Pitfalls on the path toward enlightenment
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Pitfalls on the path toward enlightenment

Money is a tantalising thing, coveted by many. But worldly goods can pose a threat to those who are called to a higher order. The seven ex-monks from three famous Bangkok temples who were in the media limelight over the weeks are no exception.

Their fall from grace is the result of their alleged involvement in the temple fund embezzlement scandal that has shocked the country. Six people -- one former abbot and his three former assistant abbots from Wat Sa Ket and one former abbot and his secretary from Wat Sam Phraya -- have already been defrocked and put behind bars on charges of embezzlement and money laundering. The last one -- a former assistant abbot from Wat Samphanthawong -- is still on the run in Germany.

The arrests right on temple grounds three weeks ago prompted His Holiness the Supreme Patriarch to expel three of the monks from the Sangha Supreme Council and later strip them off all their governing posts in the clergy. All of the accused's monastic ranks were also revoked by HM the King.

Wat Sa Ket, Wat Sam Phraya and Wat Samphanthawong are among the 10 monasteries scrutinised in the now third round of investigations into the so-called ngern thorn wat or "change money" scheme. The term was coined last year to describe the well-planned, corrupt practice in which state officials grant funds meant for Buddhist activities to the temples but ask them to return part of the money to the officials' private accounts.

The three rounds of probing into temples nationwide found that more than 340 million baht of state funds had been lost as a result of the scandal. Of this amount, 140 million baht went missing from the funds allocated to the three above-mentioned temples. The latest report suggests that in this case, rather than lining the pockets of state officials, the money had been siphoned off by the seven ex-monks themselves. The fourth round is underway and more than 30 temples so far are reported to have been involved with the scheme.

This is the first time up to five senior monks in the Racha Khana ranking are charged with corruption. If proven guilty, they will face the same consequences as any other criminal and will not be able to return to the clergy.

At this point, all seven ex-monks are only suspects and must therefore be regarded as innocent until proven guilty by a court of law. Their case is hardly helped, however, by the fact that they were quite influential monks and many of them were known to be very wealthy.

It takes time for the authorities to find out if any of them have actually had a hand in the missing money. Still, this historic case is a learning opportunity for other clergy members.

Personally, I don't think that anyone in the clergy will ever face such an allegation if they simply observe the Vinaya. This monastic code of discipline bars every Buddhist monk from associating themselves with money and other valuable goods, making them very careful when having to engage in any financial activity. The benefit of this rule is that it helps to avoid chances for their greed to grow.

Lord Buddha wanted his disciples to be examples of honest and virtuous people worthy of respect. He considered stealing and cheating an extreme violation of the spiritual ethic and a major obstacle in the path to enlightenment. That's why this kind of misconduct is listed as one of four major offences, known as parajika, forcing offenders to disrobe and preventing them from being reordained for life.

Despite this severe penalty, however, there are always wayward monks in the monastic community who succumb to their greed and break this rule. The truth is that greed is not easy to get rid of, no matter how long one wears a saffron robe or how high one rises up the monastic ranks.

I don't know whether the capture of the seven ex-monks is politically motivated, as claimed by many in social media. But I do appreciate everyone involved in screening out corrupt monks from the clergy.

Consequently, I must counter those who criticise the crackdown claiming that doing so is equivalent to destroying the religion. I think they'd better put the blame on the corrupt officials and colluding monks (if any) who shamelessly exploit any loophole they can find to enrich themselves through stolen money. It was them who started this vicious cycle, gave the clergy a bad name and shook the faith of many.

Besides spreading the word of Buddha, all monks have a duty to purify themselves from all kinds of defilement. As long as they have not strayed from Buddha's path, their saffron robes will remain sacred.

Patcharawalai Sanyanusin is a writer for the Life section of the Bangkok Post.

Patcharawalai Sanyanusin


Patcharawalai Sanyanusin is a writer for Life section of the Bangkok Post.

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