When monks go bad

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