Escondido's Thai Buddhist monk, Winai Amaro

Lived with corpses in a cave

He's been accused of pretty much everything that could destroy a religious leader: financial misdealing, heresy, lying, insubordination, sexual sin. Angry mobs have burnt chili and salt in a ritual effort to curse his name. Lurid "docudramas" featuring "dramatic re-enactments" of his alleged visits to Australian brothels have been broadcast again and again to millions. Headlines have called him "vile beast," "persistently stubborn," and "son of a bitch." The U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service and the Thai government have called him a "rogue monk" and "one of the most wanted men in Thailand."

Given everything that's been said about 46-year-old Venerable Winai Amaro, in person he's something of a disappointment. Sitting cross-legged on the floor, daubing at a dog's muddy paws with a Kleenex, Winai doesn't seem like a cunning, smooth-talking sex machine. He seems sweet and cheerful and docile -- he seems like, well, what you'd expect a Buddhist monk to be. Harmless.

If he's misspending his followers' donations, he's not lavishing them on the Escondido monastery where he's lived for the past three years. The monastery's setting is beautiful, however. Off a two-lane road a mile or so east of I-15, the monastery's 13 acres overlook the Pala mountains and are lush with bergamot, pomelo, and kumquat trees heavy with fruit and shiny with rain. The monastery itself is a lackluster, two-story stucco structure built sometime in the 1970s. The upstairs area where Winai and six monks live and work looks more like a college dorm than an international criminal's hideout. Dusty boxes of books and Buddhist tchochkes fill the main room. The carpet could use shampooing. Two dogs, Tiger and Lion, trot in and out at will, daubing the carpet with muddy paw prints. From the windows and sliding-glass doors behind the small area where Winai sits when he receives guests, you can see the Pala mountains and, in the foreground, among the fruit trees, a few of the blue-tarpaulin tents -- the klot -- in which Winai and his monks sleep. This rustic touch is intentional; Winai was a "forest" monk.

Monks are revered in Thailand, which is 95 percent Buddhist and a country where the division between church and state authority is not always clear. Thai monks can be divided into roughly two categories: urban monks, whose lives revolve mostly around study; and forest monks, whose lives are centered around Buddhist practice. From the beginning of his religious journey, Winai sought peace and nonattachment in Thailand's rural areas -- lonely islands, jungles, forests -- on long, soggy treks across mountain trails. A devoted student of life's transience, he camped in cemeteries and at one point lived for six months with the corpses of ten men and women in a cave, where he contemplated their decay. His biography says of this sojourn, "These rotten corpses became bloated, and blood and bodily fluids exuded. The smell of the rotten flesh pervaded the cave. To expose and search for the internal organs for contemplation, he cut open the rotten bodies, removed some organs and preserved them in liquid. Living side by side with these corpses and practicing the recommended contemplations enabled Winai to make good progress in the way of [Dharma]."

Living side-by-side with these corpses no doubt prepared Winai to serenely confront corruption of a more mundane variety.

As he evolved from searcher to ordained monk -- crisscrossing Thailand on foot, stopping only to study or meditate or teach Buddhist principles -- Winai developed a following. By the mid-1980s he was a somewhat popular personality in Thailand, known for his sincerity and his ability to communicate esoteric Buddhist teaching in practical, everyday terms. By the early 1990s his name was known to virtually everyone in Thailand, he had established 15 meditation centers around the country and abroad, had tens of thousands of followers, and had attracted the attention of Thailand's military and bureaucratic elite.

Religion and authority have long been intertwined in Thailand. In the early 1800s, for example, Prince Mongkut, of The King and I fame, spent 14 years as the abbot of a Bangkok monastery before becoming the king of Siam. Even Western-educated Bhumipol Adulyadej, the present king of Thailand, spent several weeks as a monk in the mid-1950s. The Thai king is considered the protector of Buddhism -- and the Thai government keeps an administrative hand in spiritual matters through the Ministry of Education's Department of Religious Affairs. The term "Thai government," however, is an ambiguous one, because for many decades Thai political life has consisted of a long series of coups d'état. In 1991, the Thai military once again seized power from yet another government, and by the spring of 1992 the Thai people had had enough and demanded an end to military control. The military didn't agree: in May 1992, soldiers killed at least 50 pro-democracy demonstrators.

If you ask Winai now why he decided to speak out against the killings, he says he doesn't remember. He says he doesn't think it was an exceptional or brave thing to do.

"I've spent my life teaching Buddhism, teaching the truth. I don't think it was unusual for a Buddhist to say that killing people was wrong."

But it was unusual for a Thai Buddhist to say that killing was wrong during an interview taped by a 60 Minutes TV crew, especially when the Thai military was responsible for the killing in question.

To the American ear, Winai's remarks on 60 Minutes, and ones he later made to his followers, sound inconsequential. Moreover, they sound like precisely the sort of thing you'd expect a Buddhist monk to say. Winai encouraged the military government to cooperate with pro-democracy demonstrators. Winai said the main problems in Thailand were "greed and hatred." Winai criticized government corruption, government involvement in liquor, gambling, and prostitution. He said Buddhists shouldn't be involved in liquor, gambling, and prostitution. He encouraged government officials to be honest. He suggested that all Thais practice nonviolence.

Instead of ignoring him, the Thai government took a very active interest in what Winai had to say. In 1994-1995, Winai was inundated with all sorts of accusations, most having to do with his allegedly having broken his vow of celibacy and with a criminal charge of having "defamed unnamed government officials and the Supreme Patriarch of Thailand." The Thai media, which are operated by the government and the military, had a field day. The ensuing national hysteria was so violent and prolonged that it could only have occurred in a country where, as the U.S. State Department reports, politicians routinely bribe journalists, police routinely take bribes, and radio stations are required by law to broadcast government-produced newscasts four times daily.

Despite the fact that no one could produce any evidence that Winai had fooled around or filched money or had "defamed unnamed government officials and the Supreme Patriarch of Thailand," media and governmental persecution were so relentless that Winai fled to the United States in July 1995. But his troubles didn't end here. Under pressure from the Thai government, the INS has repeatedly sought to deport Winai to Thailand, even after United States immigration judge Rico Bartolomei granted Winai political asylum in June 1997. The INS has since appealed Bartolomei's decision. Two weeks ago, the INS and Peter Schey, Winai's L.A.-based attorney, filed briefs on the matter with the U.S. Department of Justice Executive Office for Immigration Review Board of Immigration Appeals. A decision could take weeks, months, or even years.

Winai doesn't seem much worried about the outcome. On Sunday mornings when 50 or so of his followers -- mostly middle-aged Thai men and women from San Diego, Orange, and L.A. Counties -- fill the monastery's "chanting room," Winai lectures them at length about "peace of mind."

"Worry about the past or the future," he says, "are a kind of desire, an attachment to the material world." In the Buddhist scheme of things, the material world is illusory, and so it would be useless to worry about an illusion. Perhaps Winai has a point. Peter Schey says that recently something happened that may make it possible for Winai to remain in America. An INS office in Laguna Niguel, after reviewing Winai's application, is poised to grant him a "religious worker" visa. If it goes through, the visa would save the image-conscious Thai government the embarrassment of having one of its citizens granted political asylum in the United States, and it would save the INS the embarrassment of seeing its questionable appeal denied by the Immigration Review Board.

"Everyone," Schey says, "would be happy."

"Eventually," Winai says, "I would like to go back to Thailand."

In the meantime, Winai pads around the monastery's grounds, stopping to pull and crush a leaf from a bergamot tree and smell its citrusy perfume. He meditates. He teaches yoga. He lectures on nonattachment.

Up on the monastery's second floor the late afternoon light grows dim. Winai finishes cleaning the dog's dirty paws. Cold wind rattles the windows and Winai pulls his mustard-green robe over his shoulders. He shivers.

"It is cold here," he says. "I am surprised."

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