For centuries, ever since Buddhism was introduced into the country, the Sangha or the Buddhist monastic order has been one of the nation’s greatest institutions. Under royal patronage of all the kings and with the support of the Government and the people, it has even possessed the right to govern itself.
A separate government was first officially provided for the Order in1903 when King Rama V enacted the Sangha Administration Act of R.E.121. Since then the State has from time to time revised it, so that to date three such laws have been passed, namely,
1. The Sangha Administration Act of R.E. 121 (1903 C.E.);
2. The Sangha Act of B.E. 2484 (1941 C.E.); and
3. The Sangha Act of BE. 2505 (1962 C.E.).
By the Act of R.E. 121, there was established a Mahathera Samagom or Council of Elders (or the Sangha Supreme Council) to act as adviser to the King in all affairs concerning the religion and the administration and support of the Sangha. The Council consisted of eight members (the four Chao Gana Yai and their deputies) and was later presided over by the Supreme Patriarch. Under the Council there were Chao Gana Mondol, Chao.Gana Muang, Chao Gana Khwaeng and Chao Avas or the abbots, working at the different levels of the governmental system.
In 1932 the civil government was changed from an absolute to a constitutional monarchy. This led to a change in the ecclesiastical government in 1941. Under the Act of B.E. 2484, the organization of the Sangha was patterned after the parliamentary government adopted by the State. The Supreme Patriarch had very limited power. According to the doctrine of the separation and the balance of powers, he had to use his power through the three organs of the Sangha, namely, the Sangha Sabha as the Legislature, the Gana Sanghamontri as the Executive, and the Gana Vinayadhara as the Judiciary. The Gana Sanghamontri, or the Council of Ecclesiastical Ministers, consisted of ten members headed by the Sangha Nayaka or the Ecclesiastical Prime Minister. Under the Sangha Nayaka were the four ecclesiastical ministers (Sanghamontri) who directed all affairs of the Sangha through the four Boards or Ministries, namely, the Board of Administration, the Board of Education, the Board of Propagation and the Board of Public Works.
The Act of B.E. 2484 remained in force for 21 years, or until 1962. Then the Government under the premiership of Field Marshal Sarit Dhanarajt found that the ecclesiastical administration should be based on the process of centralization, not decentralization. As a result, a change in the organization of the Sangha was made by the Sangha Act of B.E. 2505 which came into force on January 1, 1963. By this Act the Mahathera Samagom, or the Sangha Supreme Council was reestablished and the administration of the Sangha was to be carried out at two levels: the central administration and the local administration.
At the central administration level, the Supreme Patriarch who is appointed by the King, as head of the Buddhist Order, is responsible for all affairs of the Sangha. He has absolute power to govern the whole monk community and to direct all ecclesiastical affairs. Under him is the Mahathera Samagom which serves him as the Consultative Council. The Council consists of the Supreme Patriarch as its President, all Somdech Phra Rajagana as standing ex-officio members, and another four-to-eight Phra Rajagana appointed by the Supreme Patriarch to hold office as nominated members for a term of two years.
At the local administration level, the Sangha is divided into local units of multiregions, regions, provinces, districts and communes or precincts, similar to the division of the country by the State for administrative purposes. There are Chao Gana Changwat (Sangha Provincial Governor), Chao Gana Amphoe (Sangha District Officer) and Chao Gana Tambol (Sangha Commune Chief) who take full responsibility for their respective administrative divisions in the 73 provinces. In each commune there are at least five monasteries, each under the charge of an abbot or Chao Avas. The 73 provinces are grouped into 18 ecclesiastical regions which are under the control of Chao Gana Bhag (Sangha Regional Governor). The 18 regions are again grouped into five multiregions supervised by Chao Gana Yai (Sangha Multiregional Supervisor), namely, the Central, the North, the South, the East and the Dhammayuttika Ecclesiastries respectively.
The Government provides administrative facilities for the Sangha through the Minister of Education who has charge and control of the execution of the Act. Under him is the Director-General of the Department of Religious Affairs, who is ex-officio Secretary-General of the Sangha Supreme Council and whose office serves as the secretariat of the Council. The Department of Religious Affairs acts as a liaison office to achieve harmonious cooperation between the Sangha and the State. It is responsible for the care of monks and monasteries and the promotion of all religious projects, whether educational, propagative or social. It keeps record of the monastic property, oversees the ecclesiastical budget, provides financial support through the Government budget and assists the ecclesiastical officers with their administrative duties. It has a large printing plant for publishing Buddhist scriptures, textbooks and religious publications in general. Seeking to achieve the welfare and prosperity both of the Sangha and of the State, it has the duty to protect the religion and to foster Buddhist culture in Thailand by all suitable means.