Sangha crisis won't end with defrockment

Is it a political exchange? Has the government agreed to abort the legislative effort to regulate monks' money and assets in exchange for the clergy's ruling to disrobe the fugitive Dhammakaya sect leader?

This question jumped to mind when the religious committee of the National Legislative Assembly (NLA) announced it would stop its study on the proposed legal amendments to regulate monks' possession of money and assets.

It is an open secret that many elders in the Supreme Sangha Council (SSC) support the Dhammakaya sect despite its notorious fund-raising techniques and questionable teachings.

This is why the late Supreme Patriarch's ruling on Phra Dhammajayo's distortion of the Buddhist teachings and temple fraud was never carried out, and why the public views the SSC in a negative light, not to mention the elders' negligence in the face of rife temple corruption and monastic misconduct.

Sanitsuda Ekachai is former editorial pages editor, Bangkok Post.

The NLA's decision to abort the study into making monks' financial status transparent came amid the regime's threats to defrock Phra Dhammajayo after a three-week crackdown ended empty-handed. The defrocking threat, however, could only materialise with the clergy's approval.

But the clergy is obviously incensed by the NLA's monks' assets study. Actually, the study is very limited in scope, focusing on the pros and cons of Judge Charan Phakdeethanakul's proposal to amend the civil law on monks and inheritance.

If passed into law, monks cannot inherit a huge amount of money or assets. Nor can they pass their wealth to others as all their money and assets gained during the monkhood must become state property.

The monks' reactions were fierce. Online protests went viral, accusing the government of plans to amend the Sangha Act to dismantle the ecclesiastic council, to merge the two Buddhist universities of the rival Dhammayut and Mahanikaya sects together and make the monkhood a lifetime vocation.

Other allegations reflect the monks' tendency to fear for their pockets. They include alleged plans to turn "monks' income" from religious ceremonies into temple and state money, to force monks to pay progressive income tax from other sources of income, to prohibit monks from having bank accounts, to cancel monthly stipends for senior monks, and prohibit monks from touching money in line with the monastic code of conduct.

The viral online protest also accused the government of aiming to take over temple donations which, it claims, amount to 300 billion baht nationwide, not to mention other valuable assets across the country. The Dhammakaya temple is only the regime's first target while other big temples such as Wat Saket, Wat Sothorn and several more will be next, it warned.

In an emotional appeal, the online protest encourages the SSC to stand up to the regime while alleging that NLA wants to clip Buddhist monks' wings because it is dominated by Muslims, which is false.

Who is behind these groundless accusations? Some say it is the Dhammakaya supporters fuelling other monks' fears so they end up siding with Dhammakaya.

Other say it is the far-right monks' group backed by some elders. No one knows for sure. But it's certain that any efforts to regulate monks' money can powerfully unite monks across the political divide to protect their privileges.

Confident the defrocking will go ahead, Paiboon Nititawan, former senator and fierce critic of the clergy and the Dhammakaya, brushed aside suggestions the NLA's decision to suspend the study on monks' money and assets is a quid pro quo for defrocking Phra Dhammajayo.

It is only an effort to stop the vicious, groundless rumours from getting out of hand because the defrocking, he said, is a surety. Recognising different political environs, the elders also fear having their ecclesiastical ranks stripped, he claimed.

But will the disrobement, if it happens at all, be any good to Thai Buddhism short of structural reform of the clergy?

The monks' inheritance issue may have been dropped, but there are still three more legislative efforts to reform the clergy, he said.

One is sponsored by the regime itself, the Buddhism Protection and Promotion Act, aiming primarily to weed out wayward monks.

The other two, proposed by Mr Paiboon himself, deal with monks' and temples' financial transparency and the clergy's education reform.

So don't worry, said the former chairman of the Sangha reform committee under the now-defunct National Reform Council.

But I am worried.

Here's why:

To reform the Sangha, the central control of the clergy's feudalistic, authoritarian system must end. So must the clergy's dependence on state patronage so it learns to be responsive to people's needs.

Temple finance must also be transparent and accountable. Key to reform is decentralisation and people's participation in temple management, money matters, and spiritual practices. The monks' education must also enable them to be open-minded, independent spiritual leaders in tune with modernity.

But the regime-sponsored bill leaves the clergy's autocratic rule intact while it enables the clergy to punish those with different interpretations of conventional Thai Buddhist teachings. Given the clergy's record of selective judgement, it is most likely this power aims at punishing only dissent.

In addition, the regime-sponsored bill strengthens state patronage even more. Apart from setting up a fund to support the clergy -- while the gigantic amount of temple donations continue to be widely abused -- the new law will also allow state interpretations of the religious teachings and empower the government to punish a wide range of "improper" behaviour deemed disrespectful to the Buddha.

Ironically, the clergy is not so happy with this bill because it will also punish the preceptors for failing to keep their monks in line. Monks or novices guilty of "sexual deviation" will also be jailed and/or fined.

Mr Paiboon Nititawan's legislative proposals are more ambitious. One tries to tackle temple corruption by making temple donations transparent through professional auditing, public declarations of monks' money and assets, and the barring of monks' taking temple donations as personal money.

According to research by Asst Prof Nada Chansom of the National Institute of Development Administration (Nida), the public donates about 100-120 billion baht to the country's 37,075 temples per year. Most temples' accounting systems are disorganised and prone to corruption.

The clergy did order temples to audit donations with oversight from a temple committee. Thanks to lax enforcement and a culture of impunity, most temples simply ignore that order.

A mere primary study of monks and inheritance by the NLA has already faced a quick death from the monks' fury. Imagine the clergy's wrath if this temple donations transparency proposal materialises.

Mr Paiboon's other legislative proposal deals with monks' education which now stresses rote learning and overlooks spiritual training. Despite the good intention, this is again very much a top-down effort. Any proposals also remain as that: mere proposals. Like the regime's bill, it also fails to touch the feudal structure and dependence mentality which is the crux of the problem.

It's crucial to make temple donations transparent and accountable. But it's not enough. The best way toward Sangha reform is to cut the state's umbilical cord with the clergy. It is also most difficult as the weak clergy needs state support to keep old privileges while the state needs political support from the clergy.

What lies ahead is more of the same down the road as more and more lay Buddhists lose hope for change and seek alternative religious channels that better meet their needs.

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