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Friday, September 24, 2010
Rugged route to nirvana
On one side is Thailand's famous meditation master. On the other is the country's famous dharma book writer who used to be his closest disciple.
Up until the recent controversy that has pitched one against the other, both commanded an impeccable public image. Phra Pramote Pamojjo is the monk of the decade, having been able to mobilise an unprecedented and massive public interest in meditation practices.
The writer Thininart Na Phattalung's image is that of a "dharma celebrity" who has given up life in the fast lane to pursue the path of inner calm through Buddhism. The writer now says her former guru is a liar and a fraud. After a series of donation and land ownership conflicts, she wants her money back.
On her side is a group of the monk's former inner core members. Among their allegations: wrong methods of meditation technique, donation cheats, distortion of the teachings of the late master Luang Pu Dul, false claims of close relations with other meditation gurus, and public flaunting of spiritual enlightenment.
They have also raised doubts about the monk's relationship with his former wife, who is now a nun residing in his Suan Santidharm meditation centre in Chon Buri province and who legally owns the land and manages the centre's financial affairs.
All charges are serious. If proven true, they entail disrobement.
Phra Pramote, however, denies all allegations.
Whom to believe? Despite the rumbles, a large number of followers are still loyal to Phra Pramote. The phenomenon is not uncommon for charismatic dharma teachers, they say, believing that the brouhaha has been caused by deep disappointment from people who had invested much time and energy in the monk, but failed to get special treatment in return.
Meanwhile, the opponents have set up a website to expose his alleged misconduct and to dig up his past in order to prompt his fall from grace.
Greed, anger and hatred _ so it seems _ is as intense among people in the spiritual domain who profess to having let go, as it is in our material world, if not more.
Interestingly, the rise to fame for both Phra Pramote and Thitinart coincided with Thailand's economic meltdown in 1997 which shook the country to the core. The subsequent stream of economic and political uncertainties created a big demand for refuge.
Thitinart's dharma book on how she turned her bankruptcy and life crisis into a path towards spirituality hit gold, making her famous among the urban middle-class in search of a spiritual anchor amidst life's uncertainties.
But like everything else they do in life, the middle-class want a meditation practice that is easy and convenient, and with quick results. Phra Pramote's technique on observation of the mind as part of everyday life without long, painful sitting, seems to answer that need, resulting in his phenomenal rise to fame shortly after his ordination.
His charisma, a shared urban background with the followers, his easy-to-understand teachings, and the use of modern communications technology such as websites and CDs are only part of his success. More important are his mind-reading sessions to evaluate his followers' meditation progress in public. Coupled with subtle references to his experiences on a higher mental plane, people flock around him in the belief that being close to an enlightened one offers them a quick entrance to nirvana.
No offence to the monk, but I feel this public mind-reading session is simply an unnecessary marketing tool which reduces the values of his teaching. Despite the criticism, how useful the technique is, is up to the individual to judge from actual practice. If the public feels inclined to believe the allegations, however, it only shows the need for transparent temple management and for the monks to stay away from ownership of any kind, including those with proxy.
No offence to the monk's opponents. The lay community should definitely monitor the conduct of monks, but the motivation is also important. If it arises from hatred and a desire to destroy, then the first thing to suffer will be their state of mind, thus pushing their lofty spiritual goal further and further away from themselves.