Sex, money and monkhood don't mix
The latest sex scandal of a popular preacher "Luang Pi Kato" once again reveals how rotten the cleric system is.
Since the sex scandal was exposed late last month, the media has been feeding the public with the juicy details of the affair.
For example, how they met, how the supposedly celibate monk who preached morality during the day sneaked out of the temple in the middle of the night to meet his lover, how the shoulder massage turned into sex in her car, how the relationship turned sour, how she pressured him with her money problems and mood swings from bipolar disorder, and why the woman leaked their recorded intimate conversations to expose him.
Sex sells. And the sex scandal of a well-known monk sells even better.
In a seemingly endless string of sex scandals in the Thai Buddhist clergy, this one involves a 23-year-old monk Phra Pongsakorn Papassaro, better known as Luang Pi Kato (Elder Monk Brother Kato).
He commanded a large following outside his temple, Wat Pen Yat in Nakhon Si Thammarat, thanks to his good looks, comical dhamma talks, and social media savviness.
Though in the monkhood for only three years, his popularity brought his temple an avalanche of visitors -- and donors. So financially crucial was his presence to the temple that the young monk was made an acting abbot.
Had his sex life not been exposed, he would have soon become the youngest abbot in the country with total legal control over the temple's donations and assets.
Three weeks into the brouhaha with little to unearth now that the antagonist has left the monkhood, the media now focuses on legal punishment for both the monk and the woman in the sexual transgression.
According to the monastic discipline, a monk who commits a cardinal parajika offence by having sex must be permanently expelled from the clergy.
In practice, however, the transgressors could easily enter the monkhood to cash in the yellow robes again because the archaic clergy does not have a record system, which renders the monastic punishment useless.
The fervour is rooted in the belief that harsher punishment will reduce sexual misconduct among the clergy.
But will it?
Can we stop maggots from appearing on a rotten body?
Can we stop monks from having sex and stealing temple money when the autocratic cleric system betrays the Buddha's teachings?
The Buddha prohibits monks from touching and keeping money because it fosters greed and lust. Yet monks use monkhood as a profession to make money.
Under the Sangha Bill, abbots also have free access to temple donations without external auditing with total power to manage temple money and assets as they see fit. Without external monitoring, temple corruption is the rule, not an exception.
According to a study by the National Institute of Development Administration, some 30,000 temples in Thailand receive hundreds of billions of baht each year from public donations. With that kind of money, any efforts to make temple money transparent have been in vain.
Money, power, and sex often come together when one plunges into the world of worldly desires. Sex scandals and corruption in the clergy will never cease when temple money is up for grabs.
At the height of the scandal, ex-monk Kato confidently asserted that the money he paid up to silence his ex-lover was his own because merit-makers gave it to him. He also saw nothing wrong in using temple money to pay an influential monk to lobby with senior monks to save him.
A group of senior monks also gave the embattled Phra Kato a ceremony to quit the monkhood to help him avoid being investigated. Unperturbed by his sexual misconduct, they even praised him for making a "graceful" decision to stop the controversy from further eroding the image of Buddhist monks.
They care about form, not the essence. What matters to them is the image of purity and respectability to draw public donations, not the spiritual pursuit that is supposed to be monks' commitment.
That was why the monk who exposed Phra Kato's sexual misconduct was chased out of his temple. His crime: tainting the image of monks. Only when the whistleblower promised not to rock the boat again did the abbot agree to let him stay on.
The young monk in trouble is only 23, mind you. Without spiritual training in a corruption-ridden system, what do we expect?
"I'm new in the monkhood. I'm weak in the monastic code of conduct," the ex-monk offered in his apology to senior monks.
The mistakes he made were certainly not his alone. Where is his preceptor?
According to the monastic code of conduct, a preceptor must strictly train the monks he ordained for at least five years to ensure a strong spiritual practice. In reality, ordination is for a fee. It is common to just pay the preceptor for the ordination, then leave as you please.
Without a proper recruitment and training system, the clergy slides into decay.
The lack of modern management in the feudal clergy is not only responsible for this systematic laxity. The monks' education system is also to blame.
A monk's education focuses only on rote-learning of the ancient Pali texts, forsaking spiritual training and the goal of monkhood -- spiritual liberation.
In a fiercely materialistic society that constantly spurs greed and lust, monks without strong spiritual training have little chance of winning.
Buddhism actually helps monks to confront sexual drives with several rigorous spiritual training methods.
Apart from corpse meditation, monks have many tricks to calm sexual urges such as avoidance of certain foods, doing laborious work to exhaust oneself, and getting up early before the male body asserts itself. A system of confession to minor and unintentional violations also strengthens spiritual camaraderie and stamina to transcend sexual desires.
Deep meditation also generates an expansive feeling of oneness, a state of refined bliss that renders sexual desires powerless.
But the current monks' education system forsakes this crucial spiritual practice, leaving monks to their own devices.
A focus on the image of purity also makes sex and sexual abuse in the clergy a taboo topic. The rule of thumb is you can do as you please as long as you are discreet -- and as long as you don't challenge cleric authorities and the status quo. It is a system of hypocrisy.
Young monks learn early in their monkhood that the key to survival is total submission to power, not the pursuit of spirituality.
Instead of blaming the failure to tame sexual desires on their weaknesses or the lack of support from the clergy, monks shift the blame to women as the enemy of monks' celibacy.
Fear of women turns into hate as monks portray women as inferior and contaminated beings, attested by menstruation, never to be accepted into their sacred realm and sphere of power.
Understand why Thai monks do not allow female ordination now? Misogyny is why.
How to get out of this trap?
First, reform temple money management. Temple finance must be transparent with external auditing and community oversight. Also, monks must not keep donations as personal money.
Believe me, if monks do not have money, sexual misconduct will go down.
Second, reform the monks' training system. The preceptors must train the monks they ordain while the formal monks' education system must be balanced by spiritual training to uproot greed, lust, and the duality thinking at the root of prejudice and misogyny.
Third, replace the clergy's top-down feudal system with modern management with community oversight and accountability.
In short, return to the Buddha's path.
Easier said than done, indeed, when monks at every level benefit from the feudal hierarchy and autocracy.
The Phra Kato sex scandal is only the tip of the iceberg. Lynching him will not make the clergy any better.
Without a systematic overhaul of the clergy, the system will continue to rot. And rogue monks will be here to stay.
Sanitsuda Ekachai is a former editorial pages editor. She writes on human rights, gender, and Thai Buddhism.