Buddhistdoor View: Reflections on the Controversies in the Thai Buddhist Monastic Order
In recent years, Buddhism in Thailand has been plagued by scandals which have left negative impressions among the press and public. And this has only intensified in the past couple of months. On 24 May, police raided four Buddhist temples and filed arrests for seven prominent ecclesiastic leaders, who were accused of embezzling state funds intended for their temples. Among them were a member of the monastic-governing Sangha Supreme Council (SSC) and two monks of Bangkok’s Golden Mount Temple. Even more recently, Phra Phrom Methee, assistant abbot at Samphanthawong Temple in Bangkok, fled to Germany via Laos and Cambodia, after being accused of embezzlement. He applied for asylum on 1 June, and German authorities have detained him as developments are ongoing.
This sad history, along with some other incidents in the past, highlights two problems facing Thai Buddhism. The first one lies with the system of monastic governance implemented by King Rama V’s (1868–1910) Sangha Law of 1902 and the succeeding policies that built upon it, which are looking ever more brittle. The centralized and hierarchical nature of the Thai Buddhist Order—which brought the country’s dominant Dhammayuttika and Maha Nikaya fraternities under ever-closer supervision by the government—is supposed to minimize incidents that would, in theory, afflict a decentralized system of sanghas, such as corruption, private greed, and a lack of transparency and enforceable rules. Indeed, this was one of the reasons for the creation of the SSC on 1 January 1963, which accorded augmented privileges and responsibilities to the monks elected to that council.
However, ongoing tensions have plagued this union between the sangha, the government, and the royal house of Chakri. The passing of Somdet Phra Nyanasamvara—the supreme patriarch of the monastic sangha—in 2013, led to tensions between the junta and the monastic order concerning intrusive or hostile government oversight, encapsulated in the delayed nomination of Somdet Chuang Varapuñño as supreme patriarch (whose appointment was withdrawn on 10 January 2017 after a lengthy controversy and tension between supporters and critics).
In December 2016, the junta passed an amendment to the existing Sangha Act, allowing the Thai king to appoint the supreme patriarch directly with the prime minister countersigning, bypassing the SSC. In February 2017, Somdet Phra Maha Muniwong became the first supreme patriarch to be appointed through this system.
It was in the context of these fraught relationships between the junta and the sangha that some individuals within the Buddhist order demanded to be unshackled from what they saw as interference of the state. To be perfectly clear, the present system is not completely discredited and far from collapsing, but let’s just say that a review of what constitutes legitimate Vinaya—monastic law and lifestyle—might need to be undertaken across all monastic communities in the country. Perhaps a degree of devolution is ideal, but this would be a mammoth task and brings us to the second problem.
The Vinaya is not and never intended to be a legal code imposed by the lay Buddhist community on monastics. The monastic sangha demanded institutional independence, so it was the early sangha, invoking the Buddha’s authority and supported by regional kings and lords, that worked out the self-regulating standards that we now know as the Vinaya, which theoretically hold monastics accountable to their own community and their own leaders.
The proper implementation of the Patimokkha (the basic code of monastic discipline and self-governance)—along with the rest of the Vinaya relevant to a particular region (Theravada, Dharmaguptaka, Mulasarvastivada)—would safeguard the trust of householders in the uncompromised sanctity of the monastic community, from whom they could then receive teachings and give financial and material support with peace of mind. Householders in the past, as in the present, were appalled by the idea that their spiritual merit and their prospects of the afterlife could be compromised because they supported and received teachings and precepts from clergy who themselves had defective sanctity.
In Thailand, this system of trust between lay and monastic Buddhists is in real danger of eroding. If we read reports from the Thai press, this system is already collapsing into mutual cynicism and exploitation. Stories on the ground, with varying degrees of truthfulness and verifiability, might indicate a far more serious crisis: not between the sangha and the government, but between the devotee and the teacher. Such trends constitute a potentially severe blow into the “social contract” that the Buddha envisaged for his religious community: a self-regulating Order of monks and nuns that would police its own monastic rules, and a lay base should not and would not have to worry too much about Vinaya violations.
In Thailand, lay communities and donors should double down on demanding the quality of the sangha’s members, but they also have the potential to propose new mechanisms by which qualified and trusted practitioners—monastic or lay—can assume spiritual responsibilities (this includes teaching and transmitting Dharma). This is related to an article we published a while ago about the institution of the Buddhist householder. Time and again, throughout Buddhist history, writers and polemicists have railed against the decline of the Vinaya standards among the monastic sangha. Of course, caution in evaluating the truth in any allegations must be exercised when leveling any negative accusation.
In the meantime, until there is the political will and social appetite for far-reaching reform, it is important that we re-examine laity-monastic relations and ask some hard questions: do monastics have enough ethical, emotional, and social support within their own institutions (after all, they are human beings too)? What is driving some monastics to try to get away with acts that are illegal from both a secular and Vinaya perspective? What is a skillful, truly spiritual, and beneficial response to unfortunate incidents and events at the highest levels of ecclesiastic power?
In the name of purifying the “repository of sanctity” in the Buddhist sangha, which consists of monastics, these are fair and legitimate questions, which deserve honest answers as long as they are asked in good faith.
Thailand raids temples, arrest monks in fight to clean up Buddhism (The Sydney Morning Herald)
‘Holiest’ Thai monks purged in money and sex scandal (The Times)
Germany declines to hand fugitive monk over to Thai police (The Nation)
Somdet Phra Maha Muniwong new Supreme Patriarch (Bangkok Post)
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