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Some Thais See Economic Hardship As a Boon to 'Traditional Values'

"This crisis is great," insists Abbot Pra Payom Galyano, as he adjusts his saffron robe in the torpid afternoon heat at a temple near the Thai capital of Bangkok. "It is going to force people to go back to the traditional lifestyle. They had lost their way."

Forget the mismanagement, nepotism, and corruption that economists typically blame for Thailand's economic crash: The real problem, say a growing number of Thais, is the decline in Buddhist morality.

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"The basis of the crisis is that people did not follow the teachings of the Lord Buddha," affirms American-educated Thai businessman Charoen-Rajapark. "We focused on productivity and not on righteousness."

This nation of 60 million groans under the weight of a $90 billion external debt. The economic collapse has thrown one of the world's fastest-growing economies into a free fall. The resulting hardship from the recession and its attendant social ills (such as widespread drug abuse) that are now often associated with the boom years, have prompted nationwide soul searching.

'Awakening old values'

In weekly TV broadcasts, senior monks explain problems from a Buddhist perspective.

"Monks are using the crisis to awaken people to old values," says Bruce Evans, an Australian scholar who was a Buddhist monk for 17 years. "They're telling their followers that it's time to get back to basics."

"The current decline in morality is a side effect of industrialization," adds Khun Payong, a retired teacher who has set up "morality camps" for young Thais. "We should go back to our old traditions and not depend so heavily on material things."

The call for a return to homespun values, self-reliance, and Buddhist morality also carries undertones of nationalism.

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"Don't sell off the country. Join together to protect our nation and keep it for our children," reads a campaign sticker distributed by Abbot Pra Payom. "Foreigners are benefiting from our misfortune," he complains, a reference to the influx of overseas investors hunting for bargains in Thailand.

Another popular monk, Abbot Luang Ta Maha Bua, made the most of the nationalist mood by undertaking a headline-grabbing "Help the Country" campaign. It drew in donations worth $1.2 billion to help pay off Thailand's massive national debt.

But if the crisis has provided an opportunity for monks and temples to put Buddhist compassion into practice, it has also prompted a closer examination of the quality of the Thai monkhood as an institution. Some critics complain that instead of tempering materialism, Thailand's monasteries have themselves been tainted by it.

"Subconsciously, during the boom, people were encouraging monks toward materialism," Mr. Evans, the former monk, says. "Because the population became wealthy, and people made donations, the monasteries became wealthy, too."

One social critic, newspaper columnist Sanitsuda Ekachai, puts it in starker terms. The decline in standards among monks is a result of the "commercialization of Buddhism," she says. In a recent article in the Bangkok Post, Mrs. Ekachai described how one monk set up a "holy-water supermarket" that sold 200 brands of bottled water from well-known monks nationwide.

Khun Premrudee Puyongyuth, who lost her job in a supermarket and now sells herbal medicines at Pra Payom's temple, also blames the monasteries for "setting a bad example. "Some temples competed with each other to build the biggest or the most famous temple," she says. "If the abbot is focusing on amassing fame and fortune, his followers will act in the same way."

'This is our opportunity'

The view that the monkhood is in need of reform has even reached the desks of Thailand's policymakers. Last month, the director general of the country's Religious Affairs Department, Samanchit Piromruen, called for a halt on construction of new temples. The department says it wants to lighten the financial burden on congregations during the economic slump.

Some argue that Buddhism and capitalism will never fit together easily. "I see a connection between the boom and the general decline in Buddhist values," Evans notes. "Material growth is based on unspiritual values."

But others, like social activist Sulak Sivaraksa, see the crisis as a kind of time out from profitmaking, a way to refocus on what is really important.

"Now we can make use of Buddhism. This is our opportunity to do something," he says.

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