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Buddhism and Politics in Thailand

Arnaud Dubus

Monastic activism and the case of Wat Phra Dhammakaya

Texte intégral

  • 55 Scott, Nivarna for Sale?, 50–52.

1The major phenomenon in Thai Buddhism since the late 1970s has been the emergence and spread of Wat Phra Dhammakaya, which has all the appearances of a new religious movement similar to Japan’s Soka Gakkai and particularly South Korea’s Foguang Shan.55 The temple and its teachings have been mired in controversy since the mid-1990s and are regularly the object of criticism by both lay and monastic intellectuals and the Thai media.

  • 56 Ibid., 96.

2At its core, Dhammakaya is an attempt to adapt Buddhism to contemporary Thailand, by blending religious teachings and the consumerist ideology that has engulfed the kingdom in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. But there is no simple reading of this phenomenon. Wat Phra Dhammakaya has also been referring to ancient Buddhist traditions to propagate its message of “world peace through inner peace,” as repeated endlessly in its slick publications. As such, the temple rejects its characterization as a “new religious movement,” and defends itself by pointing out Theravāda Buddhism’s long history of intertwining wealth and piety.56

The advent of Buddhist evangelism

3From humble beginnings, this temple, founded in 1970, has used an ancient meditation technique, called dhammakāya meditation—rediscovered at the beginning of the 20th century by Phra Monkhol-thep-muni, popularly known as Luang Po Soth (1884–1959), the abbot of Wat Pak Nam Phasi Charoen, a Mahanikai temple on the rim of a canal in the Bangkok estuary—to attract followers (see Box 6). After four decades, Wat Phra Dhammakaya has become one of the most powerful temples in Thailand, claiming to have 2,000 monks under its direct control, hundreds of thousands of lay followers, and eighty-five branches overseas in thirty-three countries. Wat Phra Dhammakaya also controls numerous meditation centers across the kingdom and exerts a strong influence on hundreds of temples. The temple’s goal, say several analysts, is to become the world center of Buddhism. And to reach this target, a crucial stage is to take control of Thai Buddhism. Wat Phra Dhammakaya has made some progress towards this national goal, but it has also met with serious obstacles, in the shape of numerous doctrinal, disciplinary, financial and political controversies since the mid-1990s.

4The official history of the temple, spelled out in the publications handed out by its efficient public relations department, states that Wat Phra Dhammakaya was founded in 1970, first as a meditation center, by a few young monks, including the former abbot Phra Dhammachayo (who relinquished his position in 2016), and a nun, Khun Yay Ubasika Chan, a long-time disciple of Phra Monkhol-thep-muni who had mastered the dhammakāya meditation technique. Founded with “3,200 bahts on 196 rai [about 31 hectares] given by a female follower,” the temple, buoyed by increasing donations, progressively acquired more land and is today a sprawling compound with a futuristic golden stupa in the middle of what looks like a giant sports stadium. The temple includes a huge prayer hall for lay followers and a school for novices.

  • 57 Jackson, Buddhism, Legitimation and Conflict, 211.

5Almost from the beginning, the temple has had solid establishment support, including from royal and senior military circles. Princess Sirindhorn (b. 1955) laid the foundation stone for the chapel (bot) on December 24, 1977. The temple’s student summer training program or dhammadayada was supported by the Kaeng Krachang Special Military Camp, the Department of Universities (within the Ministry of Education) and the Department of Public Works. Major Thai companies, such as the Central Group, Bangkok Bank, Thai Farmers Bank, and the Crown Property Bureau-owned Siam Commercial Bank have supported the temple’s ceremonies or training programs in one way or another.57

Fig. 7: A statue of Luang Po Soth at Wat Phra Dhammakaya

Photo by Arnaud Dubus

  • 58 Phra Prayudh Payutto, กรณีธรรมกาย.
  • 59 Jackson, Buddhism, Legitimation and Conflict, 202.

6The first controversies surrounding Wat Phra Dhammakaya emerged at the end of the 1980s. Focused on doctrinal issues, they were limited to academic circles. In 1987, Prawase Wasi (b. 1931), a medical doctor with a keen interest in Buddhism, criticized the temple’s teachings on nibbāna, saying that the nirvana attained through dhammakāya meditation was not the same as the one described by the Buddha, which is accessed through wisdom (Pali: paññā).58 The same year, ex-monk and scholar Sathienphong Wannapok compared the use of dhammakāya meditation with “hypnosis” and criticised the temple for not advocating adherence to the noble Eight-Fold Path.59

  • 60 Apinya Feungfusakul, สาสนทัสน์ของชุมชนเมืองสมัยใหม่ : ศึกษากรณีวัดพระธรรมกาย [“Religious Propensity (...)

7In the early 1990s, the temple’s unusual fund-raising methods began to attract attention. Wat Phra Dhammakaya used direct-selling marketing methods—giving “bonuses” (in terms of Buddhist merit accumulated, not money) to followers based on the number of followers and donations they could attract—and adopted a very aggressive campaign to raise donations, emphasizing that giving money to the temple equated buying a place in heavens—a theme that resonates with most Thai temples, but this was on a much bigger scale.60

8At the same time, Wat Phra Dhammakaya distinguished itself by being more adapted to modern times. Stray dogs—a common sight in rural temples—were off-limits in the compound. Young monks, all holding at least a bachelor’s degree and many with a master’s degree, worked daily on computers to enter the fifty-six volumes of the tipiṭaka (the Buddhist Pali Canon) on CD-ROMs, in collaboration with the London-based Pali Text Society. Many of them had been recruited initially through the dhammadayada training program.

  • 61 Jackson, Buddhism, Legitimation and Conflict, 214.
  • 62 ผ่ากลุ่มทุนเสาหลักหนุนธรรมกาย [Analysis of the core group of investors supporting Wat Phra Dhammaka (...)

9After a few days of physical training at the Kaeng Krachan Special Military Camp in Phetchaburi province, students were recruited for this one-month summer program, where they would intensively practice concentration meditation (Pali: samādhi) and sleep outside under a klot or umbrella equipped with a mosquito net, usually used by monks. Those who passed this training would be ordained as monks. Many participants would describe their training as a “life-changing experience” in terms close to those used by evangelical converts. This training program and the control that Wat Phra Dhammakaya progressively extended to all Buddhist clubs in universities in Bangkok (except Mahidol University) and many others upcountry helped the temple’s development. It has been a way for the temple to build up an extensive network of followers who may offer support and assistance in the business world and bureaucracy.61 From the DTAC telecommunications corporation’s CEO Boonchai Benjarongkul to stock market investor Manothip Jakawantham and Lactasoy Company’s CEO Mongkol Jirapatanakul, the list of high-profile businessmen who were supporting Wat Phra Dhammakaya in 2016 is impressive.62

Fig. 8: A banner inviting children to enroll in Wat Phra Dhammakaya’s “novice school”

Photo by Arnaud Dubus

  • 63 The author visited the school in February 2016.

10Later, a boarding school for novices was established within Wat Phra Dhammakaya, where children, mostly from upcountry, would be sent by their families to be taught order and discipline as novices for one to three years. The ex-pupils of the school are likely to become Dhammakaya’s ambassadors when they return to their provinces.63

  • 64 Sanitsuda Ekachai, “The Dhammakaya Controversy,” in Keeping the Faith, edited by Nick Wilgus (Bangk (...)
  • 65 Jackson, Buddhism, Legitimation and Conflict, 213.

11Urban middle-class Thais were impressed by the efficiency, cleanliness, orderliness and grandeur of the main temple itself—qualities that they tend to equate with goodness.64 The materialistic way Buddhism is approached by the Dhammakaya Temple echoes the consumerism dominating Thai society: Dhammakaya’s version of Buddhism and its meditation technique are presented as products that are marketed for mass consumption and must deliver results. Followers are told that by practicing dhammakāya meditation they “will be more successful in their business.”65

Box 6 - Esoteric teaching of Wat Phra Dhammakaya and Phra Dhammachayo

  • 66 Mano Mettanando Laohavanich, “Esoteric Teaching of Wat Phra Dhammakaya,” Journal of Buddhist Ethics(...)

The core esoteric doctrine of Wat Phra Dhammakaya is deeply rooted in Phra Monkhol-thep-muni’s experiences as a monk at Wat Pak Nam Phasi Charoen in the first half of the twentieth century. During a meditation session one morning in 1916, he said that he rediscovered the “original teaching of the Buddha,” which he called vijja dhammakāya. This understanding was reached during a meditation session when he visualized a bright crystal ball, which led his consciousness further inside “to discover the Body of Enlightenment of the Buddha, after passing through layers of inner refined bodies one inside the other.”66

  • 67 Ibid., 488.

This experience provided the basis for the reinvention of a supposedly long-lost meditation technique, which is currently used and promoted by Wat Phra Dhammakaya to attract followers. According to Dr Mano Mettanando Laovanich, a former senior Dhammakaya monk who left the temple and has since become an academic, this meditation technique consists of “visualizing a crystal ball or a crystal Buddha image at the level of 2 finger-breadths above the navel around the middle part of the body and the use of the universal mantra: samma-araham.” 67

  • 68 Ibid., 489.

At a deeper level, the innermost dhammakāya, called dhammakāya arahant is, said Phra Monkhol-thep-muni, the true self of individuals. It is the “living Buddha within, tangible and permanent like a huge living crystal Buddha sitting in deep meditation.” 68 Those who reach the deepest and more refined levels of inner understanding become Dhammakayas of the Light. These assumptions are in total contradiction with the core teachings of Theravāda Buddhism on anattā or non-self.

  • 69 Ibid., 491.

The aim of this quest for ultimate knowledge is to fight and destroy the “dark forces,” the Māra. Phra Monkhol-thep-muni believed he had been designated by the creator of nibbāna to lead the Dhammakayas of the Light against their arch rival, the Dhammakayas of Darkness. “Our human existence and the world are the battlefields between the two cosmic enemies. When the battle is won, the entire cosmic existence will reveal its true nature; i.e. the whole of humankind and all other living creatures will turn into Dhammakayas of the Light.” 69

  • 70 Ibid.

Once he became the abbot of Wat Phra Dhammakaya, Phra Dhammachayo rebranded this Buddhology and made it more sophisticated, but the inner core stayed the same. Phra Dhammachayo stated that he was himself the Creator of nibbāna who had commanded Phra Monkhol-thep-muni “to lead the Cosmic Army in the Final War.” 70 All this may sound a bit like the scenario of a Hollywood movie aimed at a teenage audience or even the material for a flashy computer game, but the widespread success of Wat Phra Dhammakaya is testimony that it has to be taken seriously. It must also be noted that these “higher level teachings” are not dispensed to newcomers, who are taught traditional Buddhist precepts revolving around compassion, morality and meditation. The deeper esoteric Dhammakaya teachings are only accessible to long-time monks and devotees close to the temple’s highest ranks.

Overall, Wat Phra Dhammakaya’s Buddhology is nothing less than a “revolution in Theravāda Buddhism,” according to Mano Mettanando Laohavanich (see also Box 7):

  • 71 Ibid.

It transforms (Theravāda Buddhism) into a theological religion. It shifts the paradigm of reality towards a collective enlightenment in which the whole of cosmic existence is the battlefield between the Sons of Light, the Bright Dhammakayas, against the Sons of Darkness or Māra. To be a Buddha, according to the dhammakāya meditation, is no longer a difficult task, as it is commonly understood in mainstream Theravāda Buddhism; it is seen as a small issue compared to the aim of the founder of dhammakāya meditation, which is to liberate the entire samsara in his life through the Victory of the Dhammakayas in the Last Cosmic Battle of the Universe.71

12In September 1998, the expanding temple faced another wave of criticism, after it proclaimed that a “miracle” had happened at the main chedi—the Mahathammakai Chedi, then under construction—and had been witnessed by thousands of followers. According to the temple’s account, which was widely reproduced in newspapers, an image of Luang Po Soth had appeared in the sky, superimposed on the sun. The claim triggered a wave of criticism in the media, which also began to scrutinize Wat Phra Dhammakaya’s fund-raising methods.

  • 72 Scott, Nirvana for Sale, 102.
  • 73 Ibid., 103.

13Thailand was then in the middle of a deep economic crisis, triggered in July 1997 when the government of Chaovalit Yongchaiyud (1996–97) suddenly floated the baht after having spent billions of dollars in a vain attempt to defend the national currency against speculative attacks by overseas investors. In the following months, thousands of Thai firms went bankrupt and millions of Thais lost their jobs. In this context, Wat Phra Dhammakaya’s aggressive drive to gather donations to build the Mahathammakai Chedi, a giant golden stupa, was viewed as extravagant and improper. Temple devotees were urged to buy small golden Buddha statues under which their names would be inscribed, to be placed around the stupa—the most expensive statues being placed at the highest level. 72 Amulets, advertised for their ability to “suck assets,” were also sold in order to finance the giant project. The media discovered the temple’s “millionaires’ club”—a group of followers who were promised rebirth as “millionaires,” in exchange for monthly donations.73 Even with the Theravāda tradition of large donations for the construction of grand religious buildings and stupas, the consensus, at least among the media, was that Wat Phra Dhammakaya had overstepped its boundaries.

Box 7 - Interview with Mano Mettanando Laohavanich, May 2016

Wat Phra Dhammakaya has tried to modernize Thai Buddhism, which has a positive side. At the same time, they are using the old sangha administrative structure for their benefit. It seems like a mixture of both old and new.

  • 74 Interview conducted in English. Mano Mettanando Laohavanich (b. 1956) is a former senior monk of Wa (...)

It is true. When I came back from Oxford in 1988, I found that the temple had expanded by three hundred times, in terms of numbers of people, but also land.74 The abbot was very engaged in a lot of businesses. He started to be involved in businesses since 1983. While before he had been a little well-off, he was quite affluent at that time. Khun Yay Chan was the pillar of Wat Phra Dhammakaya. She was a very strict, very strong, very devoted Buddhist. I have no doubt of her ability and also her sincerity in practicing Buddhism.

But Dhammachayo was another kind of character. He was ambitious. He has two personalities. One is very quiet, very peaceful, he loves to meditate and is a little withdrawn from society. But the other side is totally the opposite. He is ambitious. He wanted to be the greatest guy. He is an admirer of Adolf Hitler. He said himself he loved Hitler. Even in his Buddho-theology, he included Hitler as a member of the Troops of the Light that reincarnate from Nirvana down on Earth.

Is one of the temple’s major attractions its “re-discovered” meditation technique?

Wat Dhammakaya exaggerated the meditation technique. At Wat Pak Nam, they did not see it that way, but Wat Dhammakaya made it more gravitating, more tempting, more mystical. At Wat Pak Nam, they did not want to say that this was the lost knowledge of Buddhism rediscovered by Luang Po Soth (Phra Monkhol-thep-muni) as Dhammakaya said later. Meditation is the first entrance. After, they enter this esoteric knowledge which they introduce step by step to newcomers until they are sure this one really belongs to their community, then they will reveal more. It is a sect-like method.

Given the fact that so much is built around the personality of Phra Dhammachayo, when he is gone, will the temple survive?

They have a very good bureaucratic structure. They will have a shock when their leader is gone. I think they will suffer enormously, like the Nazis without Hitler.

At the beginning, Wat Phra Dhammakaya expanded through the Buddhist organizations within the universities?

Yes that is right. Dhammachayo studied the life of Hitler very clearly. He looked at how Hitler introduced Nazism in Germany through its promotion among students. When the students were organized and they believed in him, the second step were business people. Then, the third level were politicians. There are three steps. Dhammachayo followed these, Hitler-style. Finally, Wat Phra Dhammakaya took over almost all universities in Thailand.

How is Wat Phra Dhammakaya expanding its control over the temples across the country?

They impress people by inviting them to their ceremonies and giving a lot of money to the abbots, so the abbots tend to believe: “this is the best.” Because the donations were lump sums, they were impressed. They bought the model. Whatever the temple says, they agree.

Are there any rules which could have prevented Dhammakaya to be so involved in business ventures?

The weakness of the sangha is money. Several rules prohibit monks from undertaking any business transactions, but there is no control in practice. Buddhists believe that monks are very honest people. So there is a lack of control. That is the great weakness.

Buddhism is difficult to reform, because monks control the power and don’t want to release the power. Whenever we touch upon the issue of monks’ money, they stand up and fight against [such accusations].

So, what Wat Phra Dhammakaya is doing on a big scale, any temple in the countryside is doing the same, but on a smaller scale?

It is right. Wat Dhammakaya did not offer anything new in terms of morality. It offers the image of tidiness, efficiency. They are an elite temple. But behind this, there is a massive amount of investment and embezzlement which is going on. The involvement with the two Credit Unions shows how they manipulated these financial operations until one of these companies collapsed. It had been transformed into a pyramid fund, and finally collapsed. Dhammachayo was behind it.

  • 75 Scott, Nirvana for Sale, 149.

14At the same moment, the doctrinal controversy bounced back with the publication of The Dhammakaya Case (Korani Thammakai) by respected monk Phra Prayudh Payutto, who attempted to clarify the temple’s controversial claim “nipphan pen atta” (nibbāna is the essential self). After a lengthy analysis, the monk demonstrated that there is no trace of such a teaching in the canonical scriptures of the tipiṭaka, and that such an affirmation is external to Buddha’s teachings.75

  • 76 Bangkok Post, February 20, 2015.

15The situation came to a head in 1999, when Supreme Patriarch Somdet Phra Nyanasamvara wrote a letter “instructing” the Sangha Supreme Council to disrobe Phra Dhammachayo, on two grounds.76 First, he accused the abbot of the Dhammakaya temple of “distorting Buddhist teachings, which created conflicts within the monastic community.” Second, he accused the monk of holding under his name 1,500 rai (240 hectares) of land donated to the temple and of refusing to transfer it to the temple—a clear breach of not only the vinaya, but also Thai law.

  • 77 “Forest Abbot Warns Sangha Reform ‘Urgent,’” Bangkok Post, March 12, 2015.
  • 78 Somphon Thepsitha, former president of the Young Buddhists Association of Thailand, and Manop Pol-P (...)
  • 79 “Thai Court Spares Founder of Dhammakaya,” Bangkok Post, August 23, 2006.
  • 80 Laohavanich, “Esoteric Teaching of Wat Phra Dhammakaya,” 509.

16Already beholden to Wat Phra Dhammakaya, which was dispensing lavish donations to some of the senior monks, the Council’s members did not act upon the Supreme Patriarch’s letter. This inaction may also have been due to the way the Council functions, with infrequent meetings and no clear framework for decision-making or practical follow up.77 In late 1999, Phra Dhammachayo was charged with embezzlement following a complaint by two laypersons.78 Since then, some establishment supporters have distanced themselves from the temple, foremost among them the entire royal family. But in August 2006, the two plaintiffs and the prosecution abruptly withdrew the case, saying that they did not want to create “a bigger rift in Buddhism” 79—opponents of Dhammakaya attribute the withdrawal to pressure from then prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra.80

Political controversy

17After the May 22, 2014 coup d’état that overthrew Yingluck Shinawatra’s government, Dhammakaya’s opponents revived the earlier accusations. Most of the temple’s critics were firmly with the Yellow Shirts, the bureaucracy, and the palace. Their lay leader was Paiboon Nititawan, a former senator and member of the National Reform Council (NRC), which was set up by the junta to define the political reform guidelines.

  • 81 Interview, Phra Methee Dhammachan, May 2016.
  • 82 Interview, Paiboon Nititawan, March 2017.

18Paiboon was the chair of the NRC’s subcommittee on religious affairs. He proposed several draft laws, including one to audit and regulate the assets of all temples and monks across the country. Earlier, during the People’s Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC, an incarnation of the Yellow Shirts) demonstrations against Yingluck from November 2013 until the 2014 coup, Paiboon had appeared on PDRC’s stage along with Suthep Thaugsuban, the former Democrat Party MP who had become in 2013 the overall leader of the “Great Mass of the People”—as the protest movement called itself. The main theme of Paiboon’s public speeches was the reform of Thai Buddhism.81 He is a staunch critic of Wat Phra Dhammakaya and Phra Dhammachayo, whom he has accused of breaching monastic discipline through personally receiving and even “accumulating” money as well as distorting Theravāda doctrine.82

19The second main character behind the revived case against Dhammakaya is a politically active monk, Phra Buddha Isara, whom we have mentioned already and who is the abbot of Wat Or Noi in Khampaeng Saen district, Nakhon Pathom province. Both men were acting in close cooperation. Buddha Isara was fully invested in the most visible part of the campaign, visiting the acting supreme patriarch Somdet Chuang at his Pak Nam Phasi Charoen temple to put pressure on him to act, and handing out written calls for action to the Attorney General, the Department of Special Investigations (DSI), and junta leader and prime minister Prayuth Chan-ocha. Buddha Isara’s tone was threatening—and he always traveled with around two hundred thug-like “supporters,” often under military protection. Notably, the junta allowed Buddha Isara to stage demonstrations and marches when all other “political activities” were banned.

  • 83 “NRC Axes Guardians of Buddhism,” Bangkok Post, March 7, 2015.

20Yet Wat Phra Dhammakaya was too big to swallow. The junta was clearly uncomfortable. First, the legal case had been closed once and for all, and there was no way to revive it except by launching a new case. Second, and perhaps more importantly, directly confronting Wat Phra Dhammakaya risked provoking an open conflict between supporters and detractors of the temple, a state of affairs the junta could barely politically afford when it was already much criticized for its other policies. Prayuth backed down and, on March 6, 2015, asked Paiboon to dissolve his subcommittee on religious affairs.83

  • 84 King Bhumibol’s only son ascended to the throne on December 1, 2016 as King Maha Vajiralongkorn or (...)

21But Prayuth had not taken into account Phra Buddha Isara’s and Paiboon Nititawan’s tenaciousness. Among other things, the monk asked the DSI to check on the assets of all members of the Supreme Sangha Council. On Paiboon’s request, the DSI began to investigate the case of a vintage Mercedes Benz donated by a follower to Somdet Chuang. The investigation appeared to reveal that the expensive car had been fully imported and not, as specified on the ownership documents held by Somdet Chuang’s office, locally assembled, and thus avoiding heavy taxes. The saga occupied the front pages of newspapers for months, and finally Somdet Chuang agreed to give the car to the DSI, thereby ending all possible legal avenues to sue him. But, the reputation of the senior monk had been sullied, and the controversy was used as a reason to block his appointment as supreme patriarch (see Box 9). Prayuth did not forward the name recommended unanimously by the Supreme Sangha Council to King Bhumibol Adulyadej, and after the king’s death in October 2016, the position was left vacant.84

22Then, on December 29, 2016, the junta-appointed National Legislative Assembly unanimously passed an amendment to the Sangha Act to remove the Council’s role in the appointment of a new supreme patriarch. The amended section 7 of the Act stipulated that “the King appoints the Supreme Patriarch, whose appointment will be countersigned by the Prime Minister.” The rule setting up seniority conditions for the appointment of the supreme patriarch was also discarded. The former version said that the Council had to nominate a candidate for the position and to forward the name to the prime minister, who himself would submit it to the king for approval. The amendment meant that the king could appoint any senior monk as supreme patriarch.

  • 85 “Senior Monk Backs Off as Sangha Act Amended,” The Nation, December 30, 2016.

23The Assembly deftly presented the new version as a return to the king’s traditional power over the sangha, which had been reduced in the Sangha Act’s 1992 amendment. This was a good way to prevent massive opposition to the amendment by monks and it apparently worked: even Phra Methee Dhammachan, the deputy-rector of Mahachulalongkorn Buddhist University and one of Somdet Chuang’s main supporters, backed down.85 Based on five names submitted by Prayuth, the new king’s choice of Phra Maha Munivong, the abbot of Rajabophit temple, as the new supreme patriarch also contributed to appeasing tensions, as he is unanimously recognized as a monk who strictly follows monastic discipline and leads a simple life. One of his first actions after being appointed was to go to the Pak Nam Phasi Charoen temple to pay homage to Somdet Chuang—an important gesture in Thai culture and society with its emphasis on respect for seniority.

Fig. 9: A mass ceremony at Wat Phra Dhammakaya in 2015

Photo by Arnaud Dubus

  • 86 Interview, Sulak Sivaraksa, April 2015.

24The real target of the campaign was not, however, Somdet Chuang himself, but Wat Phra Dhammakaya. The concerted opposition to Somdet Chuang’s appointment was hardly about accusations that he had cheated on tax—although that would be a serious breach of monastic discipline, but because of fears that his ascension, according to Paiboon and Buddha Isara’s troops, would have allowed Wat Phra Dhammakaya to “take over Thai Buddhism.” 86

25From my own observation of ceremonies at Wat Phra Dhammakaya where members of the Supreme Sangha Council were present, the temple’s influence on the Council is obvious. The elderly senior monks are treated like royalty at the temple, being brought by luxury vans, sitting atop stages overlooking thousands of monks and tens of thousands of lay followers, and showered with gifts. In a society where networking, influence and visual spectacle is everything, even in monastic circles, the net cast by Wat Phra Dhammakaya and Phra Dhammachayo over the country is wide and tight.

  • 87 Ibid.

26But why would many Thais worry that a well-managed, modern-looking and dynamic temple grows in influence and takes a leadership role in a sluggish, fossilized and inward-looking monastic community? The first point is the link with Thaksin Shinawatra. Analysts and media allege that Wat Phra Dhammakaya is “a Red Shirts temple” with close connections to Thaksin. Sulak Sivaraksa affirmed that during the political demonstrations of 2009–10, “Red Shirts used to retreat into Wat Phra Dhammakaya.” 87

  • 88 Interview, Phra Buddha Isara, March 2016.
  • 89 Sanitsuda Ekachai, “Prosecutors let monk off the hook,” Bangkok Post, August 24, 2006.

27Phra Buddha Isara is adamant that the withdrawal in 2006 of the legal case against Phra Dhammachayo was ordered or requested by Thaksin. “Thaksin asked the general prosecutor to stop the case in the name of reconciliation,” said the monk.88 Indeed, barely one month before the coup that would overthrow the Thaksin administration, all charges against Phra Dhammachayo were dropped on August 22, 2006, under the rather vague justification of avoiding the creation of a divide between clergy and laypeople. Journalist Sanitsuda Ekachai, a frequent commentator on Buddhist affairs, argued that the decision reflected the strong connections between the temple and powerful politicians.89

  • 90 Interview, Mano Mettanando Laovanich, May 2016.
  • 91 Anant Asavabhokhin resigned from his position as chairman of the company in May 2017 after being ac (...)
  • 92 Ukrist Pathmanand, “Network Thaksin: Structure, Roles and Reaction,” in Unequal Thailand: Aspects o (...)

28Some other elements could underline the Shinawatra–Dhammakaya connection. Phra Dhammachayo received an important position in the sangha administration and was made a Phra Phromayantera in December 2011 when the country was led by Yingluck Shinawatra. A second possible connection is that, according to Mano Laohavanich, Phra Dhammachayo was able to establish a bank, the Land and Houses Bank, with the support of Thaksin, who pushed the public Krungthai Bank to give a huge loan to facilitate its launch.90 The CEO of Land and Houses Bank, Anant Asavabhokhin, a staunch supporter of the Dhammakaya temple, had indeed a strong connection to Thaksin via his friendship with Boonklee Plangsiri, a close aide and advisor to Thaksin.91 Moreover, Anant’s company was one of the major supporters of Voice TV, owned by the Shinawatra family.92

Box 8 - Interview with Phra Pasura Dantamano, Wat Phra Dhammakaya monk, February 2016

“We don’t want to be involved in politics, but it is the politics which gets to us”

Is Wat Phra Dhammakaya supported by the Red Shirts and linked to Thaksin Shinawatra?

These are false accusations and allegations. The temple is not involved in any political affairs. Because monks are not supposed to be involved in politics. The temple has a lot of followers, and many people coming to the temple may share this political ideology. But when they enter this place, they have to put this political ideology aside and finally the temple becomes a neutral ground for all these people, who may be different outside, to come here to find peace of mind. So far we have not tried to be engaged in any politics at all, because it would disturb the meditation practice of monks.

Nowadays in Thailand, the political conflict is very strong, so some try to make connections between the temple and this political conflict. These connections are made not only for the temple, but also for certain companies, certain organizations, certain individuals. The temple is only one of the victims of all these false accusations. We don’t want to be involved in politics, but it is the politics which gets to us.

Why were there so many campaigns against Wat Phra Dhammakaya in the last 20 years?

That would be a good question to ask these accusers who are in the news every day. To be honest, we don’t know why they keep coming up with accusations every day. Dhammakaya temple is new. We try to apply many modern management, modern technologies in order to be easily approached by all the people from various age groups. Since we have a high number of projects, it sometimes provokes misunderstandings, which finally lead to these accusations. The accusers don’t understand the objective of this temple, which is to promote meditation and moral values.

Why is Wat Phra Dhammakaya supporting the campaign to make Buddhism the national religion?

Buddhism has very deep roots in Thai culture for the last 1,000 years and it has been a guide for moral conduct for the people, that is why Thai people have been so famous in terms of kindness, calmness, generosity and sense of compromise.

This becomes the foundation on which this nation is built. When Thai people speak about Buddhism as a national religion, it means that they are proud of their own identity, they are proud that their ancestors have chosen this philosophy to conduct this country. For me it is very appropriate to have Buddhism as national religion: 95 percent of Thais are Buddhist and Buddhist philosophy is present in every part of our life. Buddhism has always been the glue bringing diverse people together, to form the Thai nation and live together in harmony, with a sense of compromise and acceptance.

Wat Phra Dhammakaya is said to exert a strong influence over the Supreme Sangha Council

The Dhammakaya temple has no power at all over the Supreme Sangha Council. Our abbot does not even have a title or a position in the sangha administration. We are under the sub-district ecclesiastical monastic chief, which is the lowest level of the sangha administration. The Dhammakaya temple has been recognized because of his work and his contributions to sangha affairs. For example, we have the highest number of Pali grade 9 graduates, which is the highest monk certification in this country.

Every month we are sending relief funds to the monks in 323 temples in the south of Thailand, which is affected by terrorism. For the last eleven years, each month. Those contributions were recognized by the senior monks. We also send monks to the South for short periods. The sangha hierarchy sometimes compliment us because of our contributions.

It is like you are in a school and some students have good scores, it does not mean the teacher favors these students, but he recognizes their good performance. That is the case for us.

Is Wat Phra Dhammakaya strongly supporting Somdet Chuang as new supreme patriarch?

  • 93 Interview conducted in English.

We support the Sangha Council’s decision. And the Sangha Council’s decision follows exactly the law, the Sangha Act. Article 7 of the Sangha Act says: after the supreme patriarch’s passing, the Supreme Sangha Council must nominate the most senior somdet and the prime minister must forward the name to H.M. the King for approval and appointment. The vote within the Supreme Council was unanimous, seventeen to zero, representing both Mahanikaya and Thammayut Nikaya, the two orders in Thailand. Wat Phra Dhammakaya supports the decision of the Supreme Sangha Council, which represents 300,000 monks in Thailand.93

  • 94 Interview, Phra Pawithai, May 2015.

29Another indication, although weaker, is the fact that, in February 2016, Weng Tojirakarn (b. 1951), a medical doctor and Red Shirt leader, sprung to the defense of Wat Phra Dhammakaya, saying that the Supreme Sangha Council’s nomination of Somdet Chuang for the post of supreme patriarch should be respected. But, again, these links may be due to the fact that the Shinawatra political clan and Wat Phra Dhammakaya are somehow attacked by the same groups of people and find themselves in the same defensive position. “Our situation is somehow similar to that of Thaksin. We could say we are friends with the Red Shirts, just because of the position we are in,” argued Phra Pawithai, a senior monk of Wat Phra Dhammakaya.94

  • 95 Interview, Vichak Panich, February 2016.

30In a way, Wat Phra Dhammakaya has done for religion what Thaksin has for politics: adopted a dynamic approach to modernize an out-of-date institution and adapted it to twenty-first century expectations. And both Wat Phra Dhammakaya and Thaksin encountered strong resistance by groups with vested interests—the bureaucracy and military, above all—because they were upsetting the cosy status quo. This statement must be qualified, however, as Wat Phra Dhammakaya seems to be using any tools available, archaic or modern, in order to reach its goal of Buddhist domination. As such, Wat Phra Dhammakaya is deftly using the fossilized structure of the sangha for its own benefit and at the same time, using modern marketing techniques and communications—like the DMC Cable TV Channel, which broadcasts a series of programs dedicated to specific audiences—to attract donations and followers. Some of Dhammakaya’s teachings about the efficacy of donations for buildings to guarantee access to nibbāna are reminiscent of the Catholic Church’s sale of indulgences to build basilicas in the sixteenth century. “Whatever is workable, Wat Dhammakaya people are going to use it to promote their ego, be it the old sangha structure or modern capitalist methods,” said Buddhist scholar Vichak Panich.95

31Notably, the Dhammakaya temple is the first nation-wide, well-organized entity since the beginning of the twentieth century that is not closely related to the central state. As we have seen, this too was not always the case, as until the mid-1990s, Wat Phra Dhammakaya was a strongly pro-establishment temple, but the accumulation of accusations and scandals have turned away part of the establishment (but not the Supreme Sangha Council). Wat Phra Dhammakaya can be seen as a potential challenge for any political regime. This was vividly illustrated between June 2016 and March 2017, when the junta tried to have Phra Dhammachayo arrested over the collapse of the Klongchan Credit Union Cooperative in 2013, leading to financial losses for thousands of the fund’s members.

32The former chair of the fund, Supachai Srisupa-Aksorn, had issued hundreds of checks for Dhammachayo totaling US$34 million, shortly before the cooperative went bankrupt. Accused of money laundering and receiving stolen property, Dhammachayo was summoned repeatedly by the police, but refused to obey, saying that he was very ill and could not move out of his temple. On June 16, 2016, the police launched a special operation to “seize” Phra Dhammachayo, but the full power of the Thai state had to concede defeat when thousands of Wat Phra Dhammakaya followers, sitting in meditation posture, prevented police officers from entering the compound.

33The astonishing withdrawal of the police forces was a symbolic admission that the Dhammakaya temple seemed to have grown too powerful to be tamed. A new police operation involving 1,000 officers was launched on December 26, 2016, but only resulted in the removal of a fence. Then, on February 14, 2017, Prayuth decided to use Section 44 of the Interim Constitution, which grants him absolute power without executive, legislative or judicial overview to declare the compound of Wat Phra Dhammakaya a “controlled zone,” in order to launch a massive operation to arrest Phra Dhammachayo. The junta had clearly been humiliated by the failure of the two previous raids and wanted to achieve its objective this time. On February 16, 4,000 police officers, backed up by hundreds of soldiers, surrounded the temple and made several searches of the compound, but after a three-week stand-off that saw some minor clashes between security officers and monks, they came back empty-handed and ended the operation.

34This fiasco illustrates how Wat Phra Dhammakaya is the only institution that has escaped the control of the authorities. The challenge was clear, but there was little that the junta could do except to push the king to remove Phra Dhammachayo’s honorific monastic title—which he did in March 2017—and the ecclesiastical authorities to defrock the monk—a difficult process as Wat Phra Dhammakaya exerts a strong influence on them. All this attests to the difficulties the junta faces in controlling Wat Phra Dhammakaya—difficulties due in part to the power of the temple, but also to the links it has built with various levels of state authorities.

Phra Buddha Isara, a new kind of political monk

35As we have seen, Phra Buddha Isara has played an important role in the campaign against Wat Phra Dhammakaya since the 2014 coup. Prior to that, the monk was also very prominent in the massive demonstrations against Yingluck Shinawatra from November 2013 to May 2014. We will attempt to describe and analyze the role of this activist monk during these troubled political times.

  • 96 Interview, Chanchai Huadsri, March 2016.

36In a way, Phra Buddha Isara, who belongs to the Mahanikai congregation, is the contemporary equivalent of Phra Kittiwuttho: an unabashedly pro-status quo monk willing to aggressively attack his perceived political enemies in his sermons. There are some important differences though. First Phra Kittiwuttho was a well-known Mahanikai preacher and meditation teacher at the Mahathat royal temple in Bangkok, next to Thammasat University, while Phra Buddha Isara is a monk without any particular spiritual aura or ecclesiastical position.96

  • 97 Interview, Suwanna Satha-Anand, Professor at Philosophy Department, Chulalongkorn University, May 2 (...)

37Also, despite Phra Buddha Isara’s aggressive stance, he has never gone as far as the encouragement to murder articulated by Phra Kittiwuttho—a call that was followed four months after by the massacre of students at Thammasat University on October 6, 1976. Phra Kittiwuttho’s words are considered unacceptable and outrageous by most Thai intellectuals.97 It should be noted, however, that Kittiwuttho’s position was not in complete contradiction with Buddhist tradition in that karma is dictated first by intention and only secondarily by action. But where Phra Kitthiwuttho was mostly limiting his political ventures to speeches and sermons, Phra Buddha Isara is going much further, entering the political arena and getting his hands dirty.

38From November 2013 to the May 2014 coup, Phra Buddha Isara occupied part of the Chaeng Wattana road in northern Bangkok, next to a large civil servants’ complex, with several hundred PDRC militants. Surrounded by a large party of tough-looking bodyguards and with a bunch of feathers in his hand, like a Roman senator carrying his fasces, Buddha Isara delivered lectures tirelessly for months to his supporters. His tenure as “Chaeng Wattana’s stage leader” was eventful. From the start, Buddha Isara ordered his men to blockade the offices of most of the civil servants working nearby. He also organized marches to the Shin Corp building, on nearby Viphavadi Rangsit road, and other locations linked to the Shinawatra political clan.

  • 98 เดชหลวงปู้ [The power of Luang Pu], Nation Weekly, February 28, 2014.

39During one of his expeditions on February 20, 2014 the monk went with his troops to the SC Park hotel, which belongs to the Shinawatra family. When the manager, fearing trouble, refused to let the demonstrators check in despite the fact that they had booked ten rooms, Buddha Isara requested to be immediately reimbursed in cash, not only for the rooms, but also for his supporters’ forty cars and the cost of their gasoline. The hotel manager obliged and Buddha Isara quietly counted bundles of 1,000-baht notes in front of the cameras.98

40Some incidents were more serious. On the night of April 25, 2014, an army colonel from the intelligence service was shot in the leg and assaulted by Buddha Isara’s bodyguards because he was moving some plastic cones blocking traffic on his drive home. In another incident, two undercover police officers found among the crowd in Chaeng Wattana were blindfolded, and had their hands tied; and then they were forced to kneel and apologize to Buddha Isara, who proceeded to interrogate them.

Fig. 10: Phra Buddha Isara receiving a monk at his Or Noi temple in Nakhon Pathom province

Photo by Arnaud Dubus

  • 99 หลวงปู้พุทธะอิสระและคาถาอิตีปิสวน [Phra Buddha Isara and the spell], Manager Weekly, February 8, 20 (...)

41By far the most serious violence involving Buddha Isara’s supporters happened on February 1, 2014, a day before the elections called by Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra after she had dissolved the parliament in December the previous year. A tense confrontation occurred around the Laksi district office where Buddha Isara had led his supporters to prevent the dispatch of ballot boxes to various electoral offices in Bangkok, so as to jeopardize the elections. As a group of Red Shirts progressed towards the district office, gunshots rang out.99

  • 100 The Popcorn gunman was sentenced for murder to a jail term of 37 years and 4 months in March 2016.

42A reporter who was near Buddha Isara’s supporters was grazed by a bullet, but, according to numerous testimonies, most of the gunfire originated from a hooded man on Buddha Isara’s side who had hidden his automatic rifle in a large popcorn bag, and who became subsequently known as the “Popcorn gunman.” He injured several people, most of them innocent passers-by who were caught in the gunfire near IT Square; a seventy-two-year-old man died of his wounds seven months later.100 After the coup, which was saluted by the monk as a “victory,” Buddha Isara continued to organize demonstrations with several dozens of his supporters. For instance, he protested in front of the US embassy in November 2015 to denounce the American ambassador, who had publicly criticized the lèse-majesté law during a talk at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Bangkok. Another demonstration was organized to denounce the New York-based Human Rights Watch. From January 2016, Buddha Isara started an active campaign to oppose the appointment of Somdet Chuang as the new supreme patriarch, while systematically lambasting Wat Phra Dhammakaya.

Box 9 - Interview with Phra Buddha Isara, abbot of Wat Or Noi, Nakhon Pathom province, March 2016

Why are you so opposed to the appointment of Somdet Chuang as new supreme patriarch?

If the prime minister or the president in your country is involved in a tax fraud scandal, could he be elected or appointed to lead the country? No, isn’t it?

For us, the supreme patriarch is even more important than a president or a prime minister because he is the leader of the faith. And if he is involved in a fraud scandal, we cannot accept it. If a person we are supposed to revere shows dishonorable behavior, it is quite normal that people do not want to accept him. Somdet Chuang is guilty of fiscal fraud, in relation to his vintage car. And do you want somebody like him to become supreme patriarch?

The second thing is the behavior of Phra Dhammachayo, the disciple of Somdet Chuang. Somdet Chuang presided over his ordination. And it is known that Phra Dhammachayo has distorted the teachings of Buddhism. Moreover he has breached monastic discipline. Somdet Chuang is his mentor and the highest ranked monk, but he never said anything to his disciple who has breached discipline. If this kind of monk is appointed leader of the Buddhist church of Thailand, what will be the situation in our country?

Do you consider Dhammakaya temple dangerous for Thailand?

Wat Dhammakaya is extremely dangerous. From a Buddhist viewpoint, they are the worst kind of people. Some bandits come in a hidden way, but Dhammakaya comes in an open way. Some people are donating so much money to Dhammakaya that they find themselves in an impossible situation and commit suicide. Their family is destroyed, they are ruined, because they were deceived into believing that they would become rich. Everybody wants to get rich. But the only one enriching itself is actually Wat Dhammakaya. Those who make donations become poor.

What do you think would be the way out of the supreme patriarch nomination controversy?

The best way is for Somdet Chuang to explain the facts to the population, what he did well and what he did wrong. This is the Buddhist way according to the monastic discipline. Somdet Chuang’s case is very severe, but he just stays quiet. It is a breach of Buddhist discipline. His attitude is contrary to the Buddhist teachings, he should cleanse himself by explaining his wrong deeds. He just thinks that he is untouchable.

Have you been a soldier under the command of General Prayuth Chan-ocha and General Prawit Wongsuwan in the past?

I have already said that it is not true. I have no close relationships with the military. I don’t like to be close to people who hold power. To be embroiled with those with power is suffocating, I feel good when being with people without power. I said to General Prawit, if you have a powerful position, don’t come to visit my temple, but once you give up your powerful position, you are welcome to visit me. Since he has a political position, I have not met him. But if he leaves his position, I would agree to meet him.

What is your position on Buddhism as the national religion?

I don’t agree with it. In Thailand, Buddhism is not the only religion. The unification of the country has not been done only because of the power of Buddhism. If we want to make Buddhism the national religion, we have to ask the people if they agree. If the behavior of the monks is still the same—full of greed and accumulating assets—and we make Buddhism the national religion, what kind of progress will it be?

It depends on the faith of the people, not on the law. The law cannot impose something on the people in the religious field. No country is establishing a religion as a national religion, except for Islamic countries. And do you want us to be like Islamic countries? It is not needed. And the Buddha never asked that Buddhism be made a national religion. And despite this, Buddhism has survived for more than 2,000 years.

  • 101 Interview conducted in Thai.

The people who are negatively affecting religion are the monks themselves, it has nothing to do with the constitution or the laws. It is the monks who are not respecting the Buddhist discipline. They are the ones who are spoiling religion.101

43As earlier noted, Buddha Isara’s freedom to organize demonstrations was in contrast with all other gatherings or marches that were banned, blocked or repressed by the junta. A February 15, 2016 pro-Dhammakaya monks gathering at Buddhamonthon to support the appointment of Somdet Chuang as supreme patriarch, for instance, was immediately blocked by 200 soldiers, and the main organizer, Phra Methee Dhammachan, vice-rector of Mahachulalongkorn Buddhist University, was summoned by the police a few weeks later when he attempted to speak at a press briefing (see also Box 10).

  • 102 Interview, Phra Buddha Isara, March 2016.

44Buddha Isara explains his apparent freedom to demonstrate by the fact that he “always asked the authorization by writing to the civil agency in charge of the location a few days beforehand.” “If the authorization is granted, I go. If it is not granted, I don’t go,” he said, adding that “if the other groups never got the authorization, it is because they never ask for it.” 102 Leading demonstrations, extorting money, threatening and indirectly exercising violence and abetting violence, Buddha Isara represents a new kind of political monk. Never before has a Thai monk been so overtly engaged in the lowly world of intrigues and bitter rivalries, in the lokiya world of petty politics. Even his demeanor is not what one expects from a Theravāda monk, who are supposed to remain aloof, quiet and disengaged. Buddha Isara is emotional and uses demeaning language—some observers say that such behavior is frequent among influential rural monks. His world vision can be interpreted from several documents he published and distributed during the anti-Yingluck demonstrations at the beginning of 2014.

Fig. 11: A drawing posted by a Facebook user lambasting Phra Buddha Isara’s behavior

  • 103 Phra Buddha Isara, “What is Politics?”; document given by Phra Buddha Isara to the author in Januar (...)

45In these rather confused texts, Buddha Isara is advocating a kind of alliance between Buddhism and the monarchy to establish an autocratic regime “aiming at national security and peace”—a framework that gives no space to democracy or people’s participation but that he calls “a democratic system.” “Any other regime is wrong,” he asserts.103 For him, there is no question about whether Buddhism and politics must be separated. “Any person who wants to separate Buddhism from politics, through letting the monks govern themselves without being subject to the Sangha Act, is deluded,” he continued.

  • 104 Interview, Chanchai Huadsri, March 2016; interview, Phra Methee Dhammachan, May 2016.

46The question remains why Buddha Isara appears to be so influential and visible, as he is only an abbot without any status. Our research could not find any past links with the military, but ample photographic evidence shows that he enjoys good relationships with Prayuth Chan-ocha, and General Prawit Wongsuwan, deputy-prime minister and Minister of Defense, and clearly acts as if he has high-level protection. Is he acting on behalf of someone? Is he being used as a convenient proxy by some people who, themselves, prefer not to act openly? Indeed, some analysts consider that the leeway enjoyed by Phra Buddha Isara, after the May 2014 coup, can only be explained by the fact that he is acting on behalf of those in power.104

Box 10 - Interview with Phra Methee Dhammachan, vice-rector of Mahachulalongkorn Buddhist University, May 2016

Why are many groups critical of Wat Phra Dhammakaya?

This is something usual in a society. An organization that has many followers, many supporters, will be examined and criticized. But what we are seeing is that the level of violence is rising with the political division in Thai society between Red Shirts and Yellow Shirts. This division in political groups has also divided the monastic community. We say: monks from such and such a temple are Red monks and monks of such and such a temple are Yellow monks.

What is your view on the controversy surrounding the appointment of the supreme patriarch?

I am worried for the future of the monastic community in the country. We have never seen such violent criticisms towards members of the Supreme Sangha Council. And these criticisms are coming from people linked to the clan that is holding state power. These people—like Phra Buddha Isara and former senator Paiboon Nititawan—are puppets of the state power. They received a green light from those in power and are trying to create problems. It is very worrying.

How do you see the relations between the sangha and politics?

Concerning the day to day politics, the elections, the competition for power, we have never tried to get involved in it. But concerning the future of the country, the future of the people, the security of Buddhism, of the Kingdom, we have no right to refuse to intervene. We have to act in fairness in relation to it. What I am doing every day, I do for the monastic community and for Buddhism.

Is the political activism of Phra Buddha Isara contrary to the vinaya, the monastic discipline?

For monks, abstaining from violence, as well as [maintaining personal] ethics and sincerity are central. Climbing onto a stage to criticize others is not something a monk should do. The monastic community has never behaved like this. Monks have to follow both the country’s laws and the monastic discipline. To incite troubles and conflicts is not what monks should do. On the contrary, they should be the water that extinguishes the fire.

Why was there a monks’ gathering at Buddhamonthon on February 15, 2016?

When I speak to journalists, they often ask me: Do the other monks agree with you? Some journalists say: only Phra Methee Dhammachan speaks like this, the other monks say nothing. How to have the voice of the majority of monks in the country heard? The aim of the gathering was to show that a majority of Thai monks did not agree with the criticisms against the monastic community. For them, it was simply a way to express their views.

Concerning the appointment of the supreme patriarch, does Prime Minister Prayuth have the right to change the name recommended by the Supreme Sangha Council?

  • 105 Interview conducted in Thai.

He does not have the right. Article 7 of the Sangha Act insists on the “intention.” The intention is that monks administer themselves. When the supreme patriarch passes away, the Supreme Sangha Council must meet and nominate the somdet phra racha khana who has held the title for the longest time. The intention is that the monks choose the successor themselves. The prime minister is only a messenger. He must receive the name forwarded by the Supreme Sangha Council and forward it to the king. It is written nowhere that [the PM] has the right of veto.105

Fig. 12: Phra Methee Dhammachan

Photo by Arnaud Dubus

47Buddha Isara’s overtly political behavior does have some parallels with one monk in the 1990s and 2000s. Luang Ta Maha Bua (1913–2011), a well-known forest monk, became very engaged during the 1997 financial and economic crisis in a quest to collect money to “save the nation.” After a period of collaboration with Thaksin, culminating in the monk offering 12 tons of gold and US$10.2 million collected from donors to the Bank of Thailand to contribute to the repayment of Thailand’s debt to the International Monetary Fund, Maha Bua turned against Thaksin and began to attack him vehemently in his speeches.

48And as we have seen, Santi Asoke “monks” participated actively in most of the anti-Thaksin demonstrations from 2006 to 2014, bringing a Buddhist flavor to the Yellow Shirt gatherings. But the Luang Ta Maha Bua episode was short-lived and seemed based more on personal revenge — the monk was hurt by Thaksin’s apparent disdain towards him — rather than on clear political commitment. As for the Santi Asoke “monks” and “nuns,” their strict discipline and quiet demeanor during demonstrations fitted with the image that Thai people generally have about monks.

  • 106 Watcharabon Buddharaksa, “The Old is Dying and the New Cannot Be Born: Organic Crisis, Social Force (...)

49On the other hand, Phra Buddha Isara’s complete immersion into the murky waters of politics illustrates the confusion reigning in the Thai monastic community, and the blurring of the lines between religion and politics. It is also a reflection of the wider confusion in society, where traditional values are dissolving and landmarks disappearing in a lengthy transition where, as Watcharabon Buddharaksa, drawing on Antonio Gramsci, wrote, “the old is dying and the new cannot be born.” 106


55 Scott, Nivarna for Sale?, 50–52.

56 Ibid., 96.

57 Jackson, Buddhism, Legitimation and Conflict, 211.

58 Phra Prayudh Payutto, กรณีธรรมกาย.

59 Jackson, Buddhism, Legitimation and Conflict, 202.

60 Apinya Feungfusakul, สาสนทัสน์ของชุมชนเมืองสมัยใหม่ : ศึกษากรณีวัดพระธรรมกาย [“Religious Propensity of Urban Communities: A Case Study of Phra Dhammakaya”], Centre for Buddhist Studies, Chulalongkorn University, 1998.

61 Jackson, Buddhism, Legitimation and Conflict, 214.

62 ผ่ากลุ่มทุนเสาหลักหนุนธรรมกาย [Analysis of the core group of investors supporting Wat Phra Dhammakaya], Kom Chad Luek, June 21, 2016,

63 The author visited the school in February 2016.

64 Sanitsuda Ekachai, “The Dhammakaya Controversy,” in Keeping the Faith, edited by Nick Wilgus (Bangkok: Post Publishing, 2001), 95.

65 Jackson, Buddhism, Legitimation and Conflict, 213.

66 Mano Mettanando Laohavanich, “Esoteric Teaching of Wat Phra Dhammakaya,” Journal of Buddhist Ethics 19 (2012): 489. Available at (accessed October 27, 2017).

67 Ibid., 488.

68 Ibid., 489.

69 Ibid., 491.

70 Ibid.

71 Ibid.

72 Scott, Nirvana for Sale, 102.

73 Ibid., 103.

74 Interview conducted in English. Mano Mettanando Laohavanich (b. 1956) is a former senior monk of Wat Phra Dhammakaya who left the temple and has become an ardent critic of Dhammakaya. He teaches Thai Studies at the Pridi Banomyong International College, Thammasat University.

75 Scott, Nirvana for Sale, 149.

76 Bangkok Post, February 20, 2015.

77 “Forest Abbot Warns Sangha Reform ‘Urgent,’” Bangkok Post, March 12, 2015.

78 Somphon Thepsitha, former president of the Young Buddhists Association of Thailand, and Manop Pol-Pailin, former expert at the Department of Religious Affairs, within the Ministry of Education.

79 “Thai Court Spares Founder of Dhammakaya,” Bangkok Post, August 23, 2006.

80 Laohavanich, “Esoteric Teaching of Wat Phra Dhammakaya,” 509.

81 Interview, Phra Methee Dhammachan, May 2016.

82 Interview, Paiboon Nititawan, March 2017.

83 “NRC Axes Guardians of Buddhism,” Bangkok Post, March 7, 2015.

84 King Bhumibol’s only son ascended to the throne on December 1, 2016 as King Maha Vajiralongkorn or Rama X.

85 “Senior Monk Backs Off as Sangha Act Amended,” The Nation, December 30, 2016.

86 Interview, Sulak Sivaraksa, April 2015.

87 Ibid.

88 Interview, Phra Buddha Isara, March 2016.

89 Sanitsuda Ekachai, “Prosecutors let monk off the hook,” Bangkok Post, August 24, 2006.

90 Interview, Mano Mettanando Laovanich, May 2016.

91 Anant Asavabhokhin resigned from his position as chairman of the company in May 2017 after being accused of collaboration in money laundering in relation to the Klongchan Credit Union Cooperative scandal, in which Dhammachayo was also involved.

92 Ukrist Pathmanand, “Network Thaksin: Structure, Roles and Reaction,” in Unequal Thailand: Aspects of Income, Wealth and Power, ed. Pasuk Phongpaichit and Chris Baker (Singapore: NUS Press, 2015).

93 Interview conducted in English.

94 Interview, Phra Pawithai, May 2015.

95 Interview, Vichak Panich, February 2016.

96 Interview, Chanchai Huadsri, March 2016.

97 Interview, Suwanna Satha-Anand, Professor at Philosophy Department, Chulalongkorn University, May 2016.

98 เดชหลวงปู้ [The power of Luang Pu], Nation Weekly, February 28, 2014.

99 หลวงปู้พุทธะอิสระและคาถาอิตีปิสวน [Phra Buddha Isara and the spell], Manager Weekly, February 8, 2014.

100 The Popcorn gunman was sentenced for murder to a jail term of 37 years and 4 months in March 2016.

101 Interview conducted in Thai.

102 Interview, Phra Buddha Isara, March 2016.

103 Phra Buddha Isara, “What is Politics?”; document given by Phra Buddha Isara to the author in January 2014.

104 Interview, Chanchai Huadsri, March 2016; interview, Phra Methee Dhammachan, May 2016.

105 Interview conducted in Thai.

106 Watcharabon Buddharaksa, “The Old is Dying and the New Cannot Be Born: Organic Crisis, Social Forces and the Thai State 1997–2010” (PhD diss., University of York, 2014).

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