The Esoteric Teachings of Mano “Lemon” Laohavanich: A Layperson's Comments

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.

Dhammadayada

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.

Mara

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.

Renunciation

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?

Politics

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).

Dhammakaya’s Ex-members

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!

Dr. Mano criticizing the temple he was a part of for 19 years.  

Dr. Mano criticizing the temple he was a part of for 19 years.  

Considering the level of craziness in Mano’s other claims against Dhammakaya I am not at all surprised Professor Lemon accuses his former master of being a secret Nazi bent on global domination, especially since it went out of fashion a few decades ago to call people you disagree with communists.

Dr. Mano even claims that despite the defeat of the Nazis, Dhammakaya still intends to bring meditation to the former Third Reich, claiming that “this is the reason behind the grandiose projects of Wat Phra Dhammakaya who sent teams of monks to start new missions in Germany and Europe” (pg 8). I didn’t take that quote out of context by the way, Dr. Mano actually does claim this. Totally logical, since you know, what other reason could a religious organization based in Asia possibly have for wanting to do missions in Europe other than bring glory to the former Nazi Empire? However I guess this also means since Dhammakaya also sent monks to America that Venerable Dhammajayo is both a Hitler and Roosevelt sympathizer.

Mano’s Trustworthiness

Dr. Mano Laohavanich’s paper covers many points about Dhammakaya that supposedly only a select few people within the temple know about. This response does not cover every point of his paper nor do I intend to make a response that covers every point of his paper. Believe it or not, I have a life and have better things to do than sit here and respond to every single point of somebody whom I believe to be a complete lunatic. Regardless I think I’ve gotten my point across.

Time and again, the esoteric and crackpot stories of the former “top leader” of Dhammakaya were contradicted in his writings. One good example comes at the conclusion of his writing in which Professor Lemon claims Venerable Dhammajayo of Wat Phra Dhammakaya “does not need to teach the esoteric teaching to each of his follower (sic). He needs only a sizable number of hardcore disciples who believe in it. Among millions of disciples of the wat, Phra Chaiboon Dhammajayo is seen as a bodhisattva of great power who has dedicated his life for the good of all sentient beings” (pg. 10). This claim is then curiously contradicted a few paragraphs later when Dr. Mano states that “although the esoteric teachings of Wat Phra Dhammakaya are against every grain of the conventional Buddhist doctrine of Theravada Buddhism, it has been deeply rooted implanted in the beliefs of millions of Buddhists who are faithful to the wat” (pg. 10). A confusing way to conclude a paper, by stating that these crazy esoteric teachings are taught only to a select few thousand members and then saying these same esoteric teachings are believed by millions of followers.

Anyways, the point of me writing this response is to question how trustworthy this former “top leader” of Dhammakaya is in making these claims. While some of the crazy stuff I “might have” believed to have been inside Dhammakaya secrets, I think Dr. Mano went a little overboard with the whole cliché Nazi accusations and the ridiculously ominous “once you’re in you can never leave” claims. This writing of insanity caused me to look more into Dr. Mano’s history and I find much of it suspect. You may not know this, or be able to easily find any supporting evidence elsewhere, but Dr. Mano is actually a great admirer of Lex Luthor, and has once said that he took Luthor as a brilliant and admirable man whose evil deeds are for good purposes. Mano even goes as far as trying to mimic his appearance and trying to play the part of taking down his real-life fantasy of Superman, Ven. Dhammajayo.

A temple insider has also said that during his time at Dhammakaya as a monk Dr. Mano has also once said,“I would never disrobe [from monkhood]. To disrobe is the same as to bow down and suck up your own spit from the ground” yet interestingly enough he decided not just to leave Dhammakaya but disrobe from monkhood overall shortly after leaving, sucking up his own spit and probably a bunch of other stuff with it. But wait, there’s more, Dr. Mano has also used his brilliant mind to discover and make claims that the Buddha actually died of a blood infection rather than what was described clearly in the scriptures and that he was actually born in Thailand rather than the unanimous consensus among everybody who knows what Buddhism is - that he was born in present day Nepal!

Now, you might be thinking, these claims sound completely insane and it sounds like you are just making them up. This is because Dr. Mano’s credibility is not, as most outsiders perceived, derived from his Harvard-Oxford credentials or the fact that he claims to be this super important ex-leader of Dhammakaya. It comes from sophisticated layers of myths and anecdotes, told and retold among members of his club of tin-foil hat wearing wack jobs. Sure the claims I’m making about Mano idolizing a comic book villain aren’t substantiated by very many other credible people, but that’s only because he tells this only to super important people in his inner circle once they have gained sufficient faith in his other claims bordering on insanity.

So for those who cite Dr. Mano Laohavanich on Dhammakaya when he makes appearances on various talk shows and interviews, I would like to ask that you guys approach his crackpot accusations with a reasonable amount of skepticism. As a longtime former member of Dhammakaya, Dr. Mano is bound to know the temple’s inner secrets, but considering he left the temple to eventually become famous for attacking it, even going as far as publicly calling for the prosecution of the abbot in a case that was completely irrelevant to him. I would say Mano has a reasonable incentive to stretch the truth at the very least. And considering there are virtually no other ex-senior members of Dhammakaya coming out to substantiate his crazy accusations, I’m not sure how much truth there is in it.

I rarely hear people liken people they are fond of to Hitler, and the fact that Dr. Mano accuses his former master of being a Nazi should raise some questions as to why he left Dhammakaya in the first place. Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, and in my opinion, it is much more probable that the brilliant Dr. Mano’s “insider” claims about Dhammakaya come more from some petty grudge against his former “cofounder” from his Dhammakaya years than in the “academic value” he claims it provides. Whether it be Harvard, or a high school dropout, people are still people, and unless you are a Buddha, people are not perfect.

Nonetheless, regardless of how ridiculous the paper sounds it is definitely very well written and displays Dr. Mano Laohavanich’s intelligence and skill as a scholar, despite a few small typos I managed to catch. Although I found the Nazi accusations to be a little uncreative and I found it a little funny that if you look at the references he cites at the bottom of the paper, that two of the eight references were under his former monastic name Ven. Mettanando Bhikkhu, so he literally cites himself as proof of some of these claims (and maybe that’s okay, again, I am just a lay observer and blogger, I’m not a scholar). Regardless, his paper does show that Dr. Mano is indeed a very brilliant person worthy of his Harvard-Oxford credentials. I just hope not too many people mistake intelligence for honesty (or sanity).

Final Questions for Dr. Mano

Regardless of Dr. Mano’s intentions when it comes to discussing Dhammakaya, I think his writing on Dhammakaya raises several questions. For these questions, let’s make a few assumptions first. Let’s assume that Mano really was one of the super important “top leaders” of Dhammakaya he claims to be. Let’s assume that all of his accusations are completely true without any influence from any type of petty conflict he might’ve had with his apparently Hitler loving co-founder and former master Venerable Dhammajayo. Let’s assume Dhammakaya is somehow able to expel members they don’t like from attending their extremely open and public events. Let’s assume the reason Dr. Mano is virtually the only one making these claims is because Dhammakaya has a network of Buddhist assassins that silence all ex-members from revealing their secrets except for Dr. Mano since his giant lemon brain makes him too smart to get caught. Let’s assume all of Dr. Mano’s claims are true.

Why exactly, Dr. Mano Laohavanich, did you not only stick with Dhammakaya for so long, but help lead it into the giant organization it is today? As a “top leader” and “one of the founding members” (pg. 1) who “successfully reformed the structure of the organization in 1989-90” (pg. 2) you should have known these wack job esoteric teachings and ties to the Nazis for a long time. Not only did you follow it, you supported and helped propagate it. Perhaps the unorthodox Buddhist teachings you can be more patient with, but I don’t know about you Dr. Mano, but I sure as hell wouldn’t wait 19 years to leave an organization of Thai Nazis bent on global domination.