Chequebook Buddhism offers Thais stairway to heaven

Chequebook Buddhism offers Thais stairway to heaven
Devotees meditating in a religious ceremony at the Dhammakaya Temple in Bangkok

BANGKOK - In deeply religious Thailand, monks have long been revered. But badly behaved clergy, corruption scandals, and the vast wealth amassed by some temples has many asking if something is rotten at the heart of Thai Buddhism.

From selfies on private jets to multi-million dollar donations from allegedly crooked businessmen, Thailand's monks are coming under increasing fire for their embrace of commercialism.

So much so that even the military junta is threatening to intervene.

In Wat Hua Lumphong, a temple in downtown Bangkok, garlands of banknotes flutter in the breeze as trader Sakorn Suker slips a 20 baht note (S$0.83) into an urn.

"It makes me feel good, boosts my health and makes me do better business," Suker told AFP.

His donation entitles him to take a "lucky" floating candle in the shape of a flower.

Nearby, coin-operated machines - similar to jukeboxes, but with a Buddha statue on top - churn out "lucky numbers" for the faithful as kneeling devotees hand over envelopes stuffed with cash, many picking up a tax reduction certificate on their way out.

In one corner of the temple complex sits a monk in an air-conditioned box.

"Donation means sacrifice. You sacrifice your things, sacrifice your time, sacrifice your money, sacrifice your heart," the monk, Pra Maha Noppadom, explains.

The gift of giving

In contrast to the increasingly empty pews and coffers of many European churches, temples remain a boom business in Thailand.

The overwhelmingly Buddhist nation is one of the most generous countries in the world, according to the 2014 World Giving Index.

It came third globally, behind Myanmar and Malta, with 77 per cent of the population giving money to charity.

Temples are under no obligation to declare their assets, which makes guessing how deep this generosity runs difficult.

But last year the National Institute of Development Administration estimated the country's 38,000-odd temples receive between 100 and 120 billion baht in donations every year.

And that's on top of their state funding. In 2015 the government has earmarked US$113 million (S$154 million) alone for renovating temples.

Donations have always formed the bedrock of Thai Buddhism. Every morning barefooted monks make their daily alms rounds in their local neighbourhoods.

But as the Southeast Asian nation has modernised, so have donation methods.

Thai supermarkets now offer an impressive array of pre-packaged hampers for monks including saffron robes, instant coffee and soap.

Few have mastered modern money collection techniques better than the Dhammakaya temple, one of the richest in the kingdom, with a dozens of outlets worldwide and an enormous headquarters north of Bangkok.

It is renowned for its roster of wealthy patrons and even boasts a slick TV channel where - much like evangelical mega churches - pleas for devotees to reach deep into their pockets are never far away.

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