Folk Saharat, a novice monk of over 10 years, spoke to Din Deng about his religious faith as it relates to his Marxist beliefs. Saharat, originally from Northern Thailand, is studying at Mahidol University, Bangkok. In his orange robes he became a familiar face on the frontlines of the street protests last year. When we spoke to him, he was living underground in the capital after being charged with royal defamation.
Could you tell us a bit about yourself and how you got into Marxism?
It always seems as if it’s through the past that we can see the truth and have contact with reality, the reality with which we experienced it.
This question takes me back in the past when I was little. 1999, when I was born, was the golden age of Thaksin’s capitalist economy. At the time my parents started working and planning to run the local school bus as a small business. It was a stable job and it was in line with Thaksin’s educational policy; free basic education until the age of 15, so the number of students was growing. But after my father got sick and died, my mother had to be a tower of strength putting food on the family’s table. What happened deprived us of the dream, the dream of making a happy family life. After the coup in 2006 a brighter world was never to be seen again. After that we constantly had problems. The new government canceled a million-dollar fund that was set up to pay off vehicle debt costs (including the school bus), so my mother had to go to Bangkok and sell her labour to make a living. Somebody else took the school bus job.
I had to decide whether I or my sister would continue studying. If I studied in school my sister wouldn’t be able to do so because my family couldn’t afford it. I realised that I could get a football scholarship from a Chiang Rai sports school, so I didn’t give up yet. At that young age, I knew that I had to finish my study by myself, without my family’s money. I found jobs like fruit picking and lifting stuff in the village shop. I earned little money from what I did. But when I graduated primary school (aged 12), my dream of being a professional footballer faded away and I realised I had to abandon my education. All of this had a deep effect on me mentally. But the world was still kind to me. In my culture, people who were born poor are encouraged to enter monkhood. But only men can do so, not women. So, I sacrificed my education for my sister so that she could go to school and make a better life.
Sometime between finishing studying in the temple school to the day that I was admitted to Mahidol university, I bought the book Marx : A Very Short Introduction by Peter Singer. Of course, typically bookstores in the countryside wouldn’t have this kind of book. They’d only have books like “100-tricks-to-success”, “preparation-for-college” or comic books. The Peter Singer book I bought was about taking surplus value from labor. While reading it my hands and body shuddered. It took me back to the days when I was only a kid, when I went to work all day and got only 150 baht. Back then I thought it was a pretty large amount of money. At any rate, capitalists have done almost nothing and gained a lot from me, they could live for 3-4 years on my labour alone. I don’t know exactly how much they gained…
My grandparents are farmers and earn only a little. Things are getting more expensive, yet wages remain the same. When they asked for a pay increase the bosses suddenly turn hostile. These capitalists are so arrogant. They don’t know of the power of proletarians. When they speak of frugality, honesty and patience it’s all lies. I realised that I had been lied to with those words. My state of mind and the experience of my whole life was like a clay block all along, just waiting for molders to determine its figure. After I came across Marx’s works, I met a fellow comrade Baimai. She worked as a translator for Samyan student publishers. I attended one of their events where I saw her selling a book called “Communism For Kids”. That made me want to read it and understand the ideology of communism rather than think of it as this great evil of which Thai people fear. I also wanted to properly understand other books by Peter Singer. These books are so hard to read at first because they mostly mention metaphysics and history. But at the same time, it allowed me to see the connection between Peter Singer’s work and Communism for Kids. I see the exploitation imposed upon us working people, our friends, parents, or neighbourhoods. Because of my poor English I can’t read foreign books, but I gained some basic knowledge regarding philosophy and ontology, so I read only translated books such as Autonomia and Conatus and I also followed TUMS Thammasat University Marxism Studies. All this intensified my thought and made me dig deeper into Marxism.
For you, how is Marxism related to Buddhism?
According to my interpretation, both Marxism and Buddhism have a metaphysical correlation. That is to say, they have a correlation in explaining human essence, and what human essence consists of. For example, Marxism proposes that we are all labourers. But Buddhism makes a metaphysical proposition that human essence consists of only derivative materiality. Those are sensitive material qualities as follows. 1. The eye 2. The ear 3. The nose 4. The tongue 5. The body.
People like to ask: What about disabled people? What happens if one is deprived of these qualities? Can one still be enlightened? Actually, metaphysically, Buddhism goes beyond sensitive material qualities. It goes deeper into the four principle elements which are earth, water, air, and fire. For example, earth is bones or human flesh which covers our bodies. Water is blood that is flowing through us. If we have none of it, we will die. Air is the channel through which water flows. Fire is the temperature inside our body that regulates temperature. If it’s too cold, we catch a cold. If it’s too hot, we get a fever. It is all a balance that maintains our lives.
If we look into the question of disabled people and enlightenment, when considering the earth element, we can see that people with disabilities are of course still people. It doesn’t prevent anyone from attaining enlightenment, which is the ultimate goal. Consider the story of Thera Cakkhupala, a monk who was ordained in old age and was later blinded. Nothing prevented from becoming an Arhat (a Buddhist saint). Before his blindness, his goal was to not sleep for three months in the rainy season in the Vassa. His practice was to only stand and sit, not sleep. It was straining his eyes little by little. At first water started pouring out of his eyes, and his vision started to become blurry to the point that other monks called for a doctor. The doctor came and told him that he needed to cure his eyes by lying down and putting in eye drops. But he refused to lie down. Eventually he lost his sight completely. Despite this, he still went on to attain enlightenment. (1)
This tells us that Buddhist equity ‘is not the destination we all long for’, but Buddhist equity is ‘the beginning of the journey’. Equality of human beings, according to Buddhism, is measured by ‘the earth element’ which is the gauge of the equality of each person. If one lacks one particular principle element, one would not be able to live. Even if we lack eyes, arms, or some derivative materiality, it does not prevent us from living and reaching truth.
Like four lotuses that are in the same pool, the same water, the same light, the same earth, it’s a freedom to let each lotus grow in the same environment. It depends on each lotus how far it can grow. But the important thing is that we must create an environment in which these lotuses can grow equally.
The second main point that resembles Marxism is the importance put on refraining from greed. We can see this in the Vinaya or ‘the rules of the Sangha’. The word Sangha, if translated from Pali, means a group that must consist of at least two monks. According to the rules, the distribution of materials must be decided by the Sangha. The Buddha prescribed that each monk must get only one set of monk’s robes. The Vinaya (law) is set so that monks are not excessive in their dress, but sometimes monks live in tropical countries where there is a lot of sweating, so it is necessary to have more sets of robes. The Buddha allowed for reserved clothes (Trai-asai) in moderation. This accounts for the ‘clothing wigab ceremony’ for when monks have new clothes. The robe must be received by two monks first and they must then ask permission from fellow monks to practice the ceremony together. All of this is to remind monks that the clothes are common property, and they as individuals should not be attached to property. If a monk does this ceremony often (demonstrating that they have more robes than necessary), they will be shamed and reminded to be modest, and to not hoard again. (2)
Actually, there is a story about why the Buddha established these criteria… Once during the winter time, the Lord Buddha travelled from Bihar to Vajji, where the weather was cold. He himself proved that he needed no less than four clothes to warm himself comfortably. If we look at this practice, it shows us that having a lot of material indulgences gives us a sense of identity, but having a simple cloth is only to cover the body in cold weather. All this is different from the capitalist world. In the capitalist world, it allows you to have a watch but no time. You can have a big house, yet you don’t have the time to live in it. You can buy a bed in which you don’t have time to sleep. You can buy life insurance but have no safety. You can go to a doctor but you’re not healthy. You can hoard books but you don’t read all of them. You have a family but you don’t get to spend time with them. Capitalism can buy you a university degree but you may have no knowledge. In a capitalist world, you can have a religion but you don’t have time to understand its essence. The capitalist world gives you “freedom”, yet you don’t even have the right to live a life.
Marx said religion was the opiate of the masses. How do you resolve that?
Marx said religion is opium, isn’t opium a means to heal pain? Healing the painful truth that some people cannot accept… Opium isn’t a versatile drug that can cure all diseases forever. To understand this saying, we have to accept that most ordinary people, even including me, have but a ‘vague devotion’ (meaning someone who adheres to religion but does not understand its teachings). When asked if you are religious the answer is expected to be yes or no. But shouldn’t that answer depend on the historical context too? If you were in the dark age and got asked if you are religious or not, saying no would get you in trouble. You’d be judged as a heretic. This is because people prefer to judge rather than to understand others. When we assess piety, we have to consider people’s attitude towards their world as well as their relationship with religion. Like if they reply ‘I follow religion simply because I don’t want to be alienated or conflicted in my society’.
Hegel once said in the Philosophy of Right that “Justification is the main road that everyone takes, and no one breaks the line. The more unskilled the artist is, the more he tries to make himself stand out.” From my interpretation of the world with Hegel’s understanding, ‘they’ and ‘the priests’ are the same to me. ‘They’ tend to make themselves stand out from ordinary people and appear to be superior in terms of dieting, sexual inactivity, solitude, etc. Or ‘they’ express enormous religious faith so oddly great that ordinary people can’t possibly do the same. But at the same time, they are ordinary people just like us. Therefore, we all interpret the world and learn to reason with ourselves and gradually rebuild ourselves. So do they. To go outside and learn inside, it allows us to use reasoning methods to describe the world and ourselves, as well as them.
So, let’s think of the countryside back in the day when there was no technology. Rural people grew up on lore and folktales. Even monks didn’t have internet access. Therefore, their interpretations are based solely on what they’ve been taught all their lives, all of which are rooted in their habits, language or social preferences. Of course, religion was almost the only thing they had as a lens to interpret with. But you couldn’t ask them if they understand religion or how much they understand religion. They interpret the world using their own reason and religion itself forbids doubting God and compels us to hold Sammādiṭṭhi (Buddhist canon), meaning legitimate approval, of which religion itself is sole arbiter that determines right and wrong. Naturally, this ambiguous faith must be proven by doing ‘good deeds’ according to religious practises such as the Five Precepts or the Ten Commandments in Christianity. To find out who has wronged we, the people, must check up on each other by attributing morals from religious canon. What we see is that people are not afraid of hell, they are afraid of gossip.
If you look closely in big cities, people there almost don’t interact. It’s like when you enter a department store, you don’t know anyone. You care only about yourself. No one will care and gossip about how you dress. You will choose to interact only with the store’s paid employees, you are alone. In the countryside however, everyone in the local shop knows everyone. This allows them to borrow stuff that belongs to each household or even take from the shop and pay another day. They are so close. In rural society, when you’re dressed up in a sultry outfit or have a young love, people will gossip about you. Because of the values of the local religion, they may regard you as misbehaving. Therefore, it can be concluded that every human being naturally has an obscure devotion, whether they are priests or not. However, religion creates values like poets creates poetry. Each interprets the world their way, but the most important thing we need to bear in mind when considering this is that we must change this world.
How do other monks react when you or your comrades talk about Marxism?
The older monks are against the idea. They denounce us as communists. We’re strongly criticised, especially when we use labour value theory to critique society or the monarchy. For example, during Buddhist Lent, they assigned the monks to do some reading and to make a summary about it. So I read Ernest Mandel’s From Class Society to Communism : an introduction to Marxism and told them about surplus value, the mechanism of capitalism, State as a mechanism of class domination and class liberation. It worries them because they are part of state power which is directly entrusted by the monarchy. They certainly fear that our speech and opinions will directly or indirectly affect them.
When people hear leftist ideas from the monks does it help them understand the left better? Are you speaking to them in the context of Marxism or Buddhism?
Now I’m helping monks in temples around Bangkok speak about politics; rights, liberties, equality, fraternity and economic equality. Our task focuses on rhetorical preaching. Teaching those who have faith in us or religion through teachings about the community at large, or speaking about class. We try to use normal language that everyday people can understand. It’s because we’re in a position that holds the power of faith and belief. We do use religious language and we link it with values of democracy, equality and fraternity to preach. The language of the left requires a technical or lexical change but the main point is still the same. For example, we won’t use the word ‘comrade’. We have to hack the dictator’s language system, so instead, we say ‘citizen’.
Besides, the word ‘citizen’ is somewhat similar to the word ‘soldier’. If we say the ‘citizens’ are the ones who pay taxes, soldiers and police will say that they do too. The question to ask is; who spends that common money? State officers. It’s their duty to serve the people, yet they can only make a living because of the taxes paid by working people. Whereas most ordinary working people don’t receive state salaries, they earn money from selling their labour to capitalists. Meanwhile the state officers use public funds to suppress the public, the very ones who pay taxes.
Or speaking about duties, consider structural violence, we make the link between those who follow the dictator’s orders to kill protestors. It is collective Karma. We’re warning them. It’s like seeing a person throwing trash away without saying “hey put it in a trash can”. It’s not only the soldiers and police who are complicit in this. Even the bureaucrats for the Nazi’s were rightly held accountable for carrying out reprehensible orders.
The concept of karma also allows us to see into capitalism. For example, you were born poor not because you did bad things in your past life, rather, it’s a different type of karma, bound by ancestors passed on to the next generations by sex, surnames, and inheritance (or lack thereof). Powerful people in the early days became the village headman, the legislators, the monarchs, etc. We are poor not because we’ve done something bad in our previous life, but because of those people who took advantage of us and our ancestors, who then passed on their power through their surnames or institutions. It’s not that they’re the people who made considerable merit, on the contrary, they’re the people who exploit our fellow human beings. Therefore, we must do some kind of collective karma readjustment, so that these things will not be passed on to our children and grandchildren.
My comrades plan to continue explaining this leftist Buddhist thought to common people. Now we’re thinking about making a radio station in Chiang Mai. To organise monks is very difficult because during covid we can’t meet in person. But we will keep trying. We have only one weapon, that is our charisma, which can help get the people on our side. Our group will keep trying to hack and unpack scripture and make it into a language that is as simple and comprehensible as possible.
Can you tell us about the charge of Lese Majeste (Royal defamation) against you?
I’ve been accused of defamation of the King. I criticised the use of this law. Even though Prime minister General Prayut was told by the King not to enforce it, he does it anyway. Indeed, when Prayut enforces it, he’s discrediting the saying “The King has spoken.” That’s how I caught the charge, for criticising the use of the law. It’s a bitter irony, one which has consequences. Soldiers and public security officers were trying to force me to leave the monkhood. I then became a fugitive and needed a place to stay. Luckily, my friend helped me find a place to live. I appreciated that. Of course, the state was looking not only for me, they went to watch over my grandparent’s house. I was afraid that those officers would do something to my family. This is the kind of intimidation that severely depresses me. I thought I would have to finally leave my monkhood because they cut the money for my university education and also because of the worry it caused me about my friends and family.
Shortly after this interview Folk disrobed from monkhood. As part of his disrobing ceremony he said:
“To the Master:
May the monks remember that I am a layman.
May the monks remember that I am a layman.
May the monks remember that I am a communist.”
 พระจักขุบาล. ธัมมปทัฏฐกถา. อรรถกถา. ขุททกนิกาย. คาถาธรรมบท. ยมกวรรคที่ 1, (ออนไลน์ ) แหล่งที่มา: https://84000.org/tipitaka/attha/attha.php?b=25&i=11&p=1 (26 ตุลาคม 2564).
 พระไตรปิฎกเล่มที่ ๒ พระวินัยปิฎกเล่มที่ ๒ [ฉบับมหาจุฬาฯ] มหาวิภังค์ ภาค ๒ (ออนไลน์) แหล่งที่มา: https://84000.org/tipitaka/read/m_siri.php?B=02&siri=95