The Corruption and Excesses of Thai Buddhism

Police escort Buddha Issara out of the Crime Suppression Division on Thursday afternoon.

Re•tention: Pravit RojanaphrukThe latest temple fund embezzlement probes which have seen four senior monks arrested and one taking flight highlights anew the problem with Thai Buddhism.

As of publication, the police Counter Corruption Division has launched a fourth round of probes with 30 temples suspected of involvement in similar wrongdoing. The estimated loss to  taxpayers is estimated at 102 million baht.

This may just be the tip of the iceberg. The reality is that these supposedly holy men may not be as holy as many would like to believe.

This means the government and religious authorities will have to work harder to ensure that state funds for temples are not embezzled. Perhaps members of the public can be nominated and selected to help scrutinize the books.

It is debatable if taxpayers’ money, provided through the National Office of Buddhism for maintenance and to spread teachings, is well spent.

Such a dependency also makes monks not just dependent on but subordinate to the state. Monks are co-opted by such funding and the various, state-conferred positions and ranks. Thus they become docile to the state as they depend on it for funding and prestige. This is a matter members of the public who care about Buddhism and Thai society should debate.

Personally, I think the separation of Buddhism and the Thai state is long overdue. If Buddhism is to thrive, it should do so on its own merits and not be kept afloat by state funding.

If state funding is not worrisome enough, then one should consider private donation to temples and how less transparent and accountable they are.

Private donations handed over for merit-making are susceptible to even more embezzlement, and a system independent from each temple is needed to ensure they are not siphoned off.

The faithful will continue to be faithful and they may say what counts is their good intentions. People ought to think about transparency and accountability of these temples as well, however. What’s more, it’s time to ask if these merit-making money might be better spent feeding orphans, housing the homeless, caring for street animals and funding senior housing rather than building bigger Buddha statues, grander temples and taller pagodas.

A large sector of Thai Buddhists has become so materialistic that donations are like investments in good karma and nothing more. Whether good karma is accrued is another topic, but there is little reason to doubt that money spent on grandiose vanity temples may not be well spent in the face of so many pressing social needs.

Thailand has never really had a tradition of great philanthropy such as the Rockefellers in the United States.

While there’s a need to better care for orphans, the homeless, abused and stray animals, the ultra-wealthy as well as ordinary Thais tend to spend their money of donating to temples instead.

Thailand is no longer a simple society where communities depend so much on temples which is the pride and refuge of local communities. Resources should be better allocated to keep up with changing times and needs.

To give another idea of how things have changed, the Public Health Ministry this week called attention to the fact that half of Thai monks, far from being starving ascetics, are obese.

Obesity aside, Thailand has so many – if not too many – Buddhist edifices already, and too little funding for the needy, be it human or animal.