TRT and Dhammakaya Temple - perfect match
Being a former core member of Phra Dhammakaya Temple for nineteen years, I am compelled to write this article after having observed the latest developments in both Thailand's largest Buddhist community and its largest political party. It is my hope that this might shed light on certain aspects of the new socio-spiritual relationship, which may jeopardise national security.
I believe that the Thai Rak Thai Party and Phra Dhammakaya Temple make a perfect couple. The only difference between them is that one is a political party and the other a Buddhist monastery. They share the same philosophies of management and administration and both use the media relentlessly for self-promotion. Thai Rak Thai and Phra Dhammakaya Temple are huge organisations - two of the largest and most powerful in the country. Their leaders are known to be shrewd investors, bold enough to take on new risks - both are equally fond of the latest technologies, capitalism and modernism in general. However, while their leaders are strong, they have also both been tainted by allegations of corruption and embezzlement. Not only are their goals the same - to assume power - but they also share common enemies.
Seven years ago, while Thailand was in the midst of an economic crisis, Phra Dhammakaya Temple launched a massive fundraising campaign to assist in its ambitious plans to construct a gigantic pagoda. This pagoda, worth over US$500 million (Bt18.7 billion) was named the Dhammakaya-cedi. In order to encourage the public to support this project, the leadership of the temple claimed that its guru possessed supernatural powers. This brought the temple a great deal of criticism in the media.
The crisis the temple's administrators faced at the time was the worst a Thai Buddhist monk could ever imagine. First, there was a series of four letters issued by the Supreme Patriarch of Thailand commanding that the abbot be defrocked. Then, a series of investigations of the temple's finances followed. The temple's abbot was charged with several counts of embezzlement and public fraud, including one count of lese majeste against HRH Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn. All of these were serious charges. Criticisms against Phra Dhammakaya Temple extended not only to its aggressive fundraising, but also regarding the heterodox promotion of Buddhism and the abbot's lavish lifestyle. In retaliation, the abbot of Phra Dhammakaya Temple, Dhammajayo, retaliated aggressively. His lawyer filed a lawsuit against every individual who had (supposedly) incorrectly quoted his name or misinformed the public. The abbot also expanded his mission by whatever means were available before he was forced to officially resign from his position. Phra Dattajivo, his deputy, became abbot, however for practical purposes Phra Dhammajayo remained in control.
Realising that his true enemy was neither the Ecclesiastical Council nor the Thammayuttikanikaya sect, the former abbot turned to politics in order to restore his power. In the senatorial elections of 2000, Dhammajayo supported candidates with links to the Thai Rak Thai Party.
The former abbot of Phra Dhammakaya Temple was the first one to initiate contact with members of Thai Rak Thai. It was decided that the Thai Rak Thai Party would have Dhammakaya's backing. Thai Rak Thai representatives were given the opportunity to speak to the temple's followers, who were urged to cast their votes for the party, as it would naturally be beneficial for their master and temple.
According to the law of karma as promoted by the temple, Thaksin Shinawatra was hailed as the ideal lay Buddhist, who had been blessed by the merit of his past lives and was endowed with a great many virtues. The temple played a song praising Thaksin composed by the Phra Dhammajayo himself on its Dow Tham satellite television channel - broadcasting 24 hours a day. However, the gathering clouds of controversies and criminal investigations surrounding him prevented Thaksin from visiting the temple. Nevertheless, senior Thai Rak Thai leaders, such as Sudarat Keyuraphan and Suriya Jungrungreangkit, began regularly attending the monastery.
The Thai Rak Thai-Phra Dhammakaya Temple relationship proved mutually beneficial. It allowed the Thai Rak Thai Party to promote itself with greater efficiency. Phra Dhammakaya Temple also began broadcasts on Dow Tham. Using a massive budget and having recruited qualified personnel - all inspired by the Doctrine of Dhammakaya - the satellite television channel produced a series of programmes, enriched with computerised images and attractive animations, thus capturing the eyes of the younger generation. The star of the channel is Phra Dhammajayo, whose talk-shows have dealt with the retribution of karma - ie the whereabouts of people after their deaths, thus revealing his transcendental insight.
However, the Tipitaka (the Buddhist canon) reserves this insight for the Buddha only.
Never before in its history was the temple able to expand its powers so quickly. The temple was able to significantly build up its local, national and international networks after Thai Rak Thai came to power.
At the end of August of this year, all legal cases against Phra Dhammajayo were released from the judicial process. These decisions were based on utilitarian grounds - in consideration of the former abbot having returned all the money he and his disciples had taken for the pagoda, and because he had contributed to the public good by teaching Buddhism. The former abbot of Phra Dhammakaya Temple has now been cleared of all criminal charges, much to the delight of his followers. However, this is a source of great dismay to other Buddhists, who feel that justice was not served. The political turmoil facing Thaksin Shinawatra's leadership this year cemented the relationship between the Thai Rak Thai Party and Phra Dhammakaya Temple.
For Phra Dhammajayo, victory for the Thai Rak Thai was the equivalent of a victory of his own, and votes for that party were the same as votes for the security of his temple.
The political turmoil of this past year has completely changed the nature of politics and the religious landscape of Thailand for good. Followers of Phra Dhammakaya Temple and Thaksin believe that the alliance between the two serves their best interests. It must be remembered that the overarching threat to Thailand is no longer just Thaksinomics, but the real menace is the Dhammakaya-TRT consortium.
General Sonthi Boonyaratglin said that last week's coup was triggered by the deep divisions in Thai society. There is little doubt that the unholy alliance between Phra Dhammakaya Temple and Thai Rak Thai has contributed in no small part to this polarisation.
In the wake of the coup, both Thai Rak Thai and Phra Dhammakaya Temple have kept a low profile. They can be expected to lay low for the time being waiting for an opportunity to spring back. Their greatest concern is what the coup-makers and the interim civilian government plan to do with them in the course of trying to uproot the culture of deceit and corruption by the Thai Rak Thai Party and what the likely repercussions of this would be for Phra Dhammakaya Temple.
Special to The Nation