Tigers, greed: The modern Thai temple

 

Among the most notorious of the influential monks, it's Luang Ta Chan, otherwise known as Phra Archan Phusit Khantitharo, the abbot of the Tiger Temple in Kanchanaburi, who amazes me the most.

In quick time, his temple which had painstakingly built a reputation as a sanctuary for homeless tigers has turned out to be a wildlife trafficking site and a tiger talisman factory.

This whole saga has become an international scandal since the seizure of 149 tigers, some of which were not registered. As officials scoured the temple, the shocks built.

Apart from the large number of live tigers in cages, there are 40 carcasses of tiger cubs stored in refrigerators; starved tigers; the abbot's cloister decorated by caribou horns, and tiger skins.

There is evidence the abbot performed blessings to create luck, and made ta krut talismans from tiger parts such as fangs, skin and whiskers. The products are believed to have been sold in Thailand and overseas, including in China.

I've always felt you can tell whether a man is crazy by looking into his eyes. I did not see lunatic traces in the abbot's eyes when I interviewed him in October 2008. Perhaps, Luang Ta Chan is crazier than I thought.

He managed difficult questions with aplomb concerning allegations that his temple was involved in the illegal trade of tigers and parts. ("Why would I do such things? We have plenty of money.")

Humorous, yet commandeering, the abbot is cool and calm, and highly persuasive.

He shared his personal information: a political science graduate from a top university who almost died from leukaemia. "The monkhood saved my life." He said his life was dedicated to taking care of the Tiger Temple.

The abbot made sure visitors had a good experience. His staff allowed me to have a close encounter with a tiger, Nan Fah, whose head was twice as large as mine. She calmly laid her head on my lap.

Then, Luang Ta Chan gave me his sales pitch. "Tell me, do you think these tigers can survive in the jungle, that's if there is any jungle left for wildlife to live in? These beasts would die as soon as they are released in the wild. They simply do not know how to hunt."

He then lectured me about tiger management and his grand plan -- which involved tiger breeding, a sanctuary, a zoo and a community business sustained by tigers. I believe he had many people under his spell.

It should be noted that the temple began with goodwill, as a sanctuary where the Department of National Parks and Wildlife (DNP) placed rescued tigers to be cared for by this abbot. In his last comment, he told me he did not understand how the Tiger Temple evolved. "It just happened."

As the years passed, the temple grew, providing jobs and income for the community. I believe the lack of oversight and monitoring of the temple gradually changed the abbot's thinking.

Superstitious faith then jumped in. The abbot is said to believe he has supernatural power -- the ability to control tigers. In his early days, he took a tiger with him as he did his village alms rounds. But faith and superstition can transform good deeds into greed.

It appears the abbot has fled, not having been seen since May 29, two days before the DNP raid, leaving junior monks and staffers to face the law. They might be charged with violations of CITES regulations, and face imprisonment.

Not too far away at Wat Phra Dhammakaya, another charismatic monk, Phra Dhammajayo, is relentlessly using a claim of illness to avoid appearing before the authorities to face embezzlement and money laundering charges.

The case of Dhammakaya temple is more shocking. The temple's legions of devotees are more ferocious than tigers. Phra Dhammajayo's disciples have turned the massive 2,000-rai temple grounds into a barracks.

There is wild speculation the temple has a secret tunnel to allow the notorious monk a getaway from the authorities. Thus, it will be no surprise if we have another runaway monk.

Should we blame our monks? As a Buddhist country, we must take some blame. Thais and the authorities always give the benefit of doubt to religion and monks, and that leaves them exempt from oversight and audit.

Thais believe monks can adopt more than 200 precepts, and stay faithful to them, when it is not always

true. We must stop deceiving ourselves. Without checks and balances, any saint or "Khon Dee" can be ghoulishly corrupted, like Luang Ta Chan and Phra Dhammajayo.

 

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