Calls for religious reform are growing following a spate of reports detailing monks' misdemeanours and controversies involving the Dhammakaya Temple and its abbot Phra Dhammachayo.
Dhammakaya is one among many temples giving priority to amassing wealth by encouraging worshippers to donate large sums. Followers are told that, by doing so, they improve their chance of securing a place in Heaven. This is a damaging distortion of the Lord Buddha's teachings.
We are dismayed that the Sangha Supreme Council, the monkhood's governing body, has failed to act on a decision made by the late Supreme Patriarch in 1999 that Phra Dhammachayo be defrocked for embezzlement and distorting Buddhist teachings.
Members of the National Reform Council's committee for religious reform have called for the 1962 Monastic Act to be amended so that it better reflects the Thailand of today. Their push for reform includes proposed changes to the Sangha Supreme Council's structure. However, this has drawn the ire of the Network of Buddhists, a group of monks and lay people who insist that moves to overhaul the Sangha Council would lead to division and severe conflict among the clergy.
Monks practise the dharma as taught by the Buddha in order to seek the enlightenment that brings liberation from the cycle of rebirth and suffering.
However, there are other, more earthly incentives for entering the Thai monkhood. Monasteries offer free food, lodging and a refuge from the daily struggle to make a living. Novices who don robes for these reasons are more likely to remain distracted by the temptations of the secular world. This helps explain the steady flow of news reports of Thai monks caught drinking, taking drugs, visiting night spots and having sex, all of which are serious violations of the monastic code.
Senior members of the clergy have also come under the spotlight, with abbots exposed for hoarding millions of baht in their personal bank accounts. The monastic code prohibits monks from owning anything other than basic necessities.
With so many straying from the path of dharma, reform for Thai Buddhism has become a necessity. However, amendments to the law and regulations governing the clergy are just one part of remedy. The laity also has a role to play in ensuring the spirit of Thai Buddhism is not further eroded by commercial and selfish concerns.
The belief that donating large amounts of money to temples is a fast track to Heaven is especially pernicious. Any spiritual benefits obtained from this practice are likely to be outweighed by its tendency to encourage greed among monks. It threatens to erode their true calling as bhikus - literally, "those who live by alms".
Yet many Thais still act in ways that encourage monks to amass wealth and enjoy luxury lifestyles. This is not conducive to the cultivation of a mind free from worldly desires, which should be the goal of every aspirant to Heaven. (***)