Unholy row over Thai Buddhist sect

Naughty monks

Sydney Morning Herald/May 15, 1999
By Craig Skehan

BANGKOK - If the Lord Buddha is looking down on the religious affairs of Thailand, he may well be frowning.

Not only is there an unholy row over attempts to disrobe the head of a dubious Buddhist sect, but the ethics of the mainstream clergy are facing increasing public criticism.

Problems range from so-called "naughty monks" indulging in alcohol, drugs, gambling and fornication, to downright rotten monks convicted of extortion, rape and murder. Monks have been convicted of molesting children. Abbots have paid bribes to be transferred to more profitable temples. There has even been over-charging for funeral rites. Some believe there is a widespread malaise as monasteries and temples, once centres of learning, lose their relevance in a world of mass communications and consumerism.

It is against this backdrop that Buddhist leaders are struggling with the largest of many new cults. The Dhammakaya Foundation employs modern marketing techniques, including direct-mail soliciting, to promote Buddhism as a revamped product.

Rather than emphasising self-enlightenment and detachment, Dhammakaya backs self-interest all the way. Miracles and prosperity are promised in return for big donations, and there are theatrical religious events attended by tens of thousands of people at the Dhammakaya Temple on the outskirts of Bangkok.

Abbot Phra Dhammachayo is the 53-year-old head of what many see as the moral equivalent of the tackiest empires created by United States Christian "television evangelists".

The head of mainstream Thai Buddhism, the Supreme Patriarch, refers to Abbot Dhammachayo as "the former abbot", but the religious bureaucracy, headed by the Sangha Supreme Council, has been slow to act on the Supreme Patriarch's instructions.

So slow, there is talk of a rift.

Yesterday's The Nation newspaper accused the Sangha Supreme Council of having previously "done all it could" to protect the abbot against charges of embezzling land and distorting Buddhist teachings.

This was tantamount to "condoning the authority of rogue monks". The editorial said some monks thought nothing of sleeping with women, extorting cash and assets from disciples, burning the bodies of babies to make love potions and selling "magical" amulets.

The Nation said some members of the Sangha Supreme Council had been accused of riding in chauffeur-driven limousines provided by Dhammachayo's sect.

There was also a front-page story reporting that the controversial abbot was using delaying tactics to dodge demands that he hand over thousands of hectares of land donated by adherents, registered in his name.

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