Thai monks' livestream mixes Buddhism and jokes but not all are laughing

Buddhist monks Phra Maha Sompong Talaputto and Phra Maha Paiwan Warawanno host a chat show during a Facebook live, at a temple in Bangkok, Thailand, Sept 17, 2021. REUTERS/Arthon Pookasook
Two Buddhist monks in Thailand have become social media stars with Facebook livestreams that combine traditional teachings with non-traditional jokes and giggles. Some of the country's religious conservatives, however, are not so amused.

With an impressive fluency in youth slang, Phra Maha Paiwan Warawanno, 30, and Phra Maha Sompong Talaputto, 42, have captured the imagination of a generation who find the formal temple decorum and Sanskrit chanting of traditional Buddhism outdated and inaccessible.

On a recent Friday night, the bespectacled Paiwan set his phone up on a tripod and clipped a microphone onto his saffron robe, sitting alongside Phra Maha Sompong in a small study in Wat Soi Thong temple in Bangkok.

In the livestream that followed, the two men talked through a myriad of issues, mixing Buddhist teachings, known as Dhamma, with modern life advice and a hefty dose of humour.

"I want Dhamma and the young generation to coexist," Paiwan told Reuters. "Without reaching out to the young, what will be the place of religion in the future?"

Paiwan and Sompong's weekly livestreams attract hundreds of thousands of viewers within minutes, once reaching a peak of two million.

Paiwan, whose Facebook follower count skyrocketed by more than 800% to 2.5 million in just over a month, said he wanted to keep Buddhism relevant to Thai society in the wake of scandals at temples over murder, drugs, sex and money laundering.

The upbeat sessions also provided much needed relief for many Thais confined to home during night-time curfews to stifle the country's COVID-19 outbreak.

"We have bad days and we are stressed with work, with money, with family, with the pandemic and everything that's going on with the lockdown," said Onravee Tangmeesang, 32, who watches every Friday night session from her bed.

"Those giggles can really brighten up my day."

But the weekly livestreams have not been greeted so favourably by Buddhist conservatives keen to uphold the religion's conventions and formalities.

The two monks were summoned last month to a parliamentary committee on religion to explain their online activities, while senior government figures have warned them to tone down the jokes and "inappropriate behaviour."

"Monks' behaviour has to be respectable in the public eye. It doesn't have to change with the time to appease young people," said Srisuwan Janya, head of the Association for the Protection of the Constitution.

"That will lead to the decline of Buddhism, which has already existed for nearly 2,600 years without needing to change before."

Paiwan responded with typical levity when asked to comment on the summons: "Laughing has become a national problem!"

SHAKING IT UP

Buddhism is one of the three traditional pillars of Thai society, alongside the nation and monarchy, but it has largely become performative, its role in society largely diminished to one-off events such as funerals, religious festivals and royal events.

For many fans, the monks' willingness to break conventional barriers to reach out to them and speak their language makes them worthy of reverence.

The livestreams allow the pair to engage directly with their audience, reading comments and answering questions, a tactic that breaks the long-standing Buddhist convention of one-way preaching.

In a recent livestream the pair riffed on the concept of "merits" and whether they could be shared.

"Lord Buddha said merits are like candles," said Paiwan. "You can light other candles without dimming the flame of the first."

Sompong, who has 1.4 million followers on Facebook, chimed in: "Just be careful not to burn your friends."

Both men burst into giggles.

Pongsak Sangla, 36, said the pair allowed people to find space for Buddhism again, without time-consuming rituals, in their busy modern lives.

"Times have changed," said Sangla. "Realness is what people want."