World Buddhism event falls apart


Unity crumbles as row forces venue split

Bangkok, Thailand -- The proposed World Visakha Bucha celebration is unlikely to materialise after irreconcilable differences between the Sangha Council and the elements it characterised as Buddhist pariahs forced a split of celebration venues, dealing the government a humiliating blow.

The collapse of the event, which the government had envisioned as a gathering of Buddhists all over the world on Buddhism's holiest day, came after Maj-Gen Chamlong Srimuang, the government-appointed organiser of the Visakha Bucha celebrations, was told of the Sangha Council's decision granting the National Buddhism Office (NBO) the sole authority to run the show.

The decision was hand-delivered to Maj-Gen Chamlong by the NBO director Chaktham Dhamasakdi.

Maj-Gen Chamlong found himself in a tight spot after Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra gave him, as chairman of the morality promotion centre, a mission to hold a Visakha Bucha celebration that unites all stratas of Buddhism.

The government wanted to set the stage for all Buddhist groups, including the Santi Asoke sect, to come together in a grand show of religious solidarity.

Maj-Gen Chamlong himself has been close to Santi Asoke, which in 1989 was outlawed by the Sangha Council due to its adherence to an unorthodox doctrine which ``imitated'' Buddhism.

The Buddhist governing body banned association with the sect, reasoning it had preached deviant teachings, including a ban on gestures of respect to Buddha images.

Santi Asoke clergymen also don robes of a different colour and they also do not shave off their eyebrows.

Maj-Gen Chamlong came under fire from the Sangha Council following his attempts to let the Santi Asoke sect join the celebrations to be held at Buddha Monthon.

Breaking the gridlock between organisers, Deputy Prime Minister Chaturon Chaisaeng has appointed a new organising committee headed by himself to take over the task from Maj-Gen Chamlong.

The Chaturon panel promised the event planned for Visakha Bucha Day on May 22 would be a large-scale one with a lively presentation to draw younger crowds reflecting on the Buddhist concepts laid down by the late Buddha Dasa Bhikkhu, founder of the famed Suan Moke monastery in Surat Thani province.

The Sangha Council would now arrange religious elements of the Visakha Bucha celebrations at Buddha Monthon while non-religious activities honouring the Lord Buddha's birth, enlightenment and nirvana would be held separately at another spot under the ``One Person, One Allegiance to Truth'' campaign.

The campaign, initiated by Maj-Gen Chamlong, called for participants to swear an oath to moral virtue and integrity. The activities would be presided over by the prime minister.

Dr Chaktham said yesterday he regretted the glitches which kept the NBO from working with the morality promotion centre. His organisation was not at odds with the centre although it did not see eye to eye with certain allies of the centre, said the NBO director.

Maj-Gen Chamlong said it was pitiful that the planned collaboration was not possible. But he also said he did not wish to see Thai society divided.

He insisted that anyone else would have encountered the same problem hosting Visakha Bucha celebrations because some Sangha Council seniors did not welcome certain groups into the fold.

Despite the differences, Santi Asoke followers were willing to lend a helping hand with any menial jobs at the Buddha Monthon celebrations. ``We can pick up rubbish or left-over food. We don't mind,'' he said.

Phra Panya Nantha Bhikku, the revered abbot of Wat Cholaprathan Rangsarit, said the morality promotion centre's heart was in the right place but it should have consulted the Sangha Council, which was the supreme governing body, before preparing the celebrations. An event of such significance would be difficult to bring about without the council's approval and cooperation from all monks.

Phra Payom Kalayano, the abbot of Wat Suan Kaew, said Mr Thaksin was rash in conceiving the proposed event.

He insisted the Sangha Concil must be respected and the celebrations should be planned by lay people if all sides were to be united, rather than trying in vain to pool together the religious entities that could never mix.

Phra Kittisak Kittisopano, of the Sekiya Dharma, said the Sangha Council and the government needed to talk to each other because other religious events would come along in which both sides would have to cooperate.
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