Thursday, September 17, 2009

It's About The Economy Stupid!

During Thailand’s election in 1996, politicians around the country vied for one man’s endorsement. He was not a billionaire, ex-president or movie star, the man sought after was a small, grandfatherly Buddhist monk with a rural accent. In the past decade, Luang Phor (Reverend Father) Khoon has become the most powerful monk in Thailand, in charge a monastery which generates millions of dollars and counts government leaders and the Thai royal family among its followers. Dr Peter Jackson, a Research Fellow in Pacific and Asian History in the Research School of Pacific and Asian Studies, has followed the rise of Rev. Khoon over the past decade. He believes Khoon's fame is the result of the monk’s money-friendly outlook. ‘Buddhism has always been like a divine mirror for the state in South East Asia,’ said Dr Jackson, ‘so when the Thai economy boomed in the 1980s and commercialism became a driving social force, Buddhism followed suit’ In a country of about 30,000 Buddhist monasteries, most monks have a small, local following. A few monks have risen to national fame in the past, but this is the first time a nationally prominent monk has embraced commercialism so wholeheartedly, said Dr Jackson. Khoon's Wat Ban Rai monastery in the Nakhonratchasima province is five hour’s drive from Bangkok. It sells a variety of religious merchandise and good luck tokens - from Khoon bumper stickers to blessed amulets and car ornaments. ‘Going to his monastery is like going to a shopping mall. You go there for religious reasons but also to participate in consumer culture,’ said Dr Jackson. Donations are also a major source of income to Khoon’s monastery. In Thai tradition, donations bring blessings and merit to those who give. Dr Jackson estimated that Khoon brought in about $20 million a year in sales and donations, before the recent devaluation of the Thai currency. So far, donations appear to have been spent on those in need and no official corruption charges have been raised. Khoon’s popularity has a number of facets in addition to his commercial bent, said Dr Jackson. His appeal is one of nostalgia - he is a grandfatherly figure who uses old-fashioned language to communicate. ‘The way he speaks brings back memories of how it used to be and the way people used to talk in a time when things are changing and modernising very quickly,’ said Dr Jackson. Khoon is also blessed with a catchy name. In Thai, “khoon” means “to multiply” or “times” which helps link him with good luck in producing and multiplying wealth. But Dr Jackson said the most powerful draw of Khoon is that he is believed to possess magical powers. News of his powers began to circulate in the 1960s, when soldiers fighting in the Vietnam War took his amulets for protection and returned home unscathed. Then in 1993, a large hotel collapsed in Khosat, a large town near Khoon’s monastery, killing over 150 people. Just as rescue workers lost hope, they found a hotel cleaning woman still alive in the rubble. As they labored to free the woman’s feet from beneath a concrete slab, someone threw her one of Khoon’s amulets. She prayed with it until she was freed and Khoon’s magical powers made national headlines. Even the Thai royal family has embraced Khoon’s monastery, after a brief conflict in 1994 when Khoon’s followers had the audacity to sell fake bank notes with the image of the King replaced with that of the old monk. Relations were smoothed over when Khoon made a generous donation to Thailand’s national welfare budget in honor of the King. Now Khoon’s followers sell the fake banknotes with the King’s consent and he receives members of the Royal family at his monastery on a regular basis. During a recent trip to Bangkok, Dr Jackson rode in a taxi with a Rev. Khoon amulet dangling from the rear-view mirror. Although not a genuine article blessed by Rev. Khoon, it showed what the monk represents to many in Thailand. “Ruay, ruay, ruay” read the script below the monk’s face - “Rich, rich, rich.”
By Shelly Simonds. From the internet.
The top picture shows Luang Phor Khoon with his ‘iconic’ cigar, spittoon and in his ungainly squatting position. The second picture shows one of the fake bank notes with his picture on it. Sometimes I laugh, sometimes I cry, sometimes I just feel utterly disgusted.


Buddha said...

I hope the People do not get an Aversion to Buddhism which seems to be in potential Danger as Money & Monks are a Dangerous Combination.

I have a Question ?
Do South East Asian Countries Like Thailand ,Singapore,China really Practise Buddhism in Spirit...

The People consume Lot of Sea food which is a Breach of Precept of Non killing.

I guess in India though the Buddhist are quite Few there are many Vegetarians ..

i am one...

In fact Vegetarianism was not in Hindu culture but Adi Sankara had borrwowed it from Budhhism & Jainism so that he could argue and win over in Religious Discussions.

But I can see that the Vegetarian Buddhist are quite few..

They cannot Give an Excuse that the Buddha Himself had consumed Pork..He did that knowing fully well that the animal was not killed for its meat.

Justin Choo said...


Don't despair.

The Thais are merely practising "Thaism". In our Hokkien dialect, "Thai" means "stupid".


bobzane said...

Okay I'm ready to trade my piece of the "True Cross" for one of those fake bank notes.

It is nice to know that it just isn't the US that's cranking out boneheads.

Arun said...

Even the forest monks of the Thai Dhammayut Order have played a role in the economy and worked to stabilize the Thai currency during the regional recession not too long ago. When monks engage with money, it's hard to discretely separate what's appropriate and what's not. Keeping one's distance from financial affairs is of course one solution.

MidPath said...

I can't laugh and I won't cry. He is not a monk, not a member of the Sangha. He is just a person wearing a piece of yellow cloth and maybe smoking something strong. And how he get such a following? Well, it is no different from the lottery ticket seller who so happens to sell more than a few winning tickets. People talk and followers gets irrational thinking the chance to win is higher to buy from that seller.

Branko said...

"Khoon is also blessed with a catchy name. In Thai, “khoon” means “to multiply” or “times” which helps link him with good luck in producing and multiplying wealth."

I just wonder why "to multiply" everyone connects with wealth only and not with suffering or bad reputation.

Shravasti Dhammika said...

Good Question! And one that highlights how thoughtless, biased and subjective most of these superstitions are.