Sex and the Single Monk

In 2011, a community of Buddhist monks in Lowell announced plans to build one of the largest and grandest temples in the country. The $10 million structure would signal that the city’s Cambodian Americans had at last entered the mainstream. Then came accusations of financial impropriety and political backstabbing. And then came a secretly recorded video of a monk having sex.

By | Boston Magazine |
lowell monk sex video scandal

Sam Meas (left)and Denys Meung (right) are among the five defendants in Maya Men’s lawsuit. (Photograph by Mark Fleming)

Khon declined to be interviewed for this story. When I asked him via email about Meas’s version of events, he replied, “It saddens me to see any conflicts and unhealthy dispute within the Cambodian-American community. Our Cambodian people had been suffering too much already. We need to build a temple of peace and a center of renewal for our people.”

In any case, Meas was removed from the executive committee. Khoeun, who’d recruited him, sided with the CKBM, writing in an email to Meas that, “I can’t stand seeing a humble organization’s head monk being harassed, intimidated, humiliated, and looked downed by a non-Buddhist Khmer American, or anyone else for that matter, at all!” Sambath Soum, who’d been so moved by the clearing and burning of brush from the temple site, resigned from the board. “We were puppets,” he told me.

Meas went to both the Sun and the AG’s office with a two-page letter. But Khoeun and the monks were largely unfazed. By the spring, the CKBM was busy planning its celebration of the Cambodian New Year at the end of April, when it would hold a large fundraiser for the temple project. Then, just before the weekend of April 5, everything changed.

 

There was nothing especially sexy about the sex tape that staggered the Lower Highlands neighborhood. The video opens on a small, shabby room with plywood walls. A woman is lying on a mattress on the floor. There’s a knock on the door and a portly monk in his robe enters. The man begins rubbing the woman’s back, clothing is removed, and soon enough buttocks are going up and down. The video ends with what its editor might have considered the money shot: a full frontal view of the man and the woman, exposing their faces and their naked bodies. To anyone familiar with the pair, it sure looked like Maya Men and Nhem Kimteng, the Buddhist scholar on the CKBM’s temple executive committee.

A few days after a DVD of the video started showing up in Cambodian video stores and mailboxes, an email went out to thousands of recipients. The email included links to the video as well as to an audio recording of someone purported to be Men (the material was taken down within hours). “You can see a love triangle, and even triple angles, meaning she had sex with at least more than two monks,” the email claimed. “It has been believed that Sao Khon is also among her sex slaves.” Men, the email stated, was “a sucking and stealing leech having sex with monks and stealing our money.” It also alleged that another CKBM monk, Cheng Leang, was behind the circulation of the video and audio recordings. “He turned them into the public, while he himself is among the scandal,” the email stated.

Most Cambodians practice Theravada Buddhism, in which monks are held to an especially high standard when it comes to renouncing carnal and material desires. Having sex is right there alongside murder and stealing as causes for being expelled from the monkhood. A monk, one local leader told me, is not supposed to even touch his mother. If she’s drowning, he’s supposed to use a rope to help her. So whoever circulated the video probably understood the reaction it was likely to provoke. On April 13, Cambodians took to the streets with handpainted signs in Khmer and English reading, “Stop using our temple to scam our community.” Some signs had the word “sex” crossed out in a circle. At one point, a woman broke into a Cambodian folk song with the lyrics, “Don’t fall in love with a monk,” prompting laughs and cheers. A couple of days later, local leaders and politicians expressed their outrage at a public gathering. Members of the community also had their say. One woman who said she had worked closely with Men on the temple project likened her to a “prostitute.”

In late April, the CKBM convened an emergency meeting. Many in the community had called for Maya Men and Nhem Kimteng to be expelled from the CKBM, but in a statement in English and Khmer released after the board meeting, the Venerable Sao Khon concluded that “there is no one who witnesses it; no one who heard about it; and no one claimed that such activities had really happened.” As for any questions about the temple’s finances, the board found “the financial reports and the bookkeeping records to be in good order.”

Even Khon’s supporters, such as Rithy Uong, the former Lowell city councilor, called the verdict a betrayal. Others read the decision to keep Men and Kimteng in the fold as a confirmation of rumors that had been circulating about him at least since the community meeting earlier in the month. At that meeting, a man named Seng Sankim came forward to say that he’d been a volunteer driver and assistant for the CKBM in 2009 and 2010. He described walking into the monks’ quarters one day at the Trairatanaram Temple—the same place where the sex tape is alleged to have been recorded—and surprising the Venerable Sao Khon and Men, who he said was half naked. Khon ran out, Sankim said, telling him that he was “coining” Men because she was very sick. Coining is a traditional healing practice that involves scraping coins along the skin. (Maya Men denied to me that Khon did any coining. She said that she had fallen ill, and that there were three other women in the room.) “He [Khon] told me he was coining, but I don’t believe it,” Sankim later told me. “I think he’s running away from making love.”

 

A week and a half after the sex video came out, Men filed a lawsuit. Her suit named five people, including the monk Cheng Leang, but singled out Sam Meas as the “ringleader” of the group behind the video. Meas is characterized in the suit as a frustrated politician who was furious he hadn’t been given the executive director’s job for the Vatt Khmer. “Meas sought through a method of creating a controversy, to aggrandize himself to the Cambodian community and thus breathe life into his failing political ambitions,” the suit stated.

“Meas wanted to be dictator,” James Boumil, the CKBM attorney who is also representing Men, told me. “When they told him [to] drop dead, in essence, he went berserk, and here we are.” I was interviewing both Men and Boumil at Boumil’s office in the wealthy Lowell neighborhood of Belvidere. Boumil said he’s representing only Men in the lawsuit, and that the CKBM has nothing to do with it. He and Men do not believe that Meas actually recorded the secret video, but they insist that he was involved in the plan to distribute it. (Meas told me that there had been a discussion about an executive director position, but insisted that he’d never explicitly asked for the job, and said he’d never been spiteful about not getting it.)