Temple graft shows need for reform
text size

Temple graft shows need for reform

A 2013 photo shows a man mocking Phra Nen Kham, a monk known for his jet-setting ways, in Nakhon Ratchasima's Buddhist Lent Candle Festival. THITI WANNAMONTHA
A 2013 photo shows a man mocking Phra Nen Kham, a monk known for his jet-setting ways, in Nakhon Ratchasima's Buddhist Lent Candle Festival. THITI WANNAMONTHA

The country's latest temple corruption scandal occurred at a first-class royal monastery; the centre of a sect founded by reformist monarch King Mongkut to clean up the clergy. What an irony!

Wat Bowon Niwet Vihara was home of Thailand's four Supreme Patriarchs, including King Mongkut himself who, wearied by the prevalent laxity in the clergy, founded the Thammayut order in 1833 to make monks strictly adhere to the monastic code of conduct. One of the major rules set by Buddha is the prohibition on monks touching money.

Wat Bowon is the monastery for kings, princes and members of royal lineages to receive ordinations and Buddhist training. With such prestige and proclaimed "purity", the faithful expect Wat Bowon to be different from other temples about money matters. Alas, it is not.

When its abbot, Somdet Phra Wannarat, 85, passed away after a long illness last month, the temple committee discovered nearly 200 million baht missing from the temple's bank accounts.

Eyebrows were raised again when the police revealed the identity of the suspected embezzler -- the late abbot's close aide who comes from a "decent" family with a royal last name and who was once ordained at Wat Bowon.

He reportedly insisted the late Somdet Phra Wannarat gave him the money as a present. The police and the temple committee accuse him of syphoning the money into temple development projects while the late abbot was bed-ridden in the hospital.

Temple corruption has become so prevalent that it no longer shocks the public. The scandals that make the headlines now must involve superlatives. The Wat Bowon one fits the bill. It involved a top monk, second only to the Supreme Patriarch, a top monastery and a "hi-so" with a pedigree background as a suspected embezzler.

Will putting "good" people in charge of temple donations help? The answer is no. It does not matter if the person in charge is good or bad when the system itself breeds corruption.

His Holiness the Supreme Patriarch is highly respected for his moral authority and rigorous dhamma practice in line with Buddhist teaching. But his virtues alone could not change the clergy's feudal power structure.

Temple corruption stems from a closed and non-transparent system that does not allow external monitoring and auditing. According to a study on temple donations by the National Institute of Development Administration (Nida) in 2012, some 30,000 temples in Thailand amass around 120 billion baht a year from the faithful. Without transparent accounting and independent auditing, corruption is easy and inevitable.

With that kind of money, most temples refuse to make temple donations transparent and accountable.

To be fair, the Sangha Council did order temples to set up a transparent accounting system. But when the elders have yet to lead by example, the order simply falls on deaf ears.

Some temples have shown how to do it. They set up foundations run by professionals to manage temple donations and affairs so the monks can concentrate on spiritual training. One example is the Suan Mokkh Forest Monastery in Chaiya, Surat Thani province founded by the reformist monk Phra Buddhadasa. But these temples are exceptions to the rule.

Temple corruption goes deeper than a lack of transparent accounting, however. It is a symptom of a sick system -- the closed and autocratic governing structure that the clergy clings on to with dear life to protect their power and privilege.

We need to fix the system. We need Sangha reform.

True, a transparent accounting system with external auditing and community participation is mandatory. But to restore public faith and prevent other forms of abuse of power, the clergy must modernise, decentralise and stop depending on state support and protection.

At present, the clergy is governed by the Supreme Sangha Council with absolute power. As a rule, subjugation to central authority and pampering the cleric elites are necessary for monks to climb up the clergy's hierarchical power ladder. Criticism is banned, and risks persecution -- even ostracism.

Despite such power, the Sangha Council acts as an executive board but without a secretariat to carry out their orders or improve the clergy's operations. Hence the utter inefficiency.

In 2001, a group of young monks plucked up the courage to tell the elders that the clergy needed to modernise. They proposed a more decentralised administrative structure with an executive committee to run monastic matters professionally from recruitment and education to regulation and punitive measures.

The elders gave a firm no.

Instead of keeping up with the times, the ecclesiastic elites stick to the dictatorial Sangha Act which endorses their top-down power and gives abbots total control of temple assets and donations which breeds corruption. This Sangha law also gives the clergy political and financial support from the government.

Still, they want more. The clergy have repeatedly campaigned to make Buddhism the country's official national religion for more state support and higher status. They also call for a draconian new law to punish people who speak ill of the clergy.

This brings to mind the adage: absolute power corrupts absolutely.

Amid prevalent temple scandals, devout Buddhists complain that monks nowadays have become mere "postmen'' to deliver virtual foods and merits to their deceased parents in another realm. Meanwhile, monks are busy turning temples into theme parks of deities to attract more donations.

The commercialisation of Buddhism is a blatant violation of the monastic code of conduct. But the elders' concerns are elsewhere -- the popular monks or religious groups that appear to challenge their power.

In the junta-installed constitution, the Sangha Council gave itself new power to rule over what are "true" or "false" Buddhist teachings with the authority to punish those who "distort" those teachings. This is a ploy to nip the threat in the bud.

Buddha prohibited monks from touching money. Yet the clergy is ridden with temple corruption. The monastic community in Buddha's times was egalitarian. The Thai clergy is a hierarchical feudal society. The goal of monkhood is to let go of greed, lust, anger and delusion. Now monkhood is a shortcut to become rich and powerful.

Buddha advised against blind faith and cautioned people not to believe even in what he said, but to test his teachings before coming to their own conclusion. Yet the elders ignore his advice and want to play court with Thai Buddhism.

Buddha received harsh criticisms and accusations with equanimity. Yet the clergy punishes outspoken monks and wants to put critics in jail.

Amid declining public faith, the clergy blame other religions for undermining Buddhism, overlooking their own flaws of drifting away from Buddha.

The only way for the clergy to regain moral authority is to return to that path. Remember the original goal of monkhood. Stop taking money. Make donations transparent. Make temple administration accountable. Abrogate the oppressive Sangha law. Abolish its feudal system. Modernise and decentralise governance.

Equally important: stop depending on state money and protection. It makes monks indifferent to people's suffering. It also turns the clergy into the mouthpiece of oppressive regimes, not the voices of compassion and justice.

The Wat Bowon temple corruption highlights the urgent need to fix this closed and non-transparent system.

Without comprehensive Sangha reform, there is no end in sight to temple corruption and the decline of public trust in the clergy.

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

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.

Do you like the content of this article?