Lately, in news both national and international, there has been an increase in coverage of Thailand’s misbehaving monastic communities. The problem itself, however, is no new phenomenon. Novel, perhaps, but not new.
Wavering figures hold that Thailand is home to between 35,000 and 40,000 temples, with Chiang Mai holding a particular touristic allure precisely because of this: the modern city is still quite visibly dense with glistening wat and accompanying pagodas, despite the simultaneous and rapid infusion of pricey condos, boutique hotels and shopping malls.
But at what price does this confluence of old religion and new development come? Can we really condemn monks who choose a rather different path than the Buddha’s, especially when they’re surrounded by the physical symptoms of modernity unchecked? What can be expected of these young men, who are understandably struggling to maintain their religious virtuosity in a country that is developing at an almost exponential rate?
Monks on a Plane
The most riveting case which has sprung to the attention of even the least sensationalistic newsrooms is that of Luang Pu Nen Kham, 33. (Al Jazeera, the Holy Grail of serious reportage, even produced a recent feature on him.) The so-called “jet-set monk” of Thailand, now known simply as Wirapol Sukphol, was expulsed from the sangha (a monastic community of ordained Buddhist monks) in July and subsequently disrobed.
The term “Luang Pu” denotes a monk who is _ thanks to his years of dedication to Buddhism and his monastery _ deemed sacrosanct. That means inviolably holy. However, Wirapol was only ordained in 1999. At the start of his now terminated life in the Thai sangha, by choosing to entitle himself as a “Luang Pu,” Wirapol was already making wild claims of near-sacrilegious superpowers.
This kind of behaviour defies the traditional structure of the Thai sangha. Like a gerontocracy, monks gain respect with age. At any given temple, for example, the monk who garners the most respect from his fellow monks, novices and followers will always be the abbot. This abbot will, in turn, almost always be the oldest monk ordained at that temple. Wirapol, on the other hand, wanted to transgress all this tradition by calling himself a “Luang Pu” long before his time had come.
Footage of a rather suave-looking group of monks relaxing with leather Louis Vuitton luggage onboard a spacious private jet (reportedly bound for a shopping trip along the Champs-Elys?es in Paris) emerged around the same time that images of Wirapol happily posing with a black Mercedes outside his California home ignited both Thai and international interest in his case.
However, whilst kitting yourself out with designer shades like these monks did might make your orange robe look rather incongruous, the use of luxury items such as designer sunglasses (and G6s) does not actually constitute a breach of monastic rules. Wirapol, on the other hand, has been the subject of more sinister accusations, unlike his comparably innocent counterparts. These include dangerous driving and the statutory rape of a 13-year-old girl that resulted in pregnancy.
Andrew MacGregor Marshall, a former Reuters journalist now famed for his investigative study entitled #thaistory, which seeks to uncover “Thailand’s moment of truth,” reckons Wirapol’s behaviour has become the subject of so much public scrutiny simply because of his success.
For Andrew, Wirapol’s case mirrors the “impunity that all Thais in positions of authority acquire.” As a result, he says, “corruption is the norm in Thailand rather than the exception. Powerful people behave in the most outrageous and illegal ways, and this is just accepted. Almost everybody who has power they can abuse does so, and what makes Wirapol stand out is not the fact that he was corrupt, or the fact that he was a monk, but the fact that he was so successful.”
Monks from Chiang Mai’s Wat Gate Karam, while unenthusiastic about engaging with me on the matter, did also put Wirapol’s fame down to his success, and not the fact that his behaviour is necessarily standalone in any way.
Of Monks and Men
In Thailand, it is rare to find anyone in a position of power that hasn’t gotten there via a combination of experience (i.e. age), nepotism, and status. The country is riddled with an ever-widening disparity in wealth that has engendered its culture with a stale kind of status hierarchy.
This distinctly Thai conceptualisation of power has borrowed its ideas from Buddhism, lifting terminology from ancient Buddhist texts (such as “barami” which means charismatic power, like the kind held by Thai kings) used to construct ideas about power that have extended out from the religious realms to embrace Thai society as a whole _ from the village level to the government bureaucracy. Therefore, political actions in Thailand will often find their justifications in the country’s vast historical backlog of near-sacred ideas (like the Hindu ideal that implies a king’s right to his throne because he is semi-divine).
It is in this vein that the power attached to public figures like monks and politicians is glorified: perhaps their power is accepted because it is nestled in the untouchable and unquestionable mystique of religious history. Therefore, it is sacred in and of itself. As such, when Thai people decide to pay attention (and money) to a particularly well-known monk (like Wirapol), they are investing in a kind of cult of personality. Unfortunately, this can turn out to be a highly marketable and profitable expression of self that thrives on corruption and potentially results in (again, like Wirapol) expulsion from the sangha. It might not be a stretch to assume that given the choice, Wirapol would have been gladder to hand in his orange robe than his riches.
This theory explains why the recent reportage on Wirapol’s actions should be interpreted more as a media trend than a sudden awakening of Thai society to corruption in the sangha. However, the media does seem to be the only semi-regulatory force commenting on these recent happenings. A recent survey published by the Bangkok Post, for example, uncovered that since the Wirapol scandal erupted, an astonishing 51percent of people surveyed admitted that they had “lost faith in Buddhism and were suspicious that similar wrongdoings by other monks” are merely waiting to be exposed. However, in a country fraught with corruption, is it really any surprise that a few monks are straying from the path to enlightenment?
And let us not forget that monks are merely men. In fact, most Buddhist Thai men become monks at some points in their lives, whether it is for a few days or a few years. Therefore, to hold the robe accountable for the man can be a tall order.
Appetite for Corruption
I spoke to Samarn Sringarm, secretary general of the National Democratic Movement, and chief of the National Revolutionary Council (a.k.a. the National Democratic Council), whose joint aim it is to “bring about democratic revolution in a peaceful way.” Samarn made no distinction between monks and laymen: both are as subject to the shortcomings of the government; both are as exposed to unseemly hobbies such as gambling and prostitution; both are human. Samarn clearly believes that the sangha’s problems with corruption are a reflection of a corrupt society, which is itself a reflection of a corrupt government.
“Of course, monks who are not spiritually sounder [than laymen] _ monks who have not reached and developed a sound understanding of the Buddha’s teachings _ are subject to being led astray by these things too,” Samarn told me. “They can also be critically destroyed by this [rotten] society.”
In short, the Thai sangha is a highly politicised institution wherein corruption should not only be expected, but anticipated as quite commonplace _ at least as commonplace as it is in any Thai institution that also runs as a nepotistic gerontocracy. Unfortunately, the sangha does not exist as a cult of men whose hearts have been touched by the hand of the Buddha and are thus capable of doing no wrong by themselves, the tourists who visit their temples, or the Thai public.
From here, we can either expect a glut in stories similar to Wirapol’s, or an abrupt end to them. Either way, one thing is clear: monks misbehave, just as men do.