THE MAN BEHIND SANTI ASOKE
* Sanitsuda Ekachai

Phra Bhodhirak of Santi Asoke Buddhist Centre is a man you will either love or hate. But the outspoken monk could care less. Though ostracised by the mainstream Sangha, he remains as outrageous as ever, firing away criticisms against consumer society and the lax behaviour of mainstream Buddhist monks.

"My mission is to revive Buddhism in Thailand," the self-taught monk declares in his autobiography Truths about My Life.

Admirers say he is fearless and straightforward. His opponents say he is ignorant and arrogant. But even neutral observers are shocked when he delivered one of his characteristic thunderclaps, claiming that he is "Phra Bodhisattva", a reincarnation of the spirit on his/her way across lifetimes to Enlightenment.

According to orthodox teaching, it is not permitted for monks to talk about the level of spiritual achievement they have attained, let alone to claim to be on the way to becoming another Buddha.

But the outspoken monk has his reasons for such an outrageous pronouncement, as well as answers to the other criticisms he receives, which range from possessing an unmonk-like arrogance, being ignorant of Buddhist teachings, and being the cause of serious rifts in ecclesiastical harmony.

"Yes, I have a sharp tongue. But it is only because there are already plenty of monks using the carrot. So it is my job to use the stick.

"The world is now in imbalance. No one dares to criticise. They are afraid. Afraid of being criticised back. Afraid of not being liked. I just strike a balance.

"I am a teacher. I have to keep scolding and criticising. I shock the people with my criticisms, as powerful as thunder, so that they start thinking and checking their behaviour. So that they change," so he writes in his biography.

Efforts to "get" Phra Bhodhirak started up a long time after he declared independence from the Ecclesiastical Council in 1975. It was obvious that the clergy felt that the threats from Santi Asoke were real and getting more immediate with the increasing popularity of the Palang Dhamma Party. It was feared that if the party got their hands on the country's religious affairs, Phra Bhodhirak might finally have the power to "rock the boat", as he had been vowing to do.

Indeed, Phra Bhodhirak could have peacefully continued with his work and experiment on an alternative, self-reliant community based on selflessness, hard work and simple, religious life against mainstream materialism and consumerism if he - like other proliferating religious groups - lets well enough alone and does not challenge the clergy.

But he has made it clear that he will not let his mission be confined by such timidity.

"I'm frank. And loud. I'm not a nanny. My job is not to cradle the baby gently."

Phra Bhodhirak was the eldest son in large family always struggling to make ends meet. But that only made the independent and hard-working boy more determined to rise above his means.

From the age of 10 he had to work odd jobs in order to support his family. And when his mother died, he replaced her as family leader and on his own shouldered the responsibility of supporting and educating all his six brothers and sisters.

The enterprising boy, however, was also noted for his artistic leanings. When in the Poh Chang College of Arts and Crafts, he changed his name Mongkol to Rak, meaning "love", and determined to excel in writing to make his name in the entertainment circle. Which he did.

He quickly became successful as TV programmer, song composer, and writer. Rak Rakpong became a household name for TV viewers. He had a big house, expensive cars, and enjoyed a bachelor's indulgences. But in the meantime, he remained a loving and responsible eldest brother.

Rak went through numerous "quests" before he finally turned his back on fame, success, and other worldly pleasures.

A fascination with psychic powers led him to study hypnotism and black magic. He became a spirit medium and faith healer for a number of years before shifting his interest to dhamma practice.

"When I decided to practise dhamma, I was already earning 20,000 baht. My career as song composer was at its height. I, like the Lord Buddha, did not succumb to wealth, fame and comfort.

"I'm not the type of the person who clings. I can always cut off whenever I like. Just like that."

He shocked his family and friends by shaving his head, wearing only simple white clothes, and going around barefoot. By the time he finally decided to resign from his job, he had been a strict vegetarian for a number of years.

"People thought I was mad," he recalls, adding, however, that he became "accomplished" only two years after he started practising dhamma and before his ordination.

"I was fast because I put my mind to it," he says, stressing the importance of willpower in mind purification, and that he is his own teacher - no one else.

He resigned from his job in 1970 and was ordained a few months later in the Dhammayutika Sect, but not before he forewarned the abbot not to let other monks "disturb" his quietude.

"People just would not listen because I was not a monk. So I became a monk, although the saffron robe did not really matter to me."

He resigned from the Dhammayutika Sect three years later when the abbot would not let him organise a meeting for his followers which would be also attended by monks from the Mahanikaya Sect.

After that he set up a Buddhist centre in Nakhon Pathom, where monks wore brownish robes and strictly followed the monks' disciplines as in ancient times.

But as his popularity increased among those who were tired of the ineffectiveness of the orthodox ecclesiastical order, Phra Bhodhirak's "holier than thou" criticisms created a strong opposition from the order itself.

The last straw came when the order threatened to demolish his centre and forced his ordainer, who was critically ill, to expel him from the sangha.

In 1975, he declared independence and formed Santi Asoke, which, he stresses, does not mean that he is no longer a Buddhist monk.

"I have never left the monkhood. I've never said I would leave the monkhood, never performed a ceremony to do so. My heart has never left."

What he did, he argues, was only to return the certificates to the clergy which cannot disqualify him as a monk because he has not broken any rules stated by Buddha.

Phra Bhodhirak then gradually built up his new religious territory where he laid all the ground rules and performed ordinations himself although he had been ordained less than the normally required 10 years.

Santi Asoke has four centres, and an "ant army" of followers which, among other things, churns out 560,000 books for free distribution annually to spread Phra Bhodhirak's teachings.

At Santi Asoke, people strictly follow Buddhist principles with a strong emphasis on simplicity, hard work, and self sacrifice. Followers and monks eat only one meal a day. And only vegetarian food. Monks and nuns wear brownish robes and do not shave their eyebrows as convention dictates.

While modest and hard-working, all seem to be determined to be different from the rotten lot. They are even selective in accepting donations and new members. One has to join their activities at least seven times in order to be able to donate.

Going back to Buddha's fundamental teachings, Santi Asoke counters the mainstream materialism and consumerism and has set up an "utopian Buddhist society" in Nakhon Pathom where members live, work, and produce food on the basis of communal harmony.

Apart from its model Buddhist villages, Santi Asoke members - predominantly professionals, middle class, to lower middle class - have also set up a model grocery store and herbal product business based on their intention to help consumers rather than make profits.

The Santi Asoke projects have drawn much attention and admiration from academics for their projection of an alternative lifestyle according to Buddhist beliefs vis-a-vis Western-style consumerism, so much so that they are willing to dismiss his antagonistic approach.

But not the clergy.

According to them, Phra Bhodhirak is illegal, ignorant, aggressive and divisive.

The outspoken monk, they say, also violates one of the basic principles of the Buddhist monkhood - never to boast of one's spiritual achievements.

In his biography, Phra Bhodhirak argues that he needs no formal training since he has accumulated knowledge and merit from his past lives.

He mentions the name Phra Sariputta, one of Lord Buddha's main disciples, several times in his biography, implying that he is the reincarnation of or, at the very least, a follower in the footsteps of Phra Sariputta.

He also attacks the clergy and other schools of Buddhist practice in Thailand, explains away his arrogance, and dismisses the charges of divisiveness brought against his behaviour.

He argues that he was not causing rift but only trying to bring the good things in both the Mahayana and Theravada traditions together once again - by going back to the fundamental teachings and practices of ancient times as he understands them.

Vegetarianism, he says, is one good thing he has borrowed from Mahayana. But he does not spare any bullets when it comes to the clergy.

"Those in high positions are simply of no use. They have not achieved spiritual salvation and they even misunderstand Buddhist teachings."

Or the forest monks who devote themselves to mind purification. "They end up being like hermits. And ones without wisdom. Simply no use to people."

His criticism of other schools of Buddhism has not won him any popularity contests, either.

Apart from Santi Asoke, there are two other prominent reformist schools which command large followings among the powerful middle-class professionals: the Dhammakaya, which stresses concentration meditation, and Suan Mokkh led by Buddhadasa Bhikkhu, who calls for mindfulness and eradication of the sense of self.

Phra Bhodhirak says his approach is to teach people, step by step, to get rid of suffering, first from Sila or self-control, then go on to Samadhi or meditation, and then to Pa ñña or the understanding of nature.

Although Phra Bhodhirak does not name names, it is understood that he is criticising those two schools as incomplete and unmethodical, and this quickly drew attacks from the other schools' followers.

He refuses to tone down his approach. "Manner is a child of hypocrisy. There is no sincerity, no courage left to defend righteousness."

He says he is already as humble as he can be.

"I'm not making myself high. I'm high on dhamma. But people want to push me down.

"Truths hurt. And there is a misconception that Buddha only said nice things that fell easily on the ears. Once, after one of his sermons, 60 monks died suddenly because of the hard-hitting teachings, 60 resigned, and the other 60 attained enlightenment.

"No one has died or resigned because of my preaching yet.

"What I do is only to reveal a few of the diamonds I have. Not all that I have. But already people cannot stand the sparkle of them.

"I am not showing off. I am actually Phra Sotapanna, Phra Sakadagami. What is wrong with talking about what is true?" he asks, referring to the states of spiritual purification before attaining enlightenment.

He also cites a prayer in Pali saying that there exist special ones who find the truths of the world themselves. "I am such a person. You are lucky to meet that person."

As for comments that he lacks formal learning in Pali and Buddhist teachings: "I've never studied Pali formally. But I can translate it with my own intuition.

"There are past lives. If I didn't know about my past life I would be amazed, too.

"I can explain Buddhist teachings like threading beautiful flower garlands, varied, important, and profound. Why brush them away? Would you not lend me an ear?

"What I am doing is to make Buddhism into one. But I am not going to demolish existing sects. I'm only declaring the truths. And truths have nothing to do with secthood.

"People criticise me for being too strict and equating it with virtue. But we have to go against the strong currents of evil. That's why we have to be strict.

"I apologise for being harsh. But I will continue the whipping, again and again.

"Day by day, I feel more confident, more determined. I'm sure that although my work cannot match what Buddha did, it is in the same track, the same direction.

"I am the nutrionist giving food for the soul, a pharmacist giving medicine for the spirit.

"People do not understand me. But one day they will."

Bangkok Post 22 July 1988
(Reprinted in
"Keeping the Faith. Thai Buddhism at the Crossroads."
Post Books, Bangkok 2001)

PHOTIRAK MAY HAVE THE LAST LAUGH next