When monks go bad

Sex, drugs and money laundering: behind Thai Buddhism’s fall from grace

by Adnan R. Khan

Mario Weigt / Anzenberger / Redux; Damir Sagolj / Reuters

If an ordinary image is worth a thousand words, then this one deserves a tome: a Thai Buddhist monk, fully decked out in saffron robes, reclining on the plush leather seats of a luxury jet, gold-tinted aviator glasses framing the familiar shaved head, and a Louis Vuitton handbag in the seat next to him.

That image, pulled from a viral YouTube video last month, is no irreverent hip-hop artist pandering to Buddhist pop culture (and yes, there is such a thing). It is a real Buddhist monk acting really badly.

But the story of Luang Pu Nenkham, the 33-year-old monk in that Hobbesian frame, gets even more sordid. Over the past month, Thai authorities have uncovered a vast network of his disciples allegedly involved in everything from drug trafficking to money laundering. Under the cover of Buddhist simplicity, Nenkham has amassed nothing less than an empire.

The luxury cars—including a Ferarri and a Rolls-Royce—are only the tip of this golden pagoda. Nenkham’s alleged excesses read like a Silvio Berlusconi charge sheet: as much as US$1-billion in ill-gotten assets, including hundreds of millions of dollars stashed in 41 bank accounts, money in constant circulation (raising suspicions of money laundering), a fleet of Mercedes cars and villas scattered throughout Thailand. For years, he has been city-hopping around the world on luxury helicopters and jets with, according to one pilot, designer handbags stuffed with American dollars.

Most disturbing, however, is the sex. This monk has broken his vow of celibacy with abandon, coupling with perhaps dozens of women, including at least one underage girl, with whom he has potentially fathered a child. If that isn’t enough, there is a manslaughter charge under investigation as well, involving a hit and run in which one man died. Nenkham was allegedly driving a Volvo at the time.

For Thais, this latest scandal takes an already sensitive issue to an entirely new level. “I just can’t believe this was happening without anyone knowing,” says Sukrit Pradchaphet, a 42-year-old seller of Buddhist icons at Wat Ratchanatdaram, a temple in central Bangkok. “Monks are human, so we expect some of them will give in to worldly desires. But this . . . this is unbelievable.”

As shocking as all of this may sound, however, misbehaving monks are nothing new in Thailand. According to the Office of National Buddhism, 300 monks were reprimanded for breaking their vows in 2012, most often for sexual transgressions. But the sheer scale of this latest scandal has taken even the staunchest supporters of the Buddhist institution by surprise.

Other cases have caused less of a ripple. Last June, one of Thailand’s most-respected monks, the 61-year-old Phra Ajahn Mitsuo Gavesako, fell in love with one of his disciples. To the astonishment of many Thais, the Japanese-born monk decided to disrobe, marry his love and run off with her back to his native Japan. The gravity of that scandal was hotly contested, with some Thais arguing that Gavesako could be forgiven: he was in love.

“I have sympathy for him,” says Pravit Rojanaphruk, a Thai commentator who has written extensively on Southeast Asian Buddhism. “I don’t blame him entirely. Theravada Buddhism, the kind practised in places like Thailand and Burma, is the most orthodox of all the Buddhist strains. If monks were allowed to marry, like they are in Japanese Buddhism for example, this sort of thing would not happen.”

For Rojanaphruk, and a growing number of Thais like him, Buddhism in Thailand is failing, unable to cope with a society increasingly under the spell of consumerism and secular ideals. Nenkham is unique in that he got caught.

“But there are likely dozens more monks, senior monks like him, who have the same portfolio,” Rojanaphruk says. “Thai Buddhism has lost touch with reality. The rigours and demands of the system, especially on monks, are out of synch with the realities of life. Times are changing.”

Certainly the days of forest monasteries and secluded monks devoted to a spiritual life at the expense of physical desire are quickly becoming a thing of an idyllic past. Rapid urbanization is changing the face of societies in southeast Asia, and along with it, how people engage with faith.

Rojanaphruk says he remembers the days when his grandmother would wake up before sunrise every morning to prepare food for the alms bowls of monks. “This was the way it was done for thousands of years,” he says. “But who has time for that these days? It’s easier just to give money.”

The result, he adds, is a commodification of Buddhism, particularly in Thailand. Monasteries find themselves competing heavily for the wallets of devotees. According to Rojanaphruk, there are now more than 40,000 temples in Thailand, each looking for a competitive edge over its rivals.

Nenkham found that edge by convincing devotees that he possessed supernatural powers including the ability to fly, walk on water and speak directly to the gods. He claimed to be one of Lord Buddha’s original followers, reborn to give people a direct line of communication with Buddha himself.

And people bought it.

“Merit-making has become big business in Thailand,” Rojanaphruk says. “People offer goods and money to monks as a way to gain favour in the next life. I don’t doubt their faith–they believe in what they are doing. So they build lavish temples and statues, not only in the hopes of having their sins forgiven, but also to gain prestige in society. This is contradictory to Buddhist teaching.”

But Thailand has become a land of contradictions, a place where orthodox Buddhism coexists alongside a booming sex industry, rampant consumerism and a degree of hedonism that would put most libertines to shame.

The capital, Bangkok, writhes with temptation, its streets an emporium of knock-off brand names, sex toys, mobile bars, brothels and massage parlours. Mega-malls loom menacingly over centuries-old monasteries, where monks struggle to shut out the deafening calls to buy and indulge. In such an environment, monks filled with the desire for worldly pleasures is no hard thing to grasp. Many Thais simply smile at the sight of young monks browsing the latest digital gadgets at Pantip Plaza, Bangkok’s computer and mobile-phone hub. The odd monk caught swigging back a shot of Sang Som whisky elicits some finger-wagging, but little else. Sex remains taboo, but Thais appear to be in denial of the extent to which it is happening among monks.

At the heart of it all, according to Rajanaphruk, is the monetization of faith. “If people stopped looking for easy ways to buy merit,” he says, “like becoming a monk temporarily–a feature of Thai Buddhism–monkhood would not suffer the way it has. Buddhism is a way of life. You can’t simply purchase your way to nirvana.”

As for Nenkham, nirvana now appears a long way off. A fugitive from the law, he has managed to escape to the United States, where his most devoted followers say he will receive sanctuary. That seems unlikely. Unless he can conjure up some of those magical powers he claims to possess, he is destined for a Thai prison.




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When monks go bad

  1. Hmmm …sounds like the Vatican.

    • Sounds like any group that gains power – those who are attracted to power and having unquestioning followers will join. Get enough of them and whatever the original purpose of the group, its utterly corrupted.

      • Yeah, that’s what happened to the Vatican

        • No one is disagreeing with your breathtakingly original remark about the Vatican. But like a lot of cookie-cutter left leaning posters, you seem to be only comfortable criticizing Western institutions.

          • I also noticed that she keeps trying to change the subject back to the Vatican, as if she’s stuck on one radio frequency.

          • The Vatican is in the news right now over fraud and money-laundering.

          • Like a lot of Con-bots you assume anyone who says something you don’t like is ‘left’….sorry, nope

            Western institutions aren’t above criticism…..’the west’ feels free to criticize everyone else in the world, but is shocked when someone points out that we do the same things.

      • The Vatican is in the news right now over fraud and money-laundering.

    • It’s actually not, though I can see why you might see similarities.

      The main difference is that the Vatican is the central authority for a more or less unified worldwide religious movement, while the guy this article centers on is much more like a protestant televangelist making a fortune from fleecing the vulnerable by pretending to be religious. He’s a Bernie Madoff who decided to pose as a monk rather than an investor.

      There are lots of other ways in which the comparison doesn’t work, but I don’t have the will or the time to continue picking apart this piece or your comparison.

      • ‘making a fortune from fleecing the vulnerable by pretending to be religious.’

        Yup, sounds like the Vatican

        • So EmilyOne what is your persuasion then? You know, just for the record…

          • Atheist…..like every other rational adult.

          • I saw that coming a mile away.
            Big surprise.

          • Shouldn’t be. I’ve said so dozens of times.

            There are over a billion of us in the world.

            Technically Buddhists are atheists as well, since they have no deity. It’s more a philosophy. So that adds a billion more.

  2. Stealing under the cover of religion is as old as the hills.

    • Yep, standard operating procedure. And the devote poverty tax evasion too, see our income tax. Time for religions to submit tax information like any other business.

  3. I would not call the streets of Bangkok an emporium of sex toy shops… the size of the sex industry is often exaggerated due to its openness. You can spend all day walking through Bangkok and not find hookers if you don’t know where they are.

    • Ah, a traveled person like me. Your average Canadian gets their travel BS from sources like CBC and thus generalize incorrect assumptions on other countries. Every time something bad happens in Mexico or abroad they put it on the front page but ignore that tourists in Canada too get in trouble for back page news.

      Bad part of traveling is when you have lived abroad for 10+ years, you realize how much BS we get in many media sources about traveling.

  4. Well if he fell in love and left the monk robes, I don’t see anything really bad about it. But in the other cases of luxury cars and stuff, I think thats just outrageous

    • I agree. The provision for disrobing without dishonor is present in Thai Buddhism. He was not a monk who married, he was a former monk who married. Most Thai males have ordained and then disrobed. It’s looked upon favorably in Thai culture.

      • Yep, but western urinalism is famous for missing key facts on other countries and prefer the political slant as opposed to the reality. Right now the politics doesn’t favor Asia…so it is popular in the back room to present a one sided myopic view.

  5. Real monks do not do anything that even remotely come close to these fake monks.

    • That’s something the African and Afro-Arab Jews say about the European Jewish converts who left Europe to colonize the Middle East and cause strife and conflict with Arabs.

  6. What the devil is teaching in this article: It is impossible to live a moral life as God intended because ‘times have changed’ and no sensible person would expect you to.

    Wake up people.

    • Heck, we as a species can’t even uniformly define god as no one in history has ever really talked to him in a provable way.

      Religion is just like politics, its about control and money from the people. For people who cannot grab the concept of relativity, there is religion. Even the Vatican knows man’s “god” redemption for money works.

      • Hey, dude, speak for yourself! :) I’ve talked to God in a provable way several times. If you choose not to believe that, then hey, that’s on you and has nothing to do with me.

    • Oooh…good and bad at the same time. LOL

    • Just like the Balfour Declaration and the never-ending problems of the Middle East.

  7. dude, you are not a buddhist monk if you don’t abide by the precepts. These guys are just dressed like monks. Get with it.

  8. You should investigate the new age Hindu gurus in India as well. Sri Sri Ravi Shankar and his many disciples who have started their own “ashrams”, Baba Ramdeva, and many more. A spiritual trip to India is never complete without being swindled by these “gurus”.

    • That is the whole idea, blind faith for getting peoples money.

  9. And China/Taiwan will not buckle under like Ottawa. China/Taiwan does have former government employees, corrupt insiders, bribe makers white collar and religious front criminals in jail. It isn’t just lip service to Chinese/Taiwanese. Why do you think so many from Hong Kong came to Canada when the Chinese took over?

    We should learn from Taiwan and starting to audit books of our charities, religions and political organizations … lots of tax evasion going on if you can get religious or charity tax exemptions. Just ask the Vatican as they have been know to launder mafia money.

  10. This will hopefully help people get back to basics: It’s the philosophy/religion that should be revered, not any individual who professes to exemplify it. Like Catholic priests, monks deserve respectful ears, but those ears should also be critical.

  11. As long as there are folks embracing superstition — whether you call it “god” or something else — there will be others exploiting them.

    • But there a group of people who claim to be “God’s chosen people” and they said that “God gave them this land” when they evict Palestinians from their homes and put them into open air prison Gaza.

      Are you one of them?

      • What? I am an atheist, obviously.

  12. Wherever theres people theres problems. Some label it as a religious issue but you see this within many institutions with poweful leaders who dont have enough accountability.

  13. This is a very poorly researched and reasoned piece. Where’s the connection between a fraudster monk who operates like a gangster and one who falls in love, disrobes and marries? I don’t think that there is one at all, besides location. There’s actually a ritual for giving back your monastic vows and becoming a lay-person again, and while people might be a bit scandalized by it because he was well-known, the whole situation is something that’s been happening in Buddhism for thousands of years.

    The same goes for donating money to the sangha and building lavish temples and statues for merit, which are as old as Buddhism itself, pretty much. There are inscriptions of dedications of merit from the building of monuments, etc. in India going back, again, thousands of years. It happened (and still does!) in every Buddhist country.

    Next time, I’d recommend interviewing an actual expert – i.e. a respected academic – who’s a lot more knowledgeable about Buddhist history before you write an article. There’s a lot of misinformation here, much of it based on the poorly-informed opinion of a commentator. You should treat people like that as a primary source for how some people might feel about these issues in the present, not a secondary source that can provide context.

    There are plenty of actual experts at Canadian institutions – UofT, McMaster, McGill, etc.

    • Hear, hear!

      Blame for most of the problems and perceived problems in society can be laid firmly at the feet of halfwit commentators and corrupt media barons. Not mentioning any names of course, Rupert.

  14. In China young foreign “girl” tourists think it’s cool to sit in Llama’s laps, stroke their bare heads and have sex with them. Llamas run around in cool designer sneakers, and talk into expensive cell phones which can play music and take photos.They also eat in expensive restaurants and have cars. I have seen them collecting huge pails of money from the offerings beneath every Buddhist statue. What does any of this have to do with spirituality? Meanwhile, the female Buddhist nuns live in poverty, going without sufficient food, heat in the winter, and bare necessities in living conditions. Why don’t the rich male monks help the female nuns? They believe that these women have to “earn” their way out of being female in their next incarnation. (Females are one up from the family cow.) Why don’t rich lamaseries help starving abandoned orphans? They believe that those children did something terrible in their last life and are being “punished” in this present life. Where is the MERCY? Where is the LOVE? This is true Eastern Buddhism, not the doctored up Western version.Go figure!

  15. This is a very sad thing to happen. Even though I am a muslim, but this is sad for pious people to become like this.

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  16. This is actually a lie.

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