Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Thai Buddhism in Crisis

The fastrack to nirvana with Wirapol - the flying monk!

Thai Buddhism is in crisis. It isn't remarkable in this, as a glance at the state of Buddhism in Sri Lanka, Japan, Burma, China or Korea would lead to the same conclusion. And neither is this sorrowful situation particular to Buddhism of course; institutionalized religion the world over is in varying states of crisis. But, being a Buddhist living in Thailand does give one a unique perspective on this issue. No two religions are exactly the same, and no two sects of Buddhism are identical either. The specific problems that face Thai Buddhism may differ to the difficulties encountered by Japanese Buddhists or American Christians, but the underlying causes are surely the same. We will be looking at these in due course, but first it will be illuminating to look at some examples of the crisis as it appears in Thailand.

Until very recently, Ajarn Pu Nen Kham was a popular monk with thousands of followers in the Thai kingdom. Thai Buddhists would flock to his public sermons to listen to his particular brand of wisdom. And, of course, as is Thai tradition, give generous donations to him & his monastery. This is where things get somewhat, well, murky. The monk was filmed aboard a private jet - allegedly his - wearing designer sunglasses and playing with expensive gadgets. Traditionally-minded Thais, who expect their monks to live more modestly were not pleased with these images. Next, came many more unsavory allegations against the monk.

Firstly, a picture circulated which some claimed showed a close-up image of Ajarn Pu Nen Kham's face next to a woman led on a pillow, apparently asleep. Needless to say, Buddhist monks are expected to be celibate; moreover to avoid any hint of scandal, they are not even supposed to go into a room or any other isolated place alone with a woman. On top of this, a woman came forward claiming that when she was under the age of consent, the monk fathered a child with her! This allegation is being investigated, and it is possible that the monk - also known as Wirapol - could face up up twenty years in jail if found guilty.

Secondly, the  financial scandal around the monk extends to allegations that he has used donations to buy dozens of cars, build palatial homes for himself and his family, and has numerous bank accounts, containing millions and millions of Thai baht. Moreover, a lay devotee who claims she gave Wirapol land to build a temple on never saw the temple built, but instead the monk and his monastic community live there. When she recently asked for the land back, no doubt disappointed at the nonexistent temple, she alleges she received death-threats.

When the outcry erupted, Wirapol, on a trip abroad - apparently a regular pastime of his - first refused to return to Thailand from France. Then, he fled to America, where he has had a big house built in California. In his absence, he has been formally defrocked, and is no longer permitted to call himself a monk in Thailand, losing all the privileges that go with that position. Some of his followers have not only stuck by the disgraced monk, but actually came out in public denying all the accusations made against him, claiming that there is a conspiracy involving both the Thai media and the Thai D.S.I. (Department of Special Investigation). This kind of dogged loyalty is often found around those exposed by the media and largely reviled by the majority of a populace; recall how some aides to Saddam Huissein continued to support him even after his capture & execution. The following questions do arise however: Just how close to Wirapol were these people, and were they directly involved in his misdemeanors? Did they, along with many other benefactors, receive gifts or payment from him?

While the above drama continues to be played out in the Thai media, its outcome still to be decided as this article is being written, something needs to be borne in mind: This is by no means an isolated incident in Thailand. The magnitude of Wirapol's misconduct is astounding, but corruption is nothing new to the Thai monkhood, and neither are sexual scandals, theft, drug abuse, violence and general rudeness! Monks who have been expelled in high-profile cases before include Dharmavadi, Yantra, and Pawana in 1990s. Pawana was particularly horrible, found guilty of raping hill tribe girls that he had given shelter to in his temple. The Thai media is focusing on such issues once more in light of Wirapol's exposure, and questions are being asked of the Thai Buddhist hierarchy's abilities to run its ship effectively. For example, it has been reported that Thais donate over 100 billion baht (over 3 billion US Dollars) to Buddhist monasteries, and yet the is no national audit of what the monks do with all that money!

So, why do monks such as Wirapol and the others mentioned above do such controversial stuff? Well, because they are human. This is why the rules for monks and nuns exist in the first place, because from the time of the Buddha until now, they have done things unfitting for someone wearing the saffron robes. These monkish rules are precious. If adhered to, they guarantee that monks and nuns live virtuous lives conducive to enlightenment; moreover, they make sure that monks and nuns live in a way that inspires others, rather than disgusts them. Wirapol, and monks like him, flout these rules, and what exasperates the situation is that both laypeople & senior monks ignore their wrongdoings. In this sense, all Thai Buddhists that turn a blind eye to this sort of stuff are to blame for the current crisis they face. Sure, Wirapol should face justice, but he should not become a smokescreen for all the other bad practices going on in this Buddhism today: all Buddhists need to look homewards and see the truth of their own practice.

Another contributing factor to this crisis is the laziness of most Thai Buddhists. Basically, their idea of Buddhist practice is to offer alms to monks (and sometimes nuns), occasionally attend a Buddhist service or festival, and chanting in a language (Pali) that they do not understand. Actually studying the noble eightfold path that the Buddha taught, and putting it into practice would take too much effort for them, so they hope to make merit by giving things to monks. They don't even bother to keep the basic five precepts of Buddhism: to refrain from killing living beings, stealing, casual sex, lying, and taking intoxicants. It seems today that most Thais wouldn't think twice about swatting an insect, taking a stranger's money, having sex outside a stable relationship, telling untruths to save face, and consuming alcohol or other recreational drugs. So, the question arises: In what sense are they Buddhist?!

As Buddhists living in Thailand, we are responsible for keeping the Buddhist precepts and encouraging (not forcing) others to do the same, pointing out their benefits, as well as the potential consequences of breaking them. When we see others doing things against Buddhist principles, especially monks, we should point this out or report it in the case of a monk like Wirapol. He got away with all his controversial actions for so long because he was allowed to, nobody blowing the whistle on him until years had passed. Of course, the authorities in Thailand should be more active in checking and investigating the affairs of monasteries. Both monastic and civil organizations have clear responsibilities in these areas. And, if the civil authorities lack powers to act in such circumstances, it is the duty of government to enact laws that award them such powers. The very future of Thai Buddhism is at stake, and at the moment, it would seem that it is headed in the wrong direction - straight to hell!

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