Nothing new about monks living it up

Monks living in a cocoon of luxury is not news. Just drop by the dwellings of any elders in the clergy to see how they live.

Monks owning or commuting in luxury cars is not news either. That is how the elders routinely commute to perform their rites. The same with wealthy monks with lucrative merit-making businesses.

Luxury, and a monk's life, are contradictory. Yet the monks' betrayal of simplicity has become so widespread that it has become normal.

So why all the fuss about this monk who calls himself Luangpu Nen Kham Chattiko?

The 34-year-old abbot of Wat Pah Khantidham in Si Sa Ket made headlines this week when a video clip and photos of him with his private jet, luxury car, and brand-name accessories went viral on social media.

Although society is weary of monks who abuse their status, the unspoken rule is don't flaunt your wealth, steer clear from sex scandals and obvious corruption, and then we will leave you alone out of respect for the sacred saffron robe.

The controversial photos came from the monk's own website. He broke the rule. He flaunted his wealth. The internet has enabled him to reach more followers, but also his critics. It is why he is in hot water.

One photo has a person resembling him lying asleep near a woman. But his followers say it is not him.

Now in France, the monk is keeping mum. Meanwhile, the National Office of Buddhism said it can do nothing because luxury is not a serious breach of monastic discipline, especially when it is not sought after, but a donation.

In short, criticise him if you will, but we cannot defrock or punish him for being rich.

Why be surprised by this response that condones monks' luxurious lifestyles. What else can it say when all powerful monks live this way?

Also, what good can it do when the clergy which is in charge of training monks to follow the Buddha's path see nothing wrong with monks living like a king when the Buddha left his palace to live like a beggar?

The monk's biography showed the same roadmap many young monks before him had taken to become rich and famous. First you give yourself a Luangpu prefix used for an elderly monk to create the mystique, and to convey that your spirituality is way beyond your years.

Just google the words Luangpu Nen (meaning elderly novice). You will find several monks with this same prefix, but also the same preoccupation with selling amulets.

Then make people believe you have supernatural powers. Better still make people believe you are an arahant, or spiritually enlightened.

According to his biography, he was born Wirapol Sukpol and ordained at the age of 12. Through rigorous meditation, he is said to have attained a high level of mental powers that enable him to see spirits, heavenly beings, and even the Buddha.

He also wrote books declaring that this is his last lifetime, which is another way to advertise that he has attained nirvana.

His big project now is for a mammoth Buddha statue that would cost hundreds of millions of baht to build. Like in other temples' fund-raising projects, no one is looking into its financial transparency.

According to the monastic discipline, monks are prohibited from touching money. Theft or corruption is a serious violation that demands disrobement. So is leading people to believe that you are spiritually enlightened.

No one in the know is asking questions, however. On the monk's website are also photos of him presenting expensive cars to senior monks as gifts. He has also been awarded with an honorary degree from the Rajabhat Ubon Ratchathani University.

He certainly knows how the system works. If he steers clear from sex scandals, don't be surprised to see him rise quickly in the clergy's hierarchy.

This is the crux of the problem. Rogue monks know if they keep the elders happy, they can get away with their misdeeds.

At worst, they will be disrobed. But it's easy for them to be ordained again because the clergy has no effective system to recruit, train and monitor their own members. All it cares about is maintaining the autocratic system in which their authority to give feudal ranks to monks keeps them in a cocoon of power and affluence. As long as the clergy still operates this way, the monkhood will continue to be abused.

Sanitsuda Ekachai is Editorial Pages Editor, Bangkok Post.

About the author

Writer: Sanitsuda Ekachai
Position: Former editorial pages editor