Political Buddhism and the Modernisation of Thai Monastic Education: From Wachirayan to Phimonlatham (1880s-1960s)

Phibul Choompolpaisal*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

3 Citations (Scopus)


This article focuses on the transformation of monastic education in Thailand through its modernisation from the 1880s to the 1960s. During this period two of the country's most prominent monks rose to power: Wachirayan of the Thammayut (Dhammayutika) branch of the Sangha and Phimonlatham of the Mahanikay (Mahanikaya) branch. The former was at the height of power in the late nineteenth/early twentieth century and the latter in the mid twentieth century. Through my examination of monastic education during these two periods, taking the influence of these two important monks as case studies, I argue that Sangha education is not just the inherited knowledge transmitted down the generations to monastic learners for religious ends and the preservation of Buddhism. Rather I show how political discourse can transform monastic education. Temporal and ecclesiastical politics have shaped, dominated and reformed Thai monastic education. This process has altered expectations-on the part of Thai Sangha as well as the laity at elite and popular levels-of what should be learned by monks. Here we shall see how Pali, vinaya (monastic discipline), abhidhamma (Buddhist philosophy and metaphysics), meditation and modern Western-derived subjects became prominent in Thai monastic education at different periods in the broader national and international contexts. This means that both the scope and arena for critical thinking are heavily determined by factors that are not solely religious by nature. Put another way, critical thinking has not been a priority in an intellectual arena dominated by political agendas and has been strongly curtailed by those agendas.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)428-450
Number of pages23
JournalContemporary Buddhism
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 3 Jul 2015


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