Why does Thailand’s top monk own a vintage Mercedes?

Buddhist monks pray at Wat Phra Dhammakaya temple, north of Bangkok, Feb. 22, 2016.
Jorge Silva

BANGKOK, Thailand — A Buddhist monk’s possessions traditionally include an alms bowl, his robes, a shaving razor, and a water filter to stop him from accidentally drinking a bug.

Or, in the case of Thailand’s top monk, all that plus a classic Mercedes-Benz worth more than $250,000.

Thailand, the most populous Buddhist-majority nation on the planet, has been afflicted in recent years by high-profile misdeeds within its monkhood. Now scandal has seeped into its uppermost echelon. 

Police recently revealed that the chairman of Thailand’s Buddhist “supreme council,” a 90-year-old man who’s been a monk since age 14, owns a very pricey 1950s-era, cream-colored Benz.

Known as Somdej Chuang, the monk is supposed to personify the anti-material Buddhist ideal. But investigators allege that one of his temple’s classic Benzes — somehow they have three — was imported from the US in multiple pieces so it could be secretly reassembled, a clever scheme to dodge import fees.

As most know, Buddhism is all about renunciation. Just as a bird carries only its wings, Buddha said in the 5th century BC, “the monk is contented with robes that protect his body and alms food that protects his belly. Wherever he goes, he takes only his barest necessities along.”

Yet for too many modern monks — even the widely revered — bare necessities apparently aren’t good enough. Along the path to enlightenment, many end up acquiring iPhones, smoking habits and even secret girlfriends. 

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Thailand’s press is filled with tales of monks engaging in serious offenses: abbots trafficking meth or allegedly embezzling gobs of cash or running a dodgy temple that charges tourists to cuddle with endangered tigers.

The latest black mark on Thailand’s monkhood: a scuffle between soldiers and protesting monks who back the Benz-owning Somdej Chuang’s bid to become “supreme patriarch,” a governing position at the pinnacle of the Thai Buddhist order. (He is currently the acting supreme patriarch; his formal appointment requires nomination by the prime minister and approval by the king. The Mercedes scandal, among others, has authorities second-guessing his ascent.)

Most shocking among the images from the February protest: a monk, in tangerine robes, holding a soldier in a headlock. 

Though Thailand’s troops are backed by immense power — the nation is ruled by a military junta — many soldiers refused to fight back. Some simply lifted their hands as if under arrest. It was a gesture indicating they would not lay forceful hands on a monk, even if the monk happened to be shoving them in the chest.

Americans and Europeans typically have no trouble conjuring images of dirty priests or menacing imams. Yet in the Western mind, Buddhism’s dark side is often more difficult to imagine. Monks are often idealized: barefoot wanderers so gentle that they dare not squish a mosquito.

But monks, of course, are plenty human. Even Pol Pot, the butcher of Cambodia, was ordained as a novice in his youth.

Compared to the rigors of priesthood, entering the Buddhist monkhood is far more simple. In Southeast Asia, it’s practically a rite of passage expected of bankers and noodle vendors alike.

Buddhist men can slip in and out of the monkhood in a couple of weeks. They’re often compelled to briefly ordain by a parent’s death or a bout of bad luck. Starting as mere novices, they are shaved bald and must forsake sex, lies, booze, entertainment, and any meals after midday.

Of the 300,000 monks in Thailand, these short-stay neophytes are the ones most likely to drag bad habits into the temple — from Marlboros to Angry Birds.

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But far more piety is expected of fully ordained monks, called “bhikkus,” who follow 200-plus rules. Never mind sex. They can’t even get tickled. Nor can fully ordained monks laugh loudly in public. They can’t make a slurpy sound when they eat. When it comes to possessions, they’re not allowed a new blanket until they’ve used their old one for at least six years.

The point is not to suffer but to be blissfully free of all attachments, mental and material, and no longer be “tied up in the net of craving.” The overwhelming majority of monks in Thailand attempt to do just that. They carry out quiet lives marked by small mistakes, but no flaming scandals. 

Yet the image of the entire order is suffering because of a minority whose appetite for vice goes public. Like police, judges and other misbehaving authority figures in the 21st century, monks’ misconduct is increasingly exposed by the smartphone lens.

Among the most disgraced is Nen Kham, a monk with a televangelist streak. He claimed to have walked on water and hawked gold coins bearing his image. But he fell from favor in 2013 after leaked photos showed him counting a wad of hundred-dollar bills aboard his private jet.

Buddha prohibited “luxurious beds,” a rare indulgence some 2,400 years ago. He never mentioned Cessnas or iPhones. Nor did he explicitly forbid owning a 1953, 300B series Mercedes-Benz.

However, before his death, he did issue a dire warning: Monks of the future “will become elders living in luxury.” His advice: Be alert to the danger and, “being alert, work to get rid of it.”