SPEAKING IN TONGUES
By Andrew Biggs
Thailand is reeling with another monk-in-sheep’s-clothing scandal.
A monk is flying on a private jet to Europe for a shopping spree. That was after he made a TV ad for an air purifier. Not bad for a guy who’s taken a vow of poverty and whose wardrobe consists of three saffron robes; why go all the way to Paris to buy those?
This is what happens when we worship men more than religion.
I’m very familiar with religious charlatans, growing up in the southern suburbs of Brisbane, Australia, where travelling preachers would ride into town, or rather fly in on TAA or Ansett business class.
When I was little, my siblings and I used to love it when our parents would head off into the night for some swish Sunnybank dinner party where Devils-On-Horseback were the hors d’oevres and flummery the dessert.
It meant our beloved baby sitter would look after us for a few hours.
Her name was Mrs Spence, a really old lady of 35 or so (I was 13 at the time) with a bob of grey hair and warm and friendly manner.
Mrs Spence was a devout Christian. This was in direct contrast to my own family, whose idea of a “Holy Trinity” was a hat trick of English batsmen out during the Ashes.
One time she mentioned a travelling preacher was coming to Sunnybank for “charismatic renewal” and would I like to come along? I was on the tail end of my Suzi Quatro obsession and was looking for something new so I said yes.
Thus one Saturday afternoon, Mrs Spence and I went to a charismatic renewal service at the local Methodist Church.
The church was packed. I remember it being a carnival atmosphere, with the focus on a slick, handsome man in a heavy suit who told us, flashing a killer smile, how he’d once lived a life of crime stealing cars and indeed, ever since I have never been able to separate men who steal cars from those who sell them.
This preacher exuded charisma as he told us how he found God in jail.
“Do you have any troubles in your life?” he shouted. “Let Jesus resolve them!”
He invited the congregation to move to the front where he would place one hand on people’s foreheads, after which they fell to the ground and proceeded to “speak in tongues”.
“What are they saying?” I asked Mrs Spence.
“The ancient language of the Lord,” she replied, clutching a sensible handbag in her lap.
“I’m going up there,” I told Mrs Spence.
I made my way out of the pew and up to the altar. The preacher man was shouting “He is risen!” and “Hosanna In the Highest!”
One by one the Sunnybank folk fell back, caught by his henchmen staff, as he got closer and closer to me. There were two more ahead.
“The Lord will protect you!”
I held my arms up, copying the others. The preacher laid his right palm on my forehead.
A strange tingling feeling instantly emanated from his palm. It seemed to fan out throughout my skull and down my spine. I fell backwards.
As I was laid on the ground, I began to speak in tongues.
“Mashimmina shimmina takka-dakka-mashimmina”
After a while I stopped. Walking back to the pew I was a changed boy. I had found God.
Mrs Spence was thrilled. She set up a meeting with Father John at St Barnabus, where he invited me to be an altar boy. This was the Anglican Church so being an altar boy wasn’t the shadowy, regret-for-the-rest-of-your-life position found in other places.
For a good few weeks I floated around school holier than thou, thinking a lot about Jesus and being in heaven where I’d be able to say “mishimmina” for eternity far away from the fires of Hades. Why he had chosen to “Out Lucifer!” me, as opposed to the more positive “Praise Jesus!” he bestowed on others, remains a mystery.
Not long after, something went wrong with my Super 8 projector. I removed the back of the projector and discovered a piece of film was stuck. I reached in to pull it out … and got the electric shock of my life.
The same feeling I got from the preacher man.
It didn’t take long for me to put two and two together.
No wonder he was wearing long sleeves on that hot Queensland day. No wonder he kept his palm closed as he placed it on our foreheads before pushing us back. I hadn’t found God … but I was definitely a little closer to Benjamin Franklin.
And so began my healthy distrust of all people religious, especially those who demand payment. Poor Mrs Spence, a widow surviving on a pension, gave an extraordinary amount of money to that preacher’s henchmen as we walked out.
This week Thailand is grappling with a monk by the name of Nane-Kham who has an amazing following out in Si Sa Ket.
He’s the guy who flew to Europe in a private jet because there just isn’t enough room in Thai Airways economy class. For that I don’t disagree; the only difference between him and me is I didn’t take a vow of poverty.
This is a monk who once built a giant Buddha image at his temple in this impoverished North-eastern province.
“I need some gold to make clothing for the Buddha,” he announced to his faithful clan, made up predominantly of women above the age of 35.
How much gold do you think his ardent followers managed to toss his way? Ten kilograms? A hundred kilograms?
Try nine thousand kilograms.
For the last few weeks he was back in the news, as this charismatic monk flew to France in a private jet.
If that wasn’t enough, a couple of days ago he made an advertisement for an air purifier! Honestly, it was straight out of the shopping channel.
“We monks have hectic lives, getting up early and collecting alms, then seeing followers, which can make us sick,” says Nane-Kham, as he sits in a gold embossed chair.
Beside him is a black plastic thing with FRESH AIR written next to it. In the bottom left hand corner of the screen the brand name VOLLARA comes up.
“When I’m feeling a bit run down, I turn to this machine, Fress Air.” Fress … his pronunciation, not mine.
We cut to shots of monks in hospitals.
“Thailand has 300,000 to 400,000 monks and they get sick often. Why not make merit by purchasing a Fress Air air purifier? I’ve been given many different brands but this one is the best.”
With cheesy music in the background we see that sea of mature ladies in white, doting on his every word. They are smiling, but not as much as the CEO of Vollara must be.
Nobody knows where the Buddha is buried, though fragments of his bones can be found in temples scattered across the region.
Authentic? I have no idea. But I do know all those little fragments must be turning in their graves. It’s enough to make you want to speak in tongues.
(Note: Nane Kham ended up being defrocked and is now serving a jail sentence.)