Sangha feudal hierarchy has to go for good

Sangha feudal hierarchy has to go for good

Before Pope Francis was named head of the Catholic Church, the search for a new pontiff triggered much excitement as well as honest criticism of the church system, and hope for reform.

How I wish I could say the same thing about the search for a new Supreme Patriarch.

Here, there is no excitement whatsoever. The rules according to the Sangha Bill have made it very clear that this top position goes straight to the most senior monk in the ecclesiastical ranks.

There is an urgent need to fix the centralised, authoritarian system that is deeply corrupt and out of touch with the modern world. But when hierarchy reigns supreme in the clerical gerontocracy, there is no hope whatsoever for Sangha reform no matter who the next supreme patriarch is.

We almost don't need to ask the "who" question. All roads are already leading to the temple of Wat Paknam Phasi Charoen.

Its 88-year-old abbot, Somdet Phra Maha Ratchamangalacharn (Chuang Vorapunyo) was named caretaker Supreme Patriarch by the National Office of Buddhism on Monday. We can be sure his stature will be further cemented when the mourning period is over three months from now.

It should have been a moment of nationwide joy. But it won't be. The Dhammakaya factor is why.

Wat Paknam, you see, is closely linked to the all-powerful Wat Phra Dhammakaya and its highly controversial abbot Phra Dhammachayo, who basically teaches you can buy "boon" or merit _ and even a place in nirvana, which he describes as a celestial abode.

Somdet Phra Maha Ratchamangalacharn is Phra Dhammachayo's preceptor.

Phra Dhammachayo and his Dhammakaya movement have long been mired in controversy. Stories abound, for example, about his followers facing pressure to donate and subsequently going bankrupt because of the temple's excessive focus on donations as a principal way to make merit.

He is also under fire for teaching that nirvana is a celestial place with atta, or material self, which goes against the core Buddhist teachings on anatta, or non-self.

Buddhism teaches that all things are impermanent, non-self, and in a constant flux of beginning and passing away. The realisation of this ultimate truth is key to one's ability to let go of attachment to self and greed.

Interestingly, Phra Dhammachayo's capitalistic version of Buddhism meshes well with the rich and powerful, and others who think it is simply great to be able to buy a place in heaven.

At the height of the controversy in 1999, the late Supreme Patriarch issued an ordinance declaring that Phra Dhammachayo must be defrocked for distorting the Buddhist canon, dividing the Sangha, and for fraud and embezzlement.

It is no secret that the Pheu Thai-led government supports the Dhammakaya abbot. And it came as no surprise that the public prosecutors eventually dropped the charges against him in 2006.

The Dhammakaya movement has since grown steadily. Monks nationwide are receiving scholarship support from Dhammakaya. School teachers are ordered by their bosses who are Dhammakaya followers to attend Dhammakaya meditation courses. The elders, pampered by gifts and recognition, are happy to equate Dhammakaya's propagation overseas as an expansion of Thai Buddhism.

Critics of Dhammakaya often express concerns that this ambitious movement will soon take over the Sangha Council.

That used to be my concern. Not anymore, though.

A visit to a museum in Japan totally changed my view on the Dhammakaya matter. There, I saw hundreds of Buddha images in different forms as shaped by their different cultural origins.

Suddenly, I came to realise the truth and beauty of diversity.

Indeed, we may not agree with the Dhammakaya movement, but is it a threat in itself if the social environment is open to competing views?

The real threat, in my view, is the closed and authoritarian system of the Sangha itself.

By monopolising power, denying its mistakes, punishing dissent and preventing change, the current system _ if left in the hands of incompetents _ will produce the dysfunctional clergy we now see.

In the hands of the efficient power-hungry, however, the destruction will be immense.

If we can open up the Sangha system, say goodbye to its feudal hierarchy, and return it to the community, there is no need to fear Dhammakaya.


Sanitsuda Ekachai is Editorial Pages Editor, Bangkok Post.

Sanitsuda Ekachai

Former editorial pages editor

Sanitsuda Ekachai is a former editorial pages editor, Bangkok Post. She writes on social issues, gender, and Thai Buddhism.

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