Focus not on the scandals
Many Thai Buddhists are having a hard time staying calm following incidents in the monastic community that have gripped the nation over the past few weeks.
First, we were excited when the National Reform Council vowed to push for action against Phra Dhammachayo, who was accused of distorting Buddha's teachings and embezzling money from plots of land and assets worth a total of 900 million baht, which were donated to Wat Phra Dhammakaya during his abbotship 16 years ago.
But they were shocked to learn from the Sangha Supreme Council (SSC)'s meeting on Feb 20 that it already cleared the controversial monk of all allegations and stopped him from being defrocked. This caused an uproar, and several members of the SSC were heavily criticised.
Confusion ensued when the council a few days later explained that it never had come to such a resolution. The council, however, once again made headlines when it was officially announced on Friday that it would not reopen this case, citing that doing so would violate the vinaya, or monastic discipline.
The ruling is a major disappointment for many Buddhists, who are dubious of Phra Dhammachayo and his empire.
The 70-year-old monk is considered the country's most infamous yet influential. Over the decades he has been at the forefront of many scandals. His alleged shady behaviour has been criticised by Buddhist scholars, revered monks and others of Buddhist faith. Likewise, Wat Phra Dhammakaya has long been attacked for its hard-sell donation concept, which earns its massive wealth but contradicts Buddhist teachings.
It's sad that the SSC chose not to take into consideration the recommendation of the late supreme patriarch. He made it clear in the first of the four letters he delivered to the council in 1999 that the abbot should be defrocked for cheating, which according to the vinaya, is one of the four major offences, called parajika.
In his second letter, His Holiness called the monk's teachings — which claim that the Tipitaka (Buddhist canon) is flawed — "damaging to Buddhism" and demanded him to return the assets to the temple.
With no reaction from the stubborn abbot and slow progress made by the SSC, he sent a third letter, which stated that he didn't expect to see the monk punished and preferred to give him the benefit of the doubt, that he might not have intended to cheat. But he insisted that if the monk still failed to return the assets, he must be expelled from the clergy.
This stirred agitation among the monk's angry supporters, who claimed that the letter was bogus. In his final letter, His Holiness said he had already fulfilled his role as Sangharaja (the head of Buddhist monks) regarding the case and that he had nothing else to say.
Despite the strong messages from His Holiness, the Sangha governing body did hardly anything to deal with the problems. Rumour has it that certain members in the Sangha Council clearly sided with the temple and that this "deep connection" plays a big role in the way conclusions are drawn.
Many are reluctant to believe these allegations. But when the monk finally agreed to transfer the assets to the temple in 2006, the council swiftly chose to close the case, saying the monk was no longer guilty as he had followed the Supreme Patriarch's instructions. They also turned a deaf ear to the demand for the monk's disrobing.
I can't help but wonder if the SSC's latest decision further undermines the religion.
It would be sinful to lash out at senior priests who seemed protective of the controversial monk, as I tend to believe that their several decades of monkhood must have blessed them with high morality that deserves respect. But like many Buddhists, I'm no longer sure if that is the case.
As today is Makha Bucha Day, I'd like to suggest Buddhists take a break from this headache and instead contemplate some of the blessings Buddha first gave to the meeting of the Order on the full-moon day of the third lunar month, 2,500 years ago.
Called Ovada Patimokkha, the sermon is a brief synopsis of the principles of Buddha's teachings, containing both injunctions and principles for administration of the Order. The three admonitions that are considered the heart of Buddhism are what I'd like everyone to pay attention to.
I believe every Buddhist can recite the "not to do any evil, to cultivate good and to purify the mind" principle, although many might not be interested in seriously following the last element.
Purification of the mind can be achieved only through bhavana, or mental development. The practice is very important because it brings about ultimate wisdom, which can liberate the mind from all defilements, thus allowing one to finally attain enlightenment, which is the goal of Buddhism.
This is far from easy, of course. But many good monks encourage their followers to persevere. Some of the inspiring words spoken by one of them tell us that we must keep on practising diligently until we can "spiritually" become a monk. It means that anyone, regardless of gender and with or without a saffron robe, can acquire this spiritual quality and can be considered "real monks", who will stick firmly to Buddha's teachings.
Another distinctive attribute of this kind of noble person is that they will possess perfect moral precepts and would rather die than break any of them.
I wish every member of the clergy would focus more on bhavana.
Patcharawalai Sanyanusin is a writer for the Life section of the Bangkok Post.
Patcharawalai Sanyanusin is a writer for Life section of the Bangkok Post.