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Scandals Threaten Thai Monks’ Future
By Yasmin Lee Arpon
BANGKOK, Thailand - Medfai slightly bowed her head in the traditional "wai" to greet the parents of her friend. She is only four years old and oblivious of the occasion that her family and all Buddhists around the world observed.
Once a year, when the moon is full in the month of May, Buddhists remember the day Buddha was born, attained enlightenment and passed away. They call the occasion Visakha Puja Day.
On the 27th day of May this year, Buddhists all over Thailand flocked to their temples bearing offerings to the monks.
At Wat (temple) Chonprathan grounds, about a hundred or so monks in their orange saffron robes sat around in circles. People lined up to offer food and drinks. Assistants stood behind the monks to carry the offerings away.
“Commoners” offer food to monks to earn merits and as a symbol of respect. It is part of the Buddhist belief system.
Respect for monks, however, is being threatened these days. Some are facing serious allegations of corruption while others are allegedly involved in scandals.
News about these problems seem to have eroded the credibility of the followers of the Buddha, a prince who turned his back on his wealth and family to attain enlightenment.
One of the recent cases in the news involved Wat Dhammakaya. Its former abbot, Dhammachayo, was charged in court last May 3 for embezzling temple funds. Dhammachayo is accused of diverting 220 million baht to buy land and jewelry.
This reporter tried to arrange a visit to Wat Dhammakaya and submitted questions for an interview with a monk-representative. The temple's press relations office, however, refused the interview.
Vasana Puemlarp, former investigator and now election commissioner, said the Dhammakaya scandal “is part of the negative trend which has increased in Thai society.”
Vasana, speaking as a Buddhist, said many monks “commit criminal offense, violating the Buddha’s precepts, through womanizing, fortune-telling and gambling.”
“But the trend’s impact on Buddhism would not be [a] decrease in their faith, but in their faith in the monks,” Vasana said.
Sen. Oompol Ponmanee, a member of the Senate committee on religious affairs, said that despite recent events, “20,000 out of the 30,000 monks in Thailand are still good monks.”
There are about 35,000 monks and 30,000 temples in the country, said the Department of Religious Affairs under the Ministry of Education.
Oompol said it would be difficult to gauge how Thais view the scandals because Thai culture dictates that people would rather “keep to themselves” their displeasure.
“It’s in the religion. Thai people don’t like to show [emotions], they just watch,” Oompol said.
As a proponent for the amendment of the Sangha law, he said that the “main idea of a new law is to prevent having bad monks.”
“It is like a tree. You cut out the dried leaves to ensure that the tree will grow stronger and have good foundation,” he said.
The Sangha Supreme Council -- which has the administrative, judiciary and legislative power over the monks and temples -- had been widely criticized for acting slow on cases involving monks.
Aside from the Dhammakaya case, at least two other monks figured in the news in the past two months.
On May 23, 2002, Phra Maha Sayan Jirasupho ran amok at the Parliament building, wielding an AK-47 to protest his alleged mistreatment by the police.
Police earlier arrested Maha Sayan for allegedly trespassing on a forest reserve during a pilgrimage. He claimed that the police forced a confession out of him by attacking and stripping him.
Police charged him for illegal possession of firearms and for firing a gun.
On June 3, 2002, Thai newspapers reported that Vises See-Khan, formerly known as Phra Maha Vises of Wat Hong Thong, admitted to having volunteered to launder money that was taken during a bank heist in Pathum Thani province.
A gang of robbers took 6.8 million baht from the Thai Farmers Bank. Vises said he planned to launder the money by purchasing expensive Buddha images and selling them.
Sangha law amendments
The Sangha Supreme Council and the government are now working on amending the Sangha law in light of recent cases involving monks.
Manope Phonphririntr of the Department of Religious Affairs admitted that there are certain proposals that have placed both sides at loggerheads.
He said the council wants to maintain the old law and retain all the power, although it wants a separate “younger” group to assist it.
On the other hand, the Dhammayudh sect wants a bigger composition of the board and the decentralization of the power structure by putting up regional and provincial boards.
Manope said there are two sects in Thai Buddhism -- Mahanikaya and Dhammayudh. Both have representation in the Sangha Supreme Council.
The disagreements delayed amendments to the law and kept it from reaching the Parliament for debate.
“Prime Minister Thaksin [Shinawatra] said we should wait until the conflict has been settled within the sects,” Manope said. He admitted that the delay is due to the people who want to amend the law "in their favor.”
He agreed that the old law centralizes power, "that is why the process to penalize the monks takes long.”
Aside from proposals already mentioned, the Buddhist community and the government are also considering separating the administrative, judicial and legislative functions of the council to avoid delays in the decision-making process.
Another proposal is to allow abbots to protect monks who face criminal charges and let the legal process take its course, instead of arresting and defrocking monks.
There were also proposals to tighten the screening process for monks to ensure that only those with "firm and real commitment" become monks.
Phra Surasak, a senior monk at Wat Chonprathan opposed the proposals, saying that implementing them will make the process “discriminatory.”
“Otherwise, the monkhood will recruit very little people if we practice strict rules. The quantity does not matter. It gives them wide opportunity to come in. If the rules are too strict, it will be very discriminating,” he said.
Vasana, meanwhile, said more emphasis should be given on the proper administration and implementation of the Sangha law.
“If authorities enforce the law, this would help decrease and eliminate misbehavior of monks,” Vasana said.
He cited as an examples the law that calls for transparency in the allocation of temple funds and properties. He said it is not followed, thus, creating a “loophole that gives rise to monks taking the properties for themselves.”
Oompol said it would be difficult to tighten the screening process since it is a practice in Thailand that men should be a monk or a novice at least once in their lives.
He explained that Thai men believe that they gain merit by doing so, especially for their mother who cannot join the order.
Surasak said the role of monks is getting to be more important vis-à-vis a “materialistic world.”
He noted that the weakness of the religion is within. “There seems to be much emphasis on the ceremony, using the monk service, with little emphasis on Buddha teaching.”
“Some monks lack the skill to translate teachings to practical things. It would be ideal if all temples in Thailand can stay within their function -- to teach the sermon and not go into other businesses,” Surasak said.
He cited monks who give followers numbers for the lottery. “That is not what Buddhism is all about.”
Buddhism in Thailand belongs to the Theravada school, which is prevalent in Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Laos and Cambodia.
This type of Buddhism is considered “conservative and orthodox" because it worships Gotama, the Buddha, upholds the original teachings in the Pali Tripitaka and discourages new interpretations of the scripture, said Prof. Saeng Chandma-ngarin in his book Buddhism and Thai People.
Of the 60 million people in Thailand, about 92 percent are Buddhists. The religion has been the philosophy of life of Thais for more than a thousand years and is believed to have “significant influence on their character, mind and way of life.”
Buddhism is an integral part of Thai society that Article 8 of the Constitution dictates that the ruling monarch should be a Buddhist.
Even the Thai flag illustrates the importance of the religion. The red stands for the nation, white for religion and blue for the king.
Surasak hopes that the institution has not been adversely affected by the scandals. He said "monkhood" provides “opportunity for people to change.”
When Medfai turns six, her mother would want to send her to the Buddhist school attached to Wat Chonprathan. “They have very good practical teachings here,” Medfai's mother said.
Surasak believes “good things should begin at home, school and the temple.”
“The duty of the monk is to spread the teachings of Buddha. [Our] role is getting to be more important in this modern world,” he said.
By Yasmin Lee Arpon
BANGKOK - Sixteen months ago, a Thai university professor got herself ordained as a bhikkhuni (female monk) in Sri Lanka.
She returned to Thailand later to practice her new profession amid criticisms by a conservative Buddhist Thai society that had never accepted female monks.
“The criticisms were all over the media everyday until the [controversy] died down. I think it’s because negative energy wears you down,” said Chatsumarn Kabilsingh, professor at Tammasat University.
Chatsumarn was ordained on Feb. 6, 2001 by a Sri Lankan bhikkhuni in the presence of a Thai bhikkhu (male monk). She assumed the name Dhammananda after shaving her head, like all monks do, and wearing an orange saffron robe.
“She had everything… and then she left all that to be a monk,” Wantana said, shaking her head.
Wantana is an elderly woman who helps at Dhammananda’s temple. She wears a white frock like all the other women working there. Wantana wanted one of her daughter's to be a nun, but the daughter committed suicide.
A woman following Buddha’s path is not new to Wantana, but she was baffled why an accomplished woman like Chatsumarn gave up what she had to become Dhammananda.
“I asked myself, how long do I have to get through this? I was tired of the worldly life. I felt tired and meaningless to have this lifestyle. Am I happy? The feeling was very strong, so when I gave up, I really gave up,” Dhammananda said.
She said she used to enjoy putting on make-up every morning and adorning herself with jewelry. She also loved eating meat.
After becoming a monk, Tho, Dhammananda's middle son, makes the one hour drive to Nakhonpathom from Bangkok every Sunday to visit his mother.
Dhammananda said Tho used to complain that he never got to spend time with her during his weekend visits.
“I told him, ‘Why don’t you look at it this way. Before, there were only three of you, now, you have a lot more brothers and sisters.”
In Catholic countries like the Philippines, it is taboo for priests to have children. Having one is enough reason to be barred from entering the priesthood.
But in Buddhism, some monks are married with children before deciding to leave their families to follow the path of Buddha, who was a married prince before attaining enlightenment.
“We are not creating anything new. There are some conservative Thai men who do not like the idea because we never had fully ordained nuns [in the country]. But we are not creating it out of thin air,” she said.
It is not just the men, however, who criticized Dhammananda. A woman sent letters to international organizations criticizing her.
“She called me an impostor because she could not stand a woman wearing a robe,” Dhammananda said.
In ancient times, even the Buddha’s royal mother, Queen Maha Pajapati, became a bhikkhuni. The Buddha initially refused to accept his mother into the order but later gave his permission.
In Thailand, the struggle to have women ordained as monks dates back to 1927, Dhammananda said.
That year, a man named Narin-Klueng had his two daughters -- Sara and Chongdi -- ordained as bhikkhunis. The Sangha and the royal family denied it to the girls.
Dhammananda said the Sangha and the royal family were suspicious of Narin’s motives. Narin was a politician.
The girls were ordered disrobed and later put in jail when they resisted. From then on, the Sangha forbade bhikkhus from ordaining women. The order, issued in 1928, has not been lifted.
Dhammananda explained that the ordination of a woman monk must be done by a bhikkhuni Sangha then by a bhikkhu Sangha.
She said the bhikkhuni Sangha never came to Thailand, that is why there has been no bhikkhuni ordination nor bhikkhuni Sangha in the country.
She said Sara and Chongdi were ordained by bhikkhus, making them unacceptable to Thai Buddhism.
The ordination took place in Thailand and there was much less noise in the media this time.
Mae Chee Varangghana Vanarichayen was ordained on Feb. 10, 2002, a year after Dhammananda’s ordination in Sri Lanka. The woman became Dhammarakhita.
“I used to think that female clergy was a thing of the past. But when I learned of the revival of the bhikkhuni order, I decided to get ordained because I believe it is the right thing to serve Buddhism,” Dhammarakhita said in an interview with abs-cbnNEWS.com.
She said that having “female monastic” would provide the “missing” fourth pillar to the house of Buddhism.
“It must have four supporting pillars to become stable and strong. But now, we only have three: monks, male and female supporters,” she said.
never going to happen’
“[The disparity in the number of precepts] often leads to the misunderstanding that the Buddha did not want women to join the order, so he set up rules as barriers to fence them off from the start,” Dhammananda said.
She said that the additional rules were meant to protect women in ancient times.
“These were for safety reasons. Like you don’t cross a river alone because you might get raped. Or if you go with a group, you stick to the group and don’t fall behind because you may be attacked.
“These rules [were imposed] because we are women living in a society and we have to follow certain expectations,” she said.
Sen. Oompol Poumanee, a member of the Senate committee on religious affairs, said having a female monk in Thailand “is never going to happen.” Oompol is a practicing Buddhist.
“Personally, I am not going to accept that,” he said referring to female monks. “That will not be accepted by Thai Buddhism.”
He said the Parliament is looking for ways to improve the status of mei-jis (nuns).
One of the reforms he wanted is to allow nuns to study the religion as well as preach the teachings of the Buddha.
In Thailand, nuns are “less valued” than monks. The nuns are limited to serving the monks. They wear white and shave their heads too. They follow eight precepts including the vow of chastity and poverty.
Phra Surasak of Wat Chonprathan, on the other hand, said he welcomes the participation of women in the practice of the religion, but he frowns at attaching the bhikkhuni title to them.
“I am keeping a practical view. It’s okay for women to be involved in Buddhism to help raise the awareness of society, but without having to identify themselves as female monks,” Surasak said.
“In the Buddhist principle, female monks are nonexistent. It is unconventional.”
The Department of Religious Affairs also adopts the same attitude.
Manope Phonphririntr, an expert at the department, said the Theravada, where Thai Buddhism originated, does not have female monks.
“When Buddhism arrived in Thailand, there was no female monk. It has always been that way,” Manope said.
“But it is a different issue to have women help in Buddhism,” he said, adding that the department does not have any problem with Dhammananda practicing the religion.
He, however, insisted that she is not recognized as a bhikkhuni and her activities are autonomous from the government.
“I’m just living my life the way the Buddha wants us. If they do not want to recognize me, that’s their problem, not mine. In fact, I am not doing anything against the law. I am protected by the law,” she said.
She said there are male monks who are supportive of her. Some senior monks would come and visit. In fact, they are talking about ordination next year in one of the temples outside Bangkok.”
She said it would be good to have more women ordained as monks “so people won’t be focusing on us anymore.”
On the other hand, she said, people got to know about what she was doing through the media and started coming to the temple.
The temple has about 40 regular followers who come every Sunday to bring food and to listen to Dhammananda talk.
“The Buddha said Buddhism will prosper because of four groups: bhikkhus, bhikkhunis, laymen and laywomen. I’m just doing my share. If that is not comfortable with them, that’s their problem. They have to deal with it. Not me. I am doing fine,” she said.
In her temple, there are three old women and two younger girls who regularly help in the chores. One of the women, Lee, is training to be a nun. The others girls are preparing for it too.
Dhammananda said having female monks in Thailand must be viewed as an “alternative” especially amid scandals involving male monks.
“To have a female monk is an alternative and we must not disappoint [the people],” she said.
in the family
Dhammananda’s parents were monks. Her mother, Voramai, approached Thai monks to be ordained. But they told her it was not possible.
She found a Chinese monk who suggested that the Chinese Sangha in Taiwan could ordain her.
In 1971, Voramai received bhikkhuni ordination from Tao An Fa Tzu at Sun San Temple in Taiwan. She became the first fully ordained nun in Thailand. Voramai is still alive but weak and stays at Dhammananda’s temple, which has been the family’s for about 40 years.
Dhammananda’s father, Shatsena, a retired politician also became a monk before he died.
“It’s not something new in the family. I think some expected it,” Dhammananda said.
Should one of her three sons decide to be a monk, Dhammananda would not stop them. “You don’t own anything once you take your vow… [My three sons] belong to Dr. Chatsumarn but not to Dhammananda.”
Tho said “it is great” to have a monk for a mother. But when asked if he would be a monk someday, he shook his head and smiled. “I don’t think so,” he said.
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