Scandal in the Temple

By Yasmin Lee Arpon

BANGKOK — In this predominantly Buddhist country, a male is not considered a full-fledged man unless he becomes a Buddhist novice or monk at least once in his lifetime.

During summers, young men shave their heads and enter the temple to study the life of the Buddha, a prince who turned his back on wealth and family to be “enlightened.” Phra Surasak, a senior monk at the Chonprathan temple, explains: “They would be taught to study basic rules, the history of Buddhism, and meditation. The objective is to help them be good people.”

But there are those who now say this very tradition has helped weakened the timber of monks in Thailand, because becoming a monk is not being done with much faith and dedication. Many observers say that may be one of the reasons why Thailand is seeing more and more monks going “bad.”

“We Thais have a freedom by tradition to be a monk,” says Sen. Oompol Poumanee, a member of the Senate committee on religious affairs. “But some become monks without the commitment.”

In recent months, the international media have reported on sexual abuses committed by some Roman Catholic priests in the United States and elsewhere in the world, including the Philippines. But other faiths seem to be undergoing crises as well. Since the mid-1990s, scandals involving monks have rocked Thailand, where Buddhism is an integral part of the local culture. Far from following in the footsteps of Buddha, some of the country’s saffron-robed holy men have been found to have committed sins that range from embezzlement to sex with prostitutes to even murder.

Vasana Puemlarp, a former investigator and elections commissioner, says scandals among monks is an “increasing trend” in Thailand. But he says, “The trend’s impact on Buddhism would not be (a) decrease on their faith, but on their faith in the monks.”

Of Thailand’s 60 million people, about 92 percent are Buddhists. The religion has been part of Thailand for more than a thousand years and is believed to have “significant influence on their character, mind, and way of life.”

Monks and money don’t mix
According to the Department of Religious Affairs, Thailand has about 35,000 monks. Of these, Oompol says, 20,000 could still be considered “good” monks. He also notes, “Bad monks have more money. They are more popular because they know how to present themselves and use their charm.”

But some monks have gone beyond charm to get money. In May, Phra Dhammachayo of the Dhammakaya temple was accused of using donations amounting to 220 million baht ($5.4 million) to make personal purchases of land and jewelry. Members of the Dhammakaya, one of Thailand’s most famous temples, include politicians and movie stars. Vasana says the filing of charges against Dhammachayo is a breakthrough, even if it took him two years to complete the investigation.

Dhammachayo is hardly the only monk to be involved in a money-related scandal. A month after he was charged, Vises See-Khan, formerly known as Phra Maha Vises of Hong Thong temple, admitted to having volunteered to launder money taken during a bank heist in Pathum Thani province. Vises said he was planning to buy and sell Buddha images with the 6.8 million baht (about $166,000) taken by a gang of robbers from a Thai Farmers Bank branch.

In September 2000, Phra Khru Viboon Pattanahit of the Sisakrabna temple was accused of buying some 60 classic cars with the donations of devotees. Khru, who was later censured, tried to defend himself by saying he had only 29 cars and was planning to put up a classic automobile museum.

From bad to worse
Other cases involve sex, not money. One monk, Thammathorn Wanchai, tried to cover up his tracks by masquerading as a Special Forces colonel before proceeding to his trysts with paid women. In October 2000, however, he was filmed driving his Mercedes Benz out of his temple at night, stopping to don a uniform of the special warfare command with Army insignias and pulling up at a house where two women later arrived in a taxi.

Monks have also shown violent behavior, as in the case of Phra Maha Sayan Jirasupho, who in May ran amuck at the parliament building. He even wielded an AK-47 during his rampage, which he said was to protest his alleged mistreatment by the Chantoburi police. He was later charged with illegal possession of firearms and for firing a gun.

The monk had been arrested earlier for allegedly trespassing in a forest reserve during a pilgrimage. He claimed the police forced a confession out of him by attacking and stripping him.

But the most brutal so far has been Yodchat Suaephui, a monk who in 1996 confessed to the murder of a female British backpacker. According to authorities, Yodchat had also tried to rape the woman before she was killed.

Debate over proposed changes in Sangha law
The Sangha Supreme Council – which has the administrative, judicial, and legislative power over all the monks and temples in Thailand – has been widely criticized for acting slow on cases involving wayward monks. The Council is now working with the government to amend the Sangha law and make it more effective.

Oompol, one of the proponents of the amendatory bill, says the new law would hasten the process of prosecution to prevent having “bad monks.” He says, “It is like a tree. You cut out the dried leaves to ensure that the tree will grow stronger and have good foundation.”

But the bill’s progress is being delayed by disagreements between the two sects in Thai Buddhism, the Mahanikaya and the Dhammayudh. The Mahanikaya, which came first to Thailand, is more conservative and wants to retain the old law. This means keeping power centralized in the Council. The Dhammayudh, meanwhile, wants a bigger composition of the board and the decentralization of the power structure by putting up regional and provincial boards.

“Prime Minister Thaksin (Shinawatra) said we should wait until the conflict has been settled within the sects,” says Manope Phonphririntr of the Department of Religious Affairs. But he agrees that the old law centralizes power, “that is why the process to penalize the monks takes long.”

The Buddhist community and the government are considering separating the administrative, judicial, and legislative functions of the council to avoid delays in the decision-making process. But there have also been proposals to tighten the screening process for monks to ensure that only those with “firm and real commitment” become monks.

Lax rules or lax implementation?
So far, ordinary Thais have refrained from commenting on the scandals. Oompol says this is because Thai culture dictates that people keep their displeasure to themselves.

“It’s in the religion,” he says. “Thai people don’t like to show (emotions), they just watch.”

But Phra Surasak is not shy about voicing out his opposition to the proposals, saying that implementing them would make the process “discriminatory.” He argues, “(The) monkhood will recruit very little people if we practice strict rules. The quantity does not matter. It gives them wide opportunity to come in. If the rules are too strict, it will be very discriminating.”

Oompol himself says it would be difficult to tighten the screening process since the practice of Thai males becoming monks or novices at least once is already ingrained in Thai culture. He also points out that Thai men believe doing so enables them to gain merit, especially for their mothers, who cannot become monks themselves.

Vasana, for his part, says more emphasis should be given on the proper administration and implementation of the Sangha law. “If authorities enforce the law,” he says, “this would help decrease and (later) eliminate misbehavior (among) monks).”

He cites as an example a law that calls for transparency in the allocation of temple funds and properties. He says it is not followed, thus creating a “loophole that gives rise to monks taking the properties for themselves.”

Monks in a modern world
Phra Surasak, meanwhile, hopes that the institution of monkhood has not been adversely affected by the shenanigans of some wayward monks. Monkhood, he says, provides “opportunity for people to change.”

Surasak says that it is up to the monks to make themselves more relevant in an increasingly materialistic world. He laments the fact that there are even monks who give the faithful numbers to bet on in the lottery, and points out, “That is not what Buddhism is about.”

“The weakness of Buddhism is within the system,” he says. “There seems to be much emphasis on the ceremony and little emphasis on Buddha teaching.”

“The duty of the monk is to spread the teaching of Buddha,” stresses Surasak. “(But) some monks lack the skill to translate teachings to practical things to their followers. It would be ideal if all temples in Thailand can stay within their main function, to teach the sermon and not go into other businesses.”

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