Monday, January 9, 2017

A Pro-Wealth Buddhist Temple in Thailand and Pro-Wealth Christianity: Is Religion Inherently Weak?

In Thailand, Phra Dhammachayo, the head of the Wat Dhammakaya Buddhist Temple—Thailand’s largest—could be heard, as of 2016 at least, exhorting non-monk meditators, “Be rich, be rich, be rich!”[1] This pro-wealth message, with its “endorsement of worldly comforts,” has attracted worshippers even as it has “unsettled the government and the Buddhist hierarchy.”[2] Indeed, the top body of Buddhism accused him of heresy—a charge you don’t typically hear in that religion—and stripped him of his religious title. Yet his popularity at Wat Dhammakaya was undiminished. It is no wonder the Temple’s popularity continued to grow, with cash machines placed near a meditation room—the machines’ screens declaring, “Shortcut to making merit.” By giving money, and even credit-card points, to the temple, a Buddhist’s merit can be enhanced. Other things equal, the additional good karma results in a better reincarnation in the next life. The worshippers, or more strictly speaking, meditators, at the temple could presumably be rich in this life and be born into a better life next time around simply by practicing Buddhism.

Of course, the Buddha taught that desire is the source of suffering. Clinging to things, such as wealth, can thus be expected to lead to unhappiness. In Christianity, suffering itself is not necessarily to be avoided, as “picking up your Cross” in following Christ involves voluntary suffering. This in turn is based on agape, or self-emptying, love. Were Phra Dhammachayo a Christian rather than Buddhist priest, his vulnerability would be lapsing adherents into the sin of greed. Indeed, as the Christian attitude toward riches swung from anti-wealth to pro-wealth from the Commercial Revolution in the Middle Ages to the Renaissance, the risk was precisely that the religion would redeem the sin of greed itself, essentially incorporating it as a virtue.[3] One priest and theologian in the Italian Renaissance explicitly wrote that love of gain is good. Lest that be thought to be the high-water mark of the pro-wealth position in Christianity, the Prosperity Gospel, which teaches that God rewards true belief (i.e., that Jesus Christ is the redeeming Son of God) with material wealth rather than salvation alone, became popular in pockets of evangelical Christianity in the twentieth century and into the next. Norman Vincent Peale and Joel Osteen are two cases in point; no hint of the camel that could not get through the eye of the needle.

Certainly religions must contend with external, worldly pressures to conform to the convenient in the here and now. Whether a religion’s life-cycle necessarily involves caving into the pressure is a question worthy of scholarly attention. In the case of Thailand’s largest temple, the “economic boom of the 1980s created a well-to-do middle class for whom moneymaking rivaled Buddhist tradition as a core value.”[4] Something was needed to bring the two together. However, the craving for money that moneymaking tends to involve is inimical to the Buddha’s diagnosis of suffering and his prescription—enlightenment. So bringing the proverbial oil and water together can be regarded as an oxymoron at best. Perhaps it can be said that holding a religion to its intrinsic otherness is fraught with human nature.

[1] Seth Mydans, “Parsing Buddhism in a Shrine to Abundance,” The New York Times, December 21, 2016.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Skip Worden, God’s Gold (Seattle, WA: Amazon, 2016).
[4] Seth Mydans, “Parsing Buddhism in a Shrine to Abundance,” The New York Times, December 21, 2016.