There are Some Bad Thai Monks

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.

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31 thoughts on “There are Some Bad Thai Monks

  1. This isn’t really about bad monks, but when I first traveled to Japan I stayed in a Shinto shrine for about 4 days.
    I was surprised to see that the abbot was married and had children, lived in a big house on the grounds of the temple and drove a Lexus!

    I realize that Buddhism and Shinto are different, but in the eyes of many westerners, the eastern philosophies can appear similar.

    Shintoism is big business in Japan, but then again, I suppose most religions are.

    1. Hi Aaron, I have only heard a little bit about Shintoism – it’s ancestor worship isn’t it?
      I wonder if there are any westerners who have turned to Shinto – I’ve never heard of this.

      1. Thanks for your notice. I think everything is always positive and negative. American Slang says: don’t throw the bay out with the bathwater.

  2. Paul, it’s said that most Thai men will become a monk at some point in their life which I guess would mean you will get some bad apples. A few years ago several monks were arrested at one wat for raping several of the nuns. It came out later the only thing they did all day was drink and chase the nuns around.

    All the monks I have met have seemed very upstanding although 2 of them have a penchant for sms and always have their cell phones on them, one went off while we were receiving his blessing.

  3. I was one who was shocked about the monk situation. I’ve seen begging monks (they are not supposed to handle money), monks making a living (ditto), smoking monks, and monks with mobiles.

    A couple of times, out of nudging from Thai friends, I’ve done the respect thing (prostrate on the ground). But the last time I caught the angriest glare of hate staring back and that was that. Finish. I’m too western I guess. Respect needs to be deserved. Also, I respect myself too much to grovel. Yup. I’m way too western.

    A decent book on the subject is Little Angels by Phra Peter Pannapadipo. The book starts out with his experiences as a farang monk in Thailand. DCO books has it.

    1. Hi Cat, I’ve read Little Angels and I think he paints a fair pictuer of life as a monk in Thailand. I will always respect the robes because of what they represent. I have had this conversation many times with Thai people and they seem to view things the same way. If I bow to a monk it really doesn’t have anything to do with them as a person; in the same way I don’t think there is anything particularly special about any statue I might have ever bowed to. I remember reading that it is a good idea to treat everyone as if they were some enlightened being – just in case they were. I don’t think this would always be very practical though 🙂

  4. Hi Paul, we do indeed have different mindsets as I automatically assume people are babbling idiots until proven otherwise.

    Kidding 😉

    Also, I can’t get my head around the Buddhist way of women being inferior. I mean, if men get to be fawned over and have the chance of being Buddha – how cool is that? – women should have the same or equally exalted rights.

    QUOTE: …women are not meant to play an active role in monastic life; instead, they are expected to live as lay followers, making merit in the hopes of being born in a different role in their next life. As a result, lay women primarily participate in religious life either as lay participants in collective merit-making rituals, or by doing domestic work around temples.

    Great. We get to be maids while hoping to be reborn as men. While no questions asked, you automatically get people grovelling on their knees to you, giving you free food and everything. Oh, and women get the leftover rice AFTER the monks have eaten. What a wonderful deal for all.

    Sure, it’s similar as in Catholicism, but excluding women from the top of the table hasn’t actually work out well with that religion/way of life either.

    Women being untouchable I do understand as it cannot be easy for feisty monks to concentrate on nothing, when there is a lovely, adoring something vying for their attention.

    See, there I go again…

    1. Hi Catherine,
      I have something to explain about why the enlightened ones are Men. It’s just the way of nature that Women have a more fragile nature. In Bhuddisim, you are taught to live a balanced life, we believe that too much or too less of anything is not good for you. Some monks eat only two meals, whilst the one’s who really understood it deep can eat only one meal per day and are still full. My uncle is a monk and when he actually meditates in caves (for peace) he doesn’t actually feel the hunger. He stays there for a week and can still survive without getting hungry. Strange right? But of course, he has to come down and eat, because he will starve. Women are more fragile and unfortunatly cannot do such things. The same reason goes to the situation of military. Women can do as well, but not as good. I am Thai and understand these things. i am willing to answer your questions. 🙂

      1. WOW! you are so brainwashed. The Divine Feminine Energy, or Cosmic Energy, is the only way to evolve and accelerate consciousness. Balancing the two energies is the key to liberation. because men are so ego-centric and have superficial superiority complexes that put feminine energy down, it is actually more unlikely in todays time that a man become enlightened. Much easier for a woman to accept her male energy that a man accept his feminine energy. you should not accept stupid answers from outside of you as Truth. The Truth of your liberation is within and is an equal opportunity situation. Empower yourself, never accept yourself as a second class citizen.

    2. I have a sister in law who is dating a monk and he so far has bought her a house and gave her money to put down a a new car. I live in Thailand with my Thai wife her entire family has seen him and she has slept with him in the same room and her family knows it but they refuse to believe that thats her boyfriend,This lady does not work but she has lots of money pretty easy to figure out where it comes from and she has already told her family thats where she gets her money.Still her family refuses to believe that is her new boyfriend.I feel sorry for all the people who this monk gets money for because I wonder what they would say if they knew that he is giving out their money for new houses and new cars and gives her money every 2 weeks for her bills to pay everything.I have proof of everythying but Im goign to stop here because I really dont know who to go to to report it Police are not an option because he will just bribe them and thats the end of it

      1. Hi Dennis, I’ve seen this happen before. I’ve discussed the issue with Thai friends, and while they don’t like this type of carry on they don’t make a big deal out of it. They way some people see it they are donating to make merit for themselves and the monk is just a representative of the Sangha. For such people it is the act of donating that is the important thing and not so much what happens with the donation. The Thais do not seem too bothered with stopping this type of behavior so as a foreigner I keep well out of it.

  5. Hi Cat, I think the fact that there are no nuns in Thailand is a historical oddity. Sri Lanka is also Theravada Buddhist and they do have nuns; apparently this order died out in Thailand and there is now nobody qualified to restart it. There also doesn’t seem to be that big a push for it from Thai women. There have been moves to reinstate the nuns again though so maybe it will occur in the future.

    Buddhism has needed to adapt to whatever culture it has taken root; it has needed to be practical. It was this willingness to adapt that has allowed it to survive. Apparently the historical Buddha was a bit reluctant originally to allow women in the order; this was because he was already getting a lot of flax for dealing with the lower castes – it appears he was being political. He made it clear that there was no reason why women couldn’t become like the monks and eventually he relented and created an order of nuns.

    1. Thanks for dropping by I-Nomad. I suppose it is human nature for a lot of people to think, ” I want to be good but not today”.
      I think the Buddha realised that most people weren’t going to be interested in what he had to say; for them he created Buddhism-Lite.
      I think the problem for Buddhism is that most people don’t want what is actually being offered by it – we cherish our idea of a ‘self’ too much.
      Enlightenment is meant to mean the elimination of the sense of I and who really wants that?
      I sometimes think that the religious Buddhism is just as flawed as any other religion; probably why I’ve never been much interested in religious Buddhism.

  6. Paul, I thought there were nuns in Thailand? They are the ones in white (for a lark, google ‘floating nun’).

    Years before I moved here, a Thai g-friend offered to arrange to have a Bangkok nun be a surrogate mother (long story). That’s when I first heard about nuns in Buddhism.

  7. Hi Cat, the Mae Chee are lay followers; anyone can put on the white robes (man or woman) and become a lay follower as there is no real ordination for this (although they do take on 10 precepts rather than five). Bhikkhunis are the monastic order of nuns in Theravada Buddhism and they disappeared from Thailand a long time ago (at least legally anyway).

    Here is a recent article about it in the Bangkok Post

  8. Excellent article Paul, thank you for that. And I agree with his opinion that it would be difficult for a women/lay follower to concentrate on enlightenment the way it stands now.

  9. Paul unlike you I quickly came to the conclusion during my early Pattaya days that there were a lot of bad monks about. I never saw any real conclusive proof but it was the words of many a Thai bar girl and Pattaya resident which set my way of thinking. Many cast doubts on the true intentions of some of the monks treading the streets of Thailand’s sin city.

    Even in rural Thailand I have heard of the occasional rogue long term monk but compared to western ordained preachers the incidents appear far less. There’s good and bad in any society and free handouts are bound to attract a few bad apples to Buddhism and its obvious trust and benefits.

    1. Hi Martyn, the bad monks do exist alright. When I have had this conversation with Thai people I’ve asked why they don’t make it harder to ordain but cultural habits are hard to break.

  10. I have been ordained as a new monk 6 days ago. I am now studying Buddhism. I have lived in foreign countries for the past 30 years, US mostly, Malaysia, India, and China. Now I want to do my duty as a good Buddhist. Some information in your article has truth but not all. I would suggest any readers would seek more information on Buddhism or monk ordination.
    I have one question before I make any comments on your article. I am trying to understand what this article is all about. Have you run into bad monks or have you read about bad monks or would you want to compare many current scandals about Christian priests to Thai monks. I simply could not draw any conclusion from having read it.
    First, your statement about ordination is true, ones do not have to go to theological schools in order to become monks. Any men can be ordained in Buddhism when they are of age (20). I called “tradition.” Buddha welcome any disciples in order for them to learn more once becoming monks. All countries follow that tradition; Burma, Sri Lanka. Do they have real interests in the philosophical underpinnings of Buddhism beliefs; some do, most don’t.
    If you ask me why I want to become a monk. Simple, there are 3 reasons. First, I am Thai and Buddhist by birth. Though I have lived out 3/5 of my life outside Thailand, I am still Thai and Buddhist. I always want to do things traditionally. The second reason is all the beliefs is how becoming a monk would do goods to you and your family, especially your parents. This is almost a subset of the first one. Thirdly, I always want to become monk but I want to find my own “timing” – you have seen my letter on “clear mind,” this is the right time for me since I have been doing something since I entered the university in Thailand and later graduate schools in the US, then work and work. Bad excuse!! But my excuse. But now I have actually “free time” to think or in fact, NOT THINK. So I now have clear mind to really learn about Buddhism.
    My family has a strong Buddhism belief, especially from my paternal grandmother side. My father became a disciple in a temple when he was very young before he himself was ordained once he reached 20. All Buddhists in Thailand learn basic Buddhism philosophy since we were young. Even the morning and evening prays that I am practicing everyday during my monkhood, some clauses I remember well from my childhood, even though they are in Pali. So becoming a monk in Thailand for a man is a natural process. However, I think that fewer and fewer are practicing this ritual.
    Now addressing your concern about bad monks, for the past 6 days, I have learned a lot about being an “insider” how monks behave in the temple. Do all pray mornings and nights? The answer is no. Do all receive alms every morning? The answer is no. I have asked my supervisor as well. And he admits that the discipline in this temple is not quite high. And I have been thinking. Each temple has an abbot who governs and oversees that temple. I have been thinking that what monks learn and how they progress in their ranks and files to become higher officials in temples, I do not know that how many have learn “management” or “government” in order to manage and govern. I think that this might hold true in other religions as well. Good organizations depend on leaders. But to blame bad monks on abbots is probably not the right way either. Perhaps that is why religions have risen and fallen.

    Like you, I have lived in a foreign country and tried to understand new cultures, new traditions as well. The best way to do is to find a friend or a colleague to whom you might talk and with whom you would consult. I am sure that you love Thailand that is why you live here. Let me know what your real point is. I am just one small voice.

    1. Hi Piak and thanks for leaving a valuable comment. The things I talk about here are from my own experience of living in different parts of Thailand and dealing with Thai monks. I have also spent time in Thai temples on retreat for up to a month at a time. My goal here was not to imply that all Buddhist monks in Thailand are bad, but that they are not all enlightened. Many foreigners with an interest in Buddhism will come to Thailand expecting to be guided by wise monks; my point is that not all Thai monks are wise. This is not to say that most monks are bad – just a minority of them.

      I have been involved with Buddhism since my teens and I try to follow the Buddhist path as I understand it. This also means that I feel disappointed when Buddhism is shown in a bad light. I could pretend that everything about Thai Buddhism is perfect but what would be the point of that. All of my favourite Thai monks were well aware of the problems in Thai Buddhism – respected monks like Ajahn Chah (ชา สุภัทโท) and Ajahn Buddhadassa (พุทธทาสภิกขุ). Maybe it is wrong for a foreigner to say such things about Thai monks but no disrespect is intended.

      I wish you the best with your ordination and I hope it brings great benefit to your life.

      1. Thank you for your quick reply. I am clearer now. I hope that I did not come across as not being able to accept criticism from non-Thais. I welcome them. I wanted to understand the goal of your article. Now I do. And I hope that I also came across accepting what your views are as well and some of things I have seen going on as well. Again, my opinion as an insider has not been proven. Those might as well be even more critical than yours. Good luck living in this beautiful country of mine.

        1. Hi Piak, I hope you don’t find too much in the temple to be critical about. Before I met my wife my goal was to become a monk.

          I really do hope that you get a lot from this experience and that you come back here and share what you have learnt with us.

  11. Paul, I haven’t read Little Angels yet, but the book Prah Farang by Phra Peter Pannapadipo, gives you a good insight into Buddism in Thailnd.

    Btw, an other nice blog.

  12. It is a good sign when critical thinking takes place in any religion. Unfortunately, most religions resist critical review, so that is why main stream religions rarely reflect an accurate interpretation of their progenitor’s teachings. Good work, Paul.

    1. Thanks Jeffrey, I do think it is important for me to be always challenging my own beliefs. This is why I will go out of my way to search for views that differ from mind. I think shoshin is the best approach to life 🙂

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