If you read through Dr. Mano “Lemon” Laohavanich’s supposedly tell-all exposé on Dhammakaya, you would assume the famous Dhammakaya critic belonged in a mental institution, despite the paper being so well-written. Dr. Mano starts by describing Dhammakaya as a classic cult, with a wacko doctrine, claims of political ties, allegations of being money hungry, and continues beyond that to even accuse Dhammakaya as being led by Nazi sympathizers. Totally believable since the Thai temple and its Thai leaders are very well known for their piercing blue eyes and obviously blonde hair.
On a more serious note, Mano is known to have been a former senior member of Dhammakaya and his experience implies some interesting inside insight into the mysterious temple. So I think it would definitely be worthwhile to break down a few points on his almost insane looking paper.
Dr. Mano starts his writing by going through the history of the controversial temple, claiming that the temple’s other controversies are nothing compared to the controversial teachings that nobody knows about except for select members like Mr. Lemon himself. He continues by mentioning that although he is a famous Dhammakaya critic, his paper is strictly academic, and he pats himself on the back for his sacrifice by stating that he “realized the burden of impartiality that I [Mano] should take as a scholar, and the necessity to move away from prejudice and bias, pros and cons, in the issue which have deeply affected the course of my life” (pg 2) in revealing all of these secrets that most Dhammakaya members don’t even know about. Poor guy, before we continue let’s all give him a round of applause for his heavy burden and the incredible sacrifice he is making in writing this.
All sarcasm aside I realize the burden of impartiality that I should take as a blogger and the necessity to move away from prejudice and bias, pros and cons, in the issue which have deeply affected the course of my life. So for the several next points of his paper I would like to critique, I will try to shy away from snide remarks about the infamous Mr. Lemon unless the situation called for some proper sarcasm. And for ease in finding Dr. Mano’s crackpot quotes within the paper, I will provide page numbers so that they are easy to find.
A minor point I would like to make about Dr. Mano’s treatise is that he accuses Dhammakaya of holding Dhammadayada meditation retreats in order to attract possible permanent members. I would just like to point out that such things are not exactly a Dhammakaya only practice, and it is actually generally agreed that temporary immersions in the monastic lifestyle are quite common in Thailand. Thailand is actually known for having a culture which encourages all able men to take on monkhood for a short time at least once in their lives.
It’s not a huge hole in his story, but I thought it was noteworthy to point out. Using Mano’s logic you could accuse almost any temple in Thailand of aggressive expansion for hosting temporary monastic programs.
Nirvana and Dhammakaya
The next major point Dr. Mano makes about Dhammakaya is that the temple has a secret doctrine that it considers above Buddhism. He claims that “The strength of Wat Phra Dhammakaya is not, as most outsiders perceived, i.e. its massive land and financial assets or its highly organized mass of followers. It is the sophisticated layers of myths and anecdotes, told and retold among members of the community to newcomers.” (pg. 3). One of the inner layers of myth Mano claims is a part of this is that Dhammakaya secretly teaches that “Nirvana is not the final destiny of life” (pg 3) and that “there is another higher abode and bliss that is superior to Nirvana” (pg 3). He also claims that Dhammakaya teaches “Nirvana is habited only by Dhammakayas of the Buddhas of the past, present and future” (pg 4).
Having attended Dhammakaya for a good 15 years or so, I can say this is definitely at odds with what they teach to most of their followers. In fact, Dhammakaya ceremonies will frequently say “by the power of the perfections of all of the Buddhas, Pacceka Buddhas, and Arahants who have attained Nirvana”, and “until our final attainment of complete Nirvana” in them.
Who’s to say Mr. Lemon is wrong though? After all, he does claim that he used to be a “very” important executive at Dhammakaya, and he does claim that this is only taught to the really important people such as himself. So who knows? It could be true. Interestingly enough however, Dr. Mano never actually says what exactly is the abode and bliss superior to Nirvana anywhere in the paper. Darn, I was looking forward to finding out what it was.
Another point I would like to cover in Dr. Mano’s writing is the concept of Mara. While I honestly don’t think I can properly challenge the Cosmic War claim from a Harvard-Oxford man who claims to have used to have been such a super important person in Dhammakaya, I do want to make a comment on his claims that Dhammakaya has a concept of Mara that is “not the same as the Maras in the biography of the Buddha understood in the Buddhist tradition” (pg 5).
Other than the obvious metaphorical uses of Mara in the Pali Canon, there is a concept of Mara that is generally considered to have some type of manifestation. This Mara is known as the Devapudra-Mara (lit. Mara the son of a deva or god). It should be known that it is generally unclear as to what exactly this Mara is. The Buddha has never flat out defined in detail what exactly these Maras trying to thwart him were. John S. Strong, a Buddhist studies professor from Bates College appears to define it as a type of god that the universe naturally has as a kind of balancing act, a being that had done a lot of good as a human and was reborn as the Mara god later. Others define Mara as regular devas (gods) who were once good humans but became rogue at one point in their lives in heaven. I have even heard some explain the manifestation of Mara as nothing more than a psychological concept within us. (min 34 in the video).
I honestly don’t know how accurate Mano’s description of the Dhammakaya concept of Mara is. And based on how insane his word choice is I would say his explanation is far from “impartial” as he claims. But the point I would like to make is that criticizing a tradition based on its interpretation of the concept of Mara isn’t exactly a legitimate criticism since there are so many interpretations. Just because Dhammakaya’s interpretation of the concept is different from Mr. Mano’s, doesn’t mean it is un-Buddhist.
Leadership and Authority
Another claim Dr. Mano makes about Dhammakaya is that it has an extremely authoritarian system of worship toward its leaders. Of course, I can’t challenge Professor Lemon directly on his knowledge of the Tipitaka, as he is certainly a well-versed scholar. But I do want to make some points.
First off, while Mano’s statements are quite exaggerated, the temple does have a deep respect for the masters who laid the foundations for the temple, and saying members are encouraged to “eliminate any negative thinking of the Master as soon as the thought arises” (pg 7) doesn’t seem that inaccurate to me. However this isn’t exactly something completely irrelevant to Buddhism in general. In the Mangala Sutta, 38 blessings, the Buddha describes the 3rd blessing as “Expressing respect to those worthy of respect”. The Buddha taught people to be good and skillful in both body, speech and mind, and that includes eliminating negative thoughts in general, especially toward those deemed as pure and virtuous. So considering it is not advised for Buddhists to have negative thoughts of the Buddha himself or any members of the Sangha, it would make sense that Dhammakaya discourage members from having negative thoughts about its masters since they are held to such high regard.
Dr. Mano also claims that the temple follows a strictly authoritarian military structure, demanding complete obedience to one’s superiors. This of course is also an exaggeration but still somewhat accurate. The temple does have a listen to your superiors’ culture, but it is far from as rigid as Mano describes, maybe it’s only as strict as he says for the super important inner people like him. Not to mention, the Buddha himself discussed the benefits of following a system of seniority for his monks, in the Bhikkhu-aparihaniya Sutta the Buddha says, "As long as the monks honor, respect, venerate, and do homage to the elder monks — those with seniority who have long been ordained, the fathers of the Sangha, leaders of the Sangha — regarding them as worth listening to, their growth can be expected, not their decline”. In order to keep the harmony of the Sangha, the monks are to show a reasonable amount of obedience and respect to monks who have seniority. A reference to this respect for seniority system can even be seen in one of the early Buddhist Jataka Tales.
So in my amateur understanding of the scriptures I would say Mano’s claim that “there is no concept of obedience in the teaching of the Buddha in Theravada tradition” (pg. 10) isn’t totally accurate. While other temples may not take the system to heart as much as Dhammakaya, keep in mind most temples are smaller and have a much more manageable number of monks and staff. With the thousands of monks and staff Dhammakaya has, adherence to some system of order is needed to get things done.
Dr. Mano also claims that Dhammakaya tears families apart, claiming that the temple creates “a strong incentive for young graduates, men and women to renounce their families to be members of the wat” (pg. 6) and that “thousands of families have sacrificed their children, young boys and girls, in selfless dedication to the Master” (pg 10). I just want to make a quick remark about this part of the writing.
I just want to praise Dr. Mano for his incredible insight; this is definitely a real “gotcha” point against Dhammakaya, which is known to encourage people to take up the monastic life. Professor Lemon should be given praise and fame for pointing out this horrible truth behind Dhammakaya, encouraging people to tragically sacrifice their families for the Dhamma and whatnot. So this I will concede to Dr. Mano, that this Dhammakaya practice is indeed very un-Buddhist. I mean really, what would renouncing one's family for the spiritual life have anything to do with a religion founded by a prince who renounced his family for the spiritual life?
Dr. Mano also makes several claims about Dhammakaya’s political influence. Claiming Dhammakaya conspires to control both the Thai Sangha’s governing council and the Thai government. I am actually American and don’t know much about Thai politics, so I don’t feel qualified to discuss much of this topic. However Dr. Mano’s claims that Dhammakaya has a particular political affiliation with the TRT and Puea Thai Party doesn’t seem to hold up if you actually visit the temple. The temple is large and both has and encourages members from all backgrounds to attend. I have seen Yellow shirt supporters and I’ve seen Red Shirt supporters attend, and anything political not directly affecting the temple seems to be well-avoided at their sermons. In my own experience, Dhammakaya seems to focus more on expanding and being accessible to anybody than on picking a side in politics that would alienate potential or current members.
Dr. Mano even claims that Dhammakaya was “behind the landslide victory of the Puea Thai Party in the General Election of 2011” (pg 9). I am from America so I couldn’t care less about Thai elections, but I did do some digging up on Dr. Mano’s claims. Apparently Mano is claiming that a temple with 3 million members, many of which are too young to vote or are overseas members, was somehow behind the victory of a party that got 15 million votes in the 2011 Thai General Election, 4 million votes more than the next largest party. I’m no political scientist, and being American I have no real opinion or knowledge about what any of these Thai political parties actually stand for, but I do know how to count. I think it’s pretty suspect to claim that an organization of 3 million people was somehow behind the victory of a party that won by a margin greater than the membership of the whole organization. Especially considering Mano himself claims that Dhammakaya has split people into two groups “those who love it and those who hate it” (pg 3).
Another claim Dr. Mano makes is that Dhammakaya has a serious policy of once you are in, you can never go out. Mr. Lemon claims that “any monk or lay member of the community who criticizes the abbot on any account is to be expelled immediately even when the accusation is supported by only one witness” (pg. 5), and that members who leave are “regarded as a disgrace to the community, like soldiers in the line of duty defecting to the enemy side” (pg. 7) and that those who do leave are “closely monitored so that they always remain low profile and cause no further harm to the wat” (pg. 7).
For this claim, I’m going to ignore Dr. Mano’s high class credentials and his super important former status at the temple and call BS. This claim is just outrageous, and this is in reference to a guy who accuses his “cofounder” of worshiping Hitler.
While I may not have been “one of the founding members” like Professor Lemon claims he was. I have been attending Dhammakaya regularly enough to see this is completely false. Not only have I seen some members (usually younger members) make negative remarks about the abbot and be completely fine, Dhammakaya “expelling” anyone defies all common sense. It is impossible for ANY organization of any kind of that size and structure to expel anyone. If you actually go to Dhammakaya you would see that the doors are very open for anyone of any background to simply walk in, any “expelled” people could easily walk in at any time without a single person noticing. I myself have known Dhammakaya members who have been attending regularly for decades and half of the staff still doesn’t know who they are simply due to the sheer numbers of people that attend. Not to mention, I have known members who left due to personal issues or conflicts with other members, not only were they not shunned, many members talked about ways to try to get them to come back. At Dhammakaya, people come and go for various reasons just as much as any other religious organization, and there’s no evidence whatsoever of the temple ever “expelling” members in any case, such an accusation is pure slander and is completely illogical considering there is no reasonable way to even enforce such a policy.
As for the monitoring of ex members, I think it’s a strange accusation since Dr. Mano himself claims to have been one of Dhammakaya’s top leaders. And I have yet to hear him talk about any problems he has been receiving from Dhammakaya after he left in the several years he’s been spewing his crackpot accusations against the temple. I also think it’s strange that very few people have come forward to substantiate Dr. Mano’s claims. Take Scientology for example, an organization known for intimidation tactics against ex-members. Despite their police verified suppression tactics, many people still come out publicly about Scientology and all independently support the same claims. If Dhammakaya really is this crazy, why haven’t there been other notable ex-members coming forward to substantiate Dr. Mano’s claims? With crazy dogma, and supposedly pro-Nazi sentiment that nobody’s ever heard of except the super important chosen ones like Dr. Mano, I doubt he is the only person to have left Dhammakaya. And it seems strange that an organization with 30 times as many members as Scientology, which again has numerous verified defectors supporting the accusations against it, would only have one prominent defector coming out with these allegations.
I would like to see Professor Lemon explain these anomalies, especially with so few other ex-members coming forward to substantiate his “inner-circle” claims. And even if Dhammakaya’s strategy to silence ex-members is just that good, why exactly has Dr. Mano been able to slip through the cracks? Was it just that Dr. Mano is just so brilliant and everybody else is just not smart enough to evade Dhammakaya’s unheard of network of ninja-assassins? Or maybe he is being hunted down by them, and just keeps silent about it to avoid retaliation, because you know, nothing else he says about Dhammakaya would cause resentment from the members. These are legitimate questions I would like to ask Dr. Mano, and I sure hope he comes up with a better answer than saying that this one post from an amateur blogger is proof Dhammakaya goes around hunting people down.
The Nazis inspired Dhammakaya
While this is only a small and insignificant part of Mano’s exposé, I wanted to comment on it anyways considering the gravity of the claim. I find this claim to be a bit comical since nowadays, it seems like everybody is a secret Nazi. President Obama, George W. Bush, Hillary Clinton, the Dalai Lama, several Catholic Popes, and now Venerable Dhammajayo, the leader of Dhammakaya that Dr. Mano claims “took Adolf Hitler as one of his great man” (pg. 8). By the way, it took me less than 2 minutes to find all those links “proving” the other “Nazis” in the list. In fact, Google search virtually any famous name with the word Nazi next to it and you will undoubtedly find out that the entire world is apparently full of Nazi sympathizers!