Each morning Thai Buddhist monks collect free food donated by people before blessing them. (Photo: YouTube)
Buddhist monks in Thailand enjoy a halo of sanctity, as they do in the country’s predominantly Buddhist neighbors. The reason is that they are believed to be following in the Buddha’s footsteps with their ascetic lifestyles on their way to Enlightenment.
The trouble, of course, is that many of Thailand’s hundreds of thousands of Buddhist clergymen fail to live up to their vows that require them to practice temperance, loving kindness, chastity, sobriety and other virtues.
Take the case of a 53-year-old monk who was caught drinking and gambling with several laymen the other day at a Buddhist temple in the northern town of Nakhon Sawan. The stakes were reportedly low. Needless to say, though, monks aren’t supposed to gamble at all — or even handle money for that matter.
Round about the same time, another monk, who is 45, was arrested for allegedly getting high on methamphetamine at his temple in the northeastern province of Buriram.
Disingenuously, the monk told police he had started taking drugs when one of his followers gave him narcotics as alms and told him it was OK to take them. The monk, who has since been disrobed, reportedly had had a history of drug abuse with a police record before he became a member of the Buddhist clergy.
Gambling and drug use are mere misdemeanors, but some monks in Thailand have been caught doing far worse.
In November last year, a senior Buddhist monk from the northern province of Chiang Rai was discovered to be aiding and abetting drug traffickers. He was arrested while traveling in a private minivan alongside 4.8 million methamphetamine pills packed in cardboard boxes in the car’s luggage compartment.
He told police he was paid 300,000 baht (US$10,000) for each delivery and his role was to distract police at checkpoints as out of deference officers would be more likely to wave the van through if they saw a Buddhist monk sitting in it.
But even drug trafficking pales in comparison with murder. Last June the 59-year-old abbot of a monastery in Buriram province was arrested after he had driven his minivan head-on into a pickup truck traveling from the opposite direction down a country road.
The pickup was driven by a municipal official and his wife, Lampai, who was eight months pregnant. After Lampai, 36, managed to get out of the badly damaged vehicle to try and run away, the monk chased her down and murdered the heavily pregnant woman with a machete.
It soon transpired that the abbot had been having an affair with the woman, who threatened to expose the relationship unless he gave her money. He decided to silence the woman by murdering her.
He too was forced to leave the Sangha, as the community of Buddhist monks is called, and charged with premeditated murder.
Nor are these isolated incidents. Buddhist monks around Thailand have been implicated in various crimes from sexual abuse of minors to outright rape. Financial crimes such as embezzlement of temple funds are also fairly common in Thailand. Not even extortion by a monk has been unknown.
To be sure, wayward clergymen account for a small minority of monks in Thailand, yet they are still numerous enough for ever newer cases of wrongdoing to come to light almost every week.
The problem isn’t that monks are fallible. As human beings, they can be expected to be. Rather, the problem is that, conditioned by deeply ingrained cultural and religious norms, most Buddhist Thais reflexively attribute great moral virtue and a state of heightened spirituality to anyone who has a shaven head and wears a monk’s robes.
It is this attitude of automatic deference among the ranks of the laity that many monks then proceed to exploit.
This phenomenon isn’t limited to Buddhism, of course. Some Catholic priests lead lives and conduct themselves in ways that hardly befit their exalted status as alleged embodiments of Christ on earth. These Christian clergymen routinely fail to reflect the teachings and conduct of their religion’s founder.
There is something else in common between Buddhism and Catholicism when it comes to wayward clergymen: the victims tend to be underprivileged, undereducated or otherwise vulnerable people who are especially susceptible to being deceived, abused and defrauded by men of the cloth.
Through their misconduct errant Buddhist monks and sinning Christian priests risk tarnishing all their fellow clergymen by bringing them into disrepute by association.
What’s even worse is that they also undermine faith among laypeople in the sanctity of their office, potentially depriving people of the spiritual succor that they need in times of trouble.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.