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Intercourse, Scandals, and Buddhist Monks in Thailand — The Revealer

(Buddhist monks in Thailand. Picture supply: Getty Pictures)

In March 2022, Thailand was abuzz with the story of a leaked audio recording that exposed the clandestine love affair of a 23-year-old Buddhist monk and a 37-year-old mannequin. Phra Ponsakorn Chankeo, or “Phra Kato” as he was recognized to his many devoted followers, was the younger, charismatic performing abbot of Wat Pen Yat temple in southern Thailand. Phra Kato, who, like all monks, took a vow of celibacy, ended up being one other supply of disappointment for Thai Buddhists, whose faith has been rattled with scandals in latest a long time.

Since his ordination in 2017, Phra Kato was thought-about a rising monastic star who might invigorate Buddhism by means of his expert use of social media. His attractiveness and entertaining talks gained him an enormous following on YouTube and Fb. Many monks on the larger ranges of Thailand’s monastic administration, involved with the declined curiosity in and apply of Buddhism, thought that they had discovered somebody who might enchantment to the youthful era and revitalize Buddhist apply.

However this all got here crashing down with the discharge of the audio tape. Including gas to the fireplace, Phra Kato had embezzled 600,000 Thai baht (round $16,000 USD) from his temple, giving half to silence his lover and the opposite half to silence a reporter. The scandal performed out on social media for weeks. Phra Kato and the notorious location of his a number of liaisons, within the backseat of his lover’s parked automobile on the crest of the Kathoon dam, grew to become a vacationer attraction and a well-liked meme. Phra Kato left monastic life in shame, returned the cash to the temple, and was charged with embezzlement. He apologized to his followers and requested forgiveness by means of a video submit on his YouTube and Fb pages. Phra Kato, now Ponsakorn, parlayed his notoriety into changing into a social media influencer.

Phra Kato’s intercourse scandal rekindled reminiscences of the daddy (pun supposed) of all monastic scandals that engulfed Thailand within the Nineteen Nineties: Phra Yantra Amaro. There’s not a Thai who lived by means of the Nineteen Nineties who doesn’t know the story of the meteoric rise and fall of the charismatic Phra Yantra. Ordained in 1974, he was well-known as a disciplined monk who practiced asceticism and intense durations of meditation. He additionally had a popularity for possessing supernatural powers. In 1993, after getting back from a world tour the place he gave talks on Buddhist teachings, a number of girls lodged accusations with the Thai monastic administration’s governing council saying that he had had sexual relations with them. One lady additionally claimed that he fathered her baby. She demanded that Phra Yantra have a DNA take a look at to show he was the daddy, which he refused. In 1994, the Phra Yantra scandal was Thailand’s most generally reported information story, equal to America’s OJ Simpson trial. By 1995, there was incontrovertible proof that Phra Yantra engaged in sexual relations. He had used a bank card to pay for his visits to brothels on journeys to Australia and New Zealand. The governing council introduced that he should disrobe for violating sangha (“Buddhist monastic group”) guidelines and for breaking his vow of celibacy.

These monks’ sexual affairs had been so vital as a result of violating the rule towards sexual activity is likely one of the 4 most severe guidelines for Theravada monks. A monk who breaks one in every of these guidelines should disrobe and may by no means ordain once more.

(Phra Kato. Picture supply: The Occasions)

Phra Kato’s and Phra Yantra’s scandals had been removed from the primary or final to befall Buddhist monks in Thailand. On the night of August 29, 2021, seven monks–4 of them abbots–had been caught ingesting beer and feasting on roasted pork within the sacred chanting corridor of Wat Phan Sao in Chiang Mai. Monks in Thailand will not be allowed to eat after midday, and alcohol is strictly prohibited. The monks had been arrested for breaking COVID-19 protocols and expelled from the sangha for breaking their sacred vows.

Newspapers within the Nineteen Nineties had been stuffed with tales of monastic scandals. There have been numerous studies of sexual misconduct, ingesting, playing, stealing from temple financial institution accounts, utilizing and promoting medicine, and even homicide. Now, within the age of social media, these scandals are much more broadly publicized. Every time one other scandal goes public, Thai lay Buddhists query the position of monks in society as monks themselves take into account their very own relationship to the sangha.

Parallels to the distrust of the Catholic priesthood in america are instructive. The broadly reported pedophile priest scandal has resulted in fewer ordinations and extra “priestless parishes.” The present beginning price in Thailand is 1.51 youngsters per mom, even decrease than China. Annually there can be fewer and fewer boys who will attain the age of ordination. Mother and father should determine if they need their son, and it’s often their solely son, to pursue the monastic path. These scandals and their amplification by means of social media imply that having one’s son ordained as a monk just isn’t as prestigious, or as protected, because it as soon as was. Mother and father might hesitate to entrust the care of their sons to monks whose popularity might not be exemplary.

These scandals are a risk to the compact that binds laity and the sangha. The laity provide meals, materials items, and cash to temples and their monks. In flip, the laity obtain “benefit,” which within the Thai Buddhist view negates the consequences of “unhealthy karma” – or previous unwholesome acts. Though benefit will be gained by giving to charities, historically, the best quantity of benefit will be gained by giving to monks. The upper the receiving monk’s standing, the extra benefit is generated. When monks are perceived to neglect their half on this reciprocal benefit economic system by disobeying their guidelines of renunciation, the benefit system is compromised.

How, then, have these monastic scandals, particularly the explosive Phra Kato one, affected the every day lives of atypical younger monks? We posed this query to monks residing in Chiang Mai, a Buddhist educational heart with a number of monastic excessive faculties and two Buddhist universities.

One monk advised us that when he left his temple someday to gather his morning alms, which is likely one of the signature every day morning rituals of Theravada Buddhism, a bunch of ladies pointed at him and yelled “Kato, Kato!” Laypeople, even associates, handled him because the butt of jokes. Associates on Fb would remark or message him calling him ‘Kato.’ One other monk, whereas additionally accumulating donations exterior his temple, heard lay individuals jokingly inquiring about monastic actions, whereas referring to the placement of Phra Kato’s affair: “Have you ever been to the dam immediately?” This type of teasing suggests that individuals imagine all monks have secret transgressions and will not be following the principles of monastic self-discipline.

The scandals have created particular issues about sexual misconduct and male monks interacting with girls. In response to the Vinaya, the principles that information monastic habits and look, monks ought to keep away from shut contact with girls. But meditation trainer Phra Kyo advised us that he typically finds himself educating in a room with solely feminine college students. Phra Kyo is anxious that some individuals would possibly discover it inappropriate for monks to be seen in a room with solely girls with out understanding the context. Monastic life immediately is now extra difficult due to the laity’s judgmental gaze.

Phra Kasem, who lives in a temple in a suburb of Chiang Mai, believes that scandals didn’t affect his group’s help for him due to their shut private relationship. Nonetheless, the scandals nonetheless have an effect on his monastic life as a result of individuals have much less religion in monks they don’t personally know. On the events when Phra Kasem is invited to chant at ceremonies away from his temple, his supporters warn him to watch out. They remind him that Phra Kato traveled to different temples, and can say, “look what occurred to him!” They fear in regards to the temptation and suspicions monks face exterior of acquainted environment.

Articles about misbehaving monks will not be solely learn by laity, however by monks as nicely. Monks additionally learn the myriad on-line feedback decrying the decline of monastic purity. Pupil monks reported to us that they imagine the authors of those feedback have to be lay individuals who haven’t studied Buddhist teachings. As a result of they learn solely unhealthy information about monks, the coed monks presume, such lay persons are starting to lose their religion in Buddhism. In addition they surmise that lay individuals who have studied Buddhism will keep their religion, assured that Buddhism just isn’t affected by a number of unhealthy monks. Though monastic misbehavior is a widespread difficulty, when attempting to elucidate the proliferation of scandals, these monks give attention to the “few unhealthy apples” phenomenon. They see monastic coaching as essential, although not all the time efficient, and that some males merely will not be prepared for the monastic life, which makes the entire establishment seem tainted.

The coaching monks obtain just isn’t constant from temple to temple, which has contributed to ongoing monastic issues. Monks study monastic life and correct habits as a part of their coaching as novices, or for a brief interval earlier than their ordination ceremonies. It’s as much as the person temples and abbots to ensure every ordained male is aware of the right way to observe the principles. Nonetheless, with over 33,000 energetic temples and roughly 300,000 monks, monastic regulation is uneven.

(Thai Buddhist monks. Picture supply: Giulio Di Sturco for the Worldwide Herald Tribune)

Due to frequent scandals and the response of the laity, monks are involved in regards to the future era’s help for Buddhism and, certainly, the way forward for Thai Buddhist apply. Phra Panya shared with us that he has seen only a few younger individuals go to his temple, reasoning that the scandals have alienated them. And Phra Ananda advised us he thinks the “new era” imagine they are often good individuals with out steerage from monks or the Buddha’s teachings.

Monks who dwell and examine in Chiang Mai agreed that as extra of those scandals turn out to be recognized, fewer individuals go to temples. They report much less participation in temple actions after the Phra Kato scandal broke, although they acknowledge that the COVID-19 pandemic is one other issue. Monks sometimes obtain many invites for them to supply blessing rituals for brand spanking new homes, vehicles, or companies. Lay individuals would come to temples for his or her birthdays, anniversaries of funerals, or for ceremonies to extend one’s longevity. However many of those requests have stopped. Lay temple patrons who would sometimes host a funeral ceremony for a number of days have now been shortened to 1. Chiang Mai monks report that they’ve acquired fewer invites for ceremonies and decrease attendance at main Buddhist holidays. Fewer ceremonies end in a lower in donations. And with much less monetary help from the laity, scholar monks should discover different means to pay for tuition and different crucial bills.

Phra Ajarn Dr. Phaitoon, a professor at MahaChulalongkornrajavidyalaya Buddhist College in Wang Noi, exterior of Bangkok, stated that the Phra Kato scandal has resulted in rarer ordinations of novices and fewer monastic college students coming by means of the “pipeline.” Wat Srisoda, a temple in Chiang Mai, often has greater than 600 novices becoming a member of their temple faculty annually, however these numbers have diminished sharply. Final 12 months there have been solely 50 novices. This seems to be a development throughout Chiang Mai: Wat Pa Pao had greater than 40 monastics a number of years in the past however now has solely 10. During the last 5 years the variety of monastics at Wat Som Phao has diminished by two-thirds.

With the plethora of stories about misbehaving monks, there’s little room in social media for constructive tales about good monks. The issue is that constructive tales, resembling monks serving to to construct faculties, or offering meals for poor households, haven’t any “legs.” These constructive articles, showing in social media, are learn by most of the people as soon as, however scandals resembling Phra Kato’s play out for weeks. Phra Kato’s robust however native media presence was rapidly outweighed by the deluge of posts regarding his transgressions.

In July 2022, the brand new abbot of Wat Phan Sao held a panel dialogue to reestablish the connection between the monks and lay group. One lady introduced up the problem of monastic scandals. The panelists centered on wanting ahead. It’s pure, they stated, that some monks will be unable to keep up the whole lot of the renunciant’s way of life essential to hold the monastic guidelines. As an alternative of feeling involved, one panelist defined, laity ought to really feel relieved. When scandals happen, those that are unable to keep up the monastic life are revealed, and solely those that are pure will keep.

Whereas the scandals have had a adverse impact on male monks, they’ve had a constructive impact on the small variety of feminine monks, referred to as bhikkhunis. Monks (bhikkhu) are required to be celibate, forswear intoxicants, and observe the 227 behavioral guidelines of the Vinaya—the principles that govern habits and look. In distinction, feminine monks (bhikkhunis) have 311 behavioral guidelines, and nuns (mae chi) observe eight precepts. There have been, as but, no studies of bhikkunis or mae chi concerned in sexual scandals. Nonetheless, there are lower than 300 bhikkhunis and round 30,000 mae chi compared with 300,000 bhikkhus.

Bhikkhunis will not be allowed to ordain in Thailand. As an alternative, candidates journey to Sri Lanka for his or her novice coaching and ordination. Though their standing as bhikkhuni just isn’t accepted by the Thai sangha administration, they obtain a lot help from lay individuals all through Thailand who’re conscious of their devoted apply. On the similar time, many senior male monastics disapprove of bhikkhuni, believing that the Theravada lineage of bhikkhuni died out within the 11th century in Sri Lanka, and can’t be revived. Since there are fewer bhikkhuni and it takes nice effort for them to ordain, they’re, normally, dedicated to the correct apply of monasticism. Luang Mae Dhammananda, the primary bhikkhuni in Thailand, feels that Thai Buddhists is perhaps tiring of male monks and their scandals. She has noticed an rising variety of supporters who solely give alms to feminine monks and believes this may very well be attributed to their lack of belief for male monks.

The gathered affect of those scandals is making Buddhism’s position in Thai society much more difficult. When monks are recognized to be in breach of their 227 guidelines there’s much less belief, extra suspicion, and an more and more fragile monastic-lay relationship. However, there are clear and outstanding examples of devoted and disciplined bhikkunis, who, though not uniformly accepted as a result of they’re girls, level a method in the direction of restoring Buddhism’s popularity in Thailand.


Brooke Schedneck is Assistant Professor of Non secular Research at Rhodes School, Memphis, Tennessee. She is the writer of Religious Tourism in Northern Thailand: Encounters with Buddhist Monks, revealed by the College of Washington Press in 2021.

Steve Epstein is a visiting lecturer on the Chiang Mai campus of Mahachulalongkornrajavidyalaya Buddhist College in Thailand. He’s the writer of Lao Folktales, revealed by Silkworm Books.

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