During my early days in Thailand I was quite naïve. The exotic nature of the place affected my judgment, but I’m guessing that this is true of most new arrivals. One thing that it took me a while to take on board is that not all Thai monks are spiritual and enlightened beings – in fact there are a few bad Thai monks. This may come as a bit of a surprise to some westerners arriving in Thailand in search of spiritual fulfillment. We have been fed years of media showing peacefully meditating monks in exotic and tranquil locations, but the reality just isn’t always like this. The enlightened monks do exist but they may be the exception rather than the rule.
Many of Us Have High Expectations for Thai Buddhist Monks
Most people in western countries are only too aware about the many scandals surrounding Christian priests and ministers. This has made us at least a little skeptical about those claiming to represent that religion. We usually don’t automatically assume that anyone waving a Bible is a living saint – well most of us don’t anyway. This same healthy skepticism seems to be missing when we arrive in Thailand. It seems we only too willing to believe that any Asian looking person who is wearing the robes of a monk must be wise and good. We put these monks on a pedestal and if we later find out they are fallible we become disappointed; we may even decide that Buddhism must be very flawed if these bad Thai monks are representative of it.
Becoming a Thai Monk is Not the Same as Ordaining as a Priest
What a lot of newcomers to Thailand fail to realize is that, unlike most other religious orders, many Thai monks get no formal training. Becoming a Buddhist monk in Thailand is not the same as becoming a priest or minister. These Thai men are often under a bit of pressure to ordain for at least a short time in their life. Many have no real interest in the philosophical underpinnings of their beliefs; they do it purely as a means to make merit. You will also get some who do it to make money and get free shelter, food, and respect until something better comes along.
Anybody in Thailand can ordain and anybody does ordain – there are no exams and classes and the only tricky question you get asked during the ordination ceremony is if you are human. It is common for people to ordain for as short a time as a day as a way to make merit for someone who has just died.
It is no real wonder that there are bad Thai monks, the real wonder is that there aren’t many more. It is important that anyone coming to Thailand realize that these bad Thai monks do exist and to use the same discernment that they would with any other religious representative – in fact they should be more careful given the ease with which people can join the order. There are charlatans and corrupt monks out there. Thailand is a very non-confrontational society and bad Thai monks can get away with it for years.
Even those Thai Monks Who Are Rough Diamonds May Have Something to Teach Us
While there are a few bad Thai monks, there are also many inspirational ones; people who live the teachings and have a lot to share with other people. The only way you will tell who is who is by by observing their behavior. Do they walk the walk as well as just talk the talk? It is also important to move away from the black and white thinking that many of us in the west seem to have acquired. Sometimes even the monks that are rough diamonds have a lot to teach us as well.
I have been interested in Buddhism as a philosophy since my early teens. When I first came to Thailand I was both delighted and at times disappointed; especially when finding that there were bad Thai monks. Just because there are bad monks though, does not in any way mean that the message is flawed. I will always respect any member of the community of monks for what they represent, but that does not mean that I have to respect them personally. The Buddha always insisted that people needed to check things out for themselves and not be taking in be mere appearances. If people do this they are almost certain to meet the many inspirational Thai Buddhist monks.