Sect Spurs Crisis in Thai Buddhism

Associated Press, July 24, 1999
By Robert Horn

BANGKOK, Thailand (AP) - They worship before what looks like a giant flying saucer. They believe their leader has supernatural powers. They swear they've seen miracles.

More than 100,000 strong, they are members of a Buddhist temple near Bangkok named Wat Dhammakaya, which now has branches in several provinces and 10 foreign countries, including the United States.

Although most Thais are Buddhist, this sect's growing numbers, evangelical fervor, aggressive fundraising and unorthodox beliefs are turning many people against them.

Phra Dhammachayo, the temple's charismatic 55-year-old abbot, is the target of both criminal and monastic courts on a complex range of charges from heresy to fraud and embezzlement.

He has denied the charges, but thousands of Buddhist activists have demonstrated to demand he be expelled from the monkhood.

The controversy has laid bare a crisis in Thai Buddhism at large.

Critics say the faith has become corrupted, and wonder whether it can withstand a corrosive mix of materialism, distorted beliefs and failure of clerical leadership.

"The state institution of Buddhism is a mess,'' says Santikaro Bhikkhu, an American ordained as a monk in Thailand. "Geriatric, irrelevant, corrupt, cowardly, ineffective, blinded by its own narrow interests and perks. The Sangha has surrendered its rightful role as a moral voice for society.''

At its core, Buddhism is a religion that teaches that renunciation of desire for material comforts is the way to relieve suffering and find the path to wisdom.

But instead of shunning material comforts, some senior monks live in plush quarters and drive Mercedes Benzes.

Some have become so consumed with money that they have refused to perform religious services, such as funeral rites, for poor people who can't afford donations to their temples.

And many monks win popularity by indulging in practices that contradict Buddhist teachings, such as telling fortunes, selling magic amulets and predicting winning lottery numbers.

According to Apinya Feungfusakul, a sociology professor at Chiang Mai University, Wat Dhammakaya is successful because it is a mass movement that gives followers a sense of belonging and community in the otherwise isolated, rootless existence of modern urban life.

Most followers speak of Wat Dhammakaya's cleanliness and strong organization. Others talk of disillusionment with modern Thai society.

"My country has changed so much in the past decade or so,'' says Pat Petburanin, a human resources executive, explaining why she attends Wat Dhammakaya. "People have become so greedy and materialistic. We were missing something spiritual.''

The paradox of Wat Dhammakaya is that critics view it as a greedy, profiteering cult.

Wat Dhammakaya has a core of lay followers who compete with each other to raise as much money for the temple as possible, using telemarketing and direct sales techniques advocated by the monks, according to Apinya.

They view this as providing opportunities to the public to make merit, but they also rise within the temple hierarchy based on how much they pull in.

The temple's literature, Apinya adds, also promotes donations as a shortcut to salvation and good fortune. It contains tales of poorer followers emptying their bank accounts to give to the temple and then see their meager businesses start to boom.

While all Buddhists agree that donating food, robes and money to monks does earn one spiritual merit, it is only one means of earning it.

However, says Prof. Wit Wityadavet, chairman of the Buddhist Studies Center at Chulalongkorn University, "In Thailand, it has become just about the only means.''

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