Bangkok -- The man in saffron loiters idly beside a Bangkok noodle stand, cradling a bowl stuffed with money. It's a dead giveaway. Real monks don't loiter when they beg. Real monks keep walking. It's part of the patimokkha - the monastic vows. But Thailand is teeming with phony monks. There are hundreds, perhaps thousands, of fraudulent holy men roaming the country's roads and markets, bilking people out of cash, food and other donations. And that's just the beginning of Thailand's rogue monk problem. In recent years, real monks have been caught embezzling, selling and using drugs, seducing parishioners and patronizing prostitutes. A few have even been found guilty of rape and murder.
But the tamruat phra "literally, the monk police" are on the case. A force of about 160 clerics, they were formed 11 years ago to do battle against a rising tide of scandals engulfing the Buddhist clergy, known as the Sangha. Buddhist scholars say wayward monks make up only a tiny minority of the country's 300,000 clergymen. The damage they're doing to the faith, however, is so severe that Thailand's Supreme Patriarch, Somdech Phra Yanasangworn, appealed to the government last December for help to "save (Buddhism) from this serious crisis."
It's a crisis long in the making. According to Sulak Srivaraksa, a social critic and Buddhist activist, its roots lie in the rise of materialism and state control of the religion. Both began in earnest half a century ago when Thailand started fervently pursuing Western-style development. The military government employed slogans such as "work is money, money is happiness." Those messages were antithetical to Buddhism, which teaches that suffering is quelled by rejecting material desires. In its constitutional role as protector of the state religion, the government began co-opting the clergy into supporting its new consumer culture. By the mid-1980s, the economy was booming and people were working hard to pay for fancy cars, mobile phones and Versace clothes. Temptations also breached the temple gates. Some Buddhist leaders were now being chauffeured in Mercedes-Benz, wearing silk robes and soliciting fortunes in donations to build ever gaudier houses of worship. "The monkhood used to be a paradigm for society," says Sulak. "Now the monkhood mirrors society, with all its problems."
Many monks know it. That's why Phra Sawoey Chanasapo, the 45-year-old assistant abbot of Bangkok's Temple of the Dawn, and Phra Adul Atulapanyo, 32, the assistant abbot of Wat Sangkrajai Voraviharn, enlisted in the tamruat phra at its inception. "We wanted to do something for our brothers," says Sawoey. But not all their brothers like what they do. Even when just paying a friendly visit, they're as welcome in some temples as internal-affairs investigators in a police station. Adul, who is an avid fan of detective flicks, says the life of a tamruat phra is a lonely one. Not to mention dangerous. "Suspects often resist," says Sawoey. A former rock guitarist and boiler room worker, still beefy after 25 years as a monk, he's been punched, kicked, black-eyed and bloodied. He takes the risks because "a lot of people are using the robe to make a profit."
In the village of Nongkham Baan, several men are wearing Buddhist robes, but they're not monks, says Thongdee Hawnjahn, a local housewife. "They make a lot of money begging, but it's wrong," she says. According to Thongdee, a bogus monk can net as much as $2,250 a month. Most fake monks come from villages like this in Chaiyaphum province in the poor northeast, and "poverty is what drives them to do it," says Sanitsuda Ekachai, a religion writer for the Bangkok Post. Some villages knowingly use bogus monks for ceremonies, she says, because, as many real monks gravitate to larger temples in big cities, there is a shortage of genuine holy men. Fake monks do the same, says Sawoey, with gangs of them descending on Bangkok to beg. In fact, most of what the tamruat phra do is catch such impostors. The number of real monks misbehaving is actually decreasing, says Sawoey, though "when a monk is caught going bad, it's always big news."
No monk made more headlines last year than Phra Issaramunee, abbot of Thammaviharee Temple and a personal guru to Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. Accused of having an affair with a female follower, he was disrobed, although he still insists he is innocent. The same can't be said for former abbot Phra Thammathorn Wanchai. Two years ago, he was caught by a television news crew in an army colonel's uniform holding a tryst with two prostitutes. Disrobed and sentenced to six months in jail for impersonating an army officer, he was unrepentant and threatened to expose other monks.
Buddhism isn't the only religion plagued by scandals, Sulak notes, pointing to the pedophilia revelations rocking the Catholic Church. But with even prominent abbots involved in debauchery, there is often little the monk police can do. "They are well-intentioned," he says, "but some of the worst wrongdoers are more powerful than they are." Indeed, reformist monks are severely hampered by an insular, feudal clerical structure. "There's a lot of politics in the temple," says Sanitsuda.
While wayward monks have shaken the faith of many, Sanitsuda draws consolation from several encouraging trends. Modern, socially engaged monks, such as noted author and Sangha member Phra Paisan Visalo, serve as role models for some, working with civic groups to try and steer Thailand's often greed-driven development onto a more just, equitable and environmentally friendly path. Among the middle class, there has been a remarkable rise in the popularity of meditation retreats. And Professor Sunthorn Narangsri of Chulalongkorn University's Buddhist Studies Center says the monk police have also proved surprisingly effective.
Phra Charoen Atipalow has experienced this firsthand. Collared near Bangkok's Chatuchak market on suspicion of being a bogus monk, he is interrogated at a nearby temple by its abbot, Phra Thai Thammarat, and Phra Khrusri Pattanakhun, chief of the monk police. He insists he's a real monk from Chaiyaphum. But when Phra Khrusri calls a few of Charoen's supposed temples, no one will vouch for him. Rather than turn him over to the two waiting policemen, the abbot decides Charoen should be disrobed and expelled for improper begging. The legal penalty is only $4.50 for the first offense. Repeat offenders can get a year in jail, but that's rare. The monks want the law toughened. In the meantime, the only sanction they can truly rely on is shame. It does work for some. While the abbot drones an incantation, two monks strip Charoen of his robes. Given some cheap gray civvies and a bit of his ill-gotten cash and food, he's cast out from the order. As he walks away from the temple, head hanging and dejected, Charoen mumbles, "That's it for this racket."