The Theravādan Buddhist temple of Wat Phra Dhammakaya has been under siege by the junta of Thailand. The former Abbot, less respectfully referred to now as “Phra Dhammajayo”, has been accused of involvement in money-laundering and encroachment upon Thai national land.
Multiple searches throughout the temple’s vast compounds by the military, with full cooperation from Wat Phra Dhammakaya, over the months of February and March 2017 resulted in Luang Por Dhammajayo as m.i.a. A big question at this point is, “Why doesn’t he just turn himself in?”
Such inquiry necessitates a framework and background to put it in.
Socially, Thailand is fueled by “face-value”. The perception of who holds power pervades. Throughout Thailand’s history, power frequently changed hands among the ruling royal elite of various domestic, indigenous kingdoms. Thus, there is a social need for whoever holds the power to remind the people.
The first arrest warrant related to these charges was issued for Luang Por Dhammajayo - a more respectful title - on May 17th of 2016 due to him not presenting himself to the authorities to hear the charges against him. The temple had previously sent multiple official requests to have the charges read at the temple due to the former Abbot’s severe and ailing health. Nevertheless, after multiple attempts to enter the temple compound since the arrest warrant was issued have failed due to devotees blocking the entrances, Article 44 was enacted by Prime Minister General Prayut Chan-o-cha and a full-on military siege was brought upon the temple at 3am of February 16, 2017.
Article 44 of the interim Thai Constitution drafted by the current Thai junta states that the Prime Minister may dictate any area of the Kingdom of Thailand a “special control zone” and under martial law. Herein the government also removes itself of any responsibility or liability to an autonomous judicial court.
Is Wat Phra Dhammakaya or Phra Dhammajayo a threat to national security or identity?
Wat Phra Dhammakaya has been under scrutinizing and persecuting limelight from the Thai and International press since the late ‘90s. The temple is dubbed a sect of Buddhism, i.e. not ‘real’ Buddhism. Worse, it has been labeled a cult and we all know there is no coming back from that ominous title.
Any spotlight on the temple highlights a sense of it being stained, blemished. The mainstream press continues to beat the horse that Wat Phra Dhammakaya is a “controversial” temple with a dark past. Moreover, it has supposed affiliation with the Red-Shirt party including political ties with ousted former Thai Prime Minister Mr. Thaksin Shinawatra.
All this is conspiracy. Neither the temple nor its Abbot Emeritus Luang Por Dhammajayo has ever been convicted of any crime, even to this day. To allude to the Red-Yellow Shirt drama of Thailand’s recent past, members of both parties have come to practice their faith at Wat Phra Dhammakaya. The temple does not hold allegiance to one or the other. It holds allegiance to the BuddhaDharma and the practice of Buddhism. Monks take vows to be apolitical. That’s a fact. But that doesn’t make for a good story, gossip, or drama. So the media and press prefer to fabricate and report a story that sells. And people like Buddha-Isara, Mano Laohavanich and Sulak Sivaraksa are ammunition for the drama and the problem. They are neither the solution nor the truth, no matter their social circles, accolades, or academic degrees. Any honest research and analysis of their statements and views shows their short-comings and obvious prejudices. It is also a fair thing to say that judging something before having personally experienced it thoroughly is not a good practice.
The temple is the biggest and most successful in Thailand. It has humungous financial resources at its disposal. Like, trumping Trump-style huuuuge in both national importance and wealth. Because of its financial status, enormity, and style of dissemination of Buddhist teachings, it naturally draws a lot of attention.
The Dhammakaya Foundation is an United Nations affiliated Non-Government Organization. It has its own FREE satellite channel that disseminates teachings of both the scriptures as well as morality and self-development based on the BuddhaDharma of Lord Buddha and commentated on by the many adept scholars and practitioners that reside in the temple. The temple hosts gargantuan ceremonies within its enormous compounds and structures, some of which can comfortably hold up to 1 million people. They enact programs for youth moral development and education, assist with domestic and foreign disaster relief, support deserted and abandoned temples throughout Thailand, encourage Buddhists to support and participate in religious activities within their own communities (and not particularly with Wat Phra Dhammakaya), and are bridge-builders. An example of this is they spent much of 2016 and 2017 in a continuous ceremony of chanting the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta, the first sermon of the Lord Buddha in the Pali language. In the beginning of 2017, they had completed over 16 million rounds. Monks and laypeople from not just all over Thailand but all over Asia - and of different denominations of Buddhism - would visit to participate, thus bringing the Buddhist community together under the common banner of arguably the most important teaching in the faith and practice. Because of their altruistic motivation to protect, guard, and see to the growth of Buddhism in Thailand, they attract more attention and devotees.
The fact is, this predicament is not about Luang Por Dhammajayo wanting to turn himself in or not. Frankly, the devotees will not allow Luang Por Dhammajayo to turn himself in!
In reality, there is no proof or promise that Luang Por Dhammajayo will receive a fair trial. Recent arrests using the Computer Crime Act of Thai citizens who questioned or criticized the junta, and the March 2017 United Nations meeting in Geneva where Thai officials failed to address international concerns about the junta’s obligation to uphold civil and political rights, cause grave concern and doubt. Why would there then be an honest, altruistic system of justice in Thailand? This isn’t Kansas, Dorothy.
People have died and been abused. Anawat Thanacharoennat committed self-immolation outside the temple to raise public awareness against Article 44. A volunteer nurse, Pattana Chiangraeng, died due to the military barricades not permitting an oxygen tank and medicine to pass to save her from a simple asthma attack. Women, men, and monks who created a human shield to nonviolently protest against the siege were sent to ICUs for injuries inflicted during a confrontation wherein Thai military soldiers and police abused them.
Disciples of Wat Phra Dhammakaya feel the junta is stepping out of line with ulterior agendas, without proper evidence, using the hunt for Luang Por Dhammajayo as a smoke and dagger. The devotees further believe there will not be sufficient medical care for Luang Por Dhammajayo’s dire medical condition of severe deep-vein thrombosis in the left leg, chronic venous insufficiency, diabetes, venous stasis ulcers, hyperlipidemia, sensitivity to light, allergies, hypertension, and vertigo. Books like The King Never Smiles by Paul M Handley or Welcome to Hell by Colin Martin showcase Thailand’s political and court systems as not known for their pleasant, or humane history. There is a very real possibility that “Phra Dhammajayo” will receive neither proper medical attention nor fair treatment while in custody. The fact that he is a 72 year-old man, and still a Buddhist monk, does not seem to interfere with the junta’s conviction to make an example out of him.
The international, and especially western world, need to understand a code that true Buddhist practitioners live by. Honor and see to the care of one's teachers, most especially one’s “gurus” ครูบาจารย์. This does not simply mean giving your teacher an apple out of appreciation and being done with it for the day. Thailand is not a western world with a western paradigm and Christian or Jewish enculturation. We would do good to put ourselves in their shoes and their cultural background. The act of gratitude and giving back is a well-known, fundamental, and cardinal virtue instilled in disciples and practitioners of BuddhaDharma, of not just Thailand but all of Asia and the world.
The media and press undervalue the profound depths of this last truth. Why would temple followers willingly expose Luang Por Dhammajayo, their teacher, to potential - and probable - unfair treatment, humiliation, and improper medical attention? All of which may even result in death? Most especially when they believe and know him to be innocent.
The Thai military government, which influences - if not controls - both domestic and international media and press has consistently and effectively damaged the reputation and face of the temple for decades. Almost like a chess game, they have moved their pieces for years, waiting, preparing, calculating, and anticipating a situation or moment where they can make their move and effectively bring the temple down. Potentially more than just the temple. A temple with as much assets and financial backing as Wat Phra Dhammakaya could definitely benefit a junta that has already spent over 100 million Baht putting Wat Phra Dhammakaya under seige. Yet no one seems to report that side of the story.
That is why Luang Por Dhammajayo is not being turned in.