Buddhist temple embroiled in bitter dispute

by Margaret Ramirez, Chicago Tribune, August 17, 2010

Wat Buddhadhama temple faces allegations of mismanagement by former board members

Chicago, USA -- Inside the temple, about 50 devoted members attending Friday night meditation close their eyes and chant before Buddha.

The head monk, Phra Worasak Worathammo, prostrates before a massive golden statue and leads the evening chants, along with four other resident monks.

"We all strive to be peaceful, to attain nirvana," Worathammo had said during a class earlier that evening.

But while the Wat Buddhadhama Thai Buddhist temple in Willowbrook appears prayerful and serene, a bitter conflict is boiling behind the scenes among the temple leadership and the community of nearly 300 members.

In the past four years, the temple has become a battleground for a dispute involving monks, former board members and current leaders. Three civil lawsuits have been filed in DuPage County Court with numerous allegations including nearly $250,000 in stolen funds and misconduct by Buddhist monks. Former board members even claimed the temple had bad karma from a leaky bathroom.

Legal troubles began in 2006 with a dispute between Worathammo and one of the temple's founders, monk Sunthorn Plamintr. In one lawsuit, Worathammo accused Plamintr of stealing $250,000 in temple funds. In a counter lawsuit, Plamintr alleged that he was wrongfully removed from the temple's board of directors and should be reinstated.

But the most vocal critic of the current leadership is Wanda Stang, a former board member and registered nurse who lives in Chicago's South Loop neighborhood. The Stang family, who have practiced Buddhism all their lives, had previously attended the Watt Dhammaram temple in Chicago but joined the Willowbrook temple in 1996.

In 2004 Stang and her husband became more involved in temple activities and fundraising. She was elected secretary of the board of directors, and her husband, Dr. Prinn Stang, became the vice president.

Wanda Stang said her family was nominated as sponsor for that year's "katina," or fundraising project, which was to raise money to renovate the temple bathroom and update the water system. According to the minutes from a March 2009 board of directors meeting, the bathroom renovation was urgent and labeled as "bad karma." Board members discussed "removing it as soon as possible to make it right."

But soon after she joined the board, Stang alleged, she found that Worathammo was mismanaging temple funds and stealing from the collection box. Stang also alleged that Worathammo allowed several monks to reside at the temple who did not follow the proper religious rules governing monks.

The March 2010 arrest of a monk accused of inappropriately touching an adult temple member illustrates the problem, Stang said. The monk, Chaliaw Chetawan, was charged with battery and is awaiting trial, according to the DuPage County sheriff's office.

Joseph Leonardi, attorney for Worathammo, said his client could not comment because of Stang's lawsuit, which is under appeal.

In court documents, Stang also accused several of the current board members with improperly taking nearly $5,000 of temple funds. Stang believes the head monk's ultimate goal is to dissolve the temple and sell the land "for condominium development or other commercial use," court documents said.

"They're not doing good there. They're stealing money," said Stang in an interview. "I think the temple members should mobilize and take a stand. People should ask for an audit and ask where funds are going to make sure money is not misappropriated."

Former board member Pranee Tinnimit said she supports Stang's call for a formal audit of temple funds.

"They need better leadership," Tinnimit said. "The way they manage this temple is not good."

In May 2009, Stang filed a civil lawsuit that sought to remove Worathammo and the current board members from the temple. The suit was dismissed in October 2009 because the judge said it "involved ecclesiastic issues which were not appropriate to be decided by the court." The ruling gave Worathammo control of the temple and removed a restraining order from temple funds.

Stang is appealing the judge's ruling, and both of the 2006 lawsuits are awaiting decision by the court.

Naperville attorney David Fish, who is representing the current temple board members, called the lawsuits against his clients "frivolous" and said he was certain the appellate court would agree with the original decision.

"My clients have always been in compliance with the law," said Fish in a statement.

Fish said current board members also are unable to comment because of the pending appeal. But, one temple member, Montatip Bunluaphob, said the dispute was troubling.

"It's sad. The whole thing is just sad to me," said Bunluaphob, also a registered nurse. "We're trying to move forward, make renovations, expand the temple for more members. Everyone wants the lawsuits to end."

In court documents, Bunluaphob is accused of improperly taking control of at least $2,500 in temple money and failing to reimburse Stang for a $1,500 plane ticket. When asked about those allegations, Bunluaphob said she could not comment.

"She wanted control of the temple, and that's why all this happened," she said.

Paul Numrich, a professor with the Theological Consortium of Greater Columbus in Ohio, said such internal disputes in the Thai Buddhist Community are not unusual but rarely become public. Numrich described the conflicts as growing pains of an immigrant faith community still establishing itself in the U.S.

"Thai Buddhists are a relatively new religious group, and it takes time for these institutional cases to arise," said Numrich, who wrote about the temple in his book "Old Wisdom in the New World: Americanization in Two Immigrant Theravada Buddhist Temples."

"There aren't a lot of these cases, but the dynamics are the same as disputes in other religions. Just because they're Buddhist that doesn't abstain them from human foibles and disagreements."

Thai immigrants first began arriving in the U.S. in the 1970s with the majority coming from the medical and nursing field. Chicago Thai leaders soon founded their first Buddhist temple, Wat Dhammaram in 1976 in West Town, which eventually moved to its present location at 75th Street and Harlem Avenue.

In 1986, a group of doctors started Buddadhama Meditation Center in Willowbrook for the fast-growing Thai community that was moving from Chicago to suburbs of DuPage County. The Meditation Center grew into the temple known today as the Wat Buddadhama.

After her lawsuit was dismissed in October 2009, Stang stopped attending the temple. She was officially ousted in May after an election was held to name new board members. Although Stang filed an injunction to stop the election, a judge refused to enter the order.

"Since the election of the temple's board of directors, the temple is thriving," said Fish. "The Temple's membership is growing, improvements are taking place, and the temple's members are focusing upon their Buddhist teachings."

But Stang remains unconvinced and said she would continue fighting until the head monk and current board members are removed. She says her mission is to expose the bad governance at the temple so it can flourish as a place of worship.

"The temple is for everyone. It's not for this board member or that monk. I want to see it go back to its roots and focus on Buddhist teachings, instead of money," she said.
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