Men of cloth, not paper

Men of cloth, not paper

The latest case of embezzlement at Wat Bowon Niwet Vihara in Bangkok and its branches upcountry should send alarm bells ringing about an existing flaw in the way Buddhist temples are financially managed.

The suspect, a close aide of the revered late abbot, was arrested on March 23 for allegedly pilfering 280 million baht from the temples’ bank accounts and redirecting the loot to his own accounts.

The money came from donations by disciples and worshippers given to the late abbot, Somdet Phra Wannarat, to build schools, repair and develop temples, and fund temples’ charity works.

Police learned the suspect began draining money from temple accounts late last year when the late abbot was gravely ill and hospitalised. He passed away last month.

Police found the suspect splurged the money buying luxury cars — some registered under the names of a close friend and family members.

Needless to say, this latest move to illegitimately siphon off temple money merely adds one more pitiful scandal to the outrageous saga that temple funds have been dragged into, with so many layers of cheating discovered that it’s now starting to corrode faith in Buddhism.

There has been too much fraud perpetrated by such disciples, as well as by state officials at the National Office of Buddhism (NOB), the state body that oversees the budget given to temples. Worst of all, a fair portion of the thieves turn out to be monks themselves.

While some Buddhists and critics try to downplay the corruption by pointing out it is just one individual case, the real problem is the laws for clerics and the system itself.

There are over 41,000 temples scattered around Thailand. Each survives on state support and an annually earmarked budget of 3 billion baht. But every temple has its own donation boxes and other fund-raising mechanisms.

This poses something of a moral challenges to many abbots as they alone possess the authority to manage the temple’s money.

The 1962 Sangha Bill requires each temple to conduct proper accounting. Yet the rule permits abbots to keep accounts in private. In reality, financial auditing only really comes to the fore when the temple and abbot require this following the abbot’s request for use of the royal insignia, or in the event of a public complaint, so it can be used as evidence.

Revised in 1968, the bill now requires temples to have their expenses and income audited by the NOB every month. That being said, reports on state subsidies and temple donations are not open to the public. This problem has been long-acknowledged.

The Supreme Patriarch reportedly cautioned lay Buddhists against giving money to monks. Instead of a merit-making act, he described it as a sin to encourage monks to violate a key monastic rule that, if not properly observed, could hasten the moral deterioration of the clergy.

In 2018, the NOB tried to launch a new way to manage temple funds more transparently and audit them in a systematic and transparent manner. The initiatives were met with hefty resistance and ultimately didn’t go anywhere.

Hopefully, the latest fraud will ring in change. Clerics and abbots at the Sangha Supreme Council and NOB must be separated from financially managing temples, and donations must be externally audited. In short, let’s turn temples back into real spiritual sanctuaries.