Phra Yantra was a superstar among Buddhist monks; but then he enjoyed al fresco sex on a Finnish ferry, claimed "superhuman virtue", and set in train a set of scandals that has left Thailand's faithful in shock ety dazed and confu series of colourful scandals has left one of the world's most traditional societies confused and embarrassed
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DOWN BY the river in old Bangkok, where barges and excursion boats slither through the muddy waters, you find the street of amulet-sellers. It is called Taphrachant, and every Thai knows the place. It's the Buddha Image Centre, and, stuffed inside these hundreds of little shops are thousands of tiny Buddhas in gold, jade, glass and clay, which are worn by Thais for protection against bad karma.

These amulets also tie in nicely with the Thai ethos that you can buy your way out of any jam, whether it's bad karma or a run-in with the police. A businessman thinks that wearing an amulet will give him a supernatural edge; a taxi-driver puts one on his dashboard to prevent road accidents or a busted gasket; in the Bangkok massage parlours, where Thai girls are kept inside aquarium-like tanks, waiting to be served up like live fish in a restaurant, you see the girls fidgeting with their amulets in the hope that this will protect them from the stranger with Aids who is waiting to draw them into the shadows. Bangkok has more than 3,000 registered amulet vendors, and their businesses are worth many millions of pounds. Some clergy are opposed to the trade, claiming that it only adds to "consumerism and delusion", but everyone in Thailand has need of protection.

Yet the whispered reverence on the amulet-sellers' street has been shattered lately, and it now resembles a stock exchange in a vertiginous dive, or a toy-shop that has overstocked on a fad gone flat. What gives these amulets, talismans and charms their spiritual zip is that they have all been blessed by revered Thai monks; over the past few years, however, Theravada Buddhism, the bedrock of religious faith in Thailand for more than 700 years, has been shaken by scandals involving some of the country's most popular clergymen - and amulet-blessers, too.

And that was why I was on Taphrachant, talking about magic lotuses. Two years ago, everyone in Thailand wanted a magic lotus, a small clay object that had been sanctified by a monk named Phra Yantra Amaro Bikku and was reputed to cure diseases, ward off evil and do practically everything except clear away Bangkok's notorious traffic jams. Yantra had been a superstar among monks, and his magic lotuses sold for about pounds 10 apiece. I asked an amulet-seller how much a magic lotus was worth today. With his fingers, he made a zero. "Absolutely nothing," he sighed. "And I have so many, many lotuses in my shop."

To his 150,000 followers in Thailand and in 20 other countries, Yantra was considered to be a Bodhisattva, an enlightened being, who would disappear for weeks at a time to meditate in caves and in the wilderness of New Zealand. It turned out that he had more vigorous social pursuits. Yantra was such a regular client at the Wild Orchid Escort Lounge in Auckland, New Zealand, that the ladies had a nickname for him: "Batman". Not only did Yantra swoop into the brothel at odd nocturnal hours, but he also insisted on keeping on his monk's robes; while he was having sex, he cocooned the Wild Orchid girls in lengths of mustard-coloured cloth. Some Thais, as well as being shocked, were baffled when the story leaked out in the Bangkok press. That Yantra should travel all the way to Auckland for paid- for sex was, they said, the height of perversity.

But the most widespread reaction was shock. Yantra was big, very big, in Thailand before his fall earlier this year, and his disgrace has set off a chain reaction of other scandals that has rocked the Buddhist clergy. First, a venerated abbot in a northern monastery was accused of raping six hilltribe girls, aged between 12 and 16. Next came the story of the monk who was arrested for "barbecuing" a dead baby to extract oil for love potions. Then another monk was charged with raping a 14-year-old girl; he recorded the sound of her cries during the first assault and tried using the tape to blackmail her into having sex with him again. To make matters worse, it recently came to light that one of Thailand's first Aids victims was a monk. Some Thais are sickened by the ferocity with which the press has fallen on such cases; reformers, on the other hand, argue that, for too long, the clergy's aura of righteousness has hidden a rot.

A monk is supposed to wander around, begging for food and leading a simple, spartan life. But Thailand is no longer a poor country; it is part of the Asian economic boom. Indeed, in the past decade, the economy has grown steadily, by nine per cent. The Thai worker's average annual income - $2,734 - may still be far smaller than the British worker's, but it has been growing much faster. As a result, Thailand has become one of the most acquisitive societies in Asia, with an upper stratum of very rich people indeed. More Mercedes-Benz are sold in Bangkok than in Hong Kong or Singapore, and Thailand probably knocks back more bottles of Johnny Walker Black Label than any other country in the world. Inevitably, these materialistic temptations have had their effect on the country's religious heritage. Thailand remains a highly religious society, with 200,000 monks in a population roughly the same size as Britain's, but some of these monks are not as poor, or as pure, as they used to be. The Yantra scandal revealed just how tarnished the Buddhist establishment had become.

THE THAIS have many tales in which an ordinary-looking Buddha statue is accidentally dropped or smashed, only to reveal a hidden treasure within. The famous Emerald Buddha of Wat Phra Kaew is said to have been discovered this way, as is the gleaming 51/2-tonne Buddha of pure gold in Bangkok's Wat Traimit temple. The Thais see a metaphysical allegory in these stories. Not only was Gautama Buddha an ordinary man; he was also able to transcend his ordinariness to reach enlightenment. In the case of Phra Yantra Amaro Bikku, it was quite the opposite. Yantra carried himself like a 51/2-tonne Buddha of shining gold. But when he broke, he was revealed to be all too human: vain, craven, and too easily tempted by sex.

Before his fall, few Thai monks were considered more saintly, or were more lavishly adored, than Phra Yantra Amaro Bikku. Tall, square-jawed and gently spoken, Yantra, 44, had a flair for bringing out the contemporary message in the Buddha's 2,500-year-old teachings. His sermons were broadcast on radio; stage props were used to liven up his public appearances; many of his female admirers would swoon like pop fans in Yantra's presence. His devotees included a princess or two in the Thai royal family, the wife of an ex-prime minister, several generals and cabinet ministers. One MP admitted to drinking Yantra's urine for its curative powers. At public preaching engagements, Yantra, ever the humble monk, would alight barefoot from a silver Mercedes-Benz.

So when his fall came, it was a great one. By the time Yantra finally disappeared, in June, he had not only been defrocked by the country's highest religious authority, the Supreme Patriarch, but had also had his passport confiscated and had criminal charges brought against him (for insulting the Supreme Patriarch). Thais became as familiar with the details of his escapades as, say, Americans are with the OJ Simpson case. It is almost as lurid a story.

Born in a southern Thai province in 1951, Yantra, the youngest of seven children, had an unhappy childhood. His father, by all accounts, had an insane temper; his cruelties are said to have included committing Yantra, then 19, to hospital for 44 days of electric-shock therapy. Yantra had studied hotel management for two years, but he dropped out and lived as a hermit on a small, deserted island off the Thai coast. From 1970 until 1990, he wandered around the country, preaching his message and building his following. But although Buddhism teaches the illusory nature of attachments, Yantra never escaped from his childhood traumas, which left him with an intense yearning for affection. Professor Rawi Bhavilai, a prominent writer on Buddhist philosophy, described him as "an imposter with charisma", adding: "He has great mental strength. It's obvious that he put a lot of energy into his meditation practice."

There were certainly thousands of Thais who were impressed by his intensity. By the Nineties, he had become a superstar; indeed, in many ways, Thailand had become too small for him. Miraculous stories were circulated by his disciples: that while he was meditating, poisonous snakes from the forest would come to sleep in his lap; that he could conjure up lightning; that a sip of his urine could cure sexual diseases. Some devotees even hinted that Yantra was the next incarnation of Gautama Buddha.

Meanwhile, a steadily growing stream of westerners journeyed up to his forest monastery for Vipassana - a rigorous 10-day course of meditation, silence and abstinence - and Yantra himself began to spend more time abroad. He opened meditation centres in Australia, Denmark and in the US, and it was during one of his European tours, in May 1993, that things began to go wrong.

One of Yantra's most devout disciples, a nun and member of his entourage called Thippawan Thipayathat, was approached by a German woman with a most remarkable story. Susanne Warnecke was in her twenties and a psychologist, and she had a confession to make. While she had been staying at a retreat in Yantra's Australian ashram, she said, the monk had appeared in her hut at 3am. She told Thippawan that Yantra had pinned her to the bed, slipped his hand under her T-shirt, and tried to thrust his tongue in her mouth, all the while murmuring platitudes of "pure love". Thippawan brushed these accusations aside: "I thought this German girl was trying to destroy our master."

Yantra's tour rolled on to Denmark. After several days of teachings in Copenhagen, his followers organised a concert for the monk. One of the performers, a harpist, was a student of Yantra's: a comely young blonde woman named Eva Kalden, whose risque, off-the-shoulder dress scandalised many of the Thais at the concert. "It was most remarkable," recalled Thippawan. "In between songs, Eva kept making comments about 'the man who says he's perfect and is not so perfect', all the time looking Yantra straight in the eye. I'd never seen Yantra blush like that." Intrigued, the nun asked the harpist why she had made the barbed remarks.

Eva freely admitted to the nun that she and Yantra had made love several times in the back of her Toyota van. Then she had turned him away, realising that he was not an elevated spiritual being but a philandering liar. It was, said Thippawan, a terrible blow: "I almost fainted when I heard this."

The harpist had never met Susanne, the German psychologist, yet their accounts of the monk's seduction technique were identical. "Both of them said that Yantra prayed to Lord Buddha for forgiveness before he tried making love to them," said the nun. "And with each lady, Yantra tried to persuade her that in a past life he was Genghis Khan and that she'd been his wife. They were karmically linked. He used the same story with a lot of women. Sometimes he said he was Alexander the Great."

Eva agreed to tape a telephone conversation with Yantra if he called again. He did. Acting like any possessive male, Yantra, according to Eva, "wanted me to give up all other men and only make love to him." In London, Thippawan confronted him. "I told him there were so many stories, so much gossip. But he denied it all." It was then that the tiny nun turned detective.

Building a case against Yantra was easier than she expected. Thippawan and her confederates began questioning other women followers. They listened at keyholes; they kept the monk's movements under surveillance; they obtained credit card receipts; they even videotaped Yantra tip-toeing down a hotel hallway to a woman's room. Even after Thippawan challenged him in London, Yantra sneaked off every night to visit a Thai girlfriend in Putney. "This answered our questions as to why Yantra never got up early during for meditations. He was too tired. Even during the group meditation sessions, I'd open an eye and there would be Yantra, asleep," says Thippawan.

Yantra was imaginative in his seduction venues, if nothing else; Thippawan found one woman disciple who had been seduced by Yantra on a mountaintop, and another, an American Buddhist nun, with whom the monk had dallied on the open deck of a ferry going to Finland. In Yantra's defence, one of Thailand's most respected Buddhist clergymen was later solemnly to declare that "It wouldn't be possible for Yantra to have sex with the woman on a ferry in Scandinavia. It is impossible to get an erection in extremely cold weather."

It didn't take long for Thippawan to uncover Yantra's deepest secret. He had an illegitimate daughter, born in 1987 and had spent eight months with his baby and the mother, a Thai woman named Chantima. "He was a good husband, a good father, but finally, he left them. He had to take care of his image," says Thippawan.

Collecting the evidence against Yantra was simple compared with the business of trying to convince the Thai authorities and the clergy of Yantra's sins. The details of his misconduct were sent to the Supreme Patriarch by a respected professor and former follower of Yantra's, Dr Kingkaew Attakorn, but, almost reflexively, the authorities sided with Yantra. The then deputy education minister, for instance, said that the charges were "the work of a group of conspirators who are trying to damage Buddhism". He dismissed Thippawan as "mentally-ill and absent-minded".

But while the authorities tried to kill the investigation - potentially at least as embarrassing to the establishment as the "outing" of a bishop in England - the boisterous Thai press revelled in the details. They especially loved the story about him bouncing in the back of a van with "Miss Eva, the harp-playing street musician". Journalists were dispatched to find "Miss Eva" in Copenhagen, while senior clergymen proclaimed, with winning naivety, that it was physically impossible for two humans to make love inside a car. (This declaration added an element of frivolity to the investigation, but Miss Eva, among others, was not amused. In a letter to the Supreme Patriarch, she asked caustically: "Do you know that Italians do it in a Fiat Uno?" It seems that the Supreme Patriarch didn't.)

The final disgrace for Yantra came when Professor Rawi Bhavilai, the Buddhist philosopher, claimed that Yantra had stolen four of his poems, together with several of his essays, and published them as his own work. "Yantra explained that he'd written them down in his notebooks and that his over-eager disciples published them thinking they were his own," the professor says. "Once, maybe, I could see it happening. But that doesn't explain why he published my work under his own signature 31 times in different books and pamphlets."

Several of Yantra's enemies in the clergy joined the attack. One critical cleric, Phra Payon, said, "I'm like a dog barking outside Lord Buddha's house on hearing a strange noise, to wake people up to see whether the visitor is a monk or a bandit." As if in answer to his question, a gunman sprayed bullets at Phra Payon's gabled temple.

Yantra's own antics heightened the drama. He fell ill and accused his enemies of sending him poisoned orange juice. When the authorities - who by February 1994 had begun to take Thippawan's charges seriously - asked Yantra to submit to the DNA test that would establish paternity, his disciples said that this was impossible. "Anyone who makes a saint bleed will be sent to the deepest hell," a po-faced acolyte said. Cornered by the press, Yantra claimed that a blood test was unnecessary. A childhood accident had rendered his member perfectly useless, he said, adding that he was prepared to lift his robes and show off his mangled penis to the proper authorities. None volunteered.

The inquiry seemed to go dead for several months, and many Thais supected that the charges against Yantra were being quietly buried to avoid scandal. But in August, a royal princess, Mom Dusdi, revealed that she had met Yantra's lover, Chantima, when she was pregnant with the monk's daughter. Yantra, the princess said, had tried to convince Chantima to have an abortion: "When I told him that his conduct was unbecoming for a monk, he acted mean and cruel to me," the princess was quoted as saying to the Thai press. In Thailand, where the royal family is much revered, nobody gets away with being mean and cruel to a princess.

With all his connections, it is possible that Yantra, even then, could have squirmed free. But in February this year, the most damaging evidence against him appeared on the front pages of the Bangkok Post and other leading Thai newspapers. Copies had been leaked of American Express receipts from Club 25 in Australia and the Wild Orchid Escort Lounge in Auckland. Signed by Yantra, they were for Aus$90 and NZ$101.25, apparently the going rate in each establishment for a massage and oral sex. The "Batman" stood exposed.

On 4 March, the Supreme Patriarch gave Yantra an ultimatum: either he leave the monkhood voluntarily or be defrocked. Not only had he broken his vows of celibacy, but he was also accused of "claiming superhuman virtue" and of offending against religious propriety by removing his robes and, on a trip to Mongolia, actually costuming himself as Genghis Khan. Yantra refused to leave the monkhood voluntarily, and on 28 March the Patriarch finally did what the Wild Orchid girls in New Zealand had never succeeded in doing: defrockedYantra .

But Yantra refused to fade quietly away. Instead of accepting the humdrum reality of a layman's existence, Yantra clothed himself in a vivid, emerald- green robe and vanished into the rain forest with a band of die-hard followers. Unrepentant, he declared that being forced to leave his order was "only a change of clothes. Inside myself, I remain the same."

The same cannot be said of Thai society: its high regard for the Buddhist establishment has been badly shaken.

YANTRA'S last retreat is deep in the forest, a two-hour drive from Kanchanaburi, in north-west Thailand, past the bridge over the River Kwai. Much of the jungle beside the river has now been tamed and transformed into golf courses for middle-class Thai businessmen. But beyond the fairways and the tourist cabanas there rises a range of jagged hills that, in the mist, looks like a green dragon slumbering in its steam. Here it is that Yantra built Sunyataram, his jungle monastery, and here it was that, at a temple beside a small waterfall, I found some young monks stitching together an umbrella with an electric sewing-machine. Yantra's image was everywhere - photographs of him, in his pre-green period, were tacked up around the teak wood temple. I heard Yantra's voice too, played so loud on amplified speakers that it even drowned the buzz-saw screech of the cicadas. But his voice was only a recording; Yantra had fled Thailand.

His followers claim that Yantra, whose passport had been seized by the police, had cloaked himself with a mantle of invisibility that enabled him to slip unseen into Cambodia. Thai newspapers reported, more plausibly, that he had used a forged passport. From Phnom Penh, Yantra had flown to Singapore and from there to Los Angeles. Crossing time zones, he had exchanged his green robes for traditional yellow. No doubt, the papers suggested, somewhere in America, Yantra was still smiling.

Not everyone is so sure. Shortly after Yantra's disappearance, I was reading through old clippings in a Bangkok newspaper office when a librarian glanced over my shoulder at a file photograph of Yantra. "You know, it was funny," the librarian said. "Throughout everything, even when the news broke about his illegitimate daughter and all his lovers, Yantra never stopped smiling." And where was he now? I asked her. She drew a finger across her throat. "I think he's dead. Or if he isn't, he soon will be. Yantra made a lot of very powerful people look like fools."

Compared with the various baby-roasters and rapists whose deeds have been exposed since his fall, Yantra's transgressions seem fairly benign. Is it his fault, Yantra might argue, if an MP feels the need to fortify himself by gulping monk's urine? Or is he to blame if a woman follower is so gullible as to believe that sex with a guru might be a short-cut to Nirvana? In many respects, Yantra's rise and fall was a telling example of what is always liable to happen when Eastern religion, with its emphasis on the disciple's often rapt adoration of the guru, come into contact with the West's contemporary views on sexual politics - significantly, the women who initially exposed Phra Yantra were all Westerners. Yet there is something about his story that has deeply wounded Thai religious sensibilities. Every country has its Yantras, its robed rogues and spiritual conmen, and in many countries, from Spain and England to India, people have, over the centuries, developed a healthy suspicion of their clergy, enabling them to separate the message from the all-too-humanly flawed messenger. Buddhist Thailand has never felt the need for such dissociation - until now.

Thais will tell you with a straight face that when it comes to sex, theirs is a conservative society. It is, and it isn't. Thais insist that the girlie-bars of Patpong and the sex 'n' sand destinations of Phuket and Pattaya are an embarrassing aberration, a hang-over from the Vietnam War days when Thailand became a whoring haunt for GIs on leave. They point out that no Thai woman would ever dream of going topless on a beach and that even the bar-girls, when off duty, dress demurely. The GIs are long gone, but they have been replaced by sex tourists - in hundreds of thousands - from Europe, the US and Asia. Thailand's tourism industry would not go bust if all the bars and massage parlours were closed down, but sex is a multi-billion dollar money-spinner. Not only do the pimps, the bar owners, and the police all profit nicely, but so too do the girls, albeit to a far lesser degree. And although some families may disown their prostitute daughters, often the parents are only too happy to use their daughter's earnings to build a nicer house, to put a son through school or to help pay a grandmother's medical bills. It is not a conservative society so much as a forgiving society. Except, that is, when it involves the mischief of monks.

Belatedly, the Thai Buddhist clergy have taken the lesson of Yantra's disgrace to heart. Breaking centuries of tradition, they have set up a new school at which senior abbots can be taught how to reform errant monks. For the most part, though, it still seems to suit both the clergy and the Buddhist laity to pretend that scandals such as Yantra's don't exist. When a popular radio phone-in programme managed to arrange an on-air confrontation between Yantra and Chantima, his former mistress, the army, which controls the radio station in question, ordered the show terminated in mid-quarrel, on the grounds that it was making too many high-ranking people "unhappy".

The goal of Buddhism may be enlightenment, but that is a hard road to follow, involving much material sacrifice. Many Thais shoot for something simpler: for a better rebirth next time, one in which they will have a bigger house and a flashier car; and, to this end, they continue to buy blessed amulets and worship the monks as if they were gods themselves.

So what is Yantra's Magic Lotus worth today? Among the amulet-sellers of Bangkok, absolutely nothing. !