BAAN PA CHI, Thailand — The monks of this northern Thai village no longer perform one of the defining rituals of Buddhism, the early-morning walk through the community to collect food. Instead, the temple’s abbot dials a local restaurant and has takeout delivered.
“Most of the time, I stay inside,” said the abbot, Phra Nipan Marawichayo, who is one of only two monks living in what was once a thriving temple. “Values have changed with time.”
The gilded roofs of Buddhist temples are as much a part of Thailand’s landscape as rice paddies and palm trees. The temples were once the heart of village life, serving as meeting places, guesthouses and community centers. But many have become little more than ornaments of the past, marginalized by a shortage of monks and an increasingly secular society.
“Consumerism is now the Thai religion,” said Phra Paisan Visalo, one of the country’s most respected monks. “In the past, people went to temple on every holy day. Now, they go to shopping malls.”The meditative lifestyle of the monkhood offers little allure to the iPhone generation. The number of monks and novices relative to the population has fallen by more than half over the last three decades. There are five monks and novices for every 1,000 people today, compared with 11 in 1980, when governments began keeping nationwide records.
Although it is still relatively rare for temples to close, many districts are so short on monks that abbots here in northern Thailand recruit across the border from impoverished Myanmar, where monasteries are overflowing with novices.
Many societies have witnessed a gradual shift from the sacred toward the profane as they have modernized. What is striking in Thailand is the compressed time frame, a vertiginous pace of change brought on by the country’s rapid economic rise. In a relatively short time, the local Buddhist monk has gone from being a moral authority, teacher and community leader fulfilling important spiritual and secular roles to someone whose job is often limited to presiding over periodic ceremonies.
Phra Anil Sakya, the assistant secretary to the Supreme Patriarch of Thailand, the country’s governing body of Buddhism, said that Thai Buddhism needed “new packaging” to match the country’s fast-paced lifestyle. (Phra is the honorific title for monks in Thailand.)
“People today love high-speed things,” he said in an interview. “We didn’t have instant noodles in the past, but now people love them. For the sake of presentation, we have to change the way we teach Buddhism and make it easy and digestible like instant noodles.”