Blinged Out Monks: Several Thai Buddhist Monks Spotted with Luxury Wears

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This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

Audio Transcript:

Marco Werman: Okay, I don't mean to stereotype, but you don't usually associate Buddhist monks with living the high life, let alone flying in conspicuous luxury on a private jet. You'd expect that from, I don't know, Russian oligarchs or pampered sports stars. And yet a video popped up recently from Thailand of Buddhist monks flying in their signature saffron robes, and their rocking designer shades and top of line man bags. So who are these bling Buddhists? John Burdett is a bestselling author of crime novels set in Thailand which often feature atypical Buddhists. Burdett lives in Bangkok and he says it's not shocking that monks in Thailand are flying on private jets.

John Burdett: There's a strong sense, I suppose kind of a folk sense in Asia, that someone who is purified and close to enlightenment will always attract the best. So it's not the same violent contradiction between money and spirituality that we have in the west, although I confess that argument doesn't apply that well to Buddhists and when it's someone who's taken the vow of poverty.

Werman: Isn't the path to enlightenment through modesty and getting rid of possessions, and living an ascetic life, not putting on aviator sunglasses?

Burdett: That's one of the paths, but Asia has been religious for 5,000 years and there are layers upon layers of this kind of thing. So sometimes a spiritual person, I mean, let's take a neutral example like India, someone who everybody acknowledges is enormously spiritual, people pile in donations because they think they'll make merit that way. And the same thing happens in Thailand. And there are very many wealthy Thai's who are devout Buddhists and pile in huge sums of money into the monasteries. The way, if you want to contribute to Buddhism in Thailand, you contribute directly to your monastery, the monastery that you feel closest to. This chap that we see in his designer sunglasses in his jet is also responsible for pulling in huge amounts of donor money that rebuilt the monastery where he is.

Werman: I mean it's one thing to raise funds and give it back to the monastery, but how do these monks justify that intellectually?

Burdett: You'd have to ask the monks. I'm doing the best I can here. You can't really justify it intellectually, but you can understand it in the terms of a phenomenon, which I say is in fact worldwide. You have T.V. evangelists in the States who I imagine sometimes get extremely rich. The fact that it happened here in the context of Buddhism does, I have to confess, it does make people shake their heads. In sorrow, really, more than anything else, because Thai's are very, very serious about their Buddhism and to see someone, and we don't know his side of the story yet, but to see someone who's taken a vow of poverty in a private jet wearing designer sunglasses, it means, I think it might be stretching even Thai patience. And that's saying something.

Werman: How have Thai's reacted to this?

Burdett: The general reaction is really one of sadness. You know, to be fair, there are more than 250,000 monks in Thailand. And the vast, vast majority do assiduously follow a life of poverty and dedication to the Buddha and meditation, and the society respects them enormously for that. And so do I, actually, because, I mean, they're the real thing. They're not evangelists normally, they're just these guys who decided on a spiritual path and given up everything for that reason.

Werman: I mean it has turned troublesome for them. Last year I gather 300 Buddhist monks were reprimanded for drinking alcohol and having sexual relations with women?

Burdett: Well, yeah. The other side of it of course is that there's a big tradition in Thailand that a son will enter the monkhood for three months. And out in the country there's still the superstition that if a son does that, that when the mother dies she'll be able to grasp the skirts of his robes and be swept into nirvana. In other words we have a very powerful mother-son compulsion into the sangha for three months. And naturally in those kinds of situations, as I say, 250,000 monks in Thailand, not everyone is going to be perfect.

Werman: Novelist John Burdett's latest book is ââ?¬Å?Vulture Peak.ââ?¬  He's been telling us about Buddhist bling in Thailand. He's been speaking with us from Bangkok. John, thanks so much.

Burdett: Thank you.

Werman: To see the video of those Thai monks just go to