6 June 2024

Every religion started off as a cult. And every cult started off with an uproar. Also without exception, politics will step in, and then, more or less, commercialism.

The current controversy regarding a young boy with purported supernatural and spiritual powers is no different in the grand scheme of things.

It’s just controversial because it defies a bigger, deep-rooted controversy. How many people hated Jesus of Nazareth and the miracles he performed?

How many authorities devalued his initially-small bands of faithful followers?

How many Buddhists grew up believing that when Lord Buddha was born, he instantly proceeded to take seven steps?

How much money has been donated? How many times have cult leaders said they did not ask for it, and that the money was only meant to support a shared belief? Stories went on and on.

Questions were raised, but controversies became blurry as they morphed into faith. Certain attempts to scrutinise were sincere, but others were political. Mockeries and insults were all aplenty.

But if any cult is to be transformed into a religion, all scrutiny would eventually fail.

“Freedom of faith” would get in the way, too. It’s even easier these days to declare the right to believe in, or build, or join, a cult.

(Speaking of which, it’s puzzling why an ex-monk seen as a sexual liberation idol who benefited from such freedom has joined the attack on people calling themselves unorthodox believers.)

Most of the time, obstacles are good because spiritual success cannot be achieved without “Mara”, or devilish force that tries to obstruct the universally-good deed.

The present controversy revolves around a boy’s proclaimed ability to preach dharma through connected minds.

Like it or not, the whole thing seems to follow the how-religion-is-born textbook.

It started off boldly but humbly enough. Someone claimed he had special powers.

That someone and core supporters incurred mockery and downright contempt, but backing also grew. Donations poured in.

Threats of legal action ensued. Political eyes are wide open.

We may be witnessing a mini example of how a religion is born. It is not easy, though, to exactly define the community.

It can be a cult as what holds everything together is one person’s special charisma.

Or it can also be a sect because it proclaims to associate itself with Buddhism.

Whether it’s a Buddhist sect or brand-new cult is important.

To start with, Buddhist scholars believe that Lord Buddha was never reborn.

To suggest anything which contradicts that means the community is a cult, not a Buddhist subdivision or a sect.

Or it may be a fraud, the critics say. They insist that the Thai phenomenon is confusing or even misleading the public.

However, the critics may want to take the following into account: The official Christian theology states that Jesus was born of a virgin, that he was deemed “crazy” as a child, that when he became a man, he and his small groups of “disciples” were hunted by authorities anxious about their unorthodoxy and the continuous growth of his following.

Jesus was challenging a core belief during his period. This is just like Siddhartha Gautama, who refused to believe that what was spiritually prevalent in India during his time was the best way to achieve nirvana.

This is not to defend the Thai phenomenon. This is to point out that it’s an unavoidable combination of key ingredients already in existence, and questioning it could make everyone a hypocrite.

In a Hollywood movie, Leap of Faith, actor Steve Martin played a con man who took advantage of poor people’s religious belief.

There was one scene _ which was later cut out from the film _ where he stood before a crucifixion statue and asked if he was being in front of the greatest hoax of all time.

George Carlin, one of the most famous American stand-up comedians and social critics, often said he did not understand why religion promises love and equality yet seeks to punish non-believers with hellfire and demands donations all the time.

In his best-known book, The Da Vinci Code, author Dan Brown wrote that rulers often used spiritual faith for political purpose, as it helps keep people in line. In other words, politics amplifies religion.

Kingdom of Heaven of director Ridley Scott raised doubts about what we are made to believe.

The hero suggested in one scene that if God’s “rules” contradict moral conscience of men, “Then he is not God and we need not worry.”

In spite of all the questions, how a religion comes about will unlikely change in the near future. Perhaps all that is needed is a little screening, selective belief and turning of the other cheek without losing what one truly stands for.

Tulsathit Taptim