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Date: 12/6/98

Publication: The Nation

Section: Feature

PULP FICTION : Heaven Can Wait: The miracle of mindfulness

''Marvels Do Still Happen...'' my Dhammakaya Temple invitation reads, ''...for Those Who Take Refuge in the Three Jewels.''

I am standing by a crowded intersection at the annual Book Fair of the Queen Sirikit National Convention Centre, where the only marvel is that it feels a bit like The Mouse that Roared. All round me, hordes of near-blind (but determined), mousy bibliophiles stampede towards book-buffets in ten directions.

Oddly, each time they crash in myopic pile-ups by the cardboard stalls, there arises from the daze -- almost miraculously -- an earnest Dhammakaya evangelist, all smiling and Buddha-faced, hands outstretched with an invitation card to a sect lecture: ''The Ultimate Miracle of Luang Phor Wat Paknam, Resolving the Thai Economic Crisis'', to be held on Saturday at the Narai Hotel ballroom.

''Do come...Have you an invitation?'' The question loops round and round, gently, beatifically, like the reassuring murmur of airline attendants at 32,000 feet. By the third questioning, I hold up the cover picture of my invitation, with Luang Phor Wat Paknam floating in the sky, brandishing the old monk like the protective amulet he has become.

Not that the selling of merit and miracles is anything new in Buddhist history. Merit-makers through the ages, from India to Siam, have advertised their virtuous actions on votive inscriptions, now supporting a temple, now an amulet, a text, an image, a stupa, a pillar, a roof, a bell, everything, down to a measly brick. It is part of the Buddhist tradition of anumodana, making merit through ''rejoicing'' in another's merit-making

For extraordinary fundraising, we need only look Northeast any day, to the myriad of amulets and talismans of high net worth of shaman-monks like the cigarette-puffing Luang Phor Khoon. On his 72nd birthday a few years back, he gave away as many millions as his age to Royal charities.

More recently, the forest ascetic Venerable Ajaan Maha Bua reputedly threatened ''to take leave of his body'' should supporters fall short of the target fundraising of his nation-saving, Buddhist-IMF fund. It may not have been Dhammakaya with its Amway vigour, but it was undeniably a purveying of punya (merit) and higher magic.

On the subject of miracles, Ajaan Maha Bua once wrote a small hagiography, describing how his late guru, Ajaan Mun, received visionary teachings from various historical arhats -- fully enlightened Buddhist saints, long transcended into Nirvana. This incited the late polymath MR Kukrit Pramoj to pen a series of widely-publicised diatribes, retorting the scriptures never depicted Nirvana as a place where saints could rematerialise at will.

The Ajaan shot back his classic put-down: those of meagre wisdom would do better to say less, and meditate more.

The present controversy over Dhammakaya claims for the existence of a permanent, unconditioned Nirvana-sphere parallels classical debates of Buddhist doctrinal history on whether or not Nirvana exists. And we might do well to remember that these polemics raged on between both Buddhist and Hindu philosophical schools for 25 centuries, with no real consensus.

For the record, I am not a supporter of the Dhammakaya movement. Neither am I for or against traditional Theravadin orthodoxy. I do feel, however, that there is place for social and historical context in these discussions.

Anyone who bothers to read up on Buddhist philosophical history would know that the Sthaviravada school, forefathers of the Theravada, was only one in 18 Sravakayana schools, each with differing interpretations of the Buddha's word. When the Chinese monk Hsuan Tsang travelled around the great Buddhist universities of Northern India in the seventh century, he noted many schools and sects living together in great harmony. So we may have gone backwards in our capacity for tolerance, engaged dialogue, and a certain sense of history.

It would be arrogant of any orthodoxy to suppose its tenets to be the precise word and meaning of the Buddha. The Tripitaka -- the Buddhist Canon -- itself, for that matter, was not written down until several centuries after the Buddha's passing.

Perhaps, our need to package the good away from the bad, like meat away from the abattoir, is a curse of our latter-day supermarket mentality. Pork chops by frozen foods, third row, toilet paper to the fifth aisle rear, Femidoms on the top shelf, and religion, in Cleaning and Household, after the milk, but before the detergents.

Of the Dhammakaya movement, my only other significant encounter was at Oxford, 10 years ago, in a Pali class with a then-rising star of the sect. The venerable luang phi sat beaming across the table, a Humpty Dumpty in saffron -- very round, very shiny and very present. In one hand he clutched KR Norman's Pali primer, in the other a plastic-wrapped sandwich. It was two in the afternoon.

''I have a reprieve to extend the lunch hour,'' he grinned, ''it clashes with my late morning classes.''


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