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Why Some People in Thailand Become Monks After Committing Crimes

6 minute read

What was supposed to be an informative fire drill at a school in Thailand last week turned deadly when a fire extinguisher exploded, killing one student and injuring about 10 others at Bangkok’s Rachawinit School. While the accident has sparked concerns about the safety of fire extinguishers used in the classroom as others seek accountability for the student’s death, some at the heart of the tragedy are atoning in a characteristically Thai way: becoming monks for a little while.

At the 18-year-old boy’s funeral on Tuesday, four firefighters involved in the fire drill were seen sporting shaved heads and dressed in saffron robes, kneeling on the ground with their palms pressed together.

The carbon dioxide canister had been sitting under the hot sun when it exploded and metal scraps struck the victim, police said. Three officials responsible for the fire drill are set to face charges of negligence, local media reported.

Enrolling into monkhood may seem like a novel way of making amends, but the practice has become commonplace in Thailand, especially among people who have caused harm in public ways. For Buddhists, becoming a monk is a maximal way to convey sincerity and apology. But some worry that these reflexive ordinations are increasingly being used as a cure-all to bad behavior, further tainting the reputation of Buddhism, which has already been in decline after years of scandals.

Read More: Meet the Legendary Warrior Monk Passing on the Secrets of Kung Fu and Buddhism

The ceremony on Tuesday, known as buat na fai, or “ordainment before the pyre,” was a way for the firefighters to show regret for the accident that killed the student in Bangkok. Two of the boy’s classmates also took part in the religious ceremony at the funeral.

While traditionally this ritual is reserved for blood relatives of the deceased, it is sometimes expanded to those who are not family members, Katewadee Kulabkaew, a scholar of Thai Buddhism, tells TIME. “In practice, Thai monasteries will let anyone to buat na fai for a few days, a week, or a few months, given that the deceased’s family is consensual,” she says.

There’s a low barrier to entering and leaving monkhood, and many in Thailand choose to get ordained as monks for a variety of reasons—but usually to “make merit,” a Buddhist practice of accumulating good karma.

“Traditional Buddhist teaching says that ordination is the greatest merit (which can be transferred to the dead in afterlife), but it cannot absolve one’s sins. As a result, funerary ordination is indeed an act of compensation rather than redemption,” says Katewadee. “In order to show the society that you are tremendously sorry, caring, or deeply grateful for the deceased, you do your best by making the greatest merit for them.”

When a young soccer team was successfully extricated from a Thai cave in 2018 after a rescue operation that gripped the world, the boys were ordained as novice monks and spent over a week living at a Buddhist temple, to fulfill a prayer that their families made in exchange for their safe return as well as to honor a volunteer diver who died while saving them.

“Their lives will change now,” a local official told reporters at the time. “This experience will help them to appreciate their parents and give them a taste of Dhamma.”

Somparn Promta, a lecturer of philosophy at Mahachulalongkorn University, tells TIME that it’s common practice for people to seek ordination as Buddhist monks for a limited time after causing harm to others, as a way to “show their moral responsibility” and “make merit for those who are harmed by them.”

“This kind of ordination usually takes a short time. Normally about seven days,” he says. “It would help the persons who harm others to feel good both with themselves and those who are harmed.”

In 2019, a wealthy businessman was ordained as a monk after making headlines for killing two people while drunk driving. He also agreed to pay 45 million baht ($1.26 million) in damages to the victims’ families.

But getting ordained doesn’t automatically come with public forgiveness. Last year, in another road accident that sparked national outrage, a young policeman hit and killed a woman while speeding on his motorcycle. Days after the crash, both he and his father entered monkhood to make merit for the victim, but the move did little to stop public anger from boiling over. The incident sparked heated discussions about the city’s road safety and reckless drivers. The 21-year-old cop was also pressured to exit monkhood after just three days, after the public raised concerns that he was not fit to be a monk.

“Many Thais are obsessed with the idea that merit-making can compensate for when they have erred, as if crimes and merit making are transactional,” a Bangkok Post columnist wrote days after the deadly road accident.

“This attitude does more harm than good to society, as it reinforces a notion that anyone—from individuals to government officials and politicians—can trade away their karmic debt through public displays of contrition yet continue to repeat those same illegal or immoral acts.”

In recent years, the reputation of monks has taken a hit in Buddhist-majority Thailand, where most men are required to live as a monk temporarily at some point in their lives. Some criminals are known to take refuge in monkhood as they lay low from the outside world. Meanwhile, reports of monks engaging in criminal activity—ranging from money laundering to drug trafficking and even murder—have further eroded public trust in the clergy.

But for this week, public sentiments appear to sympathize with the firefighters who have now become—at least temporarily—novice monks. On social media, their ordination was met with support and condolences, with many seeing the case as an unfortunate accident more than a tragedy caused by negligence.

“I would like to congratulate the four people who were ordained for the younger brother,” one Facebook user commented. “I wish [the victim] will rest in a better world.”

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