Secular men donning saffron-colored robes for a free lunch of alms is just the tip of a growing problem of criminal activity and debauchery among monks and men impersonating monks, according to Buddhist leaders and Phnom Penh residents.
More than 40 monks at Phnom Penh’s Wat Botum were defrocked this year for failing to follow Buddhist principles.
There are also at least 38 families living inside Wat Botum, which creates problems for the 300 monks and 600 pagoda boys living and studying there, said Phnom Penh’s chief monk Non Ngeth.
“[Men] come from the provinces asking to live as monks, and then they bring their wives or mistresses and children to live inside the pagoda, which has created much turmoil and terrible issues,” Non Ngeth said.
Parents often bring troubled children to pagodas when they cannot discipline them themselves, hoping that Buddhism can turn them around, Buddhist leaders said.
“Religion never forgets people,” said Bou Kry, supreme Buddhist patriarch of the Thammayut sect. “We open windows and doors welcoming all people who want to follow dharma and holy ways.
“It’s like a school…. Students can pass or cannot pass exams. It is not the fault of the school,” he added.
But criminals also walk through those open doors.
Some have served their sentences and are seeking a better life.
Others, however, use pagodas as hideouts to evade law enforcement, Non Ngeth said.
“[They] used to be gangsters or have bad behaviors,” he said. “Some of them not only cannot live by Buddhist disciplines, they also sometimes go out from the pagoda to have sex, which is why we defrock them.”
Nonetheless, Bou Kry remained steadfast in his belief that people can be rehabilitated.
“We rescue people,” he said. “How can we say ‘no’ when the parents ask for their children to be monks?”