Santi Asoke was a splinter Buddhist Theravada sect formed in Thailand by a monk, since defrocked, called Bodhiraksa. Bodhiraksa left mainstream Thai Buddhism in 1975, setting up his own centre and ordaining monks and nuns himself. Santi Asoke is distinguished from mainstream Buddhism by its ascetic lifestyle, vegetarianism, and puritanical morals. Fundamentalist Buddhism, if you will. And indeed Bodhiraksa refers to his brand of Buddhism as authentic or fundamental, which he contrasts to the occult or capitalist Buddhism practised by most Thai and the hermetic Buddhism of the forest monks. Santi Asoke is socially engaged.

Santi Asoke focuses on self-sufficiency through organic gardening and agriculture as well as recycling. They sell their surplus in small shops near their rural centres as well as in vegetarian restaurants around the country; they serve very good vegetarian Thai food at small cafeterias in Bangkok and Chiang Mai, and probably other cities as well.

Bodhiraksa and his followers are very critical of mainstream Thai Buddhism, criticizing common practices like making and selling of amulets. These amulets, worn by many Thai, often featuring likenesses of famous monks, and are thought to bring the wearer luck and prosperity. Santi Asoke wat (temples) are simple affairs with no Buddha images; they say they revere the dhamma (doctrine), not images of a historical man. Bodhiraksa urges his followers to decrease their desires and at the same time increase their productivity and creativity to better themselves and society.

Santi Asoke appeals to Thai concerned about unfettered westernization and development in Thailand and the alienation and environmental destruction it has brought. However, Bodhiraksa's public condemnation of the mass of Thai Buddhists, and the Buddhist sangha, and his assertion that only his brand of Buddhism is "real Buddhism", also angered sangha authorities. Particularly galling was his boast that he was more enlightened than they - a stream enterer already. Bodhiraksa refused to temper his outspoken, antagonistic approach.

In June 1989, when I was in Thailand, Bodhiraksa was arrested by the police after refusing an order to give up his orange Buddhist robes. A news blackout was announced, not difficult to enforce when the military runs most of the TV stations. Bodhiraksa was soon released, but he and his disciples had to wear white robes like a lay people while his case was heard by an eccliastical court. Though he was not given a jail sentence, Bodhiraksa was forced to refrain from referring to his group as Buddhist; they are now known as "Asoke". Unfortunately, their website is only in Thai.

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