Buddha's path must guide reform of clergy

Buddha's path must guide reform of clergy

This May 24 photo shows police raiding Wat Sa Ket and arresting senior monks and laymen accused of embezzlement. (File photo by Tawatchai Kemgumnerd)
This May 24 photo shows police raiding Wat Sa Ket and arresting senior monks and laymen accused of embezzlement. (File photo by Tawatchai Kemgumnerd)

The recent crackdown on the Sangha Supreme Council elders is long overdue. Corrupt monks in high places have escaped the law for far too long. But abuse of power will not go away as long as the clergy remains a closed, feudal autocracy under state patronage.

To clean up the graft-plagued clergy, it's necessary to punish corrupt monks and make temple donations transparent. That's more than obvious. But it's not enough.

The dictatorial Sangha law must be amended to make cleric administration accountable and inclusive. More importantly, the clergy must begin to operate without perks and privileges from the government.

The clergy's dependency on state support has made it weak and out of touch with public sentiments and needs. That's how it has become socially irrelevant.

The current crackdown on corrupt elders has rocked the clergy like never before. It confirms long-held public suspicions about decadent lifestyles and abuse of power among top monks and their subordinates down the line. The magnitude of temple corruption across the country has also triggered concerted calls for Sangha reform.

Will this monastic earthquake eventually bring Sangha reform? Frankly speaking, I don't see it coming.

The daily arrests of clergy big shots are welcome news. But it's naive to believe that getting rid of the "bad" elders in the monastic government and replacing them with "good" ones can effectively clean up the clergy.

Are monks corrupt because they are bad? Or is because the closed, unaccountable system makes it easy for them to abuse their positions?

Thailand is fixated with the belief that "good persons" is the solution to corruption. Viewing the problems solely through the moral lens without tackling the problematic system is one of the main reasons why the country is stuck in the same old rut.

Didn't the junta tell us that getting rid of corrupt politicians would save the country? Four years after the coup, isn't the country still as rife with corruption as ever, if not more?

The same line of thinking prevails with Sangha reform: To clean up the clergy, make monks stay true to the monastic code of conduct and punish those who stray. Indeed, who can argue with that? But monks are human. How long can they withstand temptations when the system rewards corrupt monks?

Corruption in temples is no different than what is happening in politics and officialdom. It's endemic because the decisions are made in a closed and centralised system without checks and balances.

People abuse power for personal gain not because they are born bad, but because they know they can do it without getting caught. Monks are no exception.

Purging corrupt monks -- or politicians for that matter -- without reforming the system to be democratic, transparent, and open to stakeholders will make the new power group just "a new flock of blood-sucking flies", as described by jaded, disillusioned Thais. And correctly so.

When the clergy's authoritarian governing system and feudal hierarchy violate the Buddhist teachings and encourage monks to abuse their positions, shouldn't we overhaul the system to bring it line with the teachings?

Let's take a look at what needs changes, and why monks are fiercely resisting it.

After the 1932 Revolution, the feudalistic bureaucracy was abolished, but the cleric system remains intact, making it the only administration that is still deeply entrenched in feudalism.

The supreme patriarch is at the top of the power pyramid, often as a symbolic figurehead, while real power rests with the Supreme Sangha Council, the monastic government consisting of very old monks with life terms. Some are so old and ill they cannot even attend the monthly meetings.

Furthermore, the clergy does not have its own professional secretariat to implement the council's orders or to keep monks in line. Hence, the miserable inefficiency. The National Office of Buddhism, acting as the council secretary, controls the clergy's budget from the government. With a nod from some elders, corruption is quick and easy.

The feudal system enables top monks to act as if they are virtually royalty. They also have absolute power to punish and reward monks in their jurisdictions. More often than not, the rewards are determined by presents both in cash and in kind while outspoken monks are punished harshly.

In Buddha's times, the monastic society was egalitarian and run by consensus. Now, Thai Buddhism is an oppressive system of dictatorship.

Meanwhile, the abbots have full power under Sangha law to run temples as if they are personal property. Temple donations in some 30,000 temples amount to 120 billion baht a year. Without transparent accounting and independent auditing, graft is inevitable.

It's clear. The monastic administration must be modernised, the Sangha law amended, the feudal titles abolished, and temple finances transparently managed and audited. But how?

To follow the monastic code of conduct which prohibits monks from touching money, some temples have set up foundations to manage public donations and run temple affairs so that monks can concentrate on their monastic and spiritual duties without involving themselves with money matters.

They are exceptions to the rules. Most abbots refuse this financial management model so they can continue to control temple money.

Not all monks are happy with the clergy's oppressive system. In 2001, the government supported their efforts to amend the autocratic 1962 Sangha Act to reduce the role of the elders and introduce a new executive committee of young, more active monks to run monastic matters professionally from recruitment, ordination, education, regulation, to punishment.

The government gave up the amendment effort due to fierce resistance from the clergy.

Even if it had not been aborted, the proposed new Sangha law would not be able to reform the clergy. Despite a more active executive body, the cleric system would still be highly centralised, dependent on state support, not answerable to people's needs, and still hold on tightly to the feudal hierarchy, titles and privileges.

The clergy, instead of initiating change to respond to modern society's need for diversity, has chosen to tighten central control further through the monopoly of the teachings.

Under the junta-installed constitution, the clergy has the power to rule what are "true" Buddhist teachings. It is also armed with full authority to punish Buddhist groups which do not conform to its interpretations -- apparently a weapon to chasten the controversial pro-Thaksin Dhammakaya Temple and other dissenting monks.

It's an open secret that the elders in the Sangha Council are also divided under colour-coded politics, which raises questions over whether the current crackdown is being done selectively to eliminate Dhammakaya influence in the Sangha Council.

True or false, persecution cannot destroy the Dhammakaya followers' loyalty. On the contrary.

Much of public animosity against the Dhammakaya results from fear that it will take over the Sangha Council and eventually control the whole clergy. But the real enemy is not Dhammakaya. It's the centralisation of the clergy.

If the monastic society is decentralised and accountable to its immediate communities, Dhammakaya will never be able win central power or exercise autocratic control just by owning the Sangha Council.

No, Dhammayaka is not dangerous. It is just one of new religious groups that has emerged with new needs in our modern consumerist society. What is dangerous to Thai Buddhism is the corruption-ridden clergy autocracy.

To regain public faith, the clergy must be able to speak up against state injustice and provide moral guidance. As long as the clergy is dependent on the government for money and status, it can only be the mouthpiece of the establishment, never society's moral authority.

To win respect, the clergy must provide sufficient space for Buddhist groups to answer the special needs of their congregations, yet provide fair regulation to honour Buddhist teachings.

Decentralise. Make temple donations transparent. Stand on one's two feet. Stop receiving government money. Stop demanding special privileges. Work harder to win public trust. Stop blaming other faiths for your failure. Choose justice, not power and wealth. Help the downtrodden, don't take the side of the rich and powerful.

The clergy must return to the Buddha's path. If not, the system will continue to rot as public faith keeps crumbling until it is no more.

Sanitsuda Ekachai

Former editorial pages editor

Sanitsuda Ekachai is a former editorial pages editor, Bangkok Post. She writes on human rights, gender, and Thai Buddhism.

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