The Untold Story

In 1994-95 I spent six months living with a small group of Thai Buddhist monks in a forest just north of Aukland, New Zealand. It was, in so many wonderful ways, one of the happiest and most liberating periods of my life, and I wrote about it in my book ‘Tantalus and the Pelican’ (an extract from which appears in a previous blog post). But – and there’s always a ‘but’ – there were undercurrents of tension within the community. The truth is, religious institutions are as prone to corruption as any other. I include this story here – which wasn’t in the book – not because I wish to disparage anybody, least of all the monks themselves, but simply to illustrate the  point that religious scandal is unexceptional, almost mundane, precisely because it is so human. That’s not to excuse wrongdoing, but nor does it mean that just because people fail to live up to the ideals of any given teaching that it somehow invalidates those ideals. It doesn’t. It’s just something we need to understand. 

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 dedicated following numbering hundreds of thousands. His preaching tours required an entourage and stage gear that reinforced his almost rock star status, and devotees would breathlessly speak 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 within the otherwise rather austere culture 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 musician. 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, apparently, 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 human females. 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 automatically 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.

One of the national newspapers, I forget which, launched a relentless campaign against Yantra, who continued to deny all the allegations. In due course, however, conclusive evidence 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 mounted against him, and 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, where he spent the next 20 years.

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