Is Dhammakaya a Cult, a Sect, or Just Another Temple? (2.12)

2017-11-15T23:00:19+00:00


We’re super happy to welcome back a popular guest from season 1 of the Bangkok Podcast – our veritable friend Phra Pandit. As a long-time monk in Thailand and noted lecturer on dhamma, Buddhism, meditation, and deep thought, Pandit is a great source if insight and information.

On this show we (well, Greg, as Evo is traveling) will talk with Pandit about what happens when a particular Buddhist temple becomes really big. So big, in fact, that the government wants to shut it down. In this case it’s the Dhammakaya temple, which has millions of devotees all over Thailand and is led by a rather controversial monk. As of the date of this post, police have been camped outside the temple for several weeks as deadline after deadline for the surrender of the head monk have come and gone and nothing’s happened. It’s kind of like the world’s most boring standoff…but something’s got to give eventually.

Pandit gets into some details on the political machinations behind the target on the temple’s back, as well as why the stakes are so high for the temple’s head abbot, the magic ingredient that lets a temple go from being popular to a nationwide social phenomenon – and just how many people does Dhammakaya’s ‘flying saucer’ meditation area hold, anyway? (Hint: a lot. Check out the picture of the saucer area below).

dhammakaya3

Don’t forget to leave a comment or tweet to us – @BkkGreg or @EvoTerra!

2 Comments

  1. Stuart Whelan December 27, 2016 at 11:49 am - Reply

    Dear Greg,

    I have just listened to Bangkok Podcast No.12 – Talking with Phra Pandit: Is Dhammakaya a Cult, Sect, or Just another Temple?

    Listening to the podcast it seemed to me that you were unaware of the fact that Phra Pandit is not a disinterested observer of Dhammakaya and that in fact that he could be considered an apologist for the movement. It was remiss of Phra Pandit not to make this clear to you and your listeners.

    Phra Pandit said that he was based at Wat Pak Nam, which was the birth place of Dhammakaya and the temple at which Phra Dhammajayo was ordained in 1969. It should also be noted that Phra Pandit was ordained at Wat Luang Phor Sodh in Ratchaburi province, which is another Dhammakaya temple. Although biographical information about him on the internet says that, “Pandit Bhikkhu claims no lineage other than Buddhism”, one would have to observe that whether he calls himself a Dhammakaya monk or not, he has good reason to be very sympathetic to the movement. This in fact became extremely clear in your interview with him.

    It was interesting to note that when you asked him whether Dhammakaya was a cult or sect he glossed over the issue and didn’t actually answer the question. The reply was along the lines of, “well, in spite of a few differences, we’re all good orthodox Theravada Buddhist here in Thailand”. This was an evasive and disappointing response from someone who knows a lot more and a lot better than that. As you pointed out Dhammakaya is a controversial movement and there are those who say that in some aspects it operates like a cult. That is a serious issue and you deserved a more direct answer than the one Phra Pandit gave you.

    For half of the interview he provided a not very clear view of Thai Buddhism, an extremely short mention of the history of Dhammakaya which told us almost nothing, talked about the jedi at Wat Dhammakaya, and dismissed the important issue of the mis-behavior of monks saying, “well, these things happen, and after all most of them were dumped in the temple anyway”. While time on the show was obviously limited, this was all so superficial as to be of no value at all.

    For the other half of the interview Phra Pandit set out on a determined defence of Phra Dhammajayo and made sure that he covered the three points that it appears that he came to talk about. Those were, firstly, what he considers to be the political motivation of the charges against Phrao Dhammajayo, secondly, a justification for the Abbot not turning himself in and thirdly, a justification for temple land encroachment. In all of this Phra Pandit showed no concern for issues of morality or legality whatsoever. Hearing a Buddhist monk speak in such an amoral manner made for disturbing listening.

    Phra Pandit claimed that the charges relating to receiving and laundering stolen money were politically motivated and not criminal matters. This being Thailand, one would always have to admit that there could be some element of politics in this. However, Phra Pandit offers no evidence whatsoever for making the assertion that no criminal actions have been committed by the Abbot, or temple staff. How does he know that? Is he a confidant of the Phrao Dhammajayo? Is he privy to the inner workings of the temple finances? One suspects not. So on what basis does he make this claim? Saying, “Trust me, I’m a monk”, is not all that helpful in our trying to understand this issue.

    If one has been following the case in the newspapers one would have to conclude that there does appear to be a prima facie case for Phra Dhammajayo to answer.

    It is a matter of public record that Supachai Srisupa-aksorn, the Chairman of the Klongchan Credit Union Cooperative and his associates embezzled nearly 12 billion baht from the organization. This was not an insurance company as Phra Pandit suggested and the fact is that hundreds of people lost their life savings.

    Mr.Supachai was subsequently found guilty in the first of seven cases related to the embezzlement and sentenced to 32 years jail. On withdrawing his initial plea of innocence and co-operating with the police that sentence was later halved.

    The Royal Thai Police, the Department of Special Investigation, Office of the Attorney General and the Public Prosecutor have assembled sufficient evidence in the case against Phra Dhammajayo to present to the Court and on the basis of that were given a warrant for his arrest on the charges of receiving and laundering stolen money. This evidence would have included the police investigation reported in the Bangkok Post that revealed that between 2009 and 2011, 21 cashier’s cheques worth more than 1.2 billion baht drawn on the Klongchan Credit Co-operative were authorized by Mr.Supachai and paid to Wat Dhammakaya and its officials. All of the cheques were subsequently cashed.

    In another report from the same newspaper Mr.Supachai has also admitted that when he was Treasurer of Wat Dhammakaya he had a close relationship with Phra Dhammajayo. So one could assume that each had knowledge of the others’ activities.

    It would appear then that there is a likelihood that stolen money was given to and accepted by the temple and the claim that it was unaware of the source the donations would have to questioned. These are very serious allegations of criminal conduct and they cannot be either ignored, or swept under the carpet. Officials of Wat Dhammakaya have consistently denied the allegations, so it is no surprise the Phra Pandit should do so as well. It is just a pity that you and your listeners were not given a fuller account of the nature of the case against Phra Dhammajayo.

    That an issue like this has arisen with Wat Dhammakaya should come as no surprise given the heavy emphasis that is placed on making merit through donations to the temple. This in part to support the building of the huge complex in Pathum Thani. Followers are encouraged to donate money with the slogan, “the more you give, the more you get”. This refers to wealth both in the present and in any future lives.

    Phra Dhammajayo is no stranger to controversy, or to allegations of misappropriation. An article in the Bangkok Post in July 2015 noted that in 1999, long before the current government came to power, the highest-ranking monk in Thailand recommended that Phra Dhammajayo be defrocked for violating the Buddhist monks’ code of conduct by putting ownership of assets — including 1,500 rai of land that belonged to the temple — into his own name. The case was eventually dropped when Phra Dhammajayo returned the land and assets, valued at more than 900 million baht, to the temple. There was also a charge of distorting the teachings of the Buddha.

    Phra Dhammajayo was never dis-robed because the Supreme Patriarch died before that could be done, and the order was then countermanded by Phra Somdet Chuang, who is not only a long-time supporter of Phra Dhammajayo and the next in line to be Supreme Patriarch, but also the Abbot of Wat Pak Nam, Phra Pandit’s home Wat.

    Phra Pandit asserts that many people, including the media, have presumed Phra Dhammajayo’s guilt even though there has been no court case to prove this. He then goes on to say that if the monk turns himself in and doesn’t get bail immediately then he will be disrobed , forfeiting his position as abbot and seniority in the sangha hierarchy. This he seemed to be saying would be very unfair if there had not be a court case to prove his guilt.

    What Phra Pandit failed to say was that the Phra Dhammajayo has steadfastly refused to cooperate with the police investigation and to acknowledge the charges made against him. This has now been going on since April. So that even though there was a time when he would have been granted bail, now because of his lack of cooperation this is impossible, as the Police Chief was reported as saying on December 6. Phra Dhammajayo has by his own actions backed himself into a corner. He could have already had his day in court and proven his innocence, if he has done nothing wrong. However given his evasiveness and his previous behavior, is it any wonder why Phrao Dhammajayo’s refusal to cooperate raises the suspicion in the public mind that he really does have something to hide.

    In electing this course of action Phra Dhammajayo has placed himself in a group high-profile and influential Thais, such as Red Bull heir, Vorayuth Yoovidhya to name just one, who seem to believe that they are not answerable to the law.

    Further on in the podcast Phra Pandit then went on to dismiss the charges of land encroachment by Wat Dhammakaya as a matter of no consequence, because as he put it, “everybody does it”.

    But just because everybody does it definitely does not make it right – even if an abbot thinks it is a good idea.

    It is disturbing to hear a Buddhist monk endorse this this kind of morality. Particularly, because as a monk Phra Pandit vows to uphold Buddhist practice and would frequently chant the second of the five most basic precepts:

    I undertake to abstain from taking that which is not freely given

    That means not stealing – plain and simple. That means not misappropriating public land and using it for your own person gain, be that temporal, or spiritual.

    Many such cases of land encroachment on national parks from all over the country have been appearing in the newspapers, often along with reports of attendant environmental degradation. The same law that applies to hotels that encroach on public land on Thailand’s beautiful islands and mountains also applies to very wealthy religious institutions that do exactly the same thing – regardless of motive for the encroachment.

    Disregard for the rule of law and believing that unlawful behavior is okay because, after all, “everyone does it”, are the attitudes that are at the very heart of the corruption that has bedevilled Thai society for so long. What hope is there if Buddhist monks don’t appear to care?

    Respect for the rule of law is not only an issue to do with corruption, as a laissez-faire attitude to adherence by many in this country is the cause of much suffering in Thai society. For example, with regard to public safety. The end of the coming New Year holiday period will see at least another 350 people dead and thousands injured, all because of irresponsible and selfish driving. Speeding and driving while drunk are not okay, and they can never be okay just because “everybody is doing it”.

    In view of this, Phra Pandit’s cavalier justification for breaking the law in relation to land encroachment sounds very hollow. As does his unsubstantiated dismissal of the criminal charges brought against Phra Dhammajayo.

    This has not been written from the point of view of being either pro- or anti- Wat Dhammakaya. It is written out of concern that those who publicly profess to be monastic adherents of the Buddha Dhamma live out that commitment sincerely and be a good example within Thai society. They have an obligation to point out the importance and benefits of truly moral conduct and adherence to the rule of law, for the welfare and betterment of all Thai people.

    I would be interested to hear your thoughts on this.

    Regards,

    Stuart

    • Greg December 27, 2016 at 3:07 pm - Reply

      Wow, Stuart, thanks. First of all, you get a medal for the most well thought-out blog comment I’ve ever seen. You definitely make some salient arguments here and it’s clear you know much more than I do about the case.

      With that in mind, I can’t really comment on this any further beyond saying that from what little I know of the case there’s certainly SOMETHING a bit odd about it all. I don’t care who you are, but if you’re in charge of handling billions of baht, there’s sure to be a few discrepancies somewhere that will likely have very real consequences like, as you mentioned, wiping out the life savings of some folks. On the other hand, if there’s such a clear-cut case with billions at stake, surely the sinking of an artesian well won’t ruffle any feathers. I get what you’re saying – you breaks the law, you accepts the consequences, and I agree – but…let’s just say I’m not as concerned about an illegal well as I am about billions going missing.

      I take your point about me asking some followup questions. I of course do know that Pandit’s temple is loosely connected to Dhammakaya, but that doesn’t mean he is automatically cut from the same cloth. Perhaps I should have followed this line of questioning a bit more, but…at the end of the day I’m just a dude who likes chatting to people about Bangkok, I’m not here to bust open scandals and peel back any layers of controversy.

      At any rate, I will allow Pandit to reply to your comment, if he wishes. Thanks again for listening.

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