Contemporary Asian Film
Ong-bak the Thai Warrior: The Decline of Buddhism in Thailand
Although Thailand is traditionally a Buddhist nation with 95% of its people considering themselves Buddhist (McCargo 156), Buddhism has “lost its moral authority, spiritual leadership and cultural significance in Thailand…because of modernization and globalization from the outside” (Kitiarsa 1). The film Ong-Bak the Thai Warrior depicts the decline of traditional Buddhism in Bangkok by contrasting it with Ban Nong Pradu, a fictional but traditional Buddhist village. The main character Ting is sent on a quest to Bangkok in order to recover a Buddha head stolen from Pradu. Ting’s quest into Bangkok signifies a search and attempted revival of Buddhism in parts of Thailand that have lost Buddhist tradition. The film Ong-Bak the Thai Warrior serves to defend traditional Buddhism and to show in the end Buddhism will prevail over modernization.
Since the 1980s, Thai Buddhism has been in a state of crisis which is depicted in Ong-Bak the Thai Warrior. The lost Buddha head represents the lost religion in Thailand. On a small scale, the villagers in Pradu represent all remaining faithful believers in Thailand. When the Buddha head goes missing, the villagers are in despair because they understand the consequences of a village lacking religion. According to Duncan McCargo, “Buddhism has long been a source of identity for Thai people” (160). Without the Buddha head in the small village Pradu or without traditional Buddhism in Thailand, the Thai people have no true identity. The identity of the Thai people has been replaced with corrupt values and rituals, such as gambling, stealing, and prostitution. The despair of the villagers reflects the despair of many people in citizen because of the decline of Buddhism.
In order for Thai monks or for Ting to save and revive Buddhism in Thailand, it needs to be considered why Buddhism is failing in the first place. According to Bhikkhu’s “What Ails Thai Buddhism”, there is not one known reason why Buddhism is failing but many inter-related causes. Bhikkhu suggests government interference and domination is weakening the strength of monks and teaching them fear and passivity. Monks used to live with villagers but now they are under the control of rich politicians. The fictional character Ting is able to save Buddhism because he keeps the villagers in mind as he seeks the Buddha head in Bangkok. Ting could have won a lot of money in the fights in Bangkok but he only accepts the money that rightfully belonged to him to avoid the corruption that has ailed monks in Thailand. If Ting fought to win money in the corrupt nightclubs, he would not have been able to save the Buddha head because he would have fallen under the control of rich politicians like many monks currently are in Thailand. Ting’s behavior which is superior to monks in present day Thailand makes him an exemplar character and true defender of the Buddhist religion.
According to Bhikkhu, Buddhism is also failing because the religion was founded on a “feudal structure dependent on a rapidly disappearing agrarian culture” (Bhikkhu 1). In Ong-bak the Thai Warrior, Buddhism is present in agrarian village of Pradu but not in the cosmopolitan city of Bangkok. This raises the question if it is possible for Buddhism to co-exist with the changing ways of Thailand or if the Thai people must chose between either modernization or traditional Buddhism. According to Duncan McCargo’s “Buddhism, Democracy and Identity in Thailand”, “the Thai Buddhist sangha has proved incapable of responding effectively to the changing nature of Thailand’s society and economy (157). I believe Ting’s quest into Bangkok shows an awareness that tradition and modernization need to be united in order to keep Buddhism alive. The village Pradu’s stolen Buddha head shows that even if a village isolates itself from modernization, it can not avoid modernization from coming in. The villagers abided by traditional Buddhist rituals but it did not stop the thief from stealing their Buddha head to sell on the black market. The modernization in Thailand can not be ignored because it will affect even those who isolate themselves from it. I think the film Ong-bak the Thai Warrior shows that Buddhist monks have not effectively responded to the changing nature of Thailand since they chose to ignore it. However, Ting proves his superiority over modern day Thai monks because his quest into Bangkok teaches Buddhist rituals, such as the traditional boxing Muay Thai, to those who are no longer exposed to Buddhism. Ting, unike Thai monks, responds effectively to the changing Thai society because he faces it head on and survives it, showing it is possible to live a traditional Buddhist life in a modern society.
Bhikkhu also acknowledges that Buddhism is filled with patriarchal sexism therefore women do not find anything in Buddhism to inspire and guide them. The film Ong-bak the Thai Warrior does nothing to challenge this view but instead shows that Thailand needs a masculine hero to revive Buddhism. Ting’s female cousin is underestimated by men in gambling schemes but she is only stronger and smarter than men think she is because of her brother George’s scheming ways. As one of the only female characters in the film, she does not show that Buddhism values women but only shows females need male heroes to save them. In the scene where the female prostitute is dying because she has been overdosed with drugs, George attempts to save her, which proves Buddhism expects a male hero to revive the religion. Ting is definitely the male hero that the religion needs to revive it. The film does not in any way show Buddhism is equal to women because the main character who saves Buddhism is a male.
Bhikkhu also acknowledges that Buddhism is failing because of monetarization. It is believed that money has replaced goodness in Thailand. The film Ong-bak the Thai Warrior shows that money has definitely replaced the Buddhist religion in Thailand. Buddha heads and other religious statues are being stolen and sold for money. The Buddha statues do not represent the goodness of the religion anymore but a monetary value. In Bangkok, gambling is a main pastime. In Ong-bak the Thai Warrior the criminals gamble and make bets on fights. The fighting in chaotic bars lacking Buddhist values has replaced the traditional Buddhist form of boxing, muay thai. Ting refuses to fight for money because he understands money causes a person to lose touch with the true religion and traditions. According to McCargo, it is forbidden for monks to handle cash but monks are now receiving significant incomes for services they offer in order to recruit monks, which is distorting the priorities and activities of monks. Although Ting only becomes a monk at the end of the film, by refusing to accept money he is trying to bring Thailand back to a time when monks were not corrupted by money. Ting once again displays exemplar traits to show traditional values need to exist in order to remove the corruption from Thai society.
Ting displays monk-life qualities even before he becomes a monk by refusing to accept money like a traditional, uncorrupt monk should and by being a guardian of the religious images and rituals. According to McCargo, “given that buddhist ideas are highly abstract, popular forms of the religion tend to focus on images and rituals. As guardians of images and rituals, monks have assumed considerable importance in Thai society” (156). Ting goes on a search for the Buddha head in order to preserve the statue in his village, which makes him a protector of Buddhist images. It can be argued George also displays monk-like qualities at the end of the movie because he sacrifices himself to protect the Buddha head. Ting is also a protector of Buddhist rituals because he knows the Buddhist form of boxing, muay thai. Ting does not overuse the ritual but only uses it when it is absolutely necessary for survival and in order to get closer to his goal of regaining the Buddha head. According to Kitiarsa’s “Faiths and Films: Crisis of Thai Buddhism on the Silver Screen”, “traditional religious festivals that once shaped community life are gradually losing their meaning. A small percentage of the male population is being ordained into the Buddhist monkhood” (Kitiarsa 2). The rituals and images that Ting protects in the film are in need of protection since they are currently losing their meanings and do not have monks to protect them. Ting displays qualities that should be present in Thai monks but no longer are in order to show Thai Buddhism needs to undergo a reformation. According to “Faith and Films”, “in order to rescue Buddhism and make it relevant to present time, Thai Buddhism needs to be reformed from top to bottom” (Kitiarsa 3). The film Ong-bak the Thai Warrior shows it is possible to save Buddhism in the present time by going back to old ways and reforming the corruption that has entered itself into Buddhism. The film Ong-bak the Thai Warrior glorifies traditional Buddhist rituals such as Muay Thai and other authentic forms of Thai martial arts. In the film, muay thai literally defends Buddhism by having Ting use it against people who are obstacles of the religion. Muay Thai is the best form of martial arts as can be seen through Ting’s ability to fight all men. Muay Thai proves tradition is stronger and can overcome anything because Ting is able to overcome all hardships because of his use of muay thai.
The knowledge of the traditional Muay Thai is only available to Ting who is from Ban Nong Pradu while fighters from Bangkok are not aware of this powerful form of fighting. The film presents two contrasting worlds, Bangkok and Ban Nong Pradu, in order to show a world without Buddhism is a corrupt world. Ban Nong Pradu is supposed to be the ideal Buddhist village while Bangkok is the other extreme. In Bangkok, there exist evils such as underground gangsters, drugs, gambling, prostitution and corruption. Bangkok is the center of the Thai modern universe which shows corruption and modernization go hand in hand. According to Kitiarsa, Ban Nong Pradu and Bangkok represent traditional heaven and hell. Thai people need to commute in between traditional villages and the city, which shows the world is somewhere between heaven and hell. I think this emphasizes the idea that Pradu can not exist in isolation of the corruption around it and can not remain pure of modern influence. I believe modernization and the traditional Buddhism need to meet someplace in the middle in order to allow traditional Buddhism to exist in a modern society.
The film Ong-bak the Thai Warrior illustrates the decline of Buddhism in Thailand because Ting goes on a search to find Buddhism in a culture that has lost touch with traditions and rituals because of modernization. Ting from Ong-bak the Thai Warrior finds and rescues the Buddha head in the corrupt, cosmopolitan city Bangkok proving it is possible to keep traditions in a modern city. Although Ting goes back to his traditional village to become a monk, he proves Buddhism can still co-exist with modernization if monks regained qualities that Ting displays. Ting is able to resist corruption and to protect Buddhist images in Bangkok, showing that is what is needed to keep Buddhism alive in a modern time. The film serves to defend Thai Buddhism during a time when it is uncertain of the importance of Buddhism in Thailand.
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