Thai abbot's scandal poses moral dilemma: The Nation columnist

Over 100,000 Buddhist monks and novices gather to receive alms at Wat Phra Dhammakaya temple on April 22, 2016.
Over 100,000 Buddhist monks and novices gather to receive alms at Wat Phra Dhammakaya temple on April 22, 2016.PHOTO: REUTERS

By Tulsathit Taptim

The Nation/Asia News Network

The concept of cheques - or any form of currency as we know it now, for that matter - was non-existent during the Lord Buddha’s days, so he didn’t lay down any rules concerning them. 

There is nothing in his admonitions to stop temples and monks accepting massive financial donations with wild abandon. And this is why Thailand is grappling with an issue that threatens to become its biggest religious scandal ever.

Did the Buddha anticipate Dhammakaya? I think he certainly did, not least because donations played a big role in keeping afloat his own fledging movement. 

A man of his wisdom must have foreseen how problems might arise with monks accepting donations - they could rise in volume and value far beyond the amount needed to sustain the monks' spartan lives and their work of spreading his doctrine. 

There are clues he saw the potential for trouble.

Buddhism's three-month rain retreat, often casually called Buddhist Lent, is one such hint. 

It reflects his concern that monks' teaching could unintentionally harm laymen's livelihoods. 

His disciples were prohibited from leaving their monasteries during the rainy season because he feared young crops could be damaged and other problems caused that might affect people's wellbeing.

As we can see, the Buddha's tenet of adhering to the "middle path" applies as much to religious practice as it does to worldly affairs. 

His disciples were told to refrain from teaching if it might cause problems. 

Lest religious instruction add to the layman's burden, he said, monks should hold their horses.

In a way, the Dhammakaya Temple has adopted a year-round rain retreat. 

Whether or not its monks get to go out in the world as much as they should is debatable, but the "in-bound traffic" - the streams of followers and their donations - was undisputedly enormous. 

When billions of baht in cash and cheques pours in, and when the temple’s messages can be disseminated via satellite, teaching is largely home-based, come rain or shine.

I have no issue with home-based sermons, but when you're receiving endless, gigantic donations, problems like the ones besetting Dhammakaya are bound to happen. 

Cheques linked to con men operating in a cooperative were sent to the temple, and the rest is history.

It's the police investigators' job to answer questions regarding the cheques. 

I'm not jumping to any conclusion here, although I seriously wonder if the temple did try to find out exactly why this money was donated. 

If anyone gave me 100 million baht (S$3.85 million) with no strings attached free, I definitely would at least call to say, "Thank you and let me know what I can do for you. And here's hoping your good deeds don't affect your employees or family members." 

Did the temple make such calls? 

If so, who did so on its behalf?

Logic calls for some kind of response to such a big cheque.

If Dhammakaya treated a 100-million-baht donation as a routine occurrence, warranting no inquiry whatsoever, I would be curious about the average amount people give the temple. 

The Lord Buddha himself would have asked the Dhammakaya monks, "Are you sure you didn't damage their crops?"

The temple's abbot, Phra Dhammajayo, is facing charges related to the Klongchan Credit Union Cooperative embezzlement and money-laundering case. 

A few days ago the Criminal Court blocked an attempt by the Department of Special Investigation to arrest him for avoiding a summons, saying he was hardly about to flee prosecution.

All of a sudden Thailand is staring at another legal clampdown on a highly popular figure. 

The worst part is that, in addition to being worshipped by a large number of people, the abbot is strongly connected to the ongoing political strife. 

It's said that, if you hate quarrelling, you shouldn't discuss politics or religion. 

Dhammajayo is both. He is a religious figure in a political storm.

Whether the rumoured connections between Dhammajayo and the Shinawatras are true or not, both parties certainly share the capability to divide opinion. 

Supporters point out what Dhammajayo "has done for Buddhism", while critics insist that, just as Thaksin Shinawatra abuses democracy, Dhammajayo has exploited people's trust in the religion.

Dhammakaya's financial, political and religious clout has become staggering. 

The current impasse regarding the appointment of a new Supreme Patriarch stems from the temple's ties with one of the candidates. 

It has several foreign publications on its side and quite a few Thai celebrities.

We have previously debated the temple's focus on begging for donations and neither supporters nor detractors are about to alter their stances. 

But, since Dhammajayo is a religious figure, tasked with carrying the torch of the Buddha's teaching, he should not be shielded by "political" arguments. 

The case should not be branded a "conspiracy" against him. Neither should he be defended on grounds that he merely does what other senior mainstream monks have always done. 

We might use that line of argument for crooked politicians, but religion is strictly about morals, not what the masses commonly do. 

Religion is about a man of faith never failing to do the right thing, even if he's the only one doing it - full stop.