Editorial: August 2014

 |  March 30, 2015

I am not about to bash Buddhism; I am about to bash those who corrupt it. And it is being corrupted; it’s high time we faced that fact.

Growing up, what I knew about Buddhism went along these lines: walking the middle path, humility, compassion, attainment of wisdom, respecting the robe and not necessarily the man in it, aiming for the cessation of desires which leads to the alleviation of suffering, and finding peace and understanding. When I prayed, I was told to pray for compassion for all living beings, not to pray for personal favours. These were the basics which I grasped.

Of course, there were many other facets to both the religion and the practice of it which were beyond my comprehension, theories and rites which are still beyond my ken. But the basics made sense and I was quite happy to, if not call myself a Buddhist, then certainly respect Buddhism.

So, when was the last time you heard the formerly popular Thai aphorism “pid thong lang phra”?

For me it was a long, long time ago.

Literally translated as “placing the gold leaf at the back of the Buddha,” this simple saying means to do good deeds without expectation of acknowledgement. It is a lovely visual and one with a very important message: to do good for the sake of doing good (not that putting gold leaves on Buddha statues is necessarily a good thing).

Most people today who go to temples (or shrines, or spirit houses, or other dwellings of the supernatural) do so to ask for something. Praying for riches is pretty much the most popular request currently sent out to the universe; even students will make deals with holy entities to enter a university of their choice (often following through with ridiculous promises to become a monk for a – redundant – day or three, or even, and this is not uncommon, to run, even crawl, up Doi Suthep to barter their fortune with some silly gimmick or another no self-respecting spirit would give a damn about). Business people often bargain for their success and prosperity by building pagodas or donating to temples. People pray for good health, for success, for love, or for myriad other requests for which they feel they are entitled to a special leg-up by the heavens…should they donate freely or pray fervently enough.

Not only are gold leaves found aplenty on the facade of a Buddha sculpture, these days names of donors are prominently displayed with pride, in embossed gold: “So-and-so donated this pagoda,” the sign would boast. I was even recently horrified to see my own surname emblazoned next to (and impressively, subtly behind) a large gold statue of a monk in front of Hua Hin’s Maruekhathaiyawan Palace by some well-meaning, but misdirected, relative.

It is all becoming very, very ugly. Billions of baht are donated to filthy rich (and scandal-ridden) temples such as Wat Dhammakaya, where gold is used to build pagodas, not lives. Monks secure funds through years of donations and retire with their new wives to enjoy their spoils. Envelopes asking for cash are passed around offices and homes with no transparency as to where the money is going. Temples and monks are becoming bloated with spoils from those seeking instant karma credits, while the needy are left to hope for a better roll of the dice in their next lives.

It seems that what Buddhism has boiled down to these days for many people is the accumulation of quick karma points – a kind of 7-Eleven version of merit making. Credits stored from donating to a famous monk (rather than a good one in need), from building yet another golden stupa (rather than a new school), from the luxurious offerings to the many monks who pray off the high-so and privileged (rather than the giving of simple bare necessities to the handicapped or poor), these are all done in the hopes of leveraging a better deal in the next life.

To me, this is the antithesis of compassion and merit making, in fact, of Buddhism itself. It is the most selfish of all reasons in which to cloak so-called good deeds.

This wishful autobahn to nirvana, or attempted shortcuts to a better rebirth are, to me, vile. What happened to being mindful, to living in the moment, to humility? By definition, the accumulation of karma is selfish and should never be the goal, only a happy by-product (if that) of compassion and charity.

The Buddha would be appalled by what we have done with our priorities and with our very selfish selection of interpretations of his teachings. You want karma credits? Do something good for someone who needs it. And do it quietly.

A good Buddhist would want to work towards cleaning up institutional corruption, shaming those who are truly damaging the religion, and returning Buddhism to some of its core and wonderfully wise values.

In Poussin’s exquisite Adoration of the Golden Calf, Moses returns from Mount Sinai, horrified to find the Israelites worshiping a false idol. Many so-called Buddhists have lost their way and are now equating their beliefs with gold, statues, rituals, rites, and the ostentation of donation.

What would Buddha think of this picture?