Just Trying to be Normal: The Untold Story…

Sunnataram New Zealand was the newest and smallest of about half a dozen Buddhist monasteries scattered around the world, all founded by Phra Ajahn Yantra Amaro Bhikkhu – arguably the most popular monk in Thailand during the 1980s and early 90s. Yantra was a good-looking, and by all accounts, very charismatic man in his mid-forties who had built up a loyal following numbering hundreds of thousands. His preaching tours, complete with elaborate stage sets and swooning female fans, often had more in common with a rock festival than a religious service. Devotees spoke of his powerful presence, his great compassion and heroic feats of asceticism. He was said to be able to tame wild animals, cure diseases, and control the weather. Indeed, many were convinced he had attained enlightenment. I never met him, so cannot comment on the personal magnetism that clearly captivated so many. Personally, I thought his teachings were overly sentimental – in photographs he wore the cloying smile perfected by televangelists – and I found it hard not to be sceptical of the fantastic claims made by his followers. But still, I could quite easily see how people would have been won over by his gentle, caring approach to spirituality in the otherwise rather austere tradition of Theravada Buddhism.

During the course of my stay with the monks in New Zealand, I gradually became aware that all was not well within the organisation. Back in Thailand, Ajahn Yantra was embroiled in a sex scandal that was convulsing Thai society. The gist of it, as far as I could make out, involved a number of as yet unsubstantiated accusations of sexual misconduct, mostly involving foreign women, that were alleged to have taken place during his overseas tours. He was accused of having seduced a woman on a ferry in Denmark, and of having an affair with a German harpist. Apparently he told her that he had been Genghis Khan in a previous life and that she had been his wife. It was a line he used often, and with a surprising measure of success.

Initially, the Buddhist establishment sided with Yantra, presumably hoping to suppress the story and avoid further embarrassment. A senior monk solemnly pronounced that the Danish ferry incident could not be true because it was impossible for a man to get an erection outdoors in the cold weather of Scandinavia. At this juncture, however, an even more serious allegation emerged. A woman came forward claiming that Yantra was the father of her six year-old daughter. He, of course, denied it, refusing to submit to a paternity test on the basis that as a monk his word was sufficient. One of his followers declared that anyone who caused a saint to bleed (for example by requiring him to undergo a blood test) would end up in the deepest hell. Predictably, the newspapers had a field-day, as ever more lurid details of Yantra’s shady double-life emerged. One memorable article recorded that the staff of the Wild Orchid Escort Lounge in Aukland used to call him ‘Batman’ because he insisted on keeping his robes on while having sex.

To give some indication of the seriousness of the allegations against Yantra, I should point out that the rule of celibacy for Buddhist monks is so strict that technically they are not even supposed to touch female animals, never mind have any physical contact with females of their own species. According to the Buddhist monastic code, if a monk’s penis comes within a sesame seed’s breadth of a woman’s vagina, then he ceases to be a monk. If the allegations against him turned out to be true, the damaging consequences would extend much further than the tarnishing of his personal reputation. The monks I knew were understandably anxious. If Yantra was guilty, then everything he had done as a monk since committing his first major offence – long before he became famous – would be automatically invalidated. That is to say, all the monks he had ordained, all the monasteries he had founded, all the amulets he had blessed, would be rendered null and void. Many prominent establishment figures had given him their seal of approval, acknowledging him as an enlightened master. A lot of people would fall with him, or at the very least, lose face – which, in a socially conservative culture like Thailand, could be just as bad.

In due course, however, conclusive proof came to light in the form of credit card slips from the Wild Orchid Escort Lounge, signed by Yantra.

Some months later I saw a small piece in Newsweek or Time magazine about a defrocked Thai monk. It was Yantra. As the evidence had mounted against him, while he stubbornly continued to refuse to take a paternity test, the Supreme Patriarch had finally taken decisive action. In March 1995, shortly after I left New Zealand, Yantra was given an ultimatum either to leave the Sangha voluntarily, or be publicly humiliated. But by then, Yantra had already disappeared. Fleeing to Cambodia on a forged passport, he eventually emerged, still smiling his televangelist smile, in Escondido, California.

This relates to my first book Tantalus and the Pelican: Exploring Monastic Spirituality Today, Bloomsbury, 2009.

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