The places people live, whether by choice or circumstance, can offer clues as to who those people are: an intentional community like the Srisa Asoke Buddhist Center in Northeast Thailand speaks volumes about its residents.
Srisa Asoke was the main site for the ethnographic research I conducted for my PhD (published as Right Development by Lexington Books), and it is also where I learned the lessons about wellbeing that make up the INTENT 365 project. This article introduces Srisa Asoke and the people who live there to provide a clarifying context for those lessons.
Isan: The Poorest Region of Thailand
Srisa Asoke is located roughly fifty kilometers from the Cambodian border in Kantaralak District, Srisaket Province, Isan, the northeast region of Thailand. Isan is the poorest and most populous region in the country, and it shares cultural attributes with its neighbors Laos and Cambodia. Most Isan people are farmers, combining subsistence agriculture with cash crop cultivation such as sugar cane and cassava. Water buffalo are commonly used to plow as tractors are quite expensive and are more difficult to maintain. Like elsewhere in Thailand, Isan villages are arranged as hamlets with fields often several kilometers away. To get to these fields, farmers may walk or take bicycles, motorcycles, slow but innovative vehicles made of a large exposed engine pulling a long wooden trailer, or, for the lucky few, a pickup truck.
The land is much drier and less fertile in Isan than in other regions, which has forced Isan farmers into labor migration and debt to survive. Deforestation is part of the reason for drought and eroded soils. Since communist insurgents spilling over from Vietnam and Laos were thought to be hiding under cover of the forests, the government offered people titles to forested land from the 1950s onward if they agreed to clear and cultivate it. New roads and communication systems were also built during this period to connect the capital with provincial towns and previously isolated areas. The clearing continued as more and more land was required to cultivate cash crops for export. Recently, the government initiated the Green Isan program to encourage recovery of natural forests with the hopes of improving climate and soil quality.
Though life is hard in Isan, aspects of Isan culture and village life ease the burden. First there is Buddhism, with the temple as a center for spiritual and material support (as well as the spirit cults for other mundane concerns). Sanuk or fun is something all Thais seek both while they’re working and when the day is done; Isaners especially like to have fun by singing, dancing, and playing music. Unfortunately, alcohol often goes along with sanuk, particularly for men, and this can negatively affect social relationships and livelihood activities. Generosity of spirit or nam jai is another Thai personality trait that abounds in Isan. This ethic ensures that villagers help each other, from small acts of hospitality to passersby to collective efforts during harvest season. Though the Srisa Asoke Buddhist Center is not a typical Isan village, it attempts to improve on the best qualities of village life.
The Ethnographer’s View
Srisa Asoke Buddhist Center is surrounded by rice fields dotted with coconut palms, banana plants, and shady trees under which farmers may be found resting on low bamboo platforms. When I arrived, hulking grey water buffalo grazed in the post-harvest stubble. Srisa Asoke lies about two kilometers down a red dirt road off the north-south highway between Srisaket’s provincial capital and the district town of Kantaralak. The community is not isolated but shares the dusty road with Ban Krachaang and other villages.
In the past, people living nearby avoided this unconventional village because they feared it to be communist. After thirty years, these neighbors now refuel their motorcycles at Srisa Asoke’s gas station and stop off to buy cheap household items, school supplies, brown rice, seeds, and other necessities at the community Goodwill Store.
Srisa Asoke owns altogether 200 acres of fruit orchards, rice fields, vegetable plots, and crop fields, but the heart of the community—the village, temple, and school—occupies just 3.2 acres. A walk through the grounds shows a well- established operation.
At the main entrance up the road from the Goodwill Store, visitors are welcomed by Srisa Asoke’s museum. The museum is a graceful Thai-style building that displays murals and photographs depicting Asoke life, artifacts of ancient Mon culture, goods and handicrafts produced in the community, and an area dedicated to the life history of Pau Than Bodhirak, the movement’s founder. Upstairs is a shrine housing sacred relics where visitors may pay their respects.
Just behind the museum stands the most frequently used building in the community, the Common Hall, where both secular and religious activities take place. Fifteen or twenty kuti (monks’ sleeping huts of about five by eight feet) are tucked away in the wooded area behind the Common Hall, and a dozen slightly larger huts for khon wat (“temple people” who take eight precepts) line an approaching walkway.
Surrounding this domain—in the community proper—are tree-lined lanes of wooden houses on stilts; facilities for cultivating mushrooms, weaving cloth, and recycling trash; organic vegetable and herb gardens in every available space; forested areas with quiet paths; and a clinic, a library, an art studio, a cremation site, a rice mill, a smithy, and much more. It is astounding that just thirty years ago, this carefully crafted settlement was a bare cemetery.
There are about eighty regular residents at Srisa Asoke including seven monks as well as 200 boarding school students. Most residents are Isan natives, born and raised there in Srisaket or nearby provinces; however, several have relocated from Bangkok, and a handful have come from faraway places such as Chiang Mai.
These residents do not fit the agrarian Isan norm: in a demographic survey of the community, 57 percent of the respondents said they came from a rural area (as opposed to town) but only 19 percent identified themselves as farmers. Overall, the educational level of Srisa Asoke residents is quite high: only three respondents had less than the national required level of education, a third completed what was required at the time (fourth grade or sixth grade), several more had at least some secondary school, and a whopping 43 percent had a an associate’s degree or higher (including two with master’s degrees). Though the demographic survey did not ask the respondent to identify ethnicity; I would classify roughly 60 percent of the residents as ethnic Lao, 20 percent as Central or Northern Thai, and 20 percent as Chinese-Thai.
These differences in background are not apparent at first glance due to the Asoke “uniform”: their unadorned, traditional rural dress comprising indigo- dyed Thai mahom farmer shirts and pants or phathung (wrap skirt) over bare feet.
While Srisa Asoke is not a typical Isan village, neither does it fit the stereotype of a Buddhist center. The common image of Buddhist practice is sitting still with eyes closed, monitoring the breath, but this is only one method of meditation. Asoke members practice meditation continuously through their work and social interactions.
Lest one picture life at Srisa Asoke as contemplative navel gazing, consider a typical day. Residents are roused by a gong at 3:30 a.m. for chanting and sermons in the Common Hall or, one morning a week, a community meeting. Two hours later, the practitioners part company and set to their community work. At 10:00 a.m., residents and guests return to the Common Hall for a communal meal. This meal may last until noon because it is the only meal of the day for stricter practitioners as well as a time to relax. Community work then continues throughout the afternoon and early evening with time out for personal business.
At night, residents may chat with neighbors, practice sitting meditation, watch a movie, attend committee meetings, or read quietly until “lights out” at 9:00 p.m. None of these activities is mandatory, and work often takes precedence. Add the daily activities of 200 schoolchildren as well as hundreds of visitors each month, and Srisa Asoke is a veritable beehive.
Like other Asoke communities, the organization of Srisa Asoke could be called collective or cooperative. All residents volunteer for jobs that (ideally) match their interests and skills while fulfilling community needs. Though it is reasonable to assume that former farmers would farm, teachers would teach, and so on, this is not always the case. Farmers who take on new jobs become the head of the kitchen, caretaker for the elderly, and community seamstress. Moreover, many people who have never farmed seek agricultural work as the “most natural” profession. Still, most residents take responsibility for multiple tasks, including teaching the boarding school students.
All this labor is non-wage, but not uncompensated. In return, residents receive spiritual guidance and support and the four necessities for a comfortable material existence (food, shelter, clothing, and medicine), as well as free education and a positive environment for their children. While a few residents maintain private houses, money, and vehicles, most give up all ownership to the collective and equally share the common resources.
It is important to note that this community came together during a time when communists were killed in Thailand—especially in the Northeast—to preserve national security. Hence residents clarify that they are not communist: members are free to come and go, to choose and change their work, and to participate in decision making through democratic vote at weekly community meetings.
Since Srisa Asoke is an intentional community, it would be helpful to clarify what the community members intend. That is, what is the purpose of the community? What are its objectives? The official Asoke statement on the purpose of all Asoke communities is to allow people to live close to the temple, to provide support for difficult practice, and to be a refuge for people who do not want to follow the worldly path (Asoke 1995:122).