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Date: 1/22/99

Publication: The Nation

Section: Politics

Wat Dhammakaya goes on the defensive

JUST days before the release of the Education Ministry's report on alleged irregularities, Wat Dhammakaya yesterday mounted a rigorous defence of its propagation of the faith by citing a discourse on Buddha's teachings by the late supreme patriarch.

The temple also challenged the Thai Buddhist community to convene a world conference to debate the key contentious issue in the discourse canon (Phra Abhidhamma Pitaka) on how to propagate and describe the state of nirvana.

In an allegation against abbot Dhammachayo, Buddhist scholars argued that the abbot had misled followers by claiming a state of existence in nirvana.

The abbot's propagation method, scholars claimed, has led followers into a trap with a preoccupation with ''bliss'' instead of using meditation as a tool to gain wisdom.

A disenchanted disciple, Phra Metta Anantho revealed that Dhammachayo, also known as a meditation master, had boasted of achieving a stage of meditation insight so advanced as to become ''the source of all mundane things'', which implies that the state existed in the ayatana nibhan, a doctrine that Theravada Buddhists frown upon but is well-accepted by Mahayana followers.

Critics said Dhammachayo's misguided discourse had led to a cult, not the propagation of faith, and to the encouragement of followers in becoming excessively attached to religious objects and making large donations.

Such an approach to Buddhism would mislead laymen into having false hopes for miracles and the belief that merit-making was their salvation, critics pointed out.

Devotees, particularly Phra Somchai Thanvutho, rebutted that pending a definitive discourse on the state of nirvana, all methods of propagation should be accepted or tolerated for the sake of unity, provided that the temple confines itself within the parameters of Buddha's teachings on the Eightfold Path to end suffering, sila (morality), samadhi (contemplation) and panya (wisdom or insight into Buddha's teachings).

Following the month-long controversy on whether Dhammachayo had misled followers, Phra Somchai, a key scholar of Dhammakaya, circulated his discourse on the state of nirvana, citing the doctrine interpretation written in 1939 by the late 12th supreme patriarch Phra Tissathevo of the Rattanakosin Era.

Despite the abstract debate, opposing sides have taken recourse to the Tripitaka (the Three Baskets of Buddhist Canon on monk discipline, Buddha's sermons and an analytical doctrine of Buddha's teachings) as their evidence.

The raging debate, inconclusive for more than 60 years, was boiled down to two key words -- atta (self) and anatta (non-self).

In one school of thought, nirvana can be considered a state of anatta or non-existence because it signifies an absolute end to suffering, overcoming the law of karma and reincarnation.

Several modern Theravada scholars, notably the late Buddhathat Bhiku and Phra Dhammapitaka, whose works are considered one of the most authoritative discourses on Tripitaka, and revered preacher Phra Dhammakosajarn subscribes to this school.

The Dhammakaya school of thought, however, argued the opposite, saying that nirvana can be experienced as well as achieved.

The late supreme patriarch gave a boost to the Dhammakaya discourse when he ruled that Buddha's denial of atta or self did not automatically imply that there was no atta.

A state of atta might exist in another sphere beyond the bounds of the five human conditions for existence, namely corporeality, feeling, perception, mental formation and consciousness.

Phra Somchai claimed that to understand or to gain insight into this state of atta or ayatana nibhan, one should reach a certain state of meditation because its existence is beyond the realm of human conditions.

The Dhammakaya scholar, however, seemed to overlook a key question in what Dhammachayo had relied on to mandate the meditation progress of his followers and to claim they had achieved ''bliss'' if ayatana nibhan could only be self-realisable?

He also stopped short of saying if it was appropriate to propagate Theravada Buddhism using Mahayana doctrines.

The Nation

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