BANGKOK, Thailand - Fearing that Buddhism is losing relevance as Thailand develops economically, maverick Thai monks and laymen have launched the religion into cyberspace, transforming Buddhist teachings and stirring controversy about whether the Internet is a suitable spiritual medium.
In the past three years, the number of Buddhist Web sites in Thailand has more than quadrupled, Web masters say, and hits on the most popular sites have increased at a steady pace. Several Bangkok booksellers offering religious volumes report that sales have fallen drastically since 1997.
The majority of Thai Buddhist sites target young men and women, who are not only Internet-savvy but also more likely to feel that Buddhism's traditional structures have little bearing on their lives.
Though most Thais regard themselves as Buddhist, few young people today take the time to study the religion, says Abhinito, a monk who has a personal Web site that includes chat groups and question-and-answer sessions relating to Buddhism.
"They have worldly concerns," he says, "like going to RCA" -a famous Bangkok nightlife district.
In the past, most males living in Bangkok ordained as monks for three months, but today fewer than 10 percent of them do so, and the number of men who stay in the monkhood after three months is declining precipitously, Abhinito says.
The decline in formal Buddhist study falsely suggests that young people's interest cannot be piqued by Buddhism, says Jaksit Olarikkachat, who runs a Buddhism site. Against this "myth," he notes youths' participation in heated online Buddhist chat groups.
Supporters of Buddhism on the Internet argue that it reaches people by personalizing religion, allowing each Web user to absorb tenets of the religion relevant to his or her life in a way that traditional practices no longer can.
"Most monks still see themselves as preachers -they don't know how to make Buddhism meaningful to people with modern problems," says Isara Sukongkaratanakul, who maintains the popular www.budpage.com.
"You have to market Buddhism, approach it like a commodity," says Luenchay Vongvanij, head of one of the first Buddhist Web sites, www.dhammathai.org. "It's not enough to just say, 'Here is the religion.' It should mean something to you. The Internet is key to showing people that Buddhism matters, since the Web is flexible and you can tailor the religion to suit people."
Www.dhammathai.org offers chat groups, downloadable scriptures, question-and-answer sessions with monks and online forums on how to live a Buddhist existence in a consumer culture.
"We are the supermarket of Buddhism," Luenchay says. "You surf our site and pick out which aspect is best for you."
"Modern society just doesn't have time to go to a monastery for hours," concurs Abhinito. "So, should they give up the religion? No ... I have them go visit a site and learn about Buddhism quickly ... at their convenience."
But like many sites, Abhinito's page encourages users to set up in-person meetings to discuss Buddhism.
Thai Buddhists are playing catch-up to other religions on the Internet. As far back as 1987, the tech-savvy Pope John Paul II announced that "computer culture" would herald "an evangelization."
Today, groups tracking Internet spirituality estimate that more than 85 percent of mainstream religious Web sites are Christian and that the number of Muslim sites is increasing more rapidly than the number of Buddhist sites.
That may be partly because of the resistance of traditionalists to cyber-Buddhism. These critics charge that Internet Buddhism will give Thais an oversimplified version of the religion and will expose monks to dangerous influences.
"The Sangha [high-ranking monks] still believe that anything short of ancient, long-form ways of studying the religion is inadequate, and they know that the Internet is making it easier for reformers who want to clean up the monkhood to reach people," says one senior monk.
In recent years, Thais have been shocked by a series of scandals in which senior monks reportedly embezzled temple funds, and some Thais have left traditional Buddhist temples to join reform-oriented splinter sects.
"Although monks are allowed to use computers to propagate Buddhism, some people cannot accept ... us surfing the Web, because there are [pornographic] Web sites not appropriate for monks," Abhinito says. "So we do not get enough money for Buddhism on the Web from foundations because many people are still worried about the impact of these inappropriate sites on monks."
Proponents counter that Net-savvy Buddhists learn more about the broader aspects of the religion and that the Web is Buddhism's last best chance in Thailand.
"The senior monks only think the traditional ways of promoting Buddhism are adequate, and are worried that if their expertise is challenged, they will have to change and will lose their status in society," says one young monk who runs a Web site. "But it's better to understand Buddhist concepts than just go through the motions of visiting a shrine. Today, people can access anything they want, so only religions that are adaptable will survive."
Some former skeptics are becoming converts to online Thai Buddhism.
"Perhaps you have to be more cynical because of the volume of Buddhist information on the Internet," says Nantasarn Seesalab, a Bangkok-based Buddhist leader who used to believe that putting Buddhism on the Web would undermine its impact.
"But cynicism is not wrong," he adds. "The Buddha taught his disciples not to believe because of what your teacher says, but because of your own wisdom. If what is on the Web has the basic idea and means something to you, it can be Buddhist.
"The Web sites can't replace temples, and some people will still visit those places, but Web sites give more people access to the information. Without them," he says, "Buddhism might be forgotten here."