Two cases. One happened in Singapore. Businessman Chua Kwee Sin sued the head monk of the Buddhist temple at Lorong 27 Geylang, Venerable Sek Meow Di, for $1.28 million in August. Chua claimed that he gave the money to Ven Sek for a joint casino business, which never materialised. Another happened in Thailand where the country's national Buddhism body warned monks for inappropriate behaviour after a video emerged showing monks wearing stylish aviator sunglasses and travelling in a private jet. This has once again put the focus back on how the religion of Buddhism has become a business in South-east Asia. But for the purpose of this article, we will focus on Thailand solely. The story of the business of Buddhism in Singapore will be published in our subsequent issues.
With over 94% population following Theravada Buddhism, and over 250,000 orange-robbed monks, Thai's Buddhist industry is worth over 50 billion baht. In 2012, the country celebrated the 2,600th anniversary of Lord Buddha' s Enlightenment. More than 600 delegates from 99 countries attended a Buddhist conference organised by the Bangkok-based World Fellowship of Buddhists (WFB). But this was not what attracted public attention.
What caught everyone's eye was a procession of 1,500 Buddhist monks from down-town Bangkok to Wat Phra Dhammakaya in Pathum Thani province over 40kms away on a path covered with rose petals by the faithful. The five-days pilgrimage was to move a gold statue of their meditation master, the late Luang Por Sod, to Wat Pak Nam.
This was in sharp contrast to what actually tudong, or walking pilgrimage, meant in Buddhism. It is a practice usually done in solitude in remote forest locations and is meant to retrace the footsteps of Buddha, experience homelessness, and foster mindfulness in the face of austere conditions.
Increasingly, such deviation from Buddhist ideals is becoming commonplace in Thailand. One can watch the renowned monk, Phra Maha Vudhichai Vajiramedhi, on TV selling trucks, or Phra Maha Sompong Talaputto selling DVDs of his preaching, or even Amnart Buasiri, who is the deputy director of the Office of National Buddhism, expressing his desire “to export Buddhism as a commodity to westerners and boosting the country's international trade”.
Buasiri announced this at a seminar on the uproar that greeted the Dhammakaya Temple's controversial pilgrimage through Bangkok saying, “We should think of how to export Buddhism as a product. We have about 350 temples overseas. If we can make foreign businessmen appreciate dhamma practice and become Buddhists, Thailand's foreign trade will have no problem in the future."
Wat Phra Dhammakaya is Thailand's most controversial temple facing accusations of funds mismanagement, commercial approach to nirvana, adultery and fraud. The temple can accommodate up to 300,000 worshippers and has 50 branches worldwide. It also operates the Dhammakaya Open University in California, US, giving degrees on dharma. It's massive pagoda is adorned with 10,00,000 silicon-bronze Buddha images, all paid with donations exceeding 10,000 baht each.
There are some who strongly disagrees with Buasiri version of Buddhism.
“Over the years Buddhism has been adapted, diluted and interwoven with local cultures and pre-existing beliefs, though each interpretation remains based on Lord Buddha's core teachings. Theravada, Mahayana and Vajrayana Buddhists throughout East Asia all follow the philosophy that to attain nirvana we must eliminate craving, and hence, suffering, from our lives. But perceptions of Thai Buddhism are often superficial and heavily romanticised. It is perplexing to see the emergence of a new kind of Buddhism in Thailand that emphasises wealth, extravagant offerings and praying for merit,” says Arglit Boonyal, editor of an e-publication ThaiPad.
Other like social activist Sulak Sivaraksa, founder of the International Network of Engaged Buddhists, writes, “Unfortunately, it seems that many leading monks in Thai society have a career. They go to deliver sermons and receive financial contributions in return. The size of a financial contribution also depends on the monk’s popularity and ecclesiastical rank. Some also sell amulets, holy water, etc. on the sidelines to earn money. A number of them use the money obtained for a good cause like building schools and hospitals, for their own personal use.”
He is supported by Sanitsuda Ekachai, assistant editor at Bangkok Post, who in her commentary, Thailand has betrayed Buddha ideals, summarises, “Thailand, which falsely prides itself on being a Buddhist country, is
ready to crack, broken by anger, hatred and social injustice. We must start questioning our materialistic aspirations and way of life, as well as the political and economic systems that presently shun the Buddhist principle of non-exploitation. We cannot hope to save our planet, our country, or our souls, when our real religion is nothing more than Buddhism for show.”
Note: The inspiration for this article is a special feature in Bangkok Post's e-publication ThaiPad - The Business of Buddhism – Are modern practices putting nirvana up for sale, published last year.