Thailand's materialistic monks pose worldly problems

Originally published at Siam Voices on June 21, 2013 The viral video depicting Thai Buddhist monks lavishing luxury goods while riding on a private jet is just the tip of the iceberg in an ever-growing list of the men in the orange robes behaving badly - or just like any other human with worldly problems.

Earlier this week, an YouTube video showing Buddhist monks sitting on a private jet plane sporting luxury bags, aviator sunglasses and listening to beats caused widespread attention, uproar and inevitable ridicule in Thailand and beyond. The depiction of the apparent lavish lifestyle runs against the strict and downright ascetic rules a Buddhist monk has follow once he decides to devote his life to the teachings of the Buddha.

However, Thai newspapers regularly carry reports of Buddhist monks behaving badly. And a quick look at the headlines in the two English-language dailies The Nation and Bangkok Post for just this year so far alone make for impressive/depressing reading, depending how you look at it:

There are two reports of drug and alcohol abuse (January 15May 28), two cases of physical assault or at least altercations (March 6April 3), three counts sexual abuse of minors, including underage novice monks (April 11June 18 and 19), at least one monk caught dining with a woman (February 8), a profanity-filled tirade by a monk on the SkyTrain captured on film (January 11) and countless allegations of improper use of donation money.

Thailand's national Buddhism agency, the National Office of Buddhism, already reprimanded around 300 monks for misconduct in 2012.

At the center of the current high-flying monks is Luang Phu Nenkham Chattigo - the one depicted in the video with the designer handbag - a 34-year-old, high-profile abbot from Si Saket province with good connections and a controversial past. He is regularly seen riding in Mercedes Benz or Rolls Royce limousines (like in this photograph taken in 2011 visiting refugees from the Thai-Cambodian border clashes - also note the numberplate with the auspicious numbers 9999), which are all legitimate donations as claimed by the monk and his followers. Also, he has allegedly been pictured lying next to a woman - on many levels an unthinkable breach of the celibate rule. His followers are dismissing this to be a malicious photoshop job. Oh, and you can also buy a statue of him for the auspicious sum of THB 99,999 (US$ 3,200) or a commemorative coin for THB 1,000 (US$ 32) - and then there's this...

Much of the temple's web presence consists of glowing homage to [Luang Phu Nenkham] who mixes Buddhist doctrine with claims of supernatural powers.

His personal site contends that he has walked upon water: He rose up and realized that his feet did not even touch the dust on the floor and stayed afloat when walking on the pond. And later in life, so goes the monk's lore, he meditated for three months inside a cave where a python would rest on his chest.

"Thailand reels at video of Buddhist monks' private jet journey", by Patrick Winn, GlobalPost, June 20, 2013

The problem with Thailand's Buddhism - a mixture of animism, superstition, Hinduism and the conservative Buddhist branch of Theravada of which officially almost 95 per cent of the population adheres to - is not solely Buddhist monks behaving badly (or just plain human as some would argue) or other contradictions many monks run afoul of.

There is, for example, the problem of increasing emphasis of materialism in daily religious practice by both the monks and the faithful:

The reformist monk Phayom Kallayano claims that Buddhism in Thailand is indeed 'facing a crisis'. The problem, according to Phayom, is that monks these days are allowing themselves to 'become slaves to material gains'. He notes that many monasteries want to lavish 'enormous sums' on building construction, 'in the hope of attracting public donations' from the new rich.

From: "(Post‐) Modernity, remaking tradition and the hybridisation of Thai Buddhism", by Jim Taylor, in: Anthropological Forum, Vol. 9 (1999), Issue 2, p 163–187

This practice, not unlike to the selling of indulgences in 16th century Christianity, against which German reformist Martin Luther was protesting in 1521 - was popularized by the Dhammakāya Movement and has been proven to be popular among the urban middle-class. The movement, regarded by many as a sect, is known to put on lavish mass-processions in the middle of Bangkok and also claimed last year the afterlife of the late Apple co-founder Steve Jobs.

Also, the claim by the aforementioned monks riding in luxury vehicles that these were donated show on one hand that some Buddhist monks indeed indulge in materialistic goods or at best could show the sheer naivety of some well-off well-wishers. In the latter case, such donations are simply unnecessary and pointless.

On the other hand is the apparent utilitarian approach to Buddhism by Thais, who participate in customs and rites uncritically, since it is simply part of daily life and a tradition that has been passed on without any questions.

As Mod darts from one donation box to the next she pauses to slip Bt100 (US$3.35) into a box placed before a statue of the elephant god Ganesha. When pressed on the significance of the Hindu deity in a Buddhist temple, she struggles to place him in a Buddhist context but agrees with her friends nevertheless that he is holy and we should not question such mystical things.

"The Crisis in Thai Buddhism", Asia Sentinel, February 1, 2013

Many more issues need in Thai Buddhism to be tackled - such as the role of monks in political conflicts, the utter disregard of female monks or the problematic attitude of monastic Sangha order itself - if it is to maintain moral credibility and not descend into irrelevance, otherwise the men in the orange robes will be increasingly seen as, to borrow a phrase from German poet Heinrich Heine, those who "publicly preach to fly economy, whereas they ride in their own jet!"