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Rogue monks are clothed in the robes of deceit

October 27, 2000

At no time in the history of Thailand has the Buddhist institution faced a crisis of faith of such an inexplicable and shameful magnitude. A series of sex and money scandals involving the abbots of major temples is coldly holding the Thai faith up to ridicule.

The latest incident involves Abbot Thammathorn Wanchai of Dan Chang Temple in Suphan Buri province, who disguised himself as an army colonel so that he could go out to flex his muscles and consort with prostitutes. He was part of a "Chivas Regal gang" who liked to drink the expensive Scotch whisky before giving sermons. At his private residence, police found pornographic material, lingerie and condoms (apparently His Excellency Wanchai was not totally careless about Aids).

A week ago, the abbot of Wat Sriboonruang, Phra Patvetvisit, and his friend Phra Khru Sukhumbhammakhun of Ang Thong province were caught hanging out at night in a coffee shop where abundant liquor and girls were at their disposal. Local newspapers have branded Phra Patvetvisit as "café baldhead". These monks had been partying for a long time, according to many people. So it was quite a shock to laymen to learn that so many Thais were idle onlookers as the monks went on wild sprees of blasphemous and licentious behaviour.

These are the symptoms of religious decadence and decay. It looks as if the course of Buddhism's decline into an abysmal state is irreversible. Most Thais inexplicably seem to want to extend their tolerance, without any thought to what is right or wrong, to the monks' sinful conduct. But this tolerance only encourages further sinful practices among bad monks. In turn, these rogue monks, most of whom enjoy high standing in the religious hierarchy, have a good time abusing their status by fraudulently taking donations from the faithful to use for their own personal pleasure instead of advancing the principles of Buddhism and their communities.

Sadly, even more senior monks are believed to have cloaked themselves in the saffron robe in order to exploit its social status and financial gains. It's only a matter of time before the next scandal emerges in the local newspapers or on TV.

Yet there is no sign of alarm among religious authorities or the ecclesiastical order. They prefer to bury their heads in the sand anytime there is a financial or sex scandal involving a monk. At most, they will only come out with the same old excuse that these incidents are simply a tiny black spot in an otherwise Buddha-devoted community of good monks.

This state of denial seems to have been going on forever as the Buddhist institution sinks deeper into a crisis of faith. The relevant question is: if the guardians of Buddhism, who camouflage themselves in saffron robes, disdain their vows and remain sinful mortals, how can faithful Thais continue to respect or worship them? When they cannot differentiate between good and bad monks, what will happen to Buddhism as an integral and crucial part of the community?

Thais have a deserved reputation for being one of the most generous people on earth, with good hearts and considerable tolerance. They will give food to monks even though they might not have anything to eat at home. This devotion to the faith is being destroyed cold-heartedly as monasteries expand in number and screening of their practices becomes more inadequate. The opportunistic can easily don the saffron robe to exploit the religion and rob innocent people.

It has always been argued that Buddhism, as a pure religion, is not declining and can never decline. Decadence can be seen only in the people or the organisations surrounding it. This is true in one respect, but it is a self-serving point that allows us to deceive ourselves into believing that nothing can ever go wrong with Buddhism.

Thais did not invent Buddhism. They imported this religion from India more than a thousand years ago. To practice Buddhism, Thais have had to build temples, educate monks in the doctrine, cast Buddha images as the ultimate religious symbol and allow the people to participate in the act of worshipping. This great religion has held Thais together for centuries and helped to refine our traits. Now, though, it looks increasingly like we are losing our character because we cannot maintain faith in Buddhism.




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