MANDALAY, Myanmar – Thirty-thousand monks assembled in the early morning chill in Myanmar on Sunday, December 8, for a spectacular alms-giving event, partly organized by a controversial mega-temple under scrutiny across the border in Thailand.
With many barefoot, Buddhist monks from Myanmar and Thailand and senior religious officials from a dozen countries collected alms next to an airport in the central city of Mandalay, that is also a heartland of the faith.
As the sun rose over the ancient town, a sea of saffron and maroon-robed monks assembled in an area the size of a football field.
They meditated, prayed and collected alms in an event meant to tighten the relationship of "monks and Buddhists between (the) two countries" and to "strengthen the monkhood" in the region, according to a statement.
"I hope we can continue to hold bigger events in the coming years," said U Thu Nanda, a 24-year-old Burmese monk.
The event was the third and largest of its kind since 2015 and comes as one of the organizers, the Thailand-based Dhammakaya foundation, attempts to bounce back from an embezzlement scandal more than two years ago.
The Dhammakaya temple's massive compound in northern Bangkok was under siege for two weeks in early 2017 as thousands of officers try to arrest the sect's spiritual leader.
Phra Dhammachayo was accused of colluding in a $33 million embezzlement scheme and was believed to be hiding somewhere on the temple's sprawling 1,000 acre grounds, an area twice the size of Monaco.
Critics said the abbot distorted traditional Buddhist morality by encouraging materialism and spiritual rewards for donations.
But devotees point to the temple's accessible meditation methods to explain its popularity.
Experts also speculated it was under fire because of purported ties to the then-junta's political foes.
This year, they also organized two large alms-giving events in Thailand in September and October attended by 10,000 monks to solicit donations for flood victims.
But the controversy was not a topic of discussion at the event in Mandalay, where many came to show support as co-religionists.
"Donating things to many monks in one place makes me feel the delight of being Buddhist," said Khant Zaw Aung, a Burmese businessman. – Rappler.com