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Date: 12/8/98

Publication: The Nation

Section: Editorial & Opinion

POLITICAL VIEW: Extreme prejudice in merit-making?

Amid the bleak economic outlook there is a blip on the horizon not very far from Rangsit, which serves as a venue for the Asian Games. It is about the power of money to create the eighth wonder of the world at the controversial Dhammakaya temple.

The proposed construction of the Dhammakaya Jedi, which it is estimated would cost Bt10 billion, has been called a costly gateway to the heavens, though financing comes from donations by about 100,000 of devotees and disciples of the temple.

The remarkable campaign to solicit donations resembles multi-level marketing (MLM), now widely preferred by direct-selling firms. Groups have been given fund-raising targets on the understanding that the more they bring in the more merit they amass for their next incarnation.

Nobody disputes the well-organised solicitations and the donors who parted with substantial sums of money for amulets and others items which are said to enhance their score of meritorious deeds. The senior monks, who have come out to defend the cause of the temple, are not that tolerant of doubts or criticism either.

The Dhammakaya temple obviously suits merit-making by the relatively well-heeled believer. Critics express doubts whether it is true Buddhist principle when materialism is the selling point.

The monks there are fairly educated and have impressive university degrees. Some have theology degrees and are exposed to the sophisticated world with its high-bracket consumers and high financiers. The burst of Thailand's economic bubble has encouraged many big-time corporate executives to seek peace of mind through meditation when their financial fortunes are close to ruin due to heavy debt loads.

It has always been an enigma why the wealthy followers of the Dhammakaya temple have chosen not to make merit or seek the serenity of their souls at other temples. It could be that the meditation and ritualistic practices there are more systematically organised and that the white robe is the norm for all disciples.

The temple has been controversial from time to time, and occasionally violence has flared up. In the early period of its existence, disciples and followers clashed with farmers in the nearby area over the use of land because the temple was very ambitious about land-holding, thus causing resentment among its neighbours.

As the number of followers grows, so construction sprouts around the temple. Critics say the UFO-shaped structure does not fit in with any Buddhist teaching. The monks and the followers there are unmoved.

Even a devotee has claimed that the Dhammakaya Jedi would stimulate the construction sector, which remains in a slump. Others insist that the site would become an attraction for foreign visitors. About 80,000 Taiwanese are expected to pay a visit to the temple if the Jedi is completed.

The materialistic approach to calming troubled souls is ironic. An in-house publication relates the story of a woman who has become estranged from her husband and son because she kept asking them for money to fulfil her desire to make donations. Her story has become a selling point for the temple to show how selfless one can be. Altogether she has wheedled her husband into parting piecemeal with over Bt100,000 of his hard-earned money over the years.

It's a wonder how a devotion to give away all that money at somebody else's expense and to the mental anguish of yet others can be called merit-making. Arguably she is selfish in amassing merit for herself through her selfless donation of other people's money.

The Dhammakaya temple's aims are at the opposite extreme to those of the Santi Asoke group, which shunned material wealth and comfort. The Santi Asoke monks lived in wooden shacks without any of the basic amenities of life. Money meant nothing to them.

Indeed they rejected the comforts of ordinary monks, not to mention worldly conveniences such as air-conditioning and electric appliances. The Santi Asoke monks were very strict in their practices, which ignored all earthly temptations. Yet they faced tough legal action, and as a result the sect leader had to endure a long legal battle and the eventual dissolution of the whole group.

The problem was probably that their rejection of materialism and consumerism was considered a threat and a challenge to status-conscious but misguided Buddhists.

The growing controversy over the Dhammakaya temple's peculiar activities has also drawn the attention of the Education Ministry, which oversees religious affairs. Deputy Minister Arkom Engchuan was appointed to look into the uproar, but his efforts to convince the Sangha Council to openly investigate the temple failed.

What is known now is that the temple has a cash reserve of more than Bt100 million for its ambitious project. It probably has no debts. Its financial position is even more stable than that of many finance firms. At the weekend, some 50,000 followers showed up to prove that they would not be swayed or affected by doubts or criticism.

An interesting point in the sermon delivered by a senior monk was that those opposing the Dhammakaya's campaigns for big donations for merit-making face a hellish end.


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