Friday, March 24, 2017

Peace Vigil in Oxford for the People of Thailand

On a blustery afternoon on Thursday 23 March, about 25 friends and supporters of Wat Phra Dhammakaya, including three bhikkhus, gathered in Radcliffe Square, Oxford. We’d rather be sitting on cushions indoors, especially those of us more use to the tropics, but given the circumstances we took our meditation and flags into the streets.

So, huddled together and holding on to our banners, we reflected internally, cultivating metta (loving kindness) to spread especially to Thailand.

The ‘land of smiles’ is a country grimacing in the midst of a crisis that is little known and generally poorly reported in mainstream media. It’s a complex situation, whose recent events have seen the Thai military government apply excessive force in a siege involving thousands of police and military, with the backing of the Prime Minister, who is using the all-powerful Article 44. In the UK, we say, in typical understatement, that this action is “disproportionate” and hence the plea for help, and my puzzlement over why success in cultivating Buddhist values is being attacked.

Curiously, those thousands of security people were under the direction of the Ministry of Justice, which normally carries out investigative research into special cases (as its name implies). I think it is an indication of how Thai law is not being properly applied, so for a fair legal assessment the temple has to turn to authorities outside of the country and, as already mentioned, the International Commission of Jurists has already condemned Article 44.

Unfortunately, the United Nations appears slow to respond. I’ve not yet read reports from the recent two day meeting of the UN Human Rights Committee in Geneva, but I was told at the gathering that Article 44 was not discussed. So it means we have to continue spreading the word until it is brought to light. We need to remind the UN that the Dhammakaya Foundation, which is the extension of the original Dhammakaya temple, became a United Nations-accredited non–governmental organization in 1986 and has been an active participant ever since with many education programmes. I hope to share in a forthcoming blog post a few of my own experiences of a special ceremony that took place at Wat Phra Dhammakaya for the UN Day of Peace that welcomed the present Millennium.

Aftewards, we took refreshments at Vaults & Gardens, the cafe of the University Church and then moved on to reflect broadly about events at the Quaker Meeting House, a wonderful venue for spiritual activities. As part of the process I gave a presentation on Dhammakaya Pioneers in the UK, naturally focusing on my mother, Fuengsin Trafford (née Sarayutpitag).

If we can persuade the Thai military government and others through peaceful action to stop their aggression, then we have a chance to restore peace in Thailand and enable spiritual practitioners like my mother to flourish.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

When Success seems Strangely Problematic

Aerial Photo of Wat Phra Dhammakaya, shared by user Paul012 on Wiki released under a Creative Commons license on Wikimedia Commons

As previously described in my plea for help in Thailand, there has been trouble stirred up against Wat Phra Dhammakaya in strange circumstances. After Article 44 was invoked by the Thai government in mid-February, more than 4,000 police and military were involved in an operation under the direction of the Department of Special Investigation to try and seize Ven. Dhammajayo, the Honorary Abbot. They raided the temple in large numbers and were also looking for material treasures, but at the end of this oppressive and costly operation they came away empty-handed. According to one analyst, who sees a much more sweeping goal it was like "surrounding the forest to catch a mouse".

Some media reports have claimed that life proceeds as normal. But how can it be ‘normal’ if your home has been trampled on by intruders, family members starved, medical treatment curtailed and the head of the household under a barrage of allegations you regard as false? Furthermore, authorities have charged several more senior monks, including Ven. Dattajeevo, the Vice Abbot, for claims of financial inpropriety that seem absurd. All I have ever known them to do is teach the way to inner peace, day in, day out.

It's as though the temple is being attacked for being successful in three areas, which are easy to recognise... :-)

I. Generosity

These are manifest materially in offerings of food and requisites to monks, donations for buildings and facilities to sustain the monastic community and for the development and maintenance of facilities. Fruits: anyone can go to the monastery and participate with or without donating. What was a highly inhospitable land has been transformed over many years into an environment amenable for many people to practise (the key was just to keep planting good seeds).

In Good Question, Good Answer on DMC.TV, Ven. Dattajeevo explains in particular the value of making merit. (YouTube video in Thai with English subtitles — sorry if there are adverts displayed, but they shouldn’t last that long.)

II. Moral virtue

This is training of conduct in body, speech and mind; for lay people it means observing Five Precepts in everyday life and Eight Precepts at the monastery and on observance days. Fruits: Path of Progress quiz, V-Star and many other programmes for the public that have spread globally, as in World PEC.

For monks the training is far more rigorous with the observance of the Vinaya; and very many thousands have been ordained.

III. Meditation

Millions around the world have been introduced to the path of inner peace, whose practice leads to brightness and clarity of mind, helpful to people of all walks of life. The Dhammakaya method is particularly successful at bringing the mind to a standstill, making it perfectly clear like a limpid pool of water.

 In the following YouTube video, Ven. Dhammajayo leads meditation in English.

Those who attack the temple bring cloudiness by trying to drag the temple and its practitioners into murky socio-political spheres and the use of sophisticated language designed to deceive.

But truth is pure and simple, felt in the heart. It will be clearly seen.

Friday, March 03, 2017

A Plea for Help in Thailand

[Last updates: 4 March 2017 (links to footage of confrontation and Al Jazeera report), 5 March (reports of food contamination - clarified 23 March), 6 March (link to article by James L. Taylor) and 9 March (update on new phase of escalation), 11,12 March (DSI concludes searches, Sangha developments).]

It is with sadness that I write this post.  During the past couple of weeks an already serious situation in Thailand has been getting a lot worse, threatening the peaceful livelihood of thousands of monastics and lay supporters at Wat Phra Dhammakaya, the temple to which I belong.

I was given a copy of a short film taken during the past few days outside the temple in Pathum Thani that shows police or security personnel manhandling, even trampling on, some monks from the temple as they sit on the ground in non-violent resistance, in the manner of Gandhi.  Now footage has been posted with a commentary on the situation.  I've never seen that kind of rough treatment before in Thailand.

On 2 March I received the following account:
... yesterday a ... woman with asthma who lives close to the temple was in distress and asked for an ambulance to bring her to a hospital. However, Internet and phone connections in the temple and surrounding areas are shut down. After an about an hour or so they managed (through a chain of Bluetooth connections!) to reach an ambulance which tried with emergency lights and alarm to get to her. The nearest way was through the temple area. The vehicle was denied access by the army. They were told to go around the temple area which was a long and slow way. After another hour of delays and controls at several army and police checkpoints they reached the woman's house, but she had already passed away.

[May be this case, which is described in more detail.]

The main problem at the moment is lack of food at the temple - which is the subject of the photo above.  A friend reports:
For the thousands of people currently at the temple, only 300 boxes of food are being let in. When the people in the temple set up a big poster "we need food" as a signal to the outside world, the police took it down referring to section 44.

Hence the urgent campaign, as illustrated in the following post.

But it sounds like there is a further problem: I've been told that food let in to the temple has been contaminated, which probably explains why there have been reports of people inside becoming unwell and needing to call ambulances.
[Update 23 March: on further investigation, it was found that the food had just gone bad because it had been left for a long time, probably held up. Sorry for the previous inaccuracy.]

These eye witness accounts are not being shown by mainstream Thai media who all have to be very careful to toe the line.  Reports by foreign journalists have also been constrained.  For example, Wayne Hay for Al Jazeera had his report chopped, but his report can be viewed on YouTube.

Yet even from Thai media you can get some idea of the seriousness of the situation, e.g. from Khao Sod (= 'Fresh News'):

The escalation has followed an action taken by the Thai Prime Minister, head of the military junta.  As that news item indicates, he has applied Section [or 'Article'] 44 against the temple to give the Department of Special Investigations the power to apply whatever pressure it takes to seize the Abbot, Ven. Dhammajayo, wanted to a number of charges.  The temple is resisting because it feels strongly he would not receive a fair trial. Its stance is explained at:

About Article 44

Article 44 was introduced in 2014 by the present military government in order to maintain a certain kind of stability.   The original constitution document devised by them is too lengthy to list in full here, but there's a paragraph that indicates the sweeping powers.  Translated into English it reads:

"Section 44. In the case where the Head of the National Council for Peace and Order is of opinion that it is necessary for the benefit of reform in any field and to strengthen public unity and harmony, or for the prevention, disruption or suppression of any act which undermines public peace and order or national security, the Monarchy, national economics or administration of State affairs, whether that act emerges inside or outside the Kingdom, the Head of the National Council for Peace and Order shall have the powers to make any order to disrupt or suppress regardless of the legislative, executive or judicial force of that order. In this case, that order, act or any performance in accordance with that order is deemed to be legal, constitutional and conclusive, and it shall be reported to the National Legislative Assembly and the Prime Minister without delay."

Then there is the amendment that basically affirms Article 44 in 2015 immediately after the end of martial law:

Here's a translation into English:

Legal experts who have analysed Article 44 have come to the conclusion that it is a contravention of human rights, see e.g. the International Commission of Jurists,

For further commentary from the temple's perspective see:

Some analysis from James L. Taylor, Adjunct Associate Professor, Anthropology & Development Studies, University of Adelaide, considers the wider political picture and finds the actions against the temple perplexing.

What's happening now

The Thai media have been pumping out many columns, but I strongly recommend trying to get in touch with temple supporters who have been seeing first hand the restrictions in place and hear what they have to say.  There are many accounts on social media:
Fake news?   No.  That's why we are asking for help, which can be of many kinds: from sending loving kindness and charity works with merit dedications, through to signing a petition, and writing letters of concern to human rights organisations and official bodies.  Thank you.

Escalation [9 March]

Unfortunately, news from Thailand gets worse.  The Thai government has now intensified its efforts, initiating a 5 day period of heightened activity, which appears to be aimed at controlling the temple before 13 March when Thailand’s human rights record will be reviewed on 13 and 14 March 2017 by the UN Human Rights Committee in Geneva, which scrutinises States’ implementation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (as reported on: Live transmission and archives are available from the UN.

As an indication of wider issues, the BBC has been unable to reach agreement to renew shortwave transmissions.

Whilst the military government constrains media reports still further, it seems they will seek to arrest as many monks as possible to reach a position where they think they will force unreasonable terms. So far they have already arrested 2 monks who have been informing the public about the situations at the temple as it really is. The monks and lay people still have severe food, water and medicine shortages (and supplies are contaminated).

Ebb and Flow [11,12 March]

The DSI have concluded their searches on this occasion and come away empty-handed: there's no material wealth and no sign of Ven. Dhammajayo. Whilst the DSI are reducing the overall numbers of the military and police there, they are maintaining control of the area and may apply to administer it as a step to take over the temple's affairs. For now, they are at least allowing everyone access to the temple through all the gates, which includes police and the military — with a noticeable increase in their numbers inside the temple. The monastics and lay people now have sufficient sustenance, but I think the damage done already to people's health needs to be properly assessed ahead of the UN Human Rights Committee meeting this coming week.

Meanwhile there are other wider developments concerning the State's relationship to the Sangha; both Ven. Dhammajayo and Ven. Dattajeevo, who as Abbot and Vice Abbot respectively were awarded high-ranking royal titles by the late King Bhumibol the Great, have had their titles removed whilst the DSI has been pressing ahead with its heavy-handed actions. Now more subtle arguments are resurfacing (as happened almost 20 years ago) by opponents presenting particular scholarly views on what they consider is 'true Buddhism'. It's largely with the same goal of shutting down the temple, trying to defrock monks, and generally destroy all it stands for. Ven. Dhammajayo's response then was: "I shall never disrobe." I expect it's the same now, but help is needed to protect this vocation.

We should all wish for peace in Thailand - everyone at Wat Phra Dhammakaya certainly spends a lot of time developing peace through meditation.