Monastic feud could lead to a schism

By METTANANDO BHIKKHU, Bangkok Post, March 5, 2005

A power struggle among senior monks is clearly not in the best interests of Buddhism

Bangkok, Thailand -- The government of Thailand under Thaksin Shinawatra might have won a landslide victory in most parts of the country in the past general election. And the administration has been known to be effective in its economic policies which have the fewest number of public demonstrations by the poor led from the northeastern provinces, which were quite common when the country was run by other political parties.

<< The Thai Sangha: Facing a major schism?

However, in terms of promoting Buddhism, the Thaksin regime seems to have caused much suffering to Buddhists, who make up the majority of the country.

The ruling Thai Rak Thai party has seen the largest demonstrations of Buddhist monks than any time in the recorded history of Thailand. And now the Buddhist ecclesiastical society seems about to enter an impending crisis of a power struggle more likely than this country has ever seen.

Under the current version of the Sangha Bill, there is only one choice for the most senior member of the Ecclesiastical Council, the top body of administration of monks that rules Thai Buddhism.

That person must be nominated to the King for the Supreme Patriarch, the top position of any monk in Thai Buddhism. The implication is that Somdej Phutthacharn, the abbot of Wat Saket (commonly known as Somdej Kiaw), will be the direct heir to the ecclesiastical throne.

However, the conflict that began to emerge three years ago, when a group of Buddhists led by Phra Maha Bua (popularly known as Luangta Maha Bua), the abbot of Wat Pah Baan Tard in Udon Thani province who is one of the most famous meditation masters and leader of the Forest Tradition, affiliated with the royally-founded Dhammayuttika Nikaya Sect, accused Somdej Kiaw of tyranny; that he masterminded the power game behind the policy of the Ecclesiastical Council.

In practice, the Somdej is the most powerful monk and the loudest voice who controls the Ecclesiastical Council that is affiliated with the Mahanikaya Sect. The prospect that Somdej Kiaw is going to take the top job in Thai Buddhism is quite imminent, as the Supreme Patriarch himself so seriously ill that most people realise he can no longer function in his position.

Waves of corruption scandal about the personal funds of the Supreme Patriarch have shaken public confidence; the scandal itself and the way the government is handling this monkish crime are unclear in the eyes of the public.

A few years ago, Luangta Maha Bua was widely believed to be an arahant, or an enlightened saint of Buddhism, and then he launched a massive fund-raising drive to pay off the loan from the International Monetary Fund, a national project which has earned him a lot of credit from the Thaksin government.

But according to him, Somdej Kiaw is not only not qualified for the position of Supreme Patriarch - as he has ambitiously abused his power in paving his way to the highest post in the feudalistic hierarchy of Thai monks - but is also not qualified to wear the yellow robe.

Currently, the monk who is regarded by supporters as an enlightened one has converted his fundraising network into a public rally to demote his arch-rival Somdej Kiaw and Mr Visanu Krue-ngarm, the deputy prime minister who supports the Somdej to act in place of the Supreme Patriarch who is critically ill.

Yesterday, Luangta Maha Bua launched another decisive step in his campaign by submitting an official complaint to His Majesty the King against his two rivals. This protest will most certainly draw the supporters of Somdej Kiaw who cannot accept the criminal charges laid by Luangta Maha Bua and claim the accusations are all illegal and groundless.

Apparently there is no possibility for the two parties to compromise. The bad sentiment has cut deep into the feelings of both sides.

The Ecclesiastical Bill of 2505 BE, decreed under the military dictatorship of Field Marshal Sarit Thanarat, has created a huge setback for the progress of Buddhism and has fossilised the archaic Thai feudal system, in which all the rights of lay Buddhists to take part in its administration are set forth.

The Bill has authorised a cartel of senior monks to rule monastic communities of Thailand. This law deprives Thai monks of their basic rights as citizens of Thailand, as they are required to be totally submissive and obedient to the cartel practice, which is entirely against the principles of Buddhism. During the military rule of 1991, the cartel took another step in issuing another law that deprives the right of the King of Thailand to nominate candidates to the position of the Supreme Patriarch.

In a way, Luangta Maha Bua is right in his claim to having started his campaign, as he sees no one capable of doing this other than himself. Politically, the chance for Somdej Kiaw to be promoted to the top position is hopeless and will cause further division among monks and followers of the two sects.

Certainly, disciples of the Somdej will not give in to the pressure from Luangta Maha Bua. They have also rallied several times in support of the Somdej. Further, they will use all possible means to defuse the campaign and discredit activists of the Luangta Maha Bua faction.

Thailand will see more monk mobs rallying against each other - all of which is not for the good of Buddhism but merely for political power.

The war between the two ecclesiastical heavyweights seems to be continuing without end, showing that the fossilised system of monastic feudalism has damaged Buddhism beyond repair. Senior monks in Thailand may be highly honoured as respected teachers of Buddhism, but in practice they apparently don't know forgiveness.


Mettanando Bhikkhu was a physician before he entered the Buddhist monkhood. He studied at Chulalongkorn University, Oxford and Harvard.

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