192nd Meeting – December 1999

Thai Buddhism through Cartoons

A talk by Louis Gabaude

The origin of contemporary cartoons criticizing Buddhism is traceable to Buddhadasa Bhikkhu (1906-1993). Influenced by what some call ‘Protestant Buddhism’, he criticized Thai Buddhism as unfaithful to its origins. Some of his disciples drew cartoons, transmitting his teaching in a humorous manner, and displayed them in schools and Buddhist exhibitions, and still do so.  An example of ridiculing monks they regard as betraying 'authentic' Buddhism is a monk is using a brush to clean away the impurities hiding the real wheel of the Law - the Buddhist Dharma.  There are four categories of cartoons, and here are some examples of each.

1. General criticism of Buddhism: Monks are often depicted as skeletons, indicating a 'dead' or 'defeated' monk who has breached one of the four main rules of the order, the parajika. One of these is the injunction against killing. In one cartoon a monk is depicted holding a sign saying: "I endow blows, knives and weapons with magical efficacy. 100 % guarantee." Obviously referring to the sport of boxing, the monk is saying, "May thy blows produce knock-outs. If thy adversary does not die, may he lie unconscious!"

2. Sexual Scandals, as in the infamous case of the Venerable Yantra.

3. Financial Scandals: the Case of Dharmakaya Temple, a Buddhist movement that promises self-enrichment and has become famous and rich.  In one cartoon, for example, a wife is asking her husband; "You have been training to calm your mind at the Dharmakaya Temple, and what have you got, my dear?" The husband is unable to answer, as he is absorbed in the contemplation of lubricious images.

4. Vinaya/Discipline Scandals: the Case of the Santi Asoke Movement. Bodhirak, a radical monk, has advocated the eradication of the non-Canonical rites and activities of popular Buddhism, also holding that Buddhists (or monks?) should be vegetarians. He has gained numerous disciples, but also created formidable enmity, particularly in the political sphere. This eventually led to his expulsion from the Theravada Order. In one cartoon referring to Bodhirak, a village headman asks if he can reveal winning lottery numbers, make love charms and provide physical invulnerability – or sell titles, Volvo cars and weapons. When he says ‘No’, the headman shouts, "I've never heard of such a monk. He must be a FAKE!"

While such cartoons may shock, it should be remembered they were devised by Buddhists to protect their religion’s purity. One cartoon makes this point superlatively, pointing out that newspapers exposing faulty monks offer better protection for Buddhism than the temples themselves! Not all monks would agree with that! But not all cartoons poke fun at monks either. Some stress their positive social involvement.