SEAPA — Southest Asian Press Alliance

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.

Eroded credibility?

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.

Good monks

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.

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