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Date: 4/19/98

Publication: The Nation

Section: Feature

WILD LIFE/Karmic Craze

THIS year's Makha Bucha festival at Wat Dhammakaya was mocked by detractors as ''religious MTV'' The atmosphere was nothing like a rock concert, however. The air may have been electric with the crowd's anticipation of the evening's events, but it was quiet enough to hear the breeze blowing.

Besides, even rock concerts couldn't boast as high an attendance. There must have been 100,000 worshippers there that night. The comparisons between Wat Dhammakaya's Makha Bucha ceremony and videogenic musical events are probably inevitable, however, considering the movement's stated aim of appealing to the younger generation of Buddhists.

But the show of light and sound attracted more than just a huge number of young people. Whole families were there, with an equal representation of young and old. My own experience at Wat Dhammakaya goes back more than 10 years when I first began going regularly as a post-graduate student doing research. In order to round out my experience, I went to other temples as well, including Wat Somanasviharn and Santi Asoke, the movement whose most prominent member is former Bangkok governor, Maj Gen Chamlong Srimuang.

In all the years of my observing Buddhism in Thailand, however, I have never seen as much public interest in religion as there is now. At the moment, Buddhism is enjoying a resurgence in Thailand and temple attendance is higher than ever, at both traditional and modern ones. When times are bad, religion looks good.

Because capitalist values have failed to bring happiness -- for many people, in the past year, they have brought more grief -- people start to look for something else to give meaning to life. A sure sign that religion is becoming chic is that a couple of prominent businessmen have ordained or plan to ordain in order to make merit for their souls. People are finally waking up to the fact that Buddhism can make life more liveable in the shambles of our crisis-ridden economy.

All this religious interest has turned attention back to a debate over which temple or movement is either the best or the most proper one. Some Buddhists say that you shouldn't be interested in this life, but you should be trying to build up merit so that eventually you attain Nirvana, or deliverance from Samsara, the cycle of reincarnation.

Others teach a more immediate approach, telling you to concentrate on fixing this life by gradually giving up worldly possessions and desires. Friends of mine refuse to go to Wat Dhammakaya because they object to the temple's methods of appealing to a modern audience through the use of sensory attractions. Hey, if it works, why knock it?

To be quite honest, after years and years of studying Buddhism, I don't particularly know if any way is best and the end result of my own personal quest has been disillusionment with organised religion of any kind. There is too much bickering among religious officials to provide a comprehensive, unified vision for the laity.

I still practice Buddhism and believe in it implicitly but I just don't know if I prefer one temple over another. Furthermore, although I understand the intricacies of the debate that has taken place for years now, I can't find one movement which seems more valid than the next. As one of the people I encountered in the course of my research put it: ''If they teach people to be good, what is the harm in that?''

I agree. I suppose this makes me a dangerous Buddhist because I practise in the privacy of my own life and find personal meaning in that. And while I understand that it is important not to be taken in by weird religious cults which often do more harm than good by posing a danger not only to their own members but sometimes to society in general, if a movement's basic principles encourage me to be good to myself and my soul and to respect the human rights of others, I figure it's okay.

Most new converts nowadays are beleaguered businessmen who have suffered setbacks in life and have become disillusioned enough to look for spiritual solace. I think it is a good thing that Buddhism can provide those people with comfort.

What concerns me most, however, are those who lead corrupt and amoral lives. People who lie, cheat and steal are the ones who could use religious guidance but never take it. They go to temples because they think they should. It's like a social event. No benefit is derived from sitting there other than networking. Then these people try to outdo each other with the size of their contributions to their favourite temple, committing the added sin of corrupting the sacred by donating huge sums of money to the most unworldly monks who are ill-prepared to manage the income both fiscally and personally.

When some of these monks falter, as might any human being who regularly gets millions of baht dumped into his lap, it is taken to indicate the failure of Buddhism in Thailand as a whole. There are others who say that if only religion were taught properly, people would flock to it and, once the corrupt have learned to meditate, they will automatically become good people.

I can't believe that. If a person is dishonest and selfish, he won't change unless he wants to. For people like this, it is the sound and light show which makes the difference. They might as well go to a rock concert for all the benefit they'd derive from a temple.

It just goes to show you: You can lead a man to worship, but you can't make him think.

BY Natayada na Songkhla

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