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Date: 12/10/98

Publication: The Nation

Section: Headlines

Temple appears adept at navigating 'grey areas'

While critics are asking why the Supreme Sangha Council has remained virtually silent over the Dhammakaya controversy, The Political Desk has discovered that it may be the case that the temple has proved too nifty in navigating the ''grey areas'' of monastic rules.

THE debate over the questionable practices of the Dhammakaya Temple might boil down to the fact that it is everybody's right to believe in something and to choose a religious faith. The on-going controversy is, at least for now, much more subtle than the Yantra or Pawana Buddho scandal, and that may be one reason why those in the Supreme Sangha Council have opted to remain on the sidelines.

While substantiated sex charges exposed Yantra and Pawana Buddho as mere conmen who exploited the sacredness of the saffron robe, the Dhammakaya controversy has, for the time being, centred on the unusually strong faith of the temple's followers whom it encourages to donate ''at all costs'' in order to invest for a happier life. For many Dhammakaya believers, their faith in the temple is well-founded because what they have received in return is priceless meditation success and peace of mind.

If this is a smartly-crafted scam, or misuse of the popularity and trust it enjoys, the temple has achieved it in a clever way and has been able to keep Buddhist regulators at bay. There is a widespread belief now that ''judgement day'' for Dhammakaya will not be initiated by the government or ecclesiastic authorities, but by members of the public who the temple has targeted in its appeals.

''Buddhist followers, not monks, have the final say on the past, present and future direction of their religion,'' asserted Phra Ratcharatanamongkol, assistant abbot of Wat Boworn Nivesviharn.

Based on the historical records of Thai Buddhism and what happened elsewhere, members of the public, notably via the government, could have a major influence on Buddhist temples whose interaction with society has often conformed to prevailing public opinion.

''The Buddhist propagation reflects the social conditions of the time,'' the monk said. ''Monks, the spreaders of Dhamma, have to heed to social norms in the conduct of their activities.''

Even though the Lord Buddha discovered, preached and encouraged followers to pursue the ultimate truth by contemplating on his teachings or Dhamma, he, leaving behind a strict regimen of disciplinary rules considered suitable for a society which existed more than two centuries ago, allowed a ''wide'' discretionary judgement by monks, who are supposed to uphold Buddhism, on how to adapt monastery discipline and teaching to the modern world.

Phra Ratcharatanamongkol pointed out that the Buddha had never focused his attention on building a monastery during his life time, thus leaving very few guidelines on the construction of temples and the way they ought to operate.

Phra Ratcharatanamongkol further commented that the building of religious monuments have remained a grey area in terms of monastery rules as stipulated directly by the Buddha in the vinaya pitaka (discipline canon).

Present-day monks have exercised religious discretion with regard to monuments leading to several new precedents, such as, taking a leading role in establishing edifices when religious followers previously took the initiative, and the demand for edifices needed when followers used to determine what they were willing to sacrifice in their merit-making.

''The public must continue to monitor the situation and decide whether the construction of a Buddhist temple in a natural park is appropriate and if the aspiration for a 'largest-ever' monument is to serve religious interests or the greed of the builders,'' the assistant abbot said.

The hue and cry about the ambitious project to amass funds worth tens of billions of baht to build Maha Dhammakaya Jedi by Wat Phra Dhammakaya is a reminder of what would happen should each monk be left alone to define the social norm relating to merit-making.

Owing to the unique character of independence among monks, the Supreme Sangha Council, though vested by the state with the power to govern the local temples and religious personnel, faces many limitations when dealing with the unprecedented violation of monastery discipline.

Contrary to public expectations, certain religious violations, such as the promotion of sales of amulets, which is in stark contrast to a Buddhist teaching against the attachment to religious objects, is only a minor offence in the vinaya pitaka with a penalty calling for reprimand and atonement.

Some issues, especially outside the realm of Dhamma, are considered to be a thorn in the side if left alone for monks to decide.

In recent weeks, Buddhist monks of two opposing orders in South Korea took to the street to fight for the control of a national monastery.

The local Buddhist community has experienced several cyclical changes in the monks' adherence to monastery rules and propagation methods.

In tackling religious woes, the state has often intervened in consultations with the Sangha Supreme Council to set new guidelines based on prevailing social norms and opinions.

Following the initiative of King Mongkut, taken when he was a monk during the reign of King Rama III, King Chulalongkorn issued a law recognising the Dhammayutika sect as a distinct order from the mainstream Mahanikaya sect.

The new sect, observing an identical set of Buddhist canon as the Mahanikaya, except for the dress code and a few minor rules and remaining in the minority, was intended as a balancing force to uphold the disciplinary standards for local monks.

Despite mechanisms to enforce the vinaya pitaka, monks, especially senior administrative personnel, continue to exercise a wide latitude of discretionary judgement on propagation.

Through a hierarchical but separate chain-of-command, chief monks would closely supervise their subordinates while abbots of different temples are independent of the others.

Wat Dhammakaya has introduced a pro-active method to solicit large-scale donations via what is known in the business world as a direct sales tactic, even though the Buddha encouraged only donations offered by the free will of worshippers.

The Sangha Supreme Council will have to search the vinaya pitaka if it is to rule whether the ambitious, unprecedented campaign for religious contributions was in line with Buddhist rules and social norms.

The highest governing body for monks would also have to tread a fine line on a public complaint that Wat Phra Dhammakaya allegedly relied on the tales of miracles or what the temple described as supernatural events to attract worshippers and donations.

Based on existing Buddhist rules, the encouragement in the belief of miracles and the sales of amulets were in violation of the discipline canon.

However, the council has never ruled on what constitutes ''appropriate propagation'' if the exciting tales were spread by followers rather than by monks and what should be the guidelines in so far as treating amulets as an object to remind worshippers of the Buddha or holy monks and as an object to detract worshippers from Buddhist teachings.

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