Meeting the material world

During recent years, the Buddhist faith appears to have witnessed a few casualties along an increasingly bumpy path to enlightenment. Headlines documenting monk-related incidents have peppered regional media, and their prevalence seems to be rising. From “Buddhist monk arrested for rape of British tourist” to “Monks arrested for throwing rowdy…

Charlie Lancaster
April 9, 2010
Meeting the material world
Close-up: a monk inks sak yant while the faithful keep the skin taut at Wat Bang Phra

During recent years, the Buddhist faith appears to have witnessed a few casualties along an increasingly bumpy path to enlightenment. Headlines documenting monk-related incidents have peppered regional media, and their prevalence seems to be rising.

From “Buddhist monk arrested for rape of British tourist” to “Monks arrested for throwing rowdy drug and alcohol party”, newspapers have caught Buddhism in their front-page headlights and reported scandals that suggest today’s novices are fighting an unequal struggle against the temptations of the 21st century.

Although the focus lies on a few who have strayed from the path of righteousness, many monks are defenceless victims of a public relations nightmare for a philosophy that advocates compassion for, but withdrawal from, suffering.

The much-vaunted poster children of Southeast Asia, monks are commonly associated with peace, respect and virtue. That is why the lurid headlines are a widespread shock to the system, in a similar way that allegations of widespread paedophilia and child abuse have convulsed the Roman Catholic Church since the 1980s. It would appear modern-day temptations are proving too much for some monks.

According to the teaching of Buddha more than 2,500 years ago, you cannot embark on the path to enlightenment with any worldly possessions, including money, excess food, weapons, jewellery, gold, hair or even eyebrows. Central to the philosophy are the notions of karma and rebirth.

In popular belief, karma is a system of spiritual accounting that balances merit and demerit, good deeds and bad. It is often the reason why sons enter the Sangha (a community of ordained Buddhist monks and nuns) for short periods after a parent dies, in order to transfer merit at the crucial time of their parent’s rebirth. Karma might determine rebirth but it is not simply fate – everyone can work on improving their “karmic balance”.

“Belief in karma and rebirth pervades all four Theravada Buddhist countries – Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Thailand,” says Martin Stuart-Fox, emeritus professor at the school of history, philosophy, religion and classics at the University of Queensland. “Its importance should never be underestimated, because it provides explanations for events that colour attitudes to life and politics.”

Yet in Cambodia and Thailand, which have more than 50,000 and 200,000 under holy orders respectively, karma and rebirth are clearly not top of every monk’s hit list. In October 2009, 11 monks in northern Cambodian were defrocked after an all-night, booze-ridden party. Later that month, two monks in Phnom Penh were arrested for beating a medical student, who had complained about their drinking, to death. Similarly, in Thailand monks have been accused of having girlfriends, embezzlement and drug taking.

Last year, after a series of allegations of murder, sexual relationships and rape directed at a group of Cambodian monks, Chea Sim, president of the senate, called for the reinforcement of Buddhist good governance. “The teachings of the Buddha are the light that will educate the people about morality and allow our country to develop peacefully,” he told 8,000 monks and nuns at the 18th annual National Monk Congress.

At the same meeting, the cult and religious affairs minister Min Khin blamed the behaviour on globalisation, which he said causes people and monks alike to make mistakes. Interestingly, Tep Vong, Cambodia’s great supreme patriarch, chose not to comment on the behaviour of individual monks except to say that all Cambodians are accountable to state law.

According to the Cambodian constitution, monks are governed by the same laws as people not wearing the saffron, says Samorn Mike, a former monk and a lawyer for BNG Legal, a leading Cambodian law firm. “Monks are not given legal impunity. However, by Cambodian tradition, authorities will not punish monks who are still dressed in their robes. If the monks commit a serious crime (murder, rape, larceny, lie that affects public safety), then the head monk will remove him from the monkhood and he will be considered defrocked. Only then will the authorities deal with him.”

For minor offences, such as when a monk dresses in civilian clothes to go to a karaoke parlour, then he will be punished according to the 229 rules of Vinaya – the Buddhist system of punishment. “In regard to many crimes, the Vinaya is stricter than the rule of law,” Samorn says.

However, the special status of the monkhood limits the application of the rule of law when it clearly is necessary. For example, when 76-year-old Kiet Chan Thouch was accused of an alcohol-fuelled biting attack on fellow monks and nuns in 2009, Kang Darith, Preak Sihanouk province chief for the department of cults and religions, said: “This case lies outside my jurisdiction because it is a matter among monks. I’ve reported my findings to the provincial chief monk, so what happens now is up to him.”

When a 27-year-old monk was arrested for the rape and murder of a 10-year-old girl last year, Thy Keang, the director of the district’s department of cults and religion, downplayed the crime by calling it “not extremely wicked” due to the fact the child had been “accidentally murdered” while the monk was trying to prevent her from screaming.

While officials offering farcical explanations for brutal crimes is not confined to cases involving monks in Cambodia, some suggest Buddhism’s hierarchy would prefer to rein in the media. “The government has discouraged reports of monk misbehaviour, because they feel bad publicity will ruin the Cambodian social fabric, threaten peace within in the Kingdom and weaken the public’s faith in Buddhism,” Samorn says.

Open book: Dok Narin, undersecretary of state at the Ministry of Cults and Religion Dok Narin, undersecretary of state at the Ministry of Cults and Religion, confirmed this suspicion. He says that because of the special position of Buddhism in society and its role in keeping “the country at peace”, the government will shortly announce that the media will be expected to take “better care” in how it portrays incidents relating to monks.

In Thailand in 2008, the government was quick to implement controls on the use of the internet following the rape of a teenager by a 23-year-old monk who had used Hi5, a social networking site, to lure her to his temple.

Samorn believes that technological advances and foreign influences have had a negative impact on Buddhism in Cambodia. “Before modern society and foreign influence, Cambodia was a faithful and traditional country. The people had strong beliefs in their religion. Monks were highly respected and careful to uphold their image. But since the age of technology and [the incursion of] Western culture, the faith is not as strongly held.”

Growing commercialism of Buddhism is also a concern for Sulak Sivaraksa, a prominent and outspoken Thai intellectual and social critic. He says immorality is rife in the Sangha. “Buddhism is no longer functioning. Monks are also trapped by materialism. Thailand is basically following the new religion’s [consumerism’s] mandates and being such a staunch believer, is heedless of the price it has to pay.”

Straight way: Hong Saroeunpenh, head of secondary education at the Buddhist InspectorateIf this is true, the loss of virtue is a heavy price to pay. But discipline is a key ingredient in Buddhism, says Hong Saroeunpenh, head of secondary education at the national inspectorate of Buddhist education of Cambodia. “There can be no conflict between modernity and spirituality once control is established over desire. All monks have to police themselves and their actions.”

The key it would seem goes to the core of Buddhism scripture – to resist temptation. In the modern world, whether it’s called alcohol or pornography, consumerism or materialism, temptation beckons from every corner. Some point to the images of monks stepping out of Lexus’s talking into $500 mobile phones as indicative of the ubiquitous lure of materialism.

“There are more temptations in modern Southeast Asia than at any point in history, and it is the cause of much conflict,” says 28-year-old Tep Sophorn, who has been a monk in Cambodia’s capital for more than a decade. An English-language student, he says he wants to continue his studies but finds it challenging when girls he meets at college wear clothes that accentuate or reveal parts of their bodies. He now turns up to class 20 minutes early and leaves only when the corridors are empty. “I am true to my religion and its values,” he says, “but I must take care to balance religious values with modern development.”

Sokleng Samnang says the ideal of Buddhism, as painted by senior monks and government representatives, is disconnected from modern-day realities. He calls for an overhaul of “the aging and out-of-touch” World Buddhist Sangha Council. The 31-year-old left the Sangha two years ago and is now training to be a doctor. He spends time talking to monks about life after the Sangha. “The men who have been monks for a long time are especially interested in the transition from the Sangha to a world that has changed extraordinarily since they joined,” he says.

Faith in action: monks perform a ritual for a new aircraft in Cambodia last year (Ryan Plummer)The response of Buddhism to the challenges of modernism, globalisation and commercialism differs from country to country, says the University of Queensland’s Stuart-Fox. “It is adapting in certain ways to changing conditions. For example, monasteries in Laos and Cambodia have learned how to tap into a wealth of expatriate communities to raise funds for building and renovation. You frequently see the often garish result of this flow of donations dotted around the countryside. Buddhism has adapted well to political changes and even to social developments such as increased tourism, where for example monks take the opportunity to practice English.”

He says he doesn’t believe there is an inherent conflict between Buddhism and modernity and by no means is the belief system in crisis. “Buddhist cosmology has given way to modern science, but the religion’s emphasis on meditation and introspective analysis fits right in with modern understandings of their therapeutic effects. On a popular level, earning merit to ensure good rebirth, and particularly transferring merit to the deceased, can easily be accommodated to changing political and social conditions.”

An exponent of this is the Dalai Lama, who joined Twitter earlier this year and now has more than 90,000 followers on his page. Meanwhile a group of monks in Japan is spicing things up with their movement Buddhism 2010. They have incorporated their mantras into rap songs and opened a “Monk Bar”, which serves alcoholic drinks while teaching Buddhist principles.

Stuart-Fox believes that many monks behave badly because they have no real religious commitment. They become monks to gain an education, which Buddhist monasteries have always provided. Rural youths who become monks can move to larger towns and find opportunities to learn English and gain computer skills, which are essential to finding employment. Once they have their qualifications, they leave the Sangha.

“In the meantime they succumb to the temptations of the modern life they want to embrace. Becoming a monk is just a means to an end,” Stuart-Fox says. “As for the future of Buddhism in Southeast Asia, I would say the outlook is pretty good. If it can survive the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, a communist revolution in Laos and military repression in Burma, then it can survive the freedoms available in democracy, progress and capitalism.”

Buddhism in a Nutshell 

SIddhartha Gautama, who became the Buddha after achieving enlightenment, was born in Nepal around 563 BC.

Born a prince, he found as a man that his wealth did not bring happiness, so he set off on an exploration of the different

teachings of the world.

Eventually he found what he called the “Middle Path” and enlightenment, which he spent his life teaching until he died at the age of 80. The Buddha is not a deity or god, but a man who taught a way of life from his own experience. We are all Buddha, if we choose to be.

The Four Noble Truths 

• All human life is suffering

• All suffering is caused by human desire, particularly the desire that impermanent things are permanent

• Human suffering can be ended by ending human desire

• Desire can be ended by following the Noble Eightfold Path

The Noble Eightfold Path

• Right understanding

• Right thought

• RIght speech

• Right action

• RIght livelihood

• Right effort

• RIght mindfulness

• Right concentration

The Ultimate Punishment 

The worst types of misconduct (parajika) for a monk are killing, raping or stealing. An offending monk has to be defrocked immediately and punished under state law

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