NAKHON PATHOM – Phra Buddha Issara is a monk on a mission. From his Buddhist temple near Bangkok he is calling for a radical overhaul of Thai Buddhism, fearing that millions of pounds in temple donations are corrupting his brethren.
Surrounded by verdant rice fields at Wat Or Noi temple, Mr Issara says he wants better oversight of temple finances and to shake up the archaic structure of Thai Buddhism. “Buddhism in Thailand is a poisoned fruit,” he said. “The highest level of the Buddhist religion has turned out to be the devious one.”
Mr Issara’s quest began last month when the Supreme Sangha Council, Thai Buddhism’s governing body, cleared the abbot of Dhammakaya temple over allegations by the National Reform Council (NRC) that he embezzled some 900 million baht (£18m) in donations. Dhammakaya temple members include some of Thailand’s most powerful politicians and it is regarded as the country’s richest Buddhist temple.
Abbot Phra Dhammachayo rejected the fraud charges, and the council said that as he returned most of the money there was no misconduct. The NRC, which has not released details of the alleged fraud, is pushing for a probe into why the Sangha cleared Abbot Dhammachayo.
The fraud allegation is the latest in a series of scandals that have rocked Thailand’s Buddhist clergy. A monk was caught with 120,000 methamphetamine pills (an addictive stimulant) and another was dismissed from his temple for investing £700,000 on the stock market.
“The money and power swirling around some Thai temples and monks makes them immune to criticism,” said Sulak Sivaraksa, one of Thailand’s pre-eminent Buddhist scholars. “This is why we need to reform the Sangha and start afresh.” The Sangha, a coterie of 20 elderly monks, has traditionally evaded public scrutiny due to its opaque workings and the reverence of millions of Buddhists.
But the latest fraud allegation has unleashed an avalanche of public criticism. Many Thai Buddhists feel those elders are incapable of supervising the behaviour of 300,000 monks in a rapidly modernising nation where worldly temptations are everywhere and temples are often flush with cash. “The Sangha governs but there is nobody that governs them,” said Mr Issara, who is calling for a boycott of the council.
Mr Issara, who played a prominent role in protests last year that helped to overthrow the government of former Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, said Thais should no longer listen to decrees handed down by the Sangha. He wants the government to check the accounts of all temples and seize assets from those suspected of mishandling donations. He is also calling for the state to restructure the Sangha.
Recently, Buddhist monk Luang Pu Nenkham was stripped of his religious title. He gained notoriety in 2013 when a YouTube video showing him carrying a Louis Vuitton bag aboard a private jet went viral. He is now on the run after millions in assets were uncovered in his name and Thai authorities issued an arrest warrant for having sex with a minor. Mr Issara, it appears, has much work to do.