BUDDHIST MONKS IN THAILAND
In Thailand there are 61,416 full-time monks and about 32,000 monasteries. The Sangha (brotherhood of monks) in Thailand consists of about 200,000 monks (full-time and part-time monks) and 85,000 novices at most times of the year. However, these numbers increase during the Buddhist ‘Lent’ to around 300,000 and 100,000 novices. Young boys may become novices at any age, but a man cannot become a monk until he reaches the age of twenty. He can then remain a monk for as long as he wishes, even for just one day. Three months is more usual, although some choose to remain in monkhood for the rest of their lives. [Source: Buddha.net]
In Thervada Buddhism, monkdom is something that all young men go through for a period of time as a kind of maturing and coming of age ritual for the young man and a way for his family to earn merit. Ordination usually takes place when a young man reaches the age of 20. Traditionally Thai women have considered a suitor to be "unripe" if he hasn't spent a portion of his life as a monk. Phra is the honorific title for monks in Thailand.
Many monks who become ordained for their entire lives serve as scholars or teachers, with some specializing in healing, folk magic, fortunetelling and astrology. Thailand's chief Buddhist monk is known as the Supreme Patriarch. Abbots are high ranking monks. They are usually well educated or have some other skill that commands respect. Many are heads of temples. Some run charitable foundations. Many high ranking monks are from the poor Northeast. Monkdom has traditionally been a way for poorer people to advance.
The Sangha in Thailand is broken down into two main Nikayas. The first is the Maha Nikai, and the second is the Thammayut Nikai. The later was formed by King Mongut (Rama IV, who most Westerners know from the “King and I”). This was patterned after an earlier Mon form of monastic discipline, which had been practised by King Mongut before he ascended the Thai throne. Both adhere to the 227 monstic vows but Thammayut is regarded as stricter. For example they eat only once a day—before noon—and must eat only what is in their alms bowl. In addition, they are expected to become proficients in both mediation and scholarship. By contrast Mahanikai eat twice before noon and specialize in either meditation or scholarship. The Thammayut Nikai makes up only about 3 percent of the total Buddhist Sangha in Thailand.
On top of this is the forest monk tradition. Urban monks stress scholarship while forest monks emphasize mediation. Phra Paisan is a modern forest monk. Thomas Fuller wrote in the New York Times: “His life is a portrait of traditional Buddhist asceticism. He lives in a remote part of central Thailand in a stilt house on a lake, connected to the shore by a rickety wooden bridge. He has no furniture, sleeps on the floor and is surrounded by books. He requested that a reporter meet him for an interview at 6 a.m., before he led his fellow monks in prayer, when mist on the lake was still evaporating.”
See Separate Articles Under Theravada Buddhism
Somdet Phra Nyanasamvara; Thai Buddhism's Supreme Patriarch
The Supreme Patriarch promotes Buddhism and leads the Sangha Supreme Council, which oversees the country's Buddhist monks and novices of all sects. The council's job is to make sure monks follow Buddha's teachings and do not violate the rules set by the council. As the head of the religion, the patriarch has legal authority to oversee different sects of Buddhism. The patriarch is formally appointed by Thailand's king.
Somdet Phra Nyanasamvara (SOM-ded PRA YA-na-SUNG-WORN) was Thailand's Supreme Patriarch from 1989 to his death in 2013. Associated Press reported: “The Supreme Patriarch was a friend of His Holiness Dalai Lama of Tibet, who called the Thai monk "my elder brother." The Dalai Lama paid several visits to Thailand since his first state visit in 1967, and each time he would visit the temple where the Supreme Patriarch resided to have a discussion. [Source: Thanyarat Doksone, Associated Press, October 24, 2013]
The Supreme Patriarch was born Charoen Gajavatra on Oct. 3, 1913, in Thailand's western province of Kanchanaburi, the eldest of the three sons. He was still a boy when his father died, and was raised by his aunt. He became gravely ill as a boy, and his family made a promise to sacred spirits that he would become a monk if he recovered. He did, and he became a novice when he turned 14.
The future Supreme Patriarch moved to Bangkok in 1929 to a well-respected Buddhist temple to continue his religious studies. He returned briefly to his hometown to get ordained and became a monk in 1933. He was named Suvaddhano — "one who prospers well" — by the Supreme Patriarch of the time, and rose through the ranks of the monkhood. In 1956, when King Bhumibol spent 15 days as an ordained monk, the future patriarch taught and supervised him. He served as secretary of the Supreme Patriarch who preceded him, and was appointed the top Buddhist monk in 1989, when he took on the name Somdet Phra Nyanasamvara — "a person of great insight."
Thai Buddhism's Supreme Patriarch Dies At 100
In October 2013, Associated Press reported: “Thailand's Supreme Patriarch, who headed the country's order of Buddhist monks for more than two decades, died Thursday. He was 100. Doctors said that Somdet Phra Nyanasamvara (SOM-ded PRA YA-na-SUNG-WORN) died at Chulalongkorn Memorial Hospital in Bangkok, where he had been treated since being admitted for an illness more than a decade ago. "(The Supreme Patriarch's) overall condition deteriorated and he passed away at 7:30 p.m. from septicemia," or a severe blood infection, the doctors said in a statement. After he was admitted to the hospital on Feb. 20, 2002, the Supreme Patriarch was able to perform leadership duties for a time, but in 2004, a senior Buddhist monk was appointed to work on his behalf. That monk died earlier this year, raising speculation about who the Supreme Patriarch's successor will be. [Source: Thanyarat Doksone, Associated Press, October 24, 2013]
His successor will be formally appointed by Thailand's King Bhumibol Adulyadej. The permanent secretary of the Prime Minister's Office, Thongthong Chandrangsu, said government offices in Thailand will fly the national flag at half-staff for three days and government officials will wear black outfits for 15 days to mourn the Supreme Patriarch's death.
Lay People, Monks and Etiquette Towards Monks
The relationship between monks and lay people in Theravada Buddhism is very strong. This type of Buddhism could not, in fact, exist in its present form without this interaction. It is a way of mutual support - lay people supply food, medicine, and cloth for robes, and monks give spiritual support, blessings, and teachings. But this is not a tit for that situation. Monks are not allowed to request anything from lay people; and lay people cannot demand anything from the monks. The spirit of it is more in the nature of open-hearted giving.[Source: BBC >>>]
The system works well and is so firmly established in most Theravadan countries that monks are usually amply provided for, Monasteries often have facilities for lay people to stay in retreat. The accommodation is usually basic and one has to abide by Eight Precepts (to abstain from killing, stealing, engaging in sexual activity, unskilful speech, taking intoxicating drink or drugs, eating after midday, wearing adornments, seeking entertainments, and sleeping in soft, luxurious beds). There are numerous ceremonies and commemoration days which lay people celebrate, such as Wesak which marks the birth, enlightenment, and parinibbana (passing away) of the Buddha, and for these events everyone converges on the local temples. >>>
Laymen are expected to eat after, walk behind and seat themselves lower than monks.Do not eat after noon; be mindful about eating or snacking around them. f a monk is sitting, show respect by sitting before starting a conversation. Avoid sitting higher than a monk if you can help it. Never point your feet at any Buddhist while sitting.Only use your right hand when giving or receiving something from a monk. >>>
Women and monks: It is taboo for a woman to touch a monk or his robes or hand something directly to a monk. A woman should never touch or hand a monk something. Even accidentally brushing against their robes requires that they fast and perform a cleansing ritual. Food or donations must be passed to a man first and then on to the monk. Women also should not sit on the back seat of a bus because this is wear monks usually sit. Even the monk's own mother must follow these rules. If a woman does accidently touch a monk’s robes an elaborate purification ritual needs to be performed. >>>
According to Buddha.net: “If a layperson wishes to give something to a particular monk, but is uncertain what he needs, he should make an invitation. Any financial donations should not be to a monk but to the stewards of the monastery, perhaps mentioning if it's for a particular item or for the needs of a certain monk. For items such as travelling expenses, money can be given to an accompanying anagarika (dressed in white) or accompanying layperson, who can then buy tickets, drinks for a journey or anything else that the monk may need at that time. It is quite a good exercise in mindfulness for a layperson to actually consider what items are necessary and offer those rather than money. [Source: buddhanet.net <>]
Monk Customs in Thailand
Vocabulary used when speaking with a monk is not the same as everyday vocabulary. Monks deserve respect. Depending on the age of the monk different words are used when talking to a monk. 1) "LUANG PHI" means "YOU" with a monk that could be a brother. 2) "LUANG PHO" means "YOU" with a monk that could be a father. 3) "LUANG PU" means "YOU" with an old renowned monk. 4) "LUANG TA" ( often a man that did become a monk when he was quite old ) is less respectful that "LUANG PHO". 5) "LUANG THERA" is a Thai word used for a man being a monk for 10 years. [Source: Thai World View [Ibid]
A boy has to be seven years old at least in order to be ordained ("BANPHACHA" - ) and become a Buddhist novice. A person who has spent a Lent in monkhood is called "THIT" meaning a cultivated person who is mature enough to have a family of his own. Even for monks, the rank and status appear in Buddhist ceremonies. When a group of monks go for their morning alms walk, the monk with the highest rank and age is at the front of the line while the youngest monk is at the end. [Ibid]
See Southeast Asia
Monk Life in Thailand
The daily routine of the monks in all of Thailand monasteries is pretty much the same. Thai monks wear saffron robes and have shaved or closely cropped hair. Even the king had his head shaved when he was a monk. During their early morning rounds, monks are given beautifully-packaged offerings of rice and vegetables by Thais who bow gently as they present them.
Monks can quit being monks anytime they want. Many boys become monks to pick up Buddhist brownie points, or merit, for themselves and their families. Among the benefits that monks enjoy is being able to travel for free on the buses and trains. Passengers traditionally have given up their seats to the monks in their bid to earn merit.
A hundred years ago, monks handled many of Thailand’s social responsibilities—health, education, moral training. Today, monks explain doctrines on television and radio as well as in temples, take computer classes and make website with records of Buddhist scriptures. Some monasteries have schools, libraries and hospitals. Missionaries have been sent to Malaysia, India, Laos and England.
In 2006, monks were given permission by Thailand’s Religious Affairs Department, to watch the World Cup after it was deemed that the soccer tournament enriched their religious education by exposing them to worldly affairs.
Many Thai fortuntellers and astrologers are Buddhist monks. Their methods include special wheels used in determining names, palm reading and numerology. Monks also sell amulets and make very detailed tattoos that are said to protect and bringing good luck to their wearer.
One of the biggest fortunetellers in Thailand is Hutta Lekajit, a 41-year-old former monk who is the marquee attraction of The Miracle Channel, a satellite station devoted to the supernatural. On a recent evening, Hutta, wearing a pink pinstripe shirt and white leather loafers, welcomed some guests to his office at a media complex on the outskirts of Bangkok. With its mismatched vinyl chairs and desks strewn with computer equipment , the office could have been the home of a tech startup. As half a dozen editors cut and spliced footage of the show in cramped cubicles, Hutta picked through stacks of fan mail and discussed his twice-weekly show, in which mostly poor Thais go on air to tell him about their problems. "People come on my show if bad things are happening to them, like divorces or debt. They get very emotional when they talk about these things. But I help them solve their problems," said Hutta, who smiles frequently and has a baby face that makes him look 10 years younger than he is.
Female Buddhist Monks in Thailand
Buddhist nuns in Thailand can perform all the same duties as monks and live on temple grounds but they are not bound by the vows that monks take. They are required to sit with lay people in temple prayer halls—not with the monks—and must conform to the taboo of not touching a monk or monk’s clothes.
Chatsumarn Kabilsingh, a former academic with the adopted Buddhist name of Dhammananda (“the joy of righteousness”) is something of celebrity in Thailand because she went against Buddhist custom and was ordained as a monk. Ordained monk in Sri Lanka, she took a vow of celibacy, divorced her husband, and moved away from her sons to fulfill her vows and live in accordance with the restriction made on women and male monks.
According to the Thai interpretation of Theravada Buddhist scripture, a woman can only be ordained as a monk if five male and five female monk are present. Since there are no female monks ordinations can not take place. In the 1920s, the Thai social critic Narin Kleung had his daughters ordained as monks. They were immediately arrested, derobed and temporarily jailed. In 1928, female ordination was made illegal.
Those that support the idea of women monks cite Article 38 of the Thai constitution, which states that all citizens should enjoy equal protection under the law regardless of origin, sex or religion.
Famous Monks in Thailand
Senior monks are highly revered. It is not uncommon to see their images adorning walls of businesses or homes or upon ornaments inside of taxi cabs. Famous monks include Somdej Phra Buddhacara Toh Phramarangsi (Somdej Toh), who was based at Wat Rakhang Kositaram in Bangkok. Born in 1776 and ordained as a novice at 13, he was ordained as a monk under the royal sponsorship at Wat Takrai, Phisanuloke province. He was a mentor and teacher of the Khmer language to King Mongkot when he was Crown Prince. A monk of profound wisdom, he was renowned for his sagacity and his witty eloquence. He strictly observed all tenets of itinerant monk hood. He passed away at the age of 85. [Source: mybuddha108.com
Luang Pu Mun Bhuridatto served at Wat Pa Suthawas in Sakon Nakhon province Born in 1870 in Ubon Ratchathani and considered the true and prime leader of all monks dedicated to Anathema practice (Buddhist insight meditation) in Thailand, he was totally committed to the study of Dhamma Buddha's teachings and is still revered and loved by all Thai Buddhists because of his effort in mental development to attain true knowledge. He resided at Wat Baan Nong Pue from 1944 until he passed away at the age of 79. His disciples placed his remains in Wat Pa Suthawas, Sakon Nakhon province.
Phra Bodhiyan Thera (Luang Pu Cha Subhaddha) was based at Wat Nong Pah Pong in Ubon Ratchathani province. Born in 1918 in Ubon Ratchathani, he was a mentor of many foreigners and the founder of Wat Pah Nanachat (International Forest Monastery). His principle Buddhist creed is "One must attain a proper belief and moral conduct first before preaching others." He passed away in 1992 at the age of 74.
Phra Kru Bhavanarangsi (Pleung Rerngvichien) made Wat Yai Chaimongkol in Ayutthaya province into great center of religious life. Born in 1902 in Ayutthaya province and ordained as a monk at the age of 21, he was the prime mover in renovating Wat Yai Chaimongkol. Which was deserted, until official permission was given for it to become an official temple where the monks can reside. The abbot’s personal creed is "when one is alone, be mindful of one's own thoughts; when one is among friends, be mindful of one's words." Phra Subrahmayanthera (Kru Ba Brahmachak) of Wat Phra Buddhabat Tak Pha, Lamphun province was responsible for reviving Wat Phra Buddhabat Takpah which had been deserted for over one thousand years. He was ascetic monk who firmly believed in minimal human comforts. He passed away in 1987. Kru Ba Sri Vichai Sirvichaiyo of Wat Ban Pang, Lamphun province was born in 1878 and was the spiritual leader of over 5,000 true believers and disciples, who were inspired by him to build an 11 kilometer road up to Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep. The road, now known as Kru Ba Srivichai road, he was completed in 5 months and 25 days. He passed away on 20 February 1938.
Phra Kru Vimolkunakorn (Luang Poo Suk) of Wat Pak Klong Makham Thao in Chai Nat province was born in the reign of His Majesty King Rama IV. Ordained at the age of 20, he was was revered as having great spiritual power and was the royal teacher of H.R.H.Krom Luang Chumporn Khet Udomsak. He passed away with the old age in 1917. Phra Rajsangwornbhimon (Luang Pu Toh) of Wat Pradoochimplee in Bangkok practiced Dhutanga (an ascetic practice to remove defilements) and traveled extensively within and outside Thailand. He passed away at the age of 94 and was granted royal funeral rites and ceremonies.
Luang Phor Kasem Khemako of Susarn Trailaksana (Trailaksana Cemetery) at Wat Luang Por Kasem Lampang province was a monk exceptionally dedicated to Vipassana Kammatthana (Buddhist insight meditation). Through the principle of contentment and mental control over the body, he attained the final stage of meditation while seated in front of the funeral pyre. He has liberated himself from defilements and he is full of loving kindness.
Kru Ba Chaiyawongsabattana (Kru Ba Wong) of Wat Phrabat Huai Tom in Lamphun province is revered by the Karen ethnic group in Lamphun province. He is regarded as a pioneer development monk who has led the Karen to do good, behave properly and improve their way of living. Tai Sue Yen Boon (Yen Boon The Chinese Monk) is a Mahayana monk was born in 1920 in Kwang Tong province, China. Ordained first as a novice in Thailand and later as a monk in China, he returned to reside in Thailand in 1947. He passed way in 1983 at the age of 63. Luang Pu Thuad of Wat Chang Hai in Pattani Province was ordained as a novice at the age 15 and as a monk at the required age of 20 at Nakorn Si Thammarat province. He made a pilgrimage to Ayutthaya where he resided at Wat Ratchanuvas. In his old age he returned to the south to resided at Wat Patdhasingh Banpot Pakoh.
Phra Nirodharangsi Kambnira Pannacara (Luang Pu Desaka) of Wat Hin Mak Peng in Nong Khai province was ordained as a novice at 16 and a monk at the age of 22. A disciple of Luang Pu Mun Bhuridatto, he has resided in all major regions of the country. At present, he resides at Wat Hin Mak Peng, Nong Khai province.
Ajaan Man, Founder of Thai Forest Monk Tradition
Ajahn Mun Bhuridatta Thera (1870–1949) was a Thai Buddhist monk of Lao descent who is credited, along with his mentor, Phra Ajahn Sao Kantasilo Mahathera, with establishing the Thai Forest Tradition (the Kammatthana tradition) that subsequently spread throughout Thailand and to several countries abroad. From 1932-1938, Ajahn Mun practiced meditation in a variety of locations throughout the forests and mountains, in solitude with little contact with people. These years of solitary retreat into the rugged, inaccessible wilderness are very significant in the biography of Ajahn Mun. According to his disciples, he is said to have attained enlightenment or "become an Arahant" during his time in retreat here among the hill tribes, in mountains that hold a unique position in the shamanistic traditions of Thailand. [Source: Wikipedia]
Ajahn Mun was born on Thursday, January 20, 1870, in Baan Kham Bong, a farming village on the Mekong River in Ubon Ratchathani Province of northeastern Thailand (Isan). The eldest of nine children, he was born into the Lao-speaking family. Mun was first ordained as a novice monk at age 16, in the local village monastery of Khambong. As a youth, he studied Buddhist teachings, history and folk legends in Khom, Khmer and Tham scripts from fragile palm leaf texts stored in the monastery library. He remained a novice for two years, until 1888, when it was necessary for him to leave the monastery, at his father's request. Ajahn Mun was fully ordained as a monk at age 22, on June 12, 1893, at Wat Liap monastery in the provincial city of Ubon Ratchatani. Venerable Phra Ariyakavi was his preceptor. His announcing teacher was Venerable Phra Kru Prajak Ubolguna. Mun was given the Buddhist name "Bhuridatta" (meaning "blessed with wisdom") at his ordination.
After ordination, Mun went to practice meditation with Ajahn Sao of Wat Liap in Ubon, where he learned to practice the monastic traditions of Laos. Ajahn Sao taught Mun a meditation method to calm the mind, the mental repetition of the word, "Buddho." Ajahn Sao often took Ajahn Mun wandering and camping in the dense forests along the Mekong River, where they would practice meditation together. This is known as "thudong" in Thai, a name derived from the term "dhutanga", which describes a number of specialized ascetic practices. One of the first long distance thudong was a pilgrimage to Wat Aranyawaksi in Thabor district, Nong Khai Province. At the time, Wat Aranyawaksi was a ruin, an abandoned, overgrown temple in the jungle. Ajahn Mun spent a year in "illumination" in the teak forest around the temple at this early part of his monastic life.
Wanderings and Teaching of Ajaan Man
In 1899, Ajahn Mun was re-ordained in the Thammayut Nikaya, a reformed Thai sect which emphasized monastic disciple and scripture study. Having practiced under the guidance of his teacher for several years, and with his teachers blessings, Ajahn Mun went out on his own to search for advanced meditation teachers. During the next several years, he wandered extensively throughout Laos, Thailand and Burma, practicing meditation in secluded forests. Ajahn Mun and Ajahn Sao went on pilgrimage together in 1905 and venerated the Phra That Phanom shrine, a center of Theravada Buddhism for centuries, most sacred to the Lao people. [Source: Wikipedia]
Ajahn Mun then wandered alone, onward to the north, to Sakhon Nakhon Province on the highlands of the northeastern Plateau, inland from the Mekong River, into the Phu Phan Mountain Range. Today, a museum to Ajahn Mun is located here in the temple residence of Wat Pa Sutthavat, in the city of Nong Han Luang. He then wandered on toward Udon Thani, into a region that was a wild forest filled with prehistoric caves. He continued his wandering pilgrimage deeper into the wildernesses of Loei, a land dreaded and feared by the Thai people, who describe it as "beyond" and "to the furthest extreme" of the world. This rugged wilderness along the Mekong consists of mountains, and extremes of weather, both cold and hot.
In 1911, Ajahn Mun decided to walk to Burma in search of a highly attained meditation teacher who could help him in his struggle for enlightenment. He walked by stages from northeast Thailand down to Bangkok, through the wilderness mountain ranges. According to Thanissaro Bhikkhu, a student in Ajahn Mun's lineage, "his search took nearly two decades and involved countless hardships as he trekked through the jungles of Laos, central Thailand, and Burma, but he never found the teacher he sought. Gradually he realized that he would have to follow the Buddha's example and take the wilderness itself as his teacher." While in Burma he visited the Shwedagon Pagoda among other sites, and spent the Rain Retreat of 1911 at Moulmein in lower Burma, in the Mon states. He was deeply affected by the morality and generosity, and strong monastic discipline of the Mon and Shan people he met in Burma.
In 1912, Ajahn Mun spent the Rains Retreat at Wat Sa Pathum (now known as Wat Pathum Wanaram) in Bangkok, where he received instructions and advice from His Eminence Phra Upali of Wat Boromnivasin. After Rains Retreat, he journeyed up to the town of Lopburi and stayed in various caves such as Phaikwang Cave, Mount Khao Phra Ngarm, and Singho Cave, where he practiced intensive meditation. In 1913, Ajahn Mun stayed in Sarika Cave at Great Mountain (Khao Yai) in Nakhon Nayok. It was during this time, at age 43, when he attained anagami, according to the biography written by his disciple Luang Ta Maha Bua. Ajahn Mun spent the next two or three years living at this location in the Khao Yai Mountains. He struggle with a mortal life-threatening illness during these years. A chapel shrine to Ajahn Mun is located at this cave today and is a major pilgrimage site.
After Rains Retreat in 1928, Ajahn Mun left northeast Thailand and didn't return again until the final years of his life. He went first to Bangkok, and then traveled north to Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai provinces, where he remained in meditation retreat for the next 12 years of his life. He was acting abbot of Wat Chedi Luang in Chiang Mai during 1929, appointed under the direction of Bangkok authorities. When his superior, Phra Upali died this year, Ajahn Mun fled his temple without notifying either his dependent monks or the monastic authorities in Bangkok The following years, Ajahn Mun established a meditation retreat on the eastern slope of Chiang Dao Mountain, and frequently spent time meditating in the sacred, remote Chiang Dao caves. Initially, he wandered through the Mae Rim district of Chiang Dao mountain range, staying in the forested mountains there through both the dry and the monsoon seasons that year.
Ajahn Mun was again in Wat Chedi Luang in Chiang Mai in 1933. From here he went wandering into Burma throughout the Karen and Shan states. He spent Rains Retreat of 1935 in Makkhao Field Village in Mae Pong District. In 1936 he spent the retreat near Puphaya Village among the hill tribes. Then the following year, he was in Mae Suai District, Chiang Rai, among the Laui tribes.
In 1940, at age 70, Ajahn Mun began the return journey to his homeland of Isan in northeast Thailand, in response to the persistent urging of his senior disciples. He first traveled down to Bangkok, then northward to Korat. He lingered in vast mountain jungles of Nakhon Ratchasima, staying at Wat Pa Salawan. When he arrived in Udon Thani late in the year of 1940, he stayed at the temple Wat Boghisamphon where his disciple Chao Khun Dhammachedi was presiding abbot. From there he went to Wat Non Niwet for Rains Retreat.
After the rains retreat of 1940 he went wandering in the countryside in the vicinity of Ban Nong Nam Khem village, revisiting the familiar landscapes of his youth. Even at the age of 70, he was still able to take care of himself and get around in the wild environments. In 1941 he spent the Rains Retreat at Wat Nan Niwet monastery in Udon Thani. After rains he traveled to Sakhon Nakhon and first resided at Wat Suddhawat Monastery. He then moved to a small forest monastery named Pheu Pond Hermitage near the village of Ban Na Mon. Pheu Pond Hermitage was in a very remote forest, far into the wilderness, three or four hours walk from the nearest village. (It is today named Wat Pa Bhuridatta in honor of Ajahn Mun.)
Ajahn Sao Kantasilo Mahathera, Mun's first teacher as a new monk, died in 1942. After that Ajahn Mun moved to reside even deeper into the forest. At age 75, Ajahn Mun decided to settle permanently at his Pheu Pond Hermitage in the deep forest, at the head of the Phu Phan Mountains, near Sakhon Nakhon. Due to his failing strength, he was unable to wander into the forests. Ajahn Mun died in 1949 at Wat Suddhavasa in Sakhon Nakhon Province.
Ajaan Man’s Forest Meditation
Ajaan Mun's mode of practice was solitary and strict. He followed the Vinaya (monastic discipline) faithfully, and also observed many of what are known as the 13 classic dhutanga (ascetic) practices, such as living off alms, wearing robes made of cast-off rags, dwelling in the forest and eating only one meal a day. Searching out secluded places in the wilds of Thailand and Laos, he avoided the responsibilities of settled monastic life and spent long hours of the day and night in meditation. In spite of his reclusive nature, he attracted a large following of students willing to endure the hardships of forest life in order to study with him. [Source: Wikipedia]
In the early 1920s Ajahn Mun was increasingly recognized as a highly gifted teacher. During these years he attracted growing numbers of disciples among both monks and laypeople. In 1926 he was accompanied by a group of 70 monks in a "thudong" south to Daeng Kokchang Village, Tha Uthen District, heading toward Ubon. A controversy engulfed Ajahn Mun and his disciples at this time. The monastic authorities in Bangkok were in the process of imposing reforms intended to standardize and centralize the sangha, and were pressuring the wandering forest monks to settle down in temples and become "productive" members of society. Monastic administrators were suspicious of these apparently "vagrant" monks who lived in wild forests and jungles, beyond the realm of civilization. Ajahn Jan, the monastic administrator of the province, ordered the people to withhold support from the wandering monks. Several of Ajahn Mun's disciples were taken into custody by civil authorities under suspicion of vagrancy.
Ajahn Mun became increasingly concerned by the encroachments of modern ways that threatened the traditional monastic customs he had been trained in. He began to think of leaving his homeland in order to seek more remote regions beyond the reach of modernizing influences of Bangkok authorities. In 1927, Mun was in Ubon teaching monks and laypeople in Wat Suthat, Wat Liap, and Wat Burapha. He made arrangements for his aging mother, and then took leave of his family to go wandering into the direction of the Central Plains region of Thailand, not certain of his destination. He wandered by stages across the barren lands and sparsely populated lands of central Isan, sleeping under the occasional shade tree, receiving alms food from the poor rice farmers along the way. When he reached the rugged, wild mountains and jungles of Dong Phaya Yen Forest between Sara Buri and Nakhon Ratchasima provinces, he rejoiced at the flora and fauna of nature.
Corrupted Monks and Money in Thailand
Monks in Thailand have come down AIDS and been charged with fraud. One monk was even charged with the rape and murder of a British tourist. A survey in the 1990s found than 10 percent of Thai monks were addicted to methamphetamines. A Thai writer named Sulak Sivaraksa told National Geographic's Noel Grove: "Modern life has made virtuous existence very difficult, even for monks...Now the rich go to government universities or to schools abroad. They are losing the Buddhist teachings, and the monkshood is losing its identity."
Some monks," Sivaraksa said, "began smoking—calling it medicine—and taking drugs...The noble truths of Buddhism are being ignored, such as lack of greed and the importance of suffering and humility." Monks have been found with large amounts of beer and whisky in their residences and singing and carrying on at karaokes with their shaved heads covered. On top of that there have been reports of thousands of fake monks and nun who beg for money dressed as monks and nuns and then pocket the money. Many of these who are arrested for such acts are from the Northeast.
Some monks have bank accounts, handle money and have accepted gifts such as tigers and vintage cars despite explicit bans that are supposed prevent them from doing so. One monk collected Mercedes Benzes until he was forced to sell them. Another pretended to be a colonel so he could enjoy the perks that military leaders were entitled to. One of the reasons of this problem is that Thais have traditionally showered monks with gifts in hope of wining merit. They give money and even cars to abbots and revered monks. In recent years Buddhism in Thailand has been stained by a number of scandals, many of the involving the misuse of temple money. These problems are blamed on a few greedy monks and a lack of transparency and accountability of temple donations.
Monks are paid for ceremonies they perform, with higher ranking monks being pad more than lower ranking ones. It is not unusual for monks to paid thousands of dollars to preside over funerals and other ceremonies. In some places monks are competitive and keen to make as much money as possible from these duties. Monks also sometimes demand hefty payments from people who wish to be ordained and attend exclusive schools. Some monks have used donations to take overseas trips that have dubious links with their religious duties. Others have used temple money to buy the latest digital cameras, mobile phones, flat screen televisions and computer games.
Cases of monk misconduct usually are centered on alcohol use or cavorting with women or men, all forbidden activities. In 2012, about 300 of Thailand's 61,416 full-time monks were reprimanded and in several cases disrobed for violating their vows, according to the Office of National Buddhism. [Source: Jocelyn Gecker, Associated Press, July 18, 2013]
Rich Monks in Thailand
After the Asian financial crisis in 1997, the monk Phra Luang that Maya Bua Yanasampanno of Wat Pa Ban Tad in Udon Thani province donated a ton of gold, worth $8.8 million at the time, and $1 million cash to the national treasury to help out the Thai economy in a time of crisis. The donation ceremony was attended Princess Chulabhorn, the daughter of King Bhumibol Adulyadej.
Yanasampanno was born in 1913 in Udon Thani province. He became a monk at the age of 21 and was a student of Luang Pu Mun Bhuridatto, a widely-respected Buddhist priest. He is the founder of National Help Fund Foundation, renowned for many fund-raising events and it efforts to help salvage Thailand’s economy after the financial crisis in 1997. Yanasampanno passed away in January 2011 at the age of 97. More than a million people attended the cremation ceremony.
In the 1990s Phra Dhammachayo was the main promoter of the Dhammakaya mediation technique in which practitioners visual a crystal ball in their body to slow down their mind. Not above using telemarketing to raise funds, he had has over 1 million followers and ran a temple and foundation with $2 billion in assets. In the late 1990s he built a cone-shaped pagoda, said to be the largest of its kind in the world, adorned with 30,000 silver-covered Buddha. Abbot Dharmachayo was condemned by the government and the Buddhist hierarchy. Criminal charges were filed against him for embezzlement and there were discussions of having him defrocked for promoting idol worship and black magic. Abbot Dharmachayp was ultimately disrobed for embezzling donations.
Monks, Women and Sex in Thailand
Bars with prostitutes and live sex sex shows on Patpong Road welcome saffron-robed monks, who make annual visits to some of the establishments to recite mantras and bless them bar so they will be profitable in the coming year. Before the monks arrive the girls put on proper clothes and make their establishments look respectable. Covering up a soft-core pornographic poster one girl said in a National Geographic article by Peter White, "Monk see that and not want to be a monk anymore." [Source: Peter White, National Geographic, July 1967]
A pamphlet given to arriving tourists in Thailand reads: "Buddhist monks are forbidden to touch or be touched by a woman or to accept anything from the hand of one." One of Thailand's most revered Buddhist preachers told the Washington Post: "Lord Buddha has already taught Buddhist monks to stay away from women. If the monks can refrain from being associated with women, then they would have no problem." [Source: William Branigin, the Washington Post, March 21, 1994]
There are more than 80 mediation techniques use to overcome lusts. One of the most effective, one monk told the Bangkok Post, is "corpse contemplation." "Wet dreams are a constant reminder of men's nature," one monk said. Another added, "If we lower our eyes, we cannot see the cluttered wat. if we look up, there it is—the advertisement for women's underpants." [Source: William Branigin, the Washington Post, March 21, 1994]
Thai Monks, Sex Scandals and Animal Abuse
In 1994, Phara Yantra Amaro Bhikhu, a charismatic Buddhist monk, was accused of violating his vows of celibacy by: 1) seducing a Danish harpist in the back of her van; 2) having sex with a Cambodian nun on the deck of a Scandinavian cruise ship after telling her they had been married in a previous life; and 3) fathering a daughter with a Thai woman who gave birth to the child in Belgrade, Yugoslavia in an effort to avoid being notices. The monk also reportedly made obscene long distance calls to some of his female followers. [Source: William Branigin, the Washington Post, March 21, 1994]
"Yantra, 43, aroused controversy initially for traveling abroad," William Branigin wrote in the Washington Post , "with a large entourage of devotees, some of them women, staying in hotels instead of Buddhist temples and possessing two credit cards. He also often walks on pieces of white cloth, which followers lay on the ground for him to step on to bring them good luck, a practice that some Buddhists believe leads to an undue emphasis on the individual rather than on religious teachings." In his defense, Yantra said that he was the target of "a well organized attempt to defame me." His disciples said that a group of female "monk hunters" was out to destroy Buddhism.
Abbot Thammathorn Wanchai was defrocked after police, accompanied by a television crew, raided his secret residence, where he arranged tryst with women, Among other things the police found porn magazines, women’s underwear and a hip flasks full of alcohol.
In the 1990s Thais were outraged when Thai monks were photographed sitting on a cow in Thailand and wearing a leather outfit in Mongolia. Buddhists are prohibited from wearing animal skins and riding on animals.
In 1995, there was great uproar over the case of a 20-year-old elephant named Diamond who was shackled to a tree in two meter flood waters. For nearly its entire life the animal had been chained to the tree near a Buddhist temple and was used to raise funds from visitors. Ignoring pleas from animal lovers, the head monk at the temple refused to loosen Diamond’s restraints which gouged deep wounds in its legs. Later the elephant was freed after a cabinet official donated $4,000 to buy the animal. Diamond was then taken to a zoo were its was treated and taught to walk. Later the elephant was released in a national park. [Source: Time]
Jet-Setting Monk in Thailand Amasses Millions—and Crimes
In July 2013, Jocelyn Gecker of Associated Press wrote: “He's known as Thailand's jet-setting fugitive monk, and his story has riveted the country with daily headlines of lavish excess, promiscuity and alleged crimes ranging from statutory rape to manslaughter. Until a month ago, 33-year old Wirapol Sukphol was relatively unknown in Thailand. Now he is at the center of the biggest religious scandal the predominantly Buddhist country has seen in years. Despite the vows he took to lead a life of celibacy and simplicity, Wirapol had a taste for luxury, police say. His excesses first came to light in June with a YouTube video that went viral. It showed the orange-robed monk in aviator sunglasses taking a private jet ride with a Louis Vuitton carry-on. [Source: Jocelyn Gecker, Associated Press, July 18, 2013 ^^]
“The video sparked criticism of his un-monkly behavior and a stream of humorous headlines like, "Now boarding, Air Nirvana." Since then, a long list of darker secrets has emerged — including his accumulated assets of an estimated 1 billion baht ($32 million). In July 2013, week, authorities issued an arrest warrant for the disgraced monk after having him defrocked in absentia. Wirapol was in France when the scandal surfaced after leading a meditation retreat at a monastery near Provence. He is believed to have then fled to the United States but his current whereabouts are unknown. ^^
“The arrest warrant implicates him on three charges including statutory rape, embezzlement and online fraud to seek donations. He is also under investigation for money laundering, drug trafficking and manslaughter for a hit-and-run accident. Authorities are struggling to figure out how he amassed so much money. "Over the years there have been several cases of men who abused the robe, but never has a monk been implicated in so many crimes," said Pong-in Intarakhao, the case's chief investigator for the Department of Special Investigation, Thailand's equivalent of the FBI. "We have never seen a case this widespread, where a monk has caused so much damage to so many people and to Thai society." ^^
“But the case of Wirapol has also shown the benefits of social media, says Songkran Artchariyasarp, a lawyer and Buddhist activist. "Buddhists all around the world can learn from this case," said Songkran, who heads a Facebook group that collects tips about wayward monks. Photos uploaded to his page helped launch the investigation into Wirapol. "Let this be a case study that shows if a monk does something wrong, it's harder to get away with it — especially in the era of social media." ^^
Life, Crimes and Purchases of Thailand’s Jet-Setting Monk
Jocelyn Gecker of Associated Press wrote: “Born in the poor northeastern province of Ubon Ratchathani, he entered the monkhood as a teenager and gained local renown for claims of supernatural powers like the ability to fly, walk on water and talk to deities. He renamed himself, Luang Pu Nen Kham, taking on a self-bestowed title normally reserved for elder monks. Gradually, he cultivated wealthy followers to help fund expensive projects in the name of Buddhism — building temples, hospitals and what was touted as the world's largest Emerald Buddha. The 11-meter (36-foot) high Buddha was built at his temple in the northeast, touted as solid jade but made of tinted concrete. [Source: Jocelyn Gecker, Associated Press, July 18, 2013 ^^]
“Thailand's Anti-Money Laundering Office has discovered 41 bank accounts linked to the ex-monk. Several of the accounts kept about 200 million baht ($6.4 million) in constant circulation, raising suspicion of money laundering. Investigators also suspect that Wirapol killed a man in a hit-and-run accident while driving a Volvo late at night three years ago. ^^
“It remains stunning how much Wirapol did get away with. During a shopping spree from 2009 to 2011, Wirapol bought 22 Mercedes worth 95 million baht ($3.1 million), according to the DSI. The fleet of luxury cars were among 70 vehicles he has purchased. Some he gave as gifts to senior monks, others he sold off as part of a suspected black market car business to launder his money, Pong-in said. ^^
“Luxury travel for the monk included helicopters and private jets for trips between the northeast and Bangkok. "I always wondered what kind of monk has this much money," said one of his regular pilots, Piya Tregalnon. Each domestic roundtrip cost about 300,000 baht ($10,000) and the monk always paid in cash, he said in comments posted on Facebook. "The most bizarre thing is what was in his bag," Piya said, referring to the typical monk's humble cloth shoulder sack. "It was filled with stacks of 100 dollar bills." ^^
“Like many people, Piya only went public with his suspicions after the scandal erupted. Dozens of pictures have been posted in online forums showing Wirapol's high-flying lifestyle — riding a camel at the pyramids in Egypt, sitting in a cockpit at the Cessna Aircraft factory in Kansas. According to the pilot and investigators, Wirapol was interested in buying his own private jet. ^^
“Even more incriminating were accusations of multiple sexual relationships with women — a cardinal sin for monks who are not allowed to touch women. Among them was a 14-year-old girl with whom he allegedly had a son, a decade ago. The mother filed a statutory rape case against him last week. ^^
“Police have yet to determine how many people he swindled, but the trail of disappointed followers is long.One of them is a Bangkok housecleaner originally from Ubon Ratchathani who remembers first hearing him preach a year ago. "His voice was beautiful, it was mesmerizing. He captivated all of us with his words," recalled Onsa Yubram, 42. When he ended his sermon and held out his saffron bag, hundreds of people rushed forward with donations. "His bag was so full of cash, they had to transfer the money into a big fertilizer sack. He told us, 'Don't worry, no need to rush. I'll stay here until the last of you gets to donate.'" ^^
“Onsa now feels betrayed but says her belief in Buddhism is too strong to let this scandal shatter her faith. "As a Buddhist I can understand why this happened. Monks, in a way, are ordinary men who have greed and desire," she said. "Some are bad apples, but that doesn't mean every monk is bad."
Monks Lose Their Relevance in Changing Thailand
Thailand is suffering from a shortage of monks in an increasingly secular society. The meditative lifestyle of the monkhood offers little allure to young Buddhists raised on shopping malls, smartphones and the Internet.
Reporting from Baan Pa Chi, Thailand,Thomas Fuller wrote in the New York Times: “The monks of this northern Thai village no longer perform one of the defining rituals of Buddhism, the early-morning walk through the community to collect food. Instead, the temple’s abbot dials a local restaurant and has takeout delivered. “Most of the time, I stay inside,” said the abbot, Phra Nipan Marawichayo, who is one of only two monks living in what was once a thriving temple. “Values have changed with time.” [Source: Thomas Fuller, New York Times , December 18, 2012]
“The meditative lifestyle of the monkhood offers little allure to the iPhone generation. The number of monks and novices relative to the population has fallen by more than half over the last three decades. There are five monks and novices for every 1,000 people today, compared with 11 in 1980, when governments began keeping nationwide records. Although it is still relatively rare for temples to close, many districts are so short on monks that abbots here in northern Thailand recruit across the border from impoverished Myanmar, where monasteries are overflowing with novices. [Ibid]
“Many societies have witnessed a gradual shift from the sacred toward the profane as they have modernized. What is striking in Thailand is the compressed time frame, a vertiginous pace of change brought on by the country’s rapid economic rise. In a relatively short time, the local Buddhist monk has gone from being a moral authority, teacher and community leader fulfilling important spiritual and secular roles to someone whose job is often limited to presiding over periodic ceremonies. [Ibid]
Government figures put the number of monks in the country at 290,000 last year, but the forest monk Phra Paisan said that Thailand, in fact, had no more than 70,000 full-time monks — about the same as the number of villages in Thailand. The Wall Street Journal reported that another source of worry in religious circles is the fact that Thais are having fewer children than they used to as more families move from farms to the country's cities. Thai women now have an average of 1.5 children, down from more than six in the 1960s. That means fewer teenagers are ordained as novices. All Thai Buddhist males generally get ordained at some point in their lives, though most often in their teenage years and sometimes earlier. [Source: New York Times, Wall Street Journal]
Fuller wrote in the New York Times: Novices once spent months in a monastery as part of what was considered an essential step for boys along the way to adulthood. Today, if they are ordained at all, boys typically spend a week in monk’s robes, giving rise to the term “factory monks” because they are churned out so quickly. Phra Nipan, the abbot, said his only real role today was to preside over rituals like funerals, weddings and the blessing of a new home. “People today have telephones,” he said wistfully. “If they have troubles, they call their friends.” [Fuller, Op. Cit]
“Monks are suffering a decline in “quantity and quality,” Phra Paisan told the New York Times, partly because young people are drawn to the riches and fast-paced life of the cities. The monastic education of young boys, once widespread in rural areas, has been almost entirely replaced by the secular education provided by the state. Scandals surrounding some monks have contributed to the decline. Social media has helped spread videos of monks partying in monasteries, imbibing alcohol, watching pornographic videos and cavorting with women and men, all forbidden activities. There have also been controversies involving allegations of embezzlement of donations at temples. [Ibid]
“William Klausner, a law and anthropology professor who spent a year living in a village in northeastern Thailand in the 1950s, described the declining influence of Buddhist monks as a “dramatic transformation.” Monks once played a crucial role in the community where he lived, helping settle disputes among neighbors and counseling troubled children, he wrote in “Thai Culture in Transition.” Today, most villages in the area “have only two or three full-time monks in residence, and they are elderly and often sick,” he wrote. [Ibid]
Half of Thailand's Buddhist Monks Obese
Alex Ward wrote in the Daily Mail, “A study of 246 monks from the Dhammayuttika Nikaya and Mahayana movements in 11 Thai provinces revealed that nearly half of them are clinically obese and suffering from lifestyle diseases such as high blood pressure and type 2 diabetes. The research pointed to the oily, sweet foods monks are offered by worshipers as the reason behind their unhealthy lifestyle. Food is traditionally offered to monks as they beg for food on the streets to survive. [Source: Alex Ward, Daily Mail, August 1, 2012]
The monks do not do much exercise either according to the study. It said: 'To make matters worse, the only exercise an average monk takes is sweeping the courtyard and walking the streets asking for alms, or food.' Figures showed that 45 per cent of the monks in the study were either obese or morbidly obese. They are also more likely to develop allergies due to their rich, oily, sugary diet. A major cause was the amount of fizzy, sugar-loaded drinks drunk by monks, particularly in the evenings when they abstain from eating. Only 21 per cent of the monks questioned have regular health check-ups and doctor visits.
Health officials now plan a food education program to help the huge holy men to slim down. They hope to offer dietary and exercise advice appropriate for their lifestyles, teaching about them about nutritional alternatives to their unhealthy food and drink choices. They also plan to prepare guidelines on what worshipers should and should not offer to their holy men in order to keep them healthy.
Thailand’s Hip Hop and Rock’ n’ Roll Monks
Thailand's Buddhists are a bit annoyed with today's young monks. As mobile phones and other devices grow more popular, it's becoming harder for religious leaders to control the images of Buddhism in the media and marketplace.James Hookway wrote in the Wall Street Journal: “Each year as monsoon rains sweep their way over Thailand, tens of thousands of teenage boys shave their heads and are ordained as Buddhist monks in a traditional rite of passage. Some find their life's vocation during the few weeks they spend in the monastery, and they become full-time monks. Others post videos of themselves on YouTube, as they play air guitar to hard-rock tracks like Yngwie Malmsteen's "Iron Clad," or recite religious chants to thumping hip-hop beats. [Source: James Hookway, Wall Street Journal, August 14, 2012]
Besides rocking out to Mr. Malmsteen, who was born in Sweden and lives in Florida, some monks film themselves playing pranks on other novices or shouting out lyrics to the likes of Thailand's heavy-metal band Bodyslam. They often use deodorant sticks or whatever else is at hand as stand-ins for microphones. Brooms often double as guitars. The clips are quickly becoming a genre of their own on YouTube and other sites, with some users taking one clip and remixing it with fresh backing music. The result: mash-ups of monks with shaved heads cavorting about in wigs to Dead or Alive's 1980s hit "You Spin Me Round (Like A Record)."
Monks old enough to know better are getting caught up in the excitement, too. Phra Klairung Rujidhammo was recently catapulted to national fame when he was filmed performing suggestive dance moves, known here as coyote dancing after the film "Coyote Ugly" set in a New York dance-bar. Phra Klairung, a chunky temple secretary in his mid-forties, quickly apologized after the clip went viral, explaining that he was trying to cheer people up after flooding hit the area around his temple in northern Bangkok. His superiors gave him a two-week suspension, and Phra (Phra is a religious title) Klairung is back collecting food offerings and other alms from the local community each morning.
Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Tourist Authority of Thailand, Thailand Foreign Office, The Government Public Relations Department, CIA World Factbook, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, NBC News, Fox News and various books and other publications.
© 2008 Jeffrey Hays
Last updated May 2014