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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 rolled-up newspaper.

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 ago—although 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 temple courtyard.

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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