Thai Monks who Drink and Their Lay Supporters
Recent media reporting about a Thai monk caught drunk and indecently exposed follows a long line of attention-grabbing headlines about monastic misbehaviour. Even so, Thai attitudes about such rule-breaking are more nuanced than these reports would suggest.
Along with games of frivolous water play, many Thais mark the Songkran New Year festival by drinking. The celebration of the holiday in April 2022 saw a monk in northeastern Nakhon Ratchasima Province drink himself into a stupor, only to be discovered passed out with his robe askew. Having been found indecently exposed with a bottle of ‘40 Degrees’ rice whiskey nearby, he claimed that there was nothing wrong with drinking, jumped into a vehicle and drove away.
This type of story — of the genre “monks behaving badly”— appears regularly in the Thai media. The ethnographer Brooke Schedneck labels such reports as “everyday scandals” used to police monastic bodies. Thai netizens resort to such policing for reasons ranging from prurient interest, to defence of the de facto (if not – yet – de jure) national religion, to concerns about the decline of the dhamma, a millennial anxiety across Buddhist history that the teachings of the Buddha will disappear from human knowledge. Frequently popping up as local interest events that quickly lose the public’s attention, these stories usually focus on one of four types of monastic misdeeds: drinking alcohol, driving, embezzlement or sexual activity. Occasionally, one of these stories rises to national attention because the misbehaving monk is a high-ranking member of the Thai Sangha or just because the story is so juicy. The 2013 case of a monk discovered flying in a private jet with Ray-Bans and a Gucci handbag is the prime example of the latter. Coverage of one of these stories in the national media provokes handwringing over the state of Thai Buddhism, its commodification, and the failure of monastic institutions like the Supreme Sangha Council to properly govern monks.
While these stories contribute to anxiety about a crisis in Thai Buddhism, most monks are simply ordinary people. They have been breaking the rules of the monastic code of Theravada Buddhism, or Vinaya, for roughly 2,500 years, just as long as other monks have been breaking these rules. While some of the acts are horrific and contribute to anxiety over the end of the dhamma, there is also politics about inappropriate monastic activities which naturalises a specific way of being a monk (quiet and apolitical) and demonises other ways (boisterous and political).
Handwringing in the press and social media also ignores the attitude of lay folk toward supporting low-level infractions of the Vinaya. The alleged ‘crimes’ of the monk in Nakhon Ratchasima are, in fact, ambiguous. Driving a car is not an infraction of the Vinaya but rather something that the Supreme Sangha Council forbade of monks not quite a decade ago. When interviewed, Thais, lay and monastic, have generally said that the injunction was made because it seemed mai suai (unattractive) for monks to drive and that this might damage people’s faith or confidence in Buddhism. They have also indicated that the monk’s intention matters; a monk driving a car for a good reason would not bother them.
While these stories contribute to anxiety about a crisis in Thai Buddhism, most monks are ordinary people and have been breaking the rules of the monastic code of Theravada Buddhism, or Vinaya, for roughly 2,500 years — just as long as other monks have been upholding them.
The injunction against drinking alcohol is also more slippery than it might seem. Admittedly, the five precepts that lay Buddhists agree to follow say that one should refrain from drinking alcohol and it is also one of the basic rules that novices and fully ordained monks are responsible for following. However, in the Vinaya, it is a fairly minor offence—a pacittaya, something that merely requires a monk to confess. While contemporary Thai society has raised the seriousness of this offence by having police take monks to their superiors and requiring the superior to disrobe them, this is not an eternal Theravada practice nor is it universally followed in Thailand.
The Nakhon Ratchasima monk is not the first to say that he did nothing wrong by drinking. A number of monks have over the years given a variety of excuses why alcohol is not a problem, likening it to medicine or saying it is permissible if one drinks only ‘just a little bit’, or ‘as long as you don’t get drunk’. Many Buddhists would disagree, but the matter is not as clear-cut as we might suspect. Veteran anthropologists have shared stories about monks drinking at village festivals in North and Northeast Thailand in the 1950s and 1960s, though, interestingly they never published these stories.
We might also ask where monks get their alcohol. If most Thai monasteries do not have stills out back and Theravada monks are not craft brewers, someone, presumably a lay person, is buying it for them. The person may be buying it on the orders of the monk or as a donation to the monk – a ‘bad gift’, as it were. What this means is that at least some Thai lay people think that monks drinking alcohol is not such a big deal. There is in the story from Nakhon Ratchasima at least a suggestion that the problem was not alcohol per se, but rather a pattern of drinking and behaviour that suggested that the monk did not fulfill his monastic responsibilities in other ways.
All of this implies that there might be more behind these stories about monastic improprieties and the supposed decline in the dhamma or the crisis in Thai Buddhism than they seem to show. Regardless of the underlying political dynamics, lay enablers may not care about monastic propriety in the way that the religion’s official gatekeepers do.
Thomas Borchert is Chairman and Professor, Department of Religion, University of Vermont.