The Asian Voice

Influential monk Phra Dhammachayo must face the fire: The Nation Columnist

Thai Buddhist monks and their supporters scuffling with police officers outside Dhammakaya Temple in Pathum Thani province, on the outskirts of Bangkok, on Feb 20, 2017. PHOTO: EPA

BANGKOK (THE NATION/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - "I have stopped, but you haven't," the Lord Buddha said to Angulimala, setting the stage for the ruthless killer's redemption.

Angulimala had exhausted himself "chasing" a sage who appeared to be standing still but was able somehow to keep his pursuer at arm's length.

The Buddha's famous words came in response to Angulimala's yelling at him to stop, face his sword, and get it over with. He didn't mean to taunt Angulimala. By "stopped" he meant detached from emotions that lead to worldly suffering - namely love, greed, anger and lust.

On the surface, the pursuit of Phra Dhammachayo, former abbot of the Dhammakaya temple, by the authorities has strong echoes of this Buddhist fable.

The latter are relentless and hell-bent on catching the monk - who remains tantalisingly out of reach. The similarities are superficial and, ultimately, deceptive however. Phra Dhammachayo might claim to have worked all sorts of miracles, but he cannot credibly claim detachment in the true Buddhist sense.

In other words, he has a lot to prove. It doesn't matter whether, as claimed, he can see how the deceased (including Steve Jobs) are doing in other worlds. Nor does it matter whether he was "invited" to descend from heaven to make Buddhism greater, or is able to travel across the cosmos in the blink of an eye.

What does matter is that men of genuine spirituality don't run away; they face the fire.

Neither do true religious leaders use politics as an excuse to hide behind. In fact, they must stay away from politics at all costs.

Lord Buddha founded and fostered Buddhism at a time when Northern India knew nothing of democracy and was ruled by absolute monarchies. Most importantly, perhaps, credible religious leaders don't portray themselves as victims, are forgiving and encourage their followers to do the same.

That is what distinguishes spiritual leaders from their political counterparts. Buddhism in particular teaches that once we consider ourselves a victim - as being persecuted for whatever reason - the "ego" immediately comes into play, which leads to all kinds of problems. The temptations of self-pity, fear and anger arise, all of them the biggest enemies of Buddhism.

In addition, Phra Dhammachayo must not use his huge following as a shield, not only because that's what politicians do, but also because he would risk tainting his followers' souls in the process. Provoking them to anger or self-pity can only reinforce their "attachment", making their transcendence to a better, more detached state a lot more difficult.

His temple stands accused of "selling" heaven. His defenders counter that the idea of a comfortable "next life" draws people to the religion, and the notion that higher donations deliver a higher level in paradise encourages people to give up everything. Those arguments sound fine but contain a serious flaw. Phra Dhammachayo cannot successfully preach detachment while at the same time his temple holds enormous worldly assets.

His defenders are fond of pointing to the actions of others. Solicitation of financial donations is rife in Thailand, so why pick on Dhammakaya, they ask. Again, the argument appears to have merit on the surface, but it in fact presents a huge problem. Asking why others have the privilege to do what's wrong is a political, not religious, question. Right and wrong are slippery concepts in politics, but in religion there can be no compromise. The idea that our actions are permitted "because other people do it" flies in the face of religion and the ethical foundations it enshrines.

Phra Dhammachayo must stop and think whether attempting to elude the authorities will benefit or harm Buddhism. We can place the controversy over solicitations to one side, since he is not being chased for encouraging followers to donate everything they have to his temple. He is charged with fraud related to a major financial scandal plaguing one of the country's biggest cooperatives. It's a serious accusation, whether levied at a monk or a layman.

Money trails are far easier to verify than the claim that Steve Jobs is now an angelic monster (or monstrous angel, depending on the translation) or that you can teleport through space. Phra Dhammachayo certainly has an impressive legal network at hand to defend him if the evidence is made up or distorted. And he must fight the case in court, because this is strictly a legal matter.

Of course, people have the freedom to choose which faith they follow. But this is not the issue here.

The issue is whether or not Phra Dhammachayo was involved in the Klongchan Credit Union Cooperative embezzlement scheme. While he runs, the issue only gets more blurred and volatile.

Worse still, the longer he runs, the farther away he is from the essence of Buddhism.

And this is not only about him; it's also about who he is taking with him.

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