Monks need to break from feudal ways
Given widespread temple corruption and rogue monks, there's no question that the Sangha needs cleaning up. The clergy's latest outcry against reform calls, however, shows there is no hope for change.
The Sangha reform committee under the National Reform Council stirred up a hornets' nest in late April when it proposed taxation for monks and a five-year term for abbots.
The lifetime tenure of an abbot should also be limited to a five-year term, the committee proposed. Since abbots are given absolute authority by the Supreme Sangha Council to manage temple assets and finances, they tend to manage temples as if they were their personal belongings, leading to abuse and corruption.
The committee also urged severe punishment for monks who distort Buddhist teachings and the urgent reform of monks' education to rescue Buddhism from a feudal system.
Interestingly, the two last proposals which involve larger causes in Thai Buddhism are not of concern to the elders. It's the attempt to touch their pockets that has set them off.
A senior monk, Phra Meteedhammacharn of Maha Chulalongkorn Buddhist University, immediately sent a letter to abbots nationwide urging a protest. He reportedly called the proposals unacceptable contempt of the clergy, which might eventually lead to the collapse of Thai Buddhism.
Many abbots promptly chimed in. A monks' tax is out because temples need money to pay for public utilities, they argued. Personal donations cannot be counted as income because the monkhood is not work, and donations are voluntary, they added. If monks face too much pressure and hardship due to lack of state support, no one would want to become a monk, they warned.
And no, no, you cannot shorten an abbot's tenure or move them around. Having outsiders as abbots can cause friction in communities, they insisted.
I don't find their reactions comical. I find them very sad. To feel sadder, read this monk's idea of how to improve the Sangha.
Phra Rajapariyat Sophon, the head monk of Khon Kaen, said the monastic rule that prohibits monks from touching money is no longer relevant. Since everything costs money these days, monks need cash to run temples and take care of personal affairs. The government should thus give more money to monks instead of interfering in temple affairs.
To reform the clergy, the senior monk has a long list of proposals for the prime minister.
Here they are: Make Buddhism the national religion; make Maha Nikaya and Dhammayutika Nikaya a single sect; make officials recite Buddhist prayers and observe good governance; allow monks and novices to vote; free electricity and water for temples, free meals for monks inside and outside temples, free transportation inside and outside the country, free medical treatment, free telecommunications services, free university education, money to build temples and for monk trips to give sermons, and five years' imprisonment and/or a 5,000-baht fine for those who criticise monks.
These demands reflect the "take, take, take" attitude of monks, their total absence of belief in self-reliance, and the Thai Buddhist clergy's hopeless state.
One of the reasons the Buddhist clergy is so weak is because it never has to compete with other faiths. That's why this feudal clergy never feels the need to be relevant to modern times.
By relying on government patronage, however, it has come to identify itself with the racist nationalism of the state. That's how the clergy has abandoned the Buddhist tenet of compassion for all.
Are temples poor? According to research by the National Institute of Development Administration, temples nationwide generate more than 100 billion baht from donations.
Abbots have complete control over such huge donations. That's why they are fiercely against transparency in temple finances and external auditing.
Undeniably, the monkhood has primarily become a money-making tool and an avenue for social climbing. Reform must start by withdrawing state support. Only then will they realise they must return to the Buddha's path to regain public trust.
It is the path which follows the original aim of the monkhood: namely a quest in the pursuit of spiritual liberation.
Sanitsuda Ekachai is editorial pages editor, Bangkok Post.
Former editorial pages editor
Sanitsuda Ekachai is a former editorial pages editor. She writes on human rights, gender, and Thai Buddhism.