The Sangha's shock ruling leaves it ripe for reform
The Sangha Supreme Council will not defrock controversial monk Phra Dhammachayo, or Phra Thepyarn Mahamunee, the abbot of Wat Dhammakaya, and that decision has landed it in a hot and sticky situation.
The council of elderly monks, chaired by Somdet Phra Maha Ratchamangalacharn, the acting Supreme Patriach and abbot of Wat Pak Nam Phasi Charoen, on Friday cleared Phra Dhammachayo of any impropriety in a 16-year-old case in which he is accused of receiving assets, including 1,500 rai of land from faithful followers to the temple, under his name.
According to Phra Phrom Methi, spokesman of the Sangha Supreme Council, then Supreme Patriach Phra Nyanasamvara issued an order on April 26, 1999 to defrock Phra Dhammachayo for possessing 900 million baht worth of assets donated by the temple's disciples.
But as the abbot had since gradually returned all of the assets in his possession back to the temple, the council found him not guilty of fraud and of violating the monastic code.
This latest ruling reconfirms one made in 2006 that cleared the abbot of any wrongdoing in the case.
So why was the case revived now and with so much intensity after 16 years of silence?
Paisal Puetmongkol should be able to answer.
The former member of the National Legislative Assembly posted a message on his Facebook page last week reporting on the meeting of the religious affairs panel of the National Reform Council on Tuesday. A representative of the National Office of Buddhism was invited to clarify the late Supreme Patriach Phra Nyanasamvara's order 16 years ago regarding the defrocking of Phra Dhammachayo.
Paibul Nititawan, chairman of the NRC's religious affairs committee, is another person who can help explain why defrocking Phra Dhammachayo has anything to do with religious reform or the Sangha Council reform that his committee has been working on.
However, there was a coincidental disclosure recently by Anti-Money Laundering Office secretary-general Sihanart Prayoonrat that his office could not take back 714 million baht in donations illegally given to Wat Dhammakaya by the former chairman of the Klongchan Credit Union Cooperative. That was because all of the money had been spent on development projects at the temple and they had become state property.
Mr Sihanart said members of Klongchan Credit Union who have been cheated out of their life savings could take their cases to the civil court to demand the return of their money from the temple.
This is not particularly good advice as the police colonel should know: The legal wrangling could take many years as it wends its way slowly up the three layers of judiciary to the Supreme Court.
Although there are legal and religious foundations to support probes into the conduct of Phra Dhammachayo — for instance, the case of the 714 million baht in donations defrauded from the Klongchan Credit Union — there are also political motives concerning the attempts to remove the abbot and curtail the influence of the temple.
Wat Dhammakaya is the richest temple in the country in terms of assets and donations received from the public. Backed by a powerful and aggressive marketing strategy, the temple has been successful in recruiting a huge number of followers, especially among students, much to the chagrin of other temples.
Opponents of Thaksin Shinawatra regard the temple as a close ally of the fugitive former prime minister and share his grand ambition to dominate the political and religious affairs of this country. Hence, the move to have Phra Dhammachayo defrocked is likely to persist. Despite the plea from the Sangha Council spokesman that the controversy be put to rest for the sake of reconciliation.
Meanwhile, the Sangha Council may find to its dismay that it cannot continue peacefully along the path of the dhamma as it wishes. The Phra Dhammachayo controversy will drag on and the heat on the elderly members of the Sangha will grow. The protest at Wat Pak Nam by Phra Buddha Isara, the abbot of Wat Om Noi, and about 200 followers on Saturday is just a prelude to a greater cauldron of dissatisfaction to come.
Unless the Sangha Council reforms itself, somebody will surely do it on its behalf.
Veera Prateepchaikul is a former editor, Bangkok Post.
Former Bangkok Post Editor, political commentator and a regular columnist at Post Publishing.