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Date: 1/9/99

Publication: The Nation

Section: Headlines

Key questions surface over temple's role

AS legal claws close in on Wat Phra Dhammakaya and abbot Luang Phor Dhammachayo, a number of key questions have arisen -- such as whether society is interfering with faith and whether Buddhism can handle the scandal inflicted by one of its most powerful temples.

Following press reports fuelled by speculation, public scrutiny has begun to gain serious momentum with a House hearing, an Education Ministry probe, a possible police inquiry and the Sangha Supreme Council investigation into the alleged irregularities in the unorthodox propagation and wealth accumulation of the abbot.

Although faithful disciples still see Dhammachayo as a revered meditation master, the abbot has been increasingly embroiled in a series of allegations which could seriously hamper public trust in the religion.

For critics, Dhammachayo has exploited the religious propagation into a cash-generating machine to accumulate worldly wealth, which has been poorly accounted for and spent in a far-from-transparent manner.

In the words of Phra Adisak Viriyasokko, who acted as the temple's bursar before he split with the meditation retreat in 1988, the temple coffers should have had about a billion baht in cash at the time of his departure, excluding investments in a myriad of companies, even though no temple personnel, except the abbot, would know for sure the extent of wealth accumulated.

For remaining disciples, whose numbers run into hundreds of thousands, their religious faith would be shattered if any of the allegations were proven, leading to the concern that a possible religious dispute could cause a split in Thai Buddhism.

The faithful may view the allegations surrounding their meditation teacher as a frame-up to undermine the faith because most charges against Dhammachayo relate to the alleged violations of secular laws rather than the Vinaya Pitaka or the discipline canon.

Starting off with a rising number of complaints from families of Dhammakaya followers about the diversion of financial resources to the temple at the expense of family obligations, the allegations grew by leaps and bounds as the press spotlight fell on the abbot.

Some of the major allegations include Dhammachayo's unorthodox interpretation of Buddha's teaching on nibbhan (nirvana), his encouragement to followers to pledge excessive donations, his handling of donated funds leading to the accumulation of land plots and investments in several ventures under his name, the improper conduct with female disciples and his ''possession'' of a green card, indicating US residential status.

There are no secular nor religious laws against monks obtaining dual- residency status. But why should Dhammachayo prepare himself for possible immigration if he has nothing to hide?

The media has shed new light on Dhammachayo. Although the meditation teacher has achieved phenomenal success in using the easy-to-follow meditation method to lure disciples to the temple, he has curiously emphasised guiding them into the ''bliss'' of meditation while failing to encourage them to strive for wisdom from the Buddha's teachings.

With a rising stream of followers gained through the pyramid scheme to build a larger following, the temple boasted of a series of better and larger edifices while the abbot busily managed his investment portfolios.

Even though the temple denied any financial irregularities, the abbot had never made a public disclosure on how he managed the donations.

As public scrutiny on the abbot picked up steam, it appeared to be a social reaction to what should constitute a religious scandal, begging a further question as to why the Buddhist authorities were slow to tackle the scandal so eroding to the religious image.

Although the Sangha Supreme Council appointed Phra Phrommolee, the chief monk of Region 1, to investigate the Dhammachayo's religious irregularities, the probe had not got off the ground as it is waiting for the findings of the Education Ministry.

Phra Ratcharattanamongkol, the assistant abbot of Wat Boworn, pointed out that Buddhist propagation has to observe the socially-sanctioned norm, as temples and monks thrive on social acceptance.

He suggested Buddhist followers were duty-bounded to monitor and decide the acceptable path of religious propagation.

Several issues concerning religious teachings and monk discipline were a grey area as Buddha prescribed the monk's code of discipline, considered suitable for a society which existed almost three centuries ago, he said.


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