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Wat Tha Ma Oo In Lampang

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Bit melodramatic there at the end, but a very interesting article about Burmese monks in Thailand:

A Dying Presence

By Jim Andrews/Lampang

September 1, 2007

Monks from Burma may soon be just a memory in a corner of Thailand crowded with Burmese temples

The Burmese abbot of Lampang's Wat That Ma Oo accepts alms from three women member of his large congregation

[Photo: Jim Andrew/The Irrawaddy]

The three women, clad in white, knelt before the elderly abbot and gently helped the forgetful old man recite his mantra as he accepted their alms. It was a scene that was to be found in many similar forms in monasteries throughout Thailand that day—the birthday of the country’s queen, when Thai women traditionally pay tribute to their revered matriarch.

What made this event so special, however, was that the 87-year-old abbot, Sayadaw U Dhamananda, is Burmese. His temple, Wat Tha Ma Oo, is one of nine built by wealthy and influential Burmese traders in the northern Thai city of Lampang in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Lampang school teacher Supatra Tungchanta and her lawyer friend Thitikarn Amnuayboon regularly worship and meditate at the temple. They are typical of the middle-class, relatively affluent Thai congregation that has largely replaced the descendants of the Burmese traders who built and sponsored the temple.

In U Dhamananda’s comfortable quarters, Kuhn Supatra placed her plastic pail of alms before the elderly abbot, and said: “We come regularly to meditate with him. People travel from as far as Bangkok for his meditation classes.”

The patronage U Dhamananda has built up in his 45 years at Wat Tha Ma Oo has made his temple one of the wealthiest and most influential in Lampang.

While Thai officialdom and rivalries between Thai and Burmese Buddhists have closed the city’s other Burmese temples to Burmese resident monks, U Dhamananda and one elderly assistant from Burma continue to run the community of 28 Thai monks at Wat Tha Ma Oo, which also houses a thriving monastic school that draws students of Buddhism from throughout Southeast Asia.

When U Dhamananda dies, however, a Thai abbot will probably take over, and the lineage of Burmese abbots in Lampang will then come to an end. Thailand’s religious laws require temple abbots to be Thai nationals and to be ordained by Thai preceptors, with the exception of certain Vietnamese and Chinese sects.

The requirement caused frequent friction between Thailand and Burma in the past, and the most famous of Lampang’s nine Burmese temples, Wat Srichum, and nearby Wat Pafang, were both embroiled in successional squabbles.

Frustrated by confusing visa formalities, the Burmese abbot of Wat Pafang, U Tilawka, moved in 1986 to Singapore, and his successor, U Zanawa, returned to Burma for the same reasons. The management of the temple was then taken over by Thai trustees.

In 1995, Wat Srichum found itself in a similar hiatus when its Burmese abbot, U Pyinya Wuntha, died. Built in 1892 by a wealthy Burmese merchant, U Yo, Wat Srichum is Thailand’s largest Burmese temple and one of the highlights of the Lampang tourist itinerary.

For four years after U Pyinya Wuntha’s death, a series of acting abbots were in charge of the temple and its community of Thai and Burmese monks while trustees appointed by the Burmese embassy in Bangkok and leading Thai clergy wrangled over the choice of a successor.

Despite the intervention of the Burmese government, a Thai monk was eventually chosen, and he in turn was succeeded five years ago by the present Thai abbot, Wanchai Sanchayo, a 66-year-old former Bangkok businessman.

When Abbot Wanchai took over, Wat Srichum had 19 Burmese monks, but they progressively left, most of them returning to Burma, because of problems obtaining visas enabling them to live permanently at the monastery.

Today, Wat Srichum’s six monks, one nun and 10 novices are all Thai.

Nevertheless, Abbot Wanchai nurtures the Burmese history and traditions of his temple. The ex-businessman mixes entrepreneurial skills with Buddhist tenets to boost the evident prosperity of Wat Srichum, raising income from market traders who are allowed to set up their fruit stalls outside the temple gates and from a nearby herb garden.

On weekends and holidays, tour buses fill the car park in front of the golden chedi where supposed Buddha relics from Burma were placed in 1906. only Lampang’s most famous monastery, Wat Phra That Lampang Luang, attracts more visitors—ironically, Burmese invaders seriously damaged that temple during one of their incursions into northern Thailand centuries ago.

Abbot Wanchai patiently conducts visitors on tours of his temple, pointing out the architectural features created by Mandalay craftsmen and relishing in the description of a mysterious, central event in the temple’s history, when the wiharn was burnt down by a fire in 1992.

Seated on the steps leading to the temple’s Burmese-style golden Buddha image, the abbot reenacts the scene, flicking a hem of his saffron robe over an imaginary candle flame. “That’s how the fire started,” he says, and a plaque on the wall confirms that only one monk, the then abbot, was in the wiharn when the blaze started.

There are other versions of how the fire began, however, and arson figures prominently among them. The fire broke out amid rumors that Burmese intelligence agents disguised as monks were gathering information in Thailand about Burmese living in exile.

The rumors caught many Burmese temples and their Burmese monks in a web of suspicion, and some of the monasteries have never recovered, disowned by both Thai and Burmese authorities.

One famous Burmese temple in Lampang, Wat Chaimongkol (also known by its Burmese name, Kyaung Kha), was once a prosperous place of pilgrimage and worship, built in 1919 by Burmese timber merchants. In 1993, the Burmese government asked for a Burmese monk to be appointed abbot, but the request was denied by the Thai authorities.

As if cursed, the monastery went into decline and is now a crumbling ruin, where packs of vicious dogs keep visitors at bay.

Like the alarmed visitors, some of whom have had to vault the boundary walls to escape the dogs, Burmese monks have long since left, never to return. Now a ghostly silence hangs over the weed-strewn grounds, broken only by the howls and snarls of the Cerberean creatures who stand guard.

Irrawaddy News Magazine

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Yes a bit melodramatic since one might presume that the abbot succeeding U Dhammanda would be a Thai who has studied under him for a long time, and accepted by the monastery's lay trustees (some of whom may be Burmese, but I don't know for sure). I believe the current vice abbot there is Thai. There have been a few farang monks there as well from time to time, most notably Phra Dhammanando, subject of the film Act Naturally.

Wat Tha Ma O is one of the most respected monasteries in Thailand in terms of meditation and abhidhamma.

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All a part of the Thai decline. The Burmese are still far more enthusiastic about practicing meditation....the real core as far as I am concerned. The Thais give too much emphasis upon merit making and chanting.

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