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.
Websites and Resources on Buddhism: Buddha Net buddhanet.net/e-learning/basic-guide ; Religious Tolerance Page religioustolerance.org/buddhism ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Internet Sacred Texts Archive sacred-texts.com/bud/index ; Introduction to Buddhism webspace.ship.edu/cgboer/buddhaintro ; Early Buddhist texts, translations, and parallels, SuttaCentral suttacentral.net ; East Asian Buddhist Studies: A Reference Guide, UCLA web.archive.org ; View on Buddhism viewonbuddhism.org ; Tricycle: The Buddhist Review tricycle.org ; BBC - Religion: Buddhism bbc.co.uk/religion ; Buddhist Centre thebuddhistcentre.com; A sketch of the Buddha's Life accesstoinsight.org ; What Was The Buddha Like? by Ven S. Dhammika buddhanet.net ; Jataka Tales (Stories About Buddha) sacred-texts.com ; Illustrated Jataka Tales and Buddhist stories ignca.nic.in/jatak ; Buddhist Tales buddhanet.net ; Arahants, Buddhas and Bodhisattvas by Bhikkhu Bodhi accesstoinsight.org ; Victoria and Albert Museum vam.ac.uk/collections/asia/asia_features/buddhism/index ;
Theravada Buddhism: Readings in Theravada Buddhism, Access to Insight accesstoinsight.org/ ; Readings in Buddhism, Vipassana Research Institute (English, Southeast Asian and Indian Languages) tipitaka.org ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Encyclopædia Britannica britannica.com ; Pali Canon Online palicanon.org ; Vipassanā (Theravada Buddhist Meditation) Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Pali Canon - Access to Insight accesstoinsight.org ; Forest monk tradition abhayagiri.org/about/thai-forest-tradition ; BBC Theravada Buddhism bbc.co.uk/religion
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.
“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.
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.
“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.
Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons except banned monk horror film, Malay Mail; Phara Yantra Amaro Bhikhu, You Tube and Luang Pu Nen Kham, Asia One and Capital FM
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.
Last updated March 2019