Giving With One Hand
Wat Ban Rai, Thailand
Luang Phor Khoon Parisuttho knows that the politicians will soon be coming.
General elections are on the horizon, and that's the time when prime-ministerial
hopefuls travel to Khoon's temple in Nakhon Ratchasima province, kneel
at his feet and ask for a blessing. "They never ask me how to help the
people," says the frail 77-year-old monk, whose reputation for both goodness
and spiritual powers is known throughout the country. "They're interested
only in helping themselves." He blesses them anyway, though in decidedly
eccentric ways. For former Prime Minister Chavalit Yongchaiyudh, whom
Khoon addressed as "fatso," the blessing was a rap on the head with a
Some 10,000 people a day used to come to Khoon's Ban Rai temple to be
whacked or more gently blessed. That number is down since the Thai economy
tumbled three years agoalthough it probably should have increased.
Most pilgrims come to Khoon for one reason: to get richer. "They believe
he has magic powers," says Amporn Charnkuntawat, who capitalizes on that
notion by selling prayer bracelets and wooden fertility phalluses in the
Khoon is a strange phenomenon: a Buddhist ascetic who donates sums of
money to the poor, but is seen nationwide as the guru who can best bolster
your bank balance. Many devotees ask Khoon to tap their outstretched wallets.
A few have requested samples of his saliva or urine to drink.
The monk's fame reached new heights in 1993, when a woman was pulled alive
from the rubble of a collapsed hotel clutching an amulet with his image
on it. Stories abound of Khoon followers who have won the lottery. Nonetheless,
Khoon insists, "I have no magic, no powers at all."
That's a message few heed and many are willing to ignore at a cost. The
sale of amulets with the elderly monk's image is a big business. Posters
with the words "Rich! Rich! Rich!" and a picture of Khoon holding fistfuls
of cash can be found in homes and shops throughout Thailand. Many of the
proceeds come to Khoon but don't stay with him. "I give it all back to
the people," he says. He has built schools, hospitals, old-age homes,
even roads and bridges around the country. "He is sincere, and a good
person," says Buddhist scholar Sulak Sivaraksa. "It's the people around
him who exploit him." Ask Khoon to pinpoint the chief cause of suffering
in the world, and he has a quick answer: "greed." But he is aware of the
paradox he presents to religious purists: "I tell them that if they want
to be rich, then first they have to learn to give." Not just the politicians
would do well to heed that particular sermon.
By Robert Horn/wat Ban Rai
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