Effort to control misbehaving Buddhist monks in Thailand
The Washington Post
Phra Buddha Issara, center, clad in organe robes, leads protesters in a 2014 rally in Bangkok. (Photo: Manjunath Kiran, AFP/Getty Images)
NAKHON PATHOM, Thailand — Think Buddhist monk, and bodyguards and bomb threats probably don’t spring to mind. But that’s exactly what Phra Buddha Issara is dealing with as he mounts a campaign to overhaul Thailand’s religious institutions.
The activist monk has earned plenty of enemies since he launched a campaign to clean up Buddhism in Thailand, urging the country’s 300,000 monks to be more transparent in their financial dealings and the religion’s governing body, the Supreme Sangha Council, to crack down on wrongdoing.
Thai Buddhism, much like Thai democracy, is in a state of upheaval.
“There is more open crisis in the Sangha then has been seen in living memory,” said Michael Montesano, a Thailand expert at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies. “This is a crisis in yet another Thai institution.”
Monks have long been revered here, in a country where 95 percent of the population is Buddhist. They have their own fast-track lane at the airport and designated priority seats on the metro.
But in recent months, there have been tales of monastic misbehavior that would seem to belong in the most gossipy tabloids.
There have been monks with girlfriends (and boyfriends), drunk monks crashing cars, monks pocketing wads of cash meant for funerals or playing the stock market. And that’s not even mentioning the monks-on-meth or the selfie-snapping, Louis Vuitton bag-wielding, private jet-taking monk scandals of 2013.
Buddha Issara has been leading the charge against financial misconduct and says that, far from rocking another core pillar of Thai society, this is the perfect time to be overhauling religious institutions, too.
For the past year, Thailand has been governed by a military-led junta that has used ever more dictatorial powers to crack down on opposition politicians, human rights activists and the press.
“Since we are cleaning our house, we should leave no dirt anywhere, we should clean every corner,” Buddha Issara said in an interview in an open-air pavilion at Wat Ornoi, his temple on the outskirts of Nakhon Pathom, a city vaunted as the place where Buddhism first flourished in Thailand.
A hardliner who upends the stereotype of the friendly, chuckling monk, Buddha Issara had a video camera recording the interview, while tattoo-covered men of uncertain role skulked around in the background.
He supported the overthrow of the democratically elected but polarizing prime minister, Yingluck Shinawatra, last year and is said to be close to Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha, the junta leader.
With the military junta now cleaning up politics and the economy, it would be ill-advised to leave out religion, the monk said.
A YouTube video showing Thai Buddhist monks flying in a private jet and carrying luxury items has sparked criticism from Thailand’s national Buddhism body.
Thailand’s Buddhism authority said it is monitoring monks for inappropriate behavior after a Youtube video showed monks wearing aviator sunglasses, carrying an LV travel bag and rocking wireless headphones while flying on a private jet.
The Office of National Buddhism in Thailand said on Monday that they had seen the video earlier this year and had warned the monks from Khantitham Temple in Sisaket province. The video has caused outrage among Buddhists within the country. Seems like these monks need a refresher course in Buddha’s 2,600-year-old teachings, which stress that, “the core of those who preach Buddha’s teachings is not to own any objects at all.”
In 2012 about 300 out of 61,416 Buddhist monks and novices in Thailand were disciplined. Some were booted from the monkhood due to misconduct for offences ranging from drinking alcohol to having sex with women to extortion. The Thai Buddhism office also got complaints about monks driving cars and pulling scams.
The monk’s temple has said it will explain, but only after the abbot from the video gets back from a religious tour to France.
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