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Web-only Exclusives
November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

From Our Correspondent: A Rough Road Ahead
Bad news for the Philippines - and some others

From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
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Buddhist Scapegoat?
One Thai abbot is taken to task, but the whole system is to blame

December 30, 1999
Web posted at 2:30 p.m. Hong Kong time, 1:30 a.m. EDT

Making Plans
Leaders are coming to grips with the new millennium in China, Malaysia and even Myanmar - sort of
- Thursday, Dec. 23, 1999

My Wish List For Asia
A baby princess, a soft landing, a global president -- and peace on earth
by Ric Saludo
- Wednesday, Dec. 22, 1999

Technology: Unchained Melodies
Taking the MP3 to the streets
by Stuart Whitmore
- Monday, Dec. 20, 1999

The Week Ahead: Fast Track?
After the blasts, Sri Lankan voters can choose talks now or slower change
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- Monday, Dec. 20, 1999

Bangkok Battens Down
Will UNCTAD be a second Seattle?
- Thursday, Dec. 16, 1999

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Even real criminals don't get as much bad press. Labeled guilty from the start, Buddhist abbot Dhammachayo could well prove to be the man the Thai press loved to hate the most in 1999. Over the past year the country's most prominent religious figure has been in the eye of a storm over criminal charges of embezzling money from donations, and religious charges of teaching incorrect doctrines. Yet his mammoth Dhammakaya Temple on the outskirts of Bangkok continues to attract thousands of followers every weekend.

His supporters say they are at their wits' end, asking whether there is any mercy in the world, as one follower put it, shocked by recent TV and newspaper images of their revered spiritual leader being ignominiously dragged out of hospital (he was said to have had a throat infection and diabetes troubles) to face yet more criminal charges. What a comedown. Over the last three decades, the soft-spoken abbot has built up a following of close to a million, amassed tens of billions of baht in donations, and set up branches around the world, making Dhammakaya the richest temple in the kingdom. His new enormous prayer hall gives followers what they crave, a modern religious venue in which to pray and meditate, in an atmosphere far removed from the thousands of antiquated and backward temples that dot Thailand.

The jury is still out on whether or not the abbot is guilty of taking donation money to buy land, or he has taken liberties with the tenets of Theravada Buddhism. Except for the Thai press, the businessmen who make money out of religious amulets, and a range of vociferous critics -- they have all decided that Abbot Dhammachayo is guilty as charged. He is a victim of success and a sinner in excess, judging by daily press attacks. He must be disrobed and jailed, detractors say. Many, no doubt, are jealous of his success and see him as a challenge to the old order.

In fact, Dhammachayo has become a scapegoat. Trying to disrobe or jail this high-profile monk draws attention away from the serious problems that beset many of Thailand's Buddhist temples -- embezzlement, corruption, crime -- and the wayward teachings which rely on fortune-telling and the dispensing of lucky lottery numbers, more than sound doctrine. The rot runs deep. More and more critics are coming out to complain about the corruption, apathy and nepotism of the Thai Sangha and the inability of the ruling clerical body, the Sangha Council, to put their house in order. Certainly over the past year, they have failed to make charges of incorrect teachings against Dhammachayo stick. Misgivings about his teachings are not new, to begin with. Warning signs went up over a decade ago, but nothing was done to put him back on track.

As the Buddhist calendar turns to the year 2543, Thai Buddhism is in crisis. Those following the Christian calendar look with hope to a new millennium. But bar all the debating by religious and social activists since last year, there is not much to indicate that the Sangha Council and the government are seriously getting to grips with the challenges that face the faith. Religious matters tend to be dealt with slowly; that is their nature. But there are fears that Thai people are starting to lose their fervor. Many are confused. Still, pressure is building for change.

Ironically, there may be cause to thank Abbot Dhammachayo. Inadvertently he has sparked calls for change. A monk may have erred. A temple may be in some disarray. But in the long term, Thai Buddhism may have been shaken for the better if the important job of reforming the Sangha and the Sangha Council is taken up in earnest.

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