Patronage system breeds malaise in the monkhood
The problems surrounding the Dhammakaya temple and its abbot Dhammachayo are serious in themselves. But they also reflect larger and more acute malaises in the Thai Buddhist clergy.
For starters, the Sangha Council's controversial ruling on the Dhammakaya issue has posed questions over each elder's moral judgement and the serious flaws in the clergy's governing system.
More specifically, the crux of the problem is the closed clerical system which centralises governing power within a small group of 20 elders without any internal monitoring and auditing mechanisms. It is a system that is accountable to no one. The lack of transparency has given rise to rife nepotism and abuse of power to give favours to the elders' networks.
The emphasis on personal ties explains why the elders turn a blind eye to misconduct by wealthy monks. Worse, they continue to back these influential monks, giving them tacit support or even moving them up the ecclesiastical ranks, which helps the monks expand their networks further.
That the Dhammakaya temple and Dhammachayo have managed to stay popular throughout these years also shows the weakness of Buddhists themselves for they have little understanding of dhamma principles in Buddhism.
There are widespread false understandings even concerning the most basic matters in Buddhism such as boon or merit. For example, many believe the more they donate, the more merit they will gain. This is tam boon or making merit to acquire more things, not to let go of things according to Buddhist teachings. When there is misunderstanding at this basic level, there is no need to talk about their understanding of higher dhamma such as nirvana.
Not knowing what Buddhism is about, it is easy for them to be misled by false teachings and ready to turn a blind eye to irregularities of their gurus. In other word, the Dhammakaya controversy shows a lack of knowledge of Buddhists themselves about their own religion. It also reflects a failure of the clergy and the clergy's education system.
In addition, the popularity of Dhammakaya, especially among the middle class, is linked to the widespread misconduct of mainstream monks. Monks' scandals do not only routinely make headlines, but people see with their own eyes what monks should not do every day.
Fed up, many in the middle class feel attracted to the Dhammakaya monks who appear more strict and orderly. Not realising that the teachings of Dhammakaya and the conduct of its abbot have more far-reaching adverse impacts, they fiercely oppose any moves by the clergy to punish Dhammachayo/Dhammakaya while letting other rogue monks get off scot-free.
Punishment or not, the more crucial question is why we have rogue monks in every nook and cranny. The answer does not lie only in the inefficiency of individual abbots or the elders in the Sangha Council.
The main problem is the governing system of the clergy itself. The closed and unaccountable system breeds problems and fosters widespread violations of monastic codes of conduct. This centralised system has not only rendered the elders weak and inefficient, it has put their moral standards up to public question.
Phra Paisal Visalo is a forest monk and abbot of Sukato Forest Monastery. He is the author of 'Thai Buddhism in the Future: Trends and Ways Out of the Crisis'.
Phra Paisal Visalo