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Date: 12/26/98

Publication: The Nation

Section: Politics

NEWSMAKER: LUANG PHOR DHAMMACHAYO: Temple Attracts Controversies

ASPIRING to build a Buddhist showcase, abbot Luang Phor Dhammachayo of Wat Phra Dhammakaya has ironically attracted controversies that could rock the very foundations of the religion.

Even though the abbot is seen by his disciples as a popular meditation teacher, his unorthodox teaching and promotion of the Dhammakaya meditation method accompanied with tales of miracles have proved to be a successful formula taking the drive for solicitation to new heights.

However, this relentless drive for contributions has posed questions about whether the religion is being abused to satisfy the greed for building edifices and if the abbot, who is supposed to uphold the Buddhist canon, has taught followers to become obsessed with merit-making instead of pursuing Buddha's teachings.

Going against social norms, Dhammachayo has spearheaded a new religious culture of making ''unreserved'' donations and fulfilling the abbot's aspirations for building ''larger and best-ever'' monuments.

Luang Phor Dhammachayo's focus on donations may have triggered the disintegration of many families because the faithful have been diverting their financial resources to the temple at the expense of their family obligations.

Buddhist scholars claim that the abbot's propagation has been at odds with the beliefs under the Theravada sect which focuses on the contemplation of Buddha's teachings or dhamma instead of being attached to religious objects and personal cults.

Over and above his controversial drive for solicitations and the dispute over his methods, Luang Phor Dhammachayo has been embroiled in a series of allegations over the accumulation of wealth and improper relations with his female followers.

In the span of less than three decades, Wat Phra Dhammakaya has transformed a 100-rai farm in Pathum Thani into a 2000-rai temple and meditation retreat with world-class facilities for hundreds of thousands of worshippers.

The latest ambition of the abbot is to erect a giant pagoda, the Maha Dhammakaya Jedi -- a multi-billion baht project -- to glorify Buddhism and the Dhammakaya meditation method.

Along with the phenomenal growth in terms of the temple's structure and the number of followers, a disenchanted disciple Phra Mano Mettanantho said the abbot had abandoned the principle of modesty and that the temple had in the past five years exploited the faithful with its teaching that merit-making was a cure-all solution to all problems.

Determined to propagate the religion, Luang Phor Dhammachayo, whose birth name is Chaiyaboon Suthipol, entered the monkhood in 1969 after he graduated from Kasetsart University.

With its easy-to-follow meditation method, the temple started attracting a steady stream of followers who sought a glimpse into the ''bliss'' of meditation. It later expanded its connections with senior monks, educators, students and well-known personalities to boost the temple's and the abbot's influence.

As the abbot's clout grows, religious regulators and administrative monks seem reluctant to investigate and comment on the temple despite the month-long reports on alleged religious irregularities.

As 1998 ends, controversies surrounding Luang Phor Dhammachayo remain unsolved and may drag into the next year as members of the Buddhist community ponder on what should constitute proper conduct in propagation and solicitation.

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