By David Flatscher
The Nineteenth Century abolitionist leader and former slave, Frederick Douglass, spoke of a connection between religion and slavery. In his 1845 Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass A Slave, he states that “Were I to be again reduced to the chains of slavery, next to that enslavement, I should regard being the slave of a religious master the greatest calamity that could befall me. For of all slaveholders with whom I have ever met, religious slaveholders are the worst” (Gates 369). According to Douglass, the religious slaveholder was especially cruel in his abuse because he somehow felt that his actions were justified. This slave-owner could fall asleep at night believing that those he brutalized were sinners, that they were marked as such by the color of their skin, that they deserved his abuse, and that he was, in fact, acting in accordance with God’s will. This religious dogma both rationalized and perpetuated slavery, and it was not limited to Nineteenth Century America. In modern-day Thailand, slavery in all its various forms still exists. The misuse of Buddhism in Thailand, for example, allows for the rationalization of oppression.
While slavery is a violation of human rights according to the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, there are still millions of people who are kept in involuntary servitude. This modern day slavery is vastly different from the kind Douglass experienced. Nobody can legally claim to own slaves anymore. As a result, slavery lurks in the shadows and is therefore more difficult to combat. It also comes in many different forms (Apsel). The form most prevalent in Thailand today is sex slavery, which involves kidnapping young girls, selling them to brothels, and coercing them into prostitution. Even girls who “voluntarily” prostitute themselves face enormous societal and economic pressure to do so. While these influences are very powerful in themselves, their foundation may rest on Theravada Buddhism, the main form of Buddhism practiced in Thailand.
The fundamental concepts of Theravada Buddhism are karma (kam) and merit making (kaan tham bun). These beliefs express that good action will earn positive merit (bun), while bad action will earn demerit (baap), which all in turn affect a person’s overall karma (Muecke 893). Past deeds are believed to directly influence a person’s well-being in this life. For example, wealth is seen as a sign of good karma, while poverty is a demerit for bad deeds carried over from the past. Moreover, in this belief system there is a fixed spiritual hierarchy, which places men above women. Enlightenment is a privilege reserved for men, while a woman’s highest spiritual aspiration is to be reborn as a man (Proskow 21). This idea has legitimized the oppression of women by painting them as ‘lower beings’. But despite such a demeaning portrayal, these women, particularly the poor ones, are still pushed to improve their low karmic status.
The most common way these women improve their karma, or ‘make merit’, is by giving money to monks (Proskow 26). Prostitutes have a reputation for making such offerings. In this way, young and uneducated women come to think prostitution benefits them because it enables them to earn money and improve their karma. The monks normalize exploitation by implicitly sanctioning it. According to this logic, a pimp is no longer someone who exploits women, but a benefactor who gives them the opportunity to reach a better life in their next incarnation.
The idea of karma as it is understood in Theravada Buddhism also reinforces the notion that one’s lot in life is predetermined, and thus unchangeable. Bua Boonmee, a young Thai prostitute, articulates this idea in her memoir “Miss Bangkok: Memoirs of a Thai Prostitute.” Bua was born in the poor, rural area north of Thailand. She describes how economic hardship and lack of familial support forced her to move to Bangkok, where she eventually started working as a prostitute. Throughout her memoir, she describes the degrading and dehumanizing effects of her work, yet precisely for the aforementioned reason she blames herself for her situation: “Throughout my life, I had always believed that unforeseen powers shaped my fate and that I must have committed some terrible deed in my previous life, for which I was now paying the price” (Boonmee, 55). The prostitute or the girl that is trafficked is encouraged to willingly accept her place in this world. She is made to believe that her only hope lies in the next life, and all she can do is try to improve upon her karma in her current one.
It is not only karmic debt, however, that encourages prostitution. The belief that children are indebted to their parents is very powerful as well. This is where religious and cultural norms intertwine. Historically, especially in the poor, rural villages of northern Thailand, it was commonplace for daughters to be sold off into sexual bondage. Sons on the other hand, earned merit for their families by becoming monks (Proskow, 18). Not much has changed since then; the rapid industrialization of the country over the last fifty years has only intensified social inequality. While southern regions and areas in and around Bangkok have enjoyed massive economic growth, “the north was left behind” (Bales 40). Many families in the north still choose to sell their daughters into prostitution in order to support themselves financially. In fact, a much larger percentage of women become prostitutes than men become monks (Muecke, 892).
Undeniably, there is a link connecting religion to economic hardship and prostitution. Buddhism in Thailand stresses the importance of material wealth as an indicator of a person's attained karma from previous lives. Even at a great cost, subservience to the accumulation of wealth, when seen as a meritorious activity, is to be expected of those who follow this belief system. Nevertheless, hope for improvement can also be found within the religion of Theravada Buddhism.
The traditional Buddhist texts establish a male religious order, the bhikkhu sangha, and a female order, the bhikkhuni sangha. Nuns can serve as living, tangible figures that contrast with the traditional patriarchal interpretation of Buddhism in Thailand. The movement to generate more bhikkhuni nuns has gained significant traction in various countries, most notably in Sri Lanka (Tomalin, 387). The fact that we see more female nuns in Sri Lanka is a promising sign since it is a majority Buddhist country like Thailand. Even though there are only five Theravada bhikkhunis in Thailand today, this trend could potentially be of great value for women’s empowerment within the country (Tomalin, 388). Education could also be the key to break down oppression; Frederick Douglass himself described it as “the pathway from slavery to freedom” (Gates, 338). Young impoverished boys always had the option to become monks (they could even become temporary monks) in order to escape poverty and receive a basic education; until very recently, this possibility was denied to women (Tomalin, 389). A young, uneducated girl from a poor family is more likely to end up working as a prostitute against her will than receive an education. An educated woman, on the other hand, is much more unlikely to end up being so exploited. As education and the practice of ordaining nuns becomes more and more accepted, the pathway to freedom may hopefully present far less obstacles for the women of Thailand.
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Proskow, Amy, “Trading Sex for Karma in Thailand: An Analysis of the Reciprocal Relationship Between Buddhist Monastics and Thai Prostitutes” (2002). Honors Theses. Paper 1887
Boonmee, Bua, and Nicola Pierce. Miss Bangkok: Memoirs of a Thai Prostitute. Dunboyne: Maverick House, 2007. Print.
Gates, Henry Louis, and Frederick Douglass. “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass A Slave.” The Classic Slave Narratives. N.p.: n.p., n.d. 301-403. Print.