Earthly matters and the role of religion
Most Thai Buddhists are relieved after the government decided to shelve the Sangha Supreme Council's (SSC) nomination of Somdet Phra Maha Ratchamangalacharn, or Somdet Chuang, as the new supreme patriarch. The move was triggered by his alleged involvement with a luxury car tax evasion scam.
The story about Somdet Chuang's possession of a vintage Mercedes-Benz, the dubious origin of which is under investigation, was exposed by a group of Buddhists who strongly opposed his nomination two months ago. They questioned his qualifications and tried every means to stop him from being made head of all Buddhist monks in Thailand.
The 90-year-old monk is abbot of Wat Pak Nam Phasi Charoen and also acting supreme patriarch. However, he is widely known to have a good relationship with the influential and highly controversial Phra Dhammachayo, his former disciple and abbot of Wat Phra Dhammakaya. He and many other members in the SSC are said to have helped save Phra Dhammachayo from being disrobed when he was charged with embezzlement and distortion of Buddha teachings 17 years ago.
Jumping in to support the SSC's nomination is a group of monks led by Phra Methee Dhammacharn, secretary-general of the Buddhism Protection Centre of Thailand. He vowed to protect the senior monk's reputation and fought tooth and nail to push for his becoming the next supreme patriarch.
Last month he led a group of 1,200 monks and supporters to gather at Phutthamonthon Buddhist Park in Nakhon Pathom to demand an immediate appointment of the new supreme patriarch. Three weeks later, he led another group to a temple in Bangkok to protest against the Office of Ombudsman's interpretation of the Sangha law which suggests that the SSC's nomination of Somdet Chuang should be void.
Even though both incidents were rather peaceful, many Buddhists couldn't help but feel uncomfortable and some were worried that these conflicts might escalate and lead to a crisis of faith.
However, Phra Methee Dhammacharn often claimed that his movements were solely meant to protect the religion and accused everyone standing in his way of damaging the religion. He also insisted that he acted out of pure intention and had no hidden agenda.
His words were unconvincing to his opponents. They have closely watched his activities over the years and believed that his vigorous protection of Somdet Chuang and the SSC must have had something to do with Wat Phra Dhammakaya, with which he is known to have close ties. They also suspect that the monk has a clear political leaning and also good connections with some red-shirt leaders and former prime minister Thaksin Shinnawatra. The politics of the clergy and the politics of the state are now deeply intertwined.
Wat Phra Dhammakaya has long been at the centre of many scandals. But the one that worries faithful Buddhists the most is the fact that it has discreetly spread its own set of teachings that are heavily disputed by mainstream Buddhists. For them, this temple is a threat to the existence of Buddhism in our country.
Phra Methee Dhammachan repeatedly demanded that the government show respect to the SSC's judgement and quickly present the name of Somdet Chuang to HM the King for royal appointment. So, it's ironic that while he insists that doing so is equal to protecting the religion, many fear that with Somdet Chuang on the top job, our religion might be destroyed more quickly.
It's good news that the government has requested all sides to halt their movements regarding the nomination, in order to prevent more negative light on the incident. But I believe many Thai Buddhists might already feel bad regarding the improper behaviour of several monks involved in the row.
To add insult to injury, the luxury car scandal also brings to light an unacceptable quality of some high profile members of the clergy. It's a disappointment to learn that while they are supposed to strictly follow in Buddha's footsteps in order to rid themselves of greed and other defilement, they instead let themselves become tangled up in worldly materials.
An investigation into the case is under way and is said to take at least 10 months to complete. No matter whether Somdet Chuang and other monks around him have anything to do with tax evasion or not, the story of his building a personal collection of fancy vehicles alone has already hurt the feelings of many.
It seems the monk might soon be challenged with another scandal as there have been reports in several newspapers about a large sum of money going missing, about 20 million baht, that the government had earlier set aside as expenses for the late Supreme Patriarch Somdet Phra Nyanasamvara. It's not clear if the authorities will launch an investigation into that matter, but it seems we have to brace ourselves for more shocking news about monks.
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.