Trouble in Nirvana

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A young monk sits in a small wooden pavilion, dressed in his best saffron robes. Why are you wearing such formal clothes, monk? asks a woman. I am waiting for a very special person, he replies, who is going to make a significant donation to the temple today. Curious, the woman sits down to watch. Half an hour later a scavenger arrives, kneels down before the monk and bows three times. Her skin is dark from the sun, her clothes simple and frayed. She takes out a one-baht coin and, after a lengthy prayer, offers it to the monk. He chants an extended blessing, of the kind normally reserved for important ceremonies. The scavenger again bows three times and leaves. Is that who you were waiting for? asks the onlooker. For one baht? The monk answers: The amount of money is not important. The important thing is what it is worth. And to her, one baht is worth almost her whole life, because that's how much she earns in one day. Money is not worth as much as a human being. Twenty-three years later, that same monk has become an abbot who now claims more than 1 million followers. Phra Dhammachayo is the world's foremost teacher of the Dhammakaya meditation technique, and every Sunday his team of 610 trained monks welcomes tens of thousands of followers seeking tranquillity and guidance on the path to inner peace. He has set up 15 Dhammakaya centers around the world, including five in the United States. Dhammachayo has also collected quite a few baht along the way. The abbot holds 280 hectares of land in his own name and, according to government estimates, his temple and foundations have accumulated $1.9 billion in assets. At his headquarters north of Bangkok, work is proceeding on a massive cone-shaped pagoda, believed to be the largest structure of its kind in the world, adorned with 300,000 silicon-bronze buddhas. According to the specifications, the structure must last more than 1,000 years, says Somsak Jongwatpol, an engineer on the effort. We've never had a project like this before.

Dhammachayo these days is Thailand's most controversial figure. In recent months he has been bombarded with accusations, ranging from embezzlement to deviation from the Buddha's teaching. Thai Buddhism's highest authority, the Supreme Patriarch, has said Dhammachayo, 55, should be expelled from the monkhood. And on June 11, the government filed criminal charges against him, accusing him of embezzlement, abusing his position as an abbot and making a false statement.

The debate over Dhammachayo's wealth and alleged misdeeds has revealed a spiritual crisis in a nation whose faith has been shaken by rapid industrialization and sudden economic collapse. We, the new Thai generation, are seeking the happiness that the older generation used to have, says Virongrong Chanvinij, a corporate executive who has been a follower of Dhammakaya since the 1970s. The mainstream Buddhist hierarchy seems unable to help: many Thais complain that, instead of spiritual insights, traditional monks offer idol worship and black magic. Such perceptions help explain Dhammachayo's success. But is he the cure--or part of the disease?

The abbot wasn't always known as a rebel. Despite the uproar, he still holds a senior rank within the Thai monkhood, an honor conferred by King Bhumibol Adulyadej himself. The son of a wealthy government official, Dhammachayo began studying meditation as a high school student. After earning an economics degree from Bangkok's Kasetsart University in 1969, he and some fellow graduates established a meditation center (and subsequently a temple) on a 31-hectare plot of land donated by a rich widow. They began training and instructing in the Dhammakaya meditation technique, pioneered by the late Luang Poh Sod, a widely respected monk--controversial in his lifetime--who taught students to visualize a crystal ball in the center of their bodies to help slow down the activity of the mind. Although Dhammachayo teaches Buddhist philosophy and ethics, his emphasis is on the day-to-day practice of meditation, as a source of individual calm and happiness and, indirectly, as the way to achieve world peace. Inner peace through meditation is something people have to experience for themselves, he says. The best we can do at this temple is to make the teaching available to people.

To Dhammachayo, the recent storm over his temple is a mystery. We have not been doing anything out of the ordinary, he tells Time. We've simply been teaching morality, virtue, the Buddhist precepts and meditation. After 30 years, suddenly this controversy has arisen. In soft, quiet tones he speculates that the charges might be the result of a misunderstanding or government anxiety over the large number of people congregating at the temple. He says such security concerns are understandable, especially following the horrific experiences with doomsday cults like Japan's Aum Shinrikyo and America's Branch Davidians. Several Thai newspapers began hammering Dhammakaya late last year, after the temple launched a marketing campaign that referred to an alleged miracle at the temple (followers say the sun turned into a large crystal ball).

The case against the abbot is complex. Although the criminal charges concern his acceptance of land from followers, such donations are common in Thailand. Just as they give alms, Thais donate land to monks they revere as a way of supporting their work--to build temples, schools or other facilities. There is no law or religious rule forbidding this. In Dhammachayo's case, the charges turn on alleged misrepresentation, which the abbot denies. He shrugs off the suggestion that he might be motivated by personal greed or ambition. My two objectives in becoming a monk were to train myself and to teach others, he says. I have no other agenda. These two things fill my whole mind.

To Dhammachayo's critics, he is commercializing Buddhism. The Buddha taught that merit could be earned through good deeds (including donations to monks), but opponents say the abbot's streamlined fund-raising techniques--including glossy brochures and telemarketing--go too far. Most serious, perhaps, are allegations that Dhammachayo's teachings deviate from the core principles of Theravada Buddhism, which is effectively the state religion of Thailand. According to his detractors, the abbot teaches that Nirvana is a kind of permanent heaven, whereas the Buddha's concept of Nirvana was merely the total absence of desire, anger and delusion. It might seem like a fine distinction, but many Thais are concerned. This is the worst crisis ever faced by Thai Buddhism, says Deputy Education Minister Arkom Angchuan. If this deviation goes unchecked, there will be further deviation, and ultimately Buddhism will be destroyed.

Attempting to defuse things, Dhammachayo says there is room for various interpretations of ancient texts. The insights gained through deep meditation, he says, can be difficult to express in words. He could also argue that Thailand's traditional Buddhist monks have some doctrinal shortcomings of their own. Many temples offer fortune-telling, astrology and lucky charms (none of which accords with Theravada doctrine), and donations are expected in return. Dhammachayo's popularity is based on the weaknesses of the mainstream monks, says Sanitsuda Ekachai, assistant editor of the Bangkok Post. The Thai clergy has largely lost touch with society, especially the middle class.

Despite the animosity Dhammakaya engenders, even the abbot's toughest critics concede he has a right to interpret and teach the scripture as he pleases--though many believe he should not call himself a Theravada Buddhist. He can sell any product he likes, says Chirmsak Pinthong, an economist at Bangkok's Thammasat University, but he should not use the brand name of the Buddha. This is not fair competition. Indeed, traditional Buddhism is having a hard enough time surviving in Thailand's expanding urban centers. The Dhammakaya debate has so far glossed over the underlying question of whether the religion has any real future, as the country continues to industrialize and embrace modern, consumerist values.

Though he has attracted criticism and even criminal charges, Dhammachayo has at least succeeded in introducing meditation and some kind of spirituality to many who seem to appreciate it. Last Thursday, the abbot filed a countersuit against the government, alleging that the charges against him violate both the constitution and his human rights. Thai courts tend to move slowly, and the controversy is likely to rage for months, if not years, fueling debate over spiritual issues. Society is going to have to decide, says Chris Baker, a historian who writes about Thailand, Are they going to crush this urban adaptation of Buddhism and, if so, are they going to have something else instead? Or are they going to let Buddhism die out? Whatever happens to Dhammachayo, Thais are going to be grappling with such questions well into the next century.

With reporting by Robert Horn/Bangkok