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Date: 12/13/98

Publication: The Nation

Section: Feature

WILD LIFE: Give Wisely

DO you believe in miracles? I'm not talking about you sexy thing, the way that disco song goes. (Anybody out there even remember it?) Anyway, I'm talking about religion. Not that old time religion as another song goes, but modern Buddhist miracles which are the latest thing on everyone's mind.

Once again, the most sensational topic of conversation at every civilised dinner table is Wat Dhammakaya. There are charges of corruption and financial scams and trumped up holy visions, of mass hysteria and downright bad taste.

After charges of communism, land encroachment and kidnapping in the late '80s, I suppose this new furore is pretty much nothing. I remember when people were thinking that the temple wouldn't survive into the '90s, let alone the new millennium.

In the late '80s I was a research student doing field work on Buddhism in Thailand and one of the temples I had the opportunity to study was Wat Dhammakaya. The temple, its administration and its followers were very good to me. I made friends there and grew to love them. I also grew to respect the assistant abbot Luang Por Tatta or Phra Padej Tattachiwo as he is more formally known. Luang Por Tatta is reputed to be the driving force behind the golden chedi project which has everyone up in arms but he is also the monk who spoke to me openly about his fears that Buddhism in Thailand was falling into a coma and about what he hoped to do to stop it.

Aside from Wat Dhammakaya I also did research at Santi Asoke and several conventional monasteries in Thailand like Wat Somanasviharn. I met many monks, including Potirak, the leader of the Santi Asoke movement who has since been stripped of his ecclesiastical title ''Phra''.

I studied meditation under Phra Sri Visutthikavi and I had the privilege to meet Than Prayut Prayutto who has written great Buddhist books under the monastic name Phra Rajaworamuni. I was humbled by the dedication of Phra Thepkavi, the development monk in Chiang Mai who was willing to risk criticism to build a shelter and rehabilitation centre for former prostitutes on the grounds of his temple. Without a doubt, I can say that I have had the good fortune to discuss Buddhism with some of the most brilliant Thai Buddhist minds around.

When I did research I did my best to do so as an objective observer, trying against all human instinct not to become too personally involved with my ''informants'' as they were called. What has grown from this experience is not only a dissertation, but a love of people, an admiration for their faith and sacrifice and, more importantly, an extreme distrust of any kind of organised religion.

That may sound like an indictment of Wat Dhammakaya, considering the present uproar, but if it is, it is also an indictment of many temples across Thailand which have grown rich from contributions of the faithful. The fact is, we want our monks to be pure. We want them to be superhuman, without the appetites and failings that we, as lesser beings, have been allowed. And I suppose that isn't too unrealistic. After all, if they've taken vows of poverty and celibacy, they should keep them.

What I want to know, however, is this: if we expect them to be good monks who don't have a shred of greed or worldly appetite, why do we keep tossing all this money at them? Why do we give them refrigerators, air conditioners and Mercedes cars? Why do we build ever grander and grander buildings in their temples? Why do we make cash donations to unspecified funds and then become disappointed when we find the monks we relied on to take good care of all this wealth become corrupted by it?

The national outcry could have rivalled the noisy screams coming from many a roller coaster ride when the former Phra Yantra, that credit card-carrying, child-fathering, defrocked monk, was photographed frolicking at Disney World. But for all the screams of indignation, why weren't there warning bells when he opened a bank account? Why weren't people looking for ways to stop the corruption before it started?

If we expect our monks to be pure, we can't expect them to handle all the money donated to them and their temples. Monks shouldn't need to have business degrees and they certainly shouldn't know anything about accounting, but if they don't, they become susceptible to charges of misappropriation. If temples were forced to have transparent accounting methods as do charitable organisations in the West, maybe we would have fewer problems. While I can't say I support building the world's largest golden chedi when there are so many poverty-stricken families who could use financial help to get them through these tough times, at least we know where the money is going at Wat Dhammakaya.

This shouldn't be a debate over whether soliciting donations is appropriate for a temple or what constitutes a temple's proper activities. What needs to happen in Thailand is the Sangha must find more realistic ways to handle the faithful who want to make merit by making donations. Either monks need to change or the system needs to change or we need to change. There is an awful lot of money floating around out there that could help a lot of people.

As a research student, I couldn't be as objective as I liked. I would become dismayed when monks like Phra Thepkavi at Chiang Mai's Wat Pa Darabhirom, who initiated worthy projects like local schools, buffalo banks, women's rehabilitation centres and part time employment training schemes needed to look for funding from overseas because there was so little local interest. Maybe what we need to do is choose the temples we support more wisely.

Natayada na Songkhla may be contacted via e-mail at

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