist precepts during their 3 years of education, which covers both secular knowledge and dhammic knowledge.
It is very important nowadays to pay attention to juvenile development. Samanera Vidya, a young novice, points out that due to his poverty, he cannot enter any other school and that most youngsters are wayward and delinquent. He stresses that the Mount Sarb Temple School tremendously helps young people cultivate their minds, fulfil their human qualities, and be able to survive happily in this suffering world.
Another example of service for young students is the Sa Koon Village School, founded by the headman Pai Soisaklang and all villagers. Pai Soisaklang uses Buddhist teachings as a guide for village life. He and the villagers built the school, without any support from the government, in order to prevent youngsters from wrongdoing. By means of education, children learn to differentiate right from wrong and be sufficiently knowledgeable to depend on themselves. He also encourages the villagers to live according to the Buddhist precepts, for their own peaceful happiness, through the following village rules:
During the Buddhist Lent, young people are persuaded to listen to a sermon and join a religious ceremony in the temple. They learn to stay close to their parents and follow the traditional way of life. During weekends, children stay home to help their parents work in the fields and dig fish-ponds. They are happy to make themselves useful to their community.
A Look to the Future
The changing role of Thai monks from ascetics to social developers is indispensable for Thai society nowadays. This phenomenon does not diminish monks’ sacred status at all since they still preserve their monastic discipline.
Once when I spent a week at the Sukhato Forest Hermitage in north-eastern Thailand, I had the opportunity to examine Phra Khamkhian Suvanno’s community development. I found that his work was much beneficial to the villagers and indispensable for community life. The three villages around the hermitage are located quite far away from the helping hand of the government and cannot survive without monks’ assistance.
Phra Khamkhian’s method of work is a combination of dhammic practice and social development. He follows the Buddhist teaching that a good mind yields a good practice. If one has learned to purify oneself and is able to lessen one’s own defilements, one can live for the sake of others and thus can yield benefits to one’s community and to the rest of the world. Phra Khamkhian teaches the villagers to abstain from all evil deeds and to practise meditation in order to learn more about themselves and to understand the nature of the world.
Under the sponsorship of the Thai Khadi Research Institute, Thammasat University, Bangkok, I spent nearly 2 months interviewing many villagers, monks, and government officials who were responsible for the well-being of these villages. The outcome of Phra Khamkhian’s work, however, is unsatisfactory. Most projects are initiated and run only by Phra Khamkhian. Villagers are merely participants and thus have no motivation to carry on and fulfil their work. For example, even though the Centre for Child Development still operates today, Phra Khamkhian is the only one who manages it and takes responsibility for all the work. Due to poverty and the lack of self-dependent orientation, the villagers would rather leave all problems to Phra Khamkhian than participate in the Centre or donate some money to support it.
Phra Khamkhian is well conscious of his role as a Thai monk venerated by lay people. His community development has been done within the context of Buddhist discipline. Thus, his monastic status is always held as sacred by the villagers.
Furthermore, it can be noted that most private agencies working for community development do not like to communicate or seek assistance from governmental officials. They prefer working by themselves. The case of Phra Khamkhian is an example of a leading developer monk who devotedly works for the sake of the poor community but lacks internal cooperation and external support.
In Thailand the traditional system of primary education is as important as the modern system since ethical training is no less crucial than academic proficiency. The Thai traditional system of primary education began in a temple or a monastery where monks were teachers and preachers. Its aim was to moralise the public as well as to improve the folk ways of life. According to Buddhist beliefs, the cultivation and purification of the mind is the source of all good deeds. Thus, if we properly bring up children at the earliest, they will become good citizens and good human beings in the future. Their knowledge will be applied to save the world. Right now, the Ministry of Education in Thailand is well conscious of this fact and mandates that all primary school pupils should study Buddhist ethics and should be trained to be morally good in their own traditions. It seems that the traditional system of education emphasises the role of religion for the good of students while the modern system honours academic knowledge and Westernization as signs of educational achievement.
I believe that both moral cultivation and academic training are equally important for students. We would rather have a morally knowledgeable person than an evil brilliant guy or a virtuous idiot. In order to train children both morally and academically, the government and all private agencies need to cooperate in supporting educational projects in all schools and in providing all illiterates throughout the country with compulsory education and elementary knowledge suitable for their folk lives and local environment.
An ideal primary school or centre of education should be well equipped with pictorial lessons and audio-visual materials in order to draw pupils’ attention and make the entire process of teaching attractive. The size of the centre depends on the number of pupils in a community. Nevertheless, it is better to have 15-20 pupils in each class so that the teacher is able to train and look after everyone. Children who are ready to enter a primary school and be able to fulfil their course are ideally 5 years old. The curriculum should emphasise knowledge useful for children, encouraging optimistic viewpoints and leading to the fulfilment of their potential. The characteristics of a teacher and parents’ education are no less important. Teachers should love children and be cheerful enough to make the lessons interesting. They should be trained particularly for their profession. Needless to say, if the government really wants to support public education and fight against illiteracy, it needs to provide the public with free and compulsory primary education. Since the children of today are the adults of tomorrow, as a Thai proverb says, the attempt by all means to make the best of children is thus worth the investment.
©1998 Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts, New Delhi