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Date: 12/13/98

Publication: The Nation

Section: Mailbag

See Dharmakaya in its cultural context

WAT Phra Dharmakaya has been in the news. While I support Albert Paravi Wongchirachai's attempt to put this latest religious controversy -- my, do they sell newspapers! -- into some historical and cultural perspective, his scholarship is a bit weak, at least when it comes to Theravada teachings.

Where is the problem in ''Dhammakaya claims for the existence of a permanent, unconditioned Nirvana sphere''? If we take the Pali Tipitaka as our standard, the controversy is not about nibbana being unconditioned. An important synonym for nibbana is asankhata (unconditioned) and related terms like ajata (unborn), akata (uncreated), and amata (undying) are used (eg Udana 72). There is no debate here.

The adjective ''permanent'' is more open to questioning. Nibbana is described as nicca (permanent) in some later texts, but not in the Pali Suttas. However, dhuva (lasting) is found in the Suttas. Nonetheless, a careful consideration of the various synonyms and adjectives used to describe nibbana do not imply any ''sphere'' existing somewhere in the time and space of conventional physics.

The main controversy is that Dharmakaya teaching both in its Rajaburi and Pathum Thani forms -- I'm not sure about the Wat Pak Nam Pasijaroen line -- assert that nibbana is atta (self, that is, an unchanging self-existing essence). That there is absolutely no basis for this in Theravada teachings has been clearly shown by Ven Dharmapitaka (PA Payutto) in his Nibbana and Anatta (not yet available in translation). He also pointed out the harmful effects of tampering with the foundation teachings of the Buddha.

In short, Wongchirachai's post-modernist contextualisation turns out to be a distraction. The point is not whether we should be open-minded about Dharmakaya or other flavours of Thai Buddhism. The point is that the Dharmakaya movement offers itself as legitimate Theravada Buddhism, yet undermines a central teaching of the Theravada canon. I am not aware that Luang Taa Mahabua or even Luang Por Khoon has ever done so.

Perhaps, Wongchirachai hints at this when he mentions the debates between Buddhists and Hindus. Is he implying that Dharmakaya is taking a Hindu position? Whatever, Thai Theravada Buddhists do not require a consensus with the Hindus to keep our core teachings intact.

To go one step further, the controversy is not just about doctrine. Wongchirachai is correct in saying that we will always be faced with a diversity of religious views.

However, as human beings we may question whether the Dharmakaya movement, especially in its Pathum Thani manifestation, is serving the genuine spiritual needs of the Thai people or merely capitalising on the confusion created by capitalist development, cultural upheaval, and urbanisation. While reading one of their booklets about miracles, I was hard pressed to find anything about lessening suffering in our lives -- the purported goal of the Buddha -- unless making good land deals and big profits is the answer to the deeper questions of life.

Of course, the Patum Thani version of Dharmakaya seems to be making very big profits, and I suspect that is what attracts some people. But don't expect to find this validated in any of the traditional schools of Buddhism.

That it may be taught by some of the wackier versions of 20th century Japanese Buddhism does not make it proper Buddhism. Of course, Wongchirachai probably does not accept such a thing as ''proper Buddhism.''

Nonetheless, Buddhists of whatever school or flavour are right in questioning whether any so-called Buddhist movement is legitimate, true to the Buddha's intention, and without exploitation and manipulation.

If Dharmakaya faces the current criticisms honestly and without spin-doctoring, they may pass the test. Unfortunately, Wongchirachai's article provides material for distraction and spin-doctoring. The issue is not about a ''need to package the good from the bad'' but why a group like Dharmakaya spends so much money on packaging at all.

Lastly, we should not be surprised by what Dharmakaya is up to. Their ''big brothers'' in Taiwan have been at this game even longer. The new religions of Japan plowed this capitalist ground soon after World War I. And, of course, some of the Protestants pioneered the whole game in Europe more than a century ago. How's that for cultural contextualisation?

Santikaro Bhikkhu

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