Social media amplifies Buddhist scandals, lowering monks’ status in Thailand

While financial and sexual scandals have taken place among Buddhist monks for decades in Thailand, the spread of news and criticism of this behavior through social media is having a detrimental effect on the reciprocal relationship between clergy and laity, write Brooke Schedneck and Steve Epstein in the online magazine The Revealer (December 8). The most recent and sensational scandal surrounded the popular Buddhist monk Phra Pongsakorn Chankaew (or “Phra Kato” as he was known to his followers), who was caught having a clandestine love affair with a model as well as embezzling from his temple to silence her. Kato was considered a charismatic monk who would reinvigorate Buddhism among the younger generations through his skilled use of social media. The affair, which violated the celibacy rules of Buddhist monasticism and effectively expelled him from the monastery, became a social media sensation, even as the ex-monk turned to his Facebook and YouTube pages to apologize to his fans. The story is one of many instances of Buddhist monks being caught in scandals in a particularly bad year; the most recent cases include religious leaders being caught drinking beer and feasting on roast pork, breaking rules against eating after noon, violating Covid protocols, and, in the case of one abbot and his monks in late November, testing positive for methamphetamine. Schedneck and Epstein write that these scandals are increasingly the fodder of social media, which has amplified the misdeeds to fellow monks and laity throughout the country, causing serious public disenchantment with Buddhism similarly to the way the priestly sex abuse crisis has rocked the Catholic Church.

Source: Chiang Rai Times.

In the case of Thai Buddhism, the publicized scandals threaten the “compact that binds laity and sangha,” the authors write. “The laity offer food, material goods, and money to temples and their monks. In turn, the laity receive ‘merit,’ which in the Thai Buddhist view negates the effects of ‘bad karma’—or past unwholesome acts…When monks are perceived to neglect their part in this merit economy by disobeying their rules of renunciation, the merit system is compromised.” In interviewing monks about the effects of these scandals, Schedneck and Epstein found that many had been exposed to ridicule and derision from laypeople. Interaction with women laity was subject to new scrutiny and suspicion, making “monastic life…more complicated because of the laity’s judgmental gaze.” Although monastic misbehavior is widespread, the monks tended to focus on the “few bad apples” phenomenon. But they also pointed to monastic training not being consistent from temple to temple, with little means of maintaining behavioral rules among 300,000 monks in 33,000 active temples. The monks reported that fewer people were showing up at temples (also due to Covid over the past two years) for ceremonies to mark important events in their lives—from new car blessings to anniversaries of deaths. There were both fewer ordinations and fewer potential monks coming through the pipeline. A temple school reported a drop from an average of about 600 novices regularly studying for monastic orders per year (before the pandemic) to only 50 last year. Because female monks and nuns have been in far fewer scandals, their status has risen, though the former only number about 300 with approximately 30,000 nuns.

(The Revealer,