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When Buddhist monks cheat in exams

by PHRA PAISAN VISALO, Bangkok Post, April 23, 2008

Bangkok, Thailand -- Cheating in university exams has become incredibly widespread, complicated and high-tech these days. Truth be told, exam cheating has become a form of lucrative business, second probably only to the multi-million-baht tutoring industry.

<< "Cheating in examinations" disease have also inflicted monks

Remember the widely reported news about students who cheated in the O-Net exam with the help of a high-tech wristwatch? An investigation revealed that a six-digit amount had been paid to the gang which provided the cheating service. What is more shocking is the fact that it was the students' parents who paid for it.

That Thai parents are conspiring to help their children cheat in exams points to an astonishing drop in the country's morality and strength of the family as a social institute. This is because the family unit not only has the responsibility of raising the young so they can survive physically, but also has to instil in them moral codes, the ability to distinguish between good and bad and the courage to do the right thing.

This less-than-commendable parental act, however, pales in comparison to a similar form of deceit by an institution generally expected to uphold a higher and even stricter moral standard _ the institute of the Buddhist monks.

Cheating in exams has been an open secret among monks and novices for a long time, especially when it comes to the examination of the three grades of Dharma study (Nak Dharma) held in rural provinces.

During these exams, monks were seen openly asking one another the answers to questions, smuggling in books, and even sending in a substitute to take the exam for them.

Lately, this trickery has spread to the Pali language examination, too (the test of knowledge in translating the Tripitaka and Commentary). There have been reports of monks making phone calls to people outside the exam room to check for the right answers to the quiz.

Worse, all these mentioned attempts to get high scores by unethical means usually happen right before the eyes of the exam monitors, who are almost always ranking monks. Not only are these senior monks not doing what they can to suppress and discourage such acts of treachery, some of them reportedly condone it or actively give these cheaters a helping hand. Some of the exam monitors are even said to have given out the correct answers themselves, at times. At other times, they simply wrote them on the blackboard (while reminding the exam-takers to hurry up because they had business to attend to).

The latest instance of this occurred in a province in the North. The exam monitor actually went to the trouble of printing copies of a list of all the answers to the quiz and distributed them to some of his friends who were sitting that exam.

It is common knowledge that exam cheating among monks has become most widespread and, for lack of a better word, ''systematised'' in the Northeast, to the point that any monk who takes the exam in these provinces can be sure of passing it, because a quiz-cracked list is usually given to the whole room of exam-takers along with the questions.

While some exam inspectors do not want to be part of this corrupt system, they have no choice but to turn a blind eye to it because they are usually outnumbered by those who condone it.

Some who tried to obstruct the cheating received threats from local monks, along the lines of: ''You might not get to return to your temple if you don't just mind your own business.''

These events may appear outrageous to people outside the Buddhist monastic circle, but the senior monks responsible for the Sangha's education have all been aware of them. No serious attempt has been made to rectify the situation, however. Complaints have been lodged against exam inspectors who conspired in the cheating, but they have returned to keep a watch on the tests, year after year.

It does appear that cheating in exams by monks and novices is even more widespread than that by lay people. What is not certain is how many of the monks are reported or punished? And whether these monks and novices realise that it is an immoral act (even if it is not specified in the Five Precepts or 227 vinayas)?

Needless to say, this widespread cheating by monks and novices in their exams is but a reflection of the decline in the Sangha's ethics. What are the causes? I am sure there are many, but only a few are worth mentioning here.

Chief among these is the monks' failed educational system. Obviously, the system cannot make our monks and novices distinguish between good and evil. In fact, the teaching has made them look at exam cheating as an acceptable thing.

And if the monks' educational system fails to indoctrinate them in basic ethical and moral values, how can they succeed in the more complex study of the Scriptures?

The Sangha (or Ecclesiastical Council) has not been able to show monks and novices what good the study of dharma and Pali language can bring to their lives. In the past, graduates of dharma studies or people who mastered even the beginner's level of the Pali language could probably use the qualification to find jobs once they resigned from the monkhood. The knowledge is useless at present. It can't even help one become a postman.

The only incentive for monks to study the higher levels of Pali is to receive ecclesiastic honorific titles. The clergy might have succeeded in persuading young monks to stay in the monkhood long enough in the past to want to move up the ladder, but it cannot provide any such impetus at present. These days, most people seek ordination for the chance to receive an education so that they can find employment once they quit the monkhood. They don't intend to stay in the temples for a long time.

As most monks and novices do not see any value in the dharma and Pali studies, they don't pay attention. Coupled with the fact that there are so many distractions out there that can lure them from class, they usually end up with very little knowledge. The result is that they are almost surely destined to flunk their exams _ unless the temples or dharma schools give them a bit of a helping hand.

And the temples or schools have every reason to help their monks. Having more students graduating in dharma studies mean more prestige and bigger budgets.

The temple's interest runs contrary to that of the monks, however. Since the monks don't care much about these exams, many of them simply don't take them. Each year, up to 30% of exam-takers are absent. Less than 20% of them pass. This gradually declining number of graduates may be the reason why the authorities are doing everything to ensure that it does not drop further, at least to keep their face.

But are they fighting a losing battle here? If monks and novices can't see how to apply the dharma and Pali studies to their lives, why doesn't the Sangha Council try to update the course and make it more relevant?

One reason is that most senior monks in the Sangha Council have grown up with this system. They may also want to preserve it out of respect for the late Supreme Patriarch Somdet Phra Vajirananavarorasa, who laid down the curriculum 90 years ago.

By trying to prolong the out-of-date system, however, they have given rise to the prevalent cheating.

The question is: of what use is it, if we have a lot of monks and novices who manage to graduate from dharma study classes, but who also have developed the habit of cheating?

How can these cheating monks serve as the hope of the Sangha, let alone society?

A reform of the monks' education is a long overdue task. It is time for us to decide whether we want to see the quality of our monks and novices continue to decline, for the sake of propping up an antiquated educational system? Do we dare review an inherited course of study so that we can reform it?

The respected monk, Venerable Phra Dhammapitaka (P A Payutto) advised a while back that the education of monks should be divided into three levels. The first is basic knowledge about Buddhism, which should be made compulsory for all monks. The next level should be based on the state's secondary school syllabus so that monks can continue their education on to college level once they leave the temple.

The third level is for those who wish to stay in the monkhood for a long time. This would be an advanced study of the Pali language. We may have fewer monks who would want to go on to this level, but they would be of far better quality because they would choose to do it themselves. Once they know what they are doing, the fraud would not be necessary.

When Somdet Phra Vajirananavarorasa initiated the last reform of the monks' education, his goal was to give the monks: ''knowledge which would guide their own behaviour and help them to teach lay people better, and which would help them to behave in a good and decent way when they resign from the monkhood, which would not make them enemies of the government because they have been taught and trained in the way of the Dharma that should serve as their moral compass.''

This exam cheating among monks, which is so widespread that it has become common practice, is an indicator that the system which the former Supreme Patriarch established almost a century ago, has failed completely.

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Phra Paisan Visalo is a noted author and Sangha member who founded Thailand's Buddhika network for engaged Buddhism.



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