Despite the fact that no one could produce any evidence that Winai had fooled around or filched money or had "defamed unnamed government officials and the Supreme Patriarch of Thailand," media and governmental persecution were so relentless that Winai fled to the United States in July 1995. But his troubles didn't end here. Under pressure from the Thai government, the INS has repeatedly sought to deport Winai to Thailand, even after United States immigration judge Rico Bartolomei granted Winai political asylum in June 1997. The INS has since appealed Bartolomei's decision. Two weeks ago, the INS and Peter Schey, Winai's L.A.-based attorney, filed briefs on the matter with the U.S. Department of Justice Executive Office for Immigration Review Board of Immigration Appeals. A decision could take weeks, months, or even years.
Winai doesn't seem much worried about the outcome. On Sunday mornings when 50 or so of his followers -- mostly middle-aged Thai men and women from San Diego, Orange, and L.A. Counties -- fill the monastery's "chanting room," Winai lectures them at length about "peace of mind."
"Worry about the past or the future," he says, "are a kind of desire, an attachment to the material world." In the Buddhist scheme of things, the material world is illusory, and so it would be useless to worry about an illusion. Perhaps Winai has a point. Peter Schey says that recently something happened that may make it possible for Winai to remain in America. An INS office in Laguna Niguel, after reviewing Winai's application, is poised to grant him a "religious worker" visa. If it goes through, the visa would save the image-conscious Thai government the embarrassment of having one of its citizens granted political asylum in the United States, and it would save the INS the embarrassment of seeing its questionable appeal denied by the Immigration Review Board.
"Everyone," Schey says, "would be happy."
"Eventually," Winai says, "I would like to go back to Thailand."
In the meantime, Winai pads around the monastery's grounds, stopping to pull and crush a leaf from a bergamot tree and smell its citrusy perfume. He meditates. He teaches yoga. He lectures on nonattachment.
Up on the monastery's second floor the late afternoon light grows dim. Winai finishes cleaning the dog's dirty paws. Cold wind rattles the windows and Winai pulls his mustard-green robe over his shoulders. He shivers.
"It is cold here," he says. "I am surprised."