Thai Buddhists innovate to spread their teaching—but not like usual missionaries

Compared with Christian missionaries, Buddhist monks are not active proselytizers, but they are nevertheless willing to share their teachings with those who are open to their message, writes Brooke Schedneck (Rhodes College) in the digital magazine Aeon (August 11). Schedneck is the author of a recent book titled Religious Tourism in Northern Thailand: Encounters with Buddhist Monks (University of Washington Press, 2021). “Buddhist monks are missionaries too, just in more subtle and indirect ways,” writes Schedneck, who reminds readers that the Buddha told his disciples to find those “with little dust in their eyes” and teach them. There is a lesser sense of urgency than there is among Christian missionaries, since there is more than one life and people are continually reborn in other lives. But on the other hand, since one also accumulates karma during each life, actions have repercussions, and a human life offers a precious and rare opportunity for pursuing nirvana, some monks emphasize the need to lead a moral life in harmony with Buddhist principles.

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According to Buddhist teachings, one does not need to identify as a Buddhist in order to reach enlightenment, but being in touch with Buddhist temples and monks is supposed to make it much easier. Aware of the rising popularity of Buddhism and of some practices derived from Buddhist teachings (e.g., mindfulness), some Buddhist monks do not even bother to leave their temples but simply make themselves approachable. Based on her fieldwork in Thailand, Schedneck has observed how local monks have “created opportunities for non-Buddhist travellers to participate in a meditation retreat, join a Buddhist community, talk with a monk.” Indeed, the development of education has allowed many young monks to learn English. In a tourist spot such as Chiang Mai, they open their temples not only for cultural purposes, but in the hope of showing Buddhism to people who initially came only for tourism. Either those who come to a temple have karmic seeds that led them there, or a visit might plant in them seeds of future inspiration. Schedneck remarks that at a time when the share of Buddhism among the religions of the world is decreasing, such an approach with a lack of emphasis on affiliation also presents challenges. An interest in selected parts of Buddhism will not necessarily lead people to embrace the entirety of the religion and give rise to new generations of Buddhists.