Bid to suspend monastery's abbot fails

Ven Guojun has been criticised for owning a Sydney property, not wearing his monk's robes in public, and staying at a luxury hotel.
Ven Guojun has been criticised for owning a Sydney property, not wearing his monk's robes in public, and staying at a luxury hotel.

Monk faces lawsuit from monastery's trustee, who has also filed a CPIB report against him

An abbot of a monastery accused by some of improper conduct has retained his position despite an attempt to suspend him at a meeting on Sunday.

But Venerable Guojun, 41, abbot of the Mahabodhi Monastery in Bukit Timah, still faces a lawsuit from a trustee of the monastery, who has also filed a Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau (CPIB) report against the abbot.

Among other things, the abbot has drawn criticism for owning a property in Sydney worth more than A$500,000 (S$514,000) - which he did not deny - and for not wearing his monk's robe on at least one occasion in public and staying in a swanky hotel.

He has been sued for defamation by the trustee, Mr Lee Boon Teow, in a case that revolves around a Buddhist sculpture that is reportedly worth $1 million today. The two are in a tussle over who owns it and has the right to retain it.

At an annual general meeting on Sunday, Mr Lee had proposed a resolution to suspend Ven Guojun as abbot of the monastery and president of its management committee.

Mr Lee, 64, former vice-president of the committee, also suggested setting up an independent inquiry committee led possibly by Venerable Seck Kwang Phing, president of the Singapore Buddhist Federation (SBF).

But Mr Lee's resolution was defeated. Ven Guojun had asked the 86 members present if they were for or against him - 59 raised their hands in favour. Most of the remaining members did not participate.

Ven Guojun was also elected as president of the management committee. He then nominated Mr Lee as vice-president. But Mr Lee rejected this.

Mr Lee, managing director of a construction firm, had made a report against Ven Guojun to the CPIB. A photo of the report was published in Chinese evening daily Lianhe Wanbao last Friday.

In response to Straits Times queries, the CPIB said it neither confirms nor denies whether any individual or entity is being investigated for corrupt practices due to the nature of its work.

Mr Lee, who has been worshipping at the monastery for 20 years, said he had proposed a suspension because of the monk's "past conduct and behaviour". A private investigator he hired had snapped photographs of Ven Guojun in sports attire at the Marina Bay Sands (MBS) hotel on April 5 and 6.

He had entered a room of a visiting friend from Taiwan with the monastery's general manager. The investigator claimed that the monk stayed overnight in the room from 9.25pm to about 7.15am.

Ven Guojun told ST that it was not his first visit to MBS. When visitors and friends come to Singapore, he uses the hotel's infinity pool and Banyan Tree Fitness Club.

He said he was advised by his chiropractor to "go to gym and swim due to his spinal problem".

He asked: "When I bathe, am I in my robes? How can I swim in my robes?"

He said during his stay at MBS in April, he could not go to the gym and pool as they were closed at around 9pm.

"My friend had a voucher from the spa. In the end we went to the spa because I've acne problems. I've pimples... I do extraction."

When asked, the SBF's Ven Seck had said the robe must be worn consistently. He added: "A Sangha member without his robe is tantamount to being disrobed."

He told ST that the federation, if invited, is willing to step in and investigate in line with the Vinaya - a disciplinary code for monks.

As for the Australian property, Ven Guojun, who holds a master's in Buddhist studies from the University of Sydney, told ST the money to buy it came from his savings, which also include "love gifts" from devotees around the globe.

He said he is not on the monastery's payroll.

Mahabodhi Monastery, located at 8, Lorong Kilat, was first established in 1969. About 5,000 devotees worship there.

Meanwhile, the defamation case against Ven Guojun is scheduled to be heard in the High Court in October. At its heart is a dispute over a 213cm wide and 91cm tall religious agarwood sculpture, comprising about 70 Buddhas and Bodhistavas.

It has been stored with Mr Lee since the monastery underwent redevelopment from 2008 to 2014.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 08, 2016, with the headline 'Bid to suspend monastery's abbot fails'. Print Edition | Subscribe