Like a faint echo of the Jim Bakker story in the United States, the Thai news media have been held spellbound for the past month by a sex scandal involving a prominent Buddhist monk.
The scandal has been front-page news since the monk, Phra Nikorn Dhammavadi, the abbot of a temple in the northern city of Chiang Mai, complained to the police that he was forced to pay $200,000 to a woman in an extortion case.
The woman, Ornpraweena Bootkhuntong, a 23-year-old law student, caused a sensation when she replied that she was four months pregnant and that the monk was the father of her child.
Like their Roman Catholic counterparts, Buddhist monks take vows of celibacy and poverty. Thus, Phra Nikorn, one of the most revered spiritual leaders of northern Thailand, stood doubly under suspicion: He was accused of breaking his celibacy vow--a charge he vehemently denied--and disturbing questions were raised about how the supposedly impoverished head of a monastery could have enough money to nevertheless pay off the lady involved.
"It is important to ask how a monk, who according to the vinaya (monastic code) cannot even touch money, let alone own it, could write a check for as much as 5 million baht ($200,000) to pay off what he calls blackmail," a Buddhist scholar, Suewanna Satha-anand, said in one newspaper.
The monk scandal not only has an obvious titillation factor, but it is causing many Thais to reflect on the moral values of their society as it changes from a largely agrarian country to an industrial power.
As Sanitsuda Ekachai of the Bangkok Post observed, the revelations about the monk just added "to the slow erosion of their image as the spiritual leaders of society."
While Thailand may be known abroad as a place for tourists to come and cavort licentiously, it has remained a paradoxically conservative society where Playboy magazines are not widely available for sale and films are heavily censored.
More than 95% of the population are followers of Buddhism, a fact that helps define Thai society. It is still common to see people offering a wai-- a hands-pressed obeisance--as they pass in front of a Buddhist shrine, even while driving a car.
In the past, it was not uncommon for young men of high-school age to become Buddhist monks for several months as part of the family's effort at merit making, a key Buddhist precept. The monks in their saffron robes can be seen wandering in towns and cities seeking alms, such as gifts of food. But recruiting of young monks has reportedly fallen off as graduates compete for high-paying jobs and the good life of young urban professionals.
The Phra Nikorn scandal is the second major Buddhist scandal in a year. Several months ago, the Buddhist hierarchy defrocked a highly popular monk who, like Protestant Reformation leader Martin Luther, established a sect that rejected the increasing wealth and worldly ways of the clergy. News accounts uncovered an increasingly affluent lifestyle even for those who had adopted the ascetic life, including one monastery equipped with walkie-talkies.
Once the dam burst over Phra Nikorn, the Thai-language press began printing evidence of his misdeeds. One photo showed him in white pajamas in a wedding ceremony with Ornpraweena, which for sheer shock value was the equivalent of a picture of a Roman Catholic cardinal tying the knot in a Las Vegas wedding chapel.
In answer to Phra Nikorn's plea that he hardly knew the girl, the newspapers published photos of the two on vacation in various spots abroad, including the United States, which indicated the relationship had been long term and intimate.
Perhaps most damaging of all, the press began focusing on the wealth accumulated by abbots such as Phra Nikorn, showing them driving about Bangkok in chauffeur-driven Mercedes-Benz limousines. In the traditional system under which monasteries operate, the abbot can use public donations in any manner he wants. According to recent newspaper articles, it has opened the system to abuse, particularly from young women seeking riches.
While Thailand has experienced one of the highest rates of industrial growth in the world over the last five years, the wealth has not been distributed evenly. There are many new Thai millionaires, but at the same time the working class in Bangkok complains vocally about being less and less able to afford life in the industrial metropolis.
Seeing their avowedly poverty-stricken clergy living like millionaires has clearly deeply offended many Buddhists.
"Now, if you see a man wearing saffron (the colors of a monk's robes), you can't assume that he is a monk," said the mass-market Thai Rath newspaper. "It needs a lot of consideration. If we happen to pay respect to a half-man, half-monk, it may be a waste of time and effort."