The modern monk and the lure of money

opinion March 09, 2017 01:00

By The Nation

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If the Sangha Supreme Council can’t divert monks from material greed, civil law will have to be imposed



Thai Buddhist monks are not allowed to accumulate personal wealth for the straightforward 

reason that it undermines the path to nirvana as strictly identified in Theravada tradition. However, far too many monks nowadays seem to regard the rule as a mere suggestion. In a 

survey conducted by Chulalongkorn University’s Centre for Buddhism Studies, most monks said they amassed money and some even used credit and debit cards.

The practice of accumulating wealth even after ordination has been blamed for several problems involving monks at the moment. These include the controversy surrounding Phra Dhammachayo, former abbot of the Dhammakaya Temple, who is being hunted on suspicion of laundering massive amounts of money and accepting stolen assets.

The Sangha Act – the law governing the Thai monastic community – has nothing to say about physical assets belonging to monks. That matter is covered in the Civil Code, certain clauses of which are up for amendment. Under Article 1622, monks can be beneficiaries of a will. Article 1623 says a monk’s temple can inherit his assets unless he specifically directs otherwise. Those who propose changing these articles argue that barring monks from holding any assets would ensure they spend all of their time observing religious practices, and as such would render better service as monks.

Former judge Jaran Pakdithanakul, a member of the National Legislative Assembly working group considering the amendments, says these clauses – despite being in place for more than eight decades – “clearly” contravene the intention of the Vinaya regulatory framework that guides the monastic community. He regards money as an unnecessary burden for monks, distracting them as they tend to their finances.

Lay people often give monks money as they make their morning alms rounds and for the prayers offered at funerals. It is no longer common for monks to refuse donations in the form of currency, as was once the case. Times have changed.

It might be all right for monks to possess small sums of money to meet their daily needs, primarily food, medicine, clothing and shelter – except that the temples already provide those daily needs, through the support of their lay patrons and neighbouring communities. Trusted temple affairs managers, who are members of the laity, typically handle the mundane business of running the temples and handling their assets.

One major problem now is that so many monks seek to amass larger amounts of money so they can buy products and services that have nothing to do with their ambition of attaining enlightenment or their ministrations to the community. We’ve all seen monks with smartphones and other gadgets – the stuff of worldly desires rather than spiritual goals. There is little credence to the argument that Internet access assists them in their religious studies or in sharing the Buddha’s wisdom. These things can be done, have always been done, without high technology.

The far greater problem, of course, involves senior monks accumulating significant personal wealth. Temple abbots have on several occasions been found after their deaths to own sizeable bank accounts. By law, substantial assets can only belong to the temple itself, but that often hasn’t been the case. We have seen famous preachers and influential abbots – those who tend to draw large amounts of cash in donations – transfer considerable wealth to family members or close associates before dying.

Unfortunately there is no answer to these problems other than barring monks of any rank from possessing much more than pocket money. It is the monk’s austere lot to help the layman, to shield him from suffering by demonstrating noble practice. If the monk strays from austerity, austerity will have to be imposed by law.