Asia - Pacific

Controversial Thai temple denies involvement in politics

Temple's abbot accused of alliance with supporters of former PM overthrown in September 2006 coup and currently living in exile

Controversial Thai temple denies involvement in politics BANGKOK, THAILAND - FEBRUARY 22: A general view of the Wat Phra Dhammakaya Temple during the yearly ceremony at in the north of Bangkok, Thailand on February 22, 2016. Thai people celebrate the buddhist festival of clockwise circumambulation and Makha pratipa lantern lighting ceremony at Dhammakaya Temple on "Makha Bucha Day" during the third lunar moon, where around 1250 monks gathered to be ordained by the Buddha. ( Guillaume Payen - Anadolu Ajansı )


By Max Constant


Almost two weeks after more than 1,000 monks clashed with soldiers over a stalemate to appoint a new head for Thai Buddhism, clergy at a controversial Buddhist temple tied to the leader-in-waiting have denied allegations of involvement with an ousted divisive prime minister.

Pasura Dantamano, a senior monk at the enormous Wat Dhammakaya temple located in a northern Bangkok suburb, told Anadolu Agency this week that it is not involved in any political affairs, because it is not the monks’ duty to be involved in politics.

"When our followers enter the temple, they have to put political ideology aside and come here to find peace of mind,” he says from deep in the belly of what looks like a space age homage to Buddhism.

Dhammakaya sits at the heart of a sprawling religious complex around the size of the Thai capital's nearby international airport. Its flying-saucer shaped stupa is made from thousands of golden Buddha statues and its design has been likened to sports stadia or UFOs, rather than than the rustic traditional Thai temples of old.

Since the mid-1990s, however, Dhammakaya -- which has used modern multi-level marketing techniques to attract followers and donations to make it the richest temple in Thailand -- has been mired in controversy.

Initially accused of land and money embezzlement, the temple's abbot, Phra Dhammachayo, has now been accused of an alliance with the "Red Shirts" movement -- supporters of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, overthrown in a coup in September 2006 and currently living in exile.

Dhammachayo is said by his supporters to be so rich that he is able to buy influence on the Supreme Sangha Council (SSC) -- the top administrative organization of the monastic community -- thus putting it at odds with the anti-Thaksin ruling establishment in its choice of new leader.

On Feb. 15, a scuffle erupted between 1,200 Buddhist monks affiliated to the temple and several hundred soldiers at a giant Buddhist park during a monks’ gathering to call for a quick appointment of Somdej Chuang as the new Supreme Patriarch (the head of Thai Buddhism).

Chuang, is accused of close connections with the Dhammakaya temple and with Thaksin.

In the majority Buddhist country, pictures splashed across media of monks banging heads with soldiers and trying to overturn military vehicles caused shocks nationwide.

Dantamano, however, denied to Anadolu Agency this week that the protest were anything to do with the temple.

“We did not have any involvement in terms of organization of the gathering,” he said. "But in reality, it was not a protest. Monks were there to meditate, to chant and to discuss the current situation of Thailand. The scuffle happened when the soldiers blocked the entrance of the park.”

During the gathering at the 2,500-rai Buddhamonthon park, many of the monks and their supporters attended a seminar in front of an image of the Lord Buddha emblazoned with the slogan "Stop the plot to topple Thai monk administration.

The seminar was tentatively set for two days, but at 1.30 p.m. (GMT0730) clashes began when the monks tried to push soldiers' trucks from the area.

Two hours later, soldiers barricaded an entrance to the park, and when monks asked them clear it, they said they would do so themselves if the soldiers did not comply.

Arguments and clashes continued with monks claiming Buddhamonthon was an area for monks, not soldiers.

Dantamano claims that neither he nor his monks have any grand political ambition, they simply want a highly revered monk to assume a position they believe he naturally deserves.

At 90 years-old, the experienced Chuang was an obvious choice for January's nomination by the SSC.

The council acted by the Sangha law, which provides it nominate the monk with the highest title.

Some Buddhist scholar's, however, disagree that Dhammakaya has no interest in politics .

Sulak Sivaraksa told Anadolu Agency recently that it has one objective -- to become the world's headquarters of Buddhism.

"So they estimate that all Thai Buddhists must be under their control,” he says. “Their kind of Buddhism is to promote capitalism. They control the Supreme Sangha Council. It is easy to control: senior monks can be easily bribed,” he added.

Thai Buddhism teaches that good deeds -- such as being happy, helping others, subservience and obedience of one's societal masters -- are rewarded in an afterlife, however the role assumed in a subsequent reincarnation can be furthered through donations of wealth to the local clergy.

In other words, you can actually purchase merit in this life so as to come back as something better in the next -- effectively bypassing the need for doing good. And the more money you give, the better your chances.

The combination of money, religion and a deeply polarized landscape, where pro-Thaksin Red shirts oppose the conservative establishment, has rendered the situation explosive.

And the stalemate in the appointment of a new head of the Thai Buddhist church, after the death of the former Supreme Patriarch in 2013, is emblematic of this crisis.

Opponents of Dhammakaya temple have accused the monastery of using their alleged political connections to the Shinawatra clan to take control of Thai Buddhism – accusations squarely rejected by Dhammakaya’s monks.

“Because the political conflict is currently very strong in Thailand, some people try to connect us to it,” Dantamano tells Anadolu Agency.

“But the temple is only one of the victims of all these false accusations. We don’t want to be involved in politics, but it is politics which is getting at us."

This comes despite a clear swipe from the ranks of disgruntled monks Feb. 15.

One of the gathering's objectives was to send a message to “some renegade monks" who had shown disrespect to the head of the Buddhist clergy. It was a clear allusion to Phra Buddha Issara, a ringleader in the anti-Shinawatra demonstrations that led to the May 2014 coup that overthrew the government of Yingluck Shinawatra -- Thaksin’s sister.

For some scholars, links between the SSC and politics date back to the beginning of the 20th century, when the new centralized Thai state reorganized the Buddhist clergy in order to use religion as a tool to legitimate its power and to homogenize a culturally diverse population under the nationalistic primary belief of Nation-Religion-King.

And, for them, the ability of Dhammakaya temple to use this framework in order to advance its objectives is the most worrying.

“I don’t think Dhammakaya is dangerous as a cult, but it is dangerous because it is using the structure of the national Buddhist clergy, which is against the secular idea of the state,” independent academic Vichak Panich told Anadolu Agency this week.

“Dhammakaya is using this structure to promote its own ideas. Thailand is supposed to be a secular state, but right now we are not,” he added

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