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

Still-frame images from a tape that allegedly shows a Lowell monk having sex.

The Cambodians who began moving to Lowell in the early 1980s followed a well-worn path laid by the Irish, the French-Canadians, and the Greeks who had come before them. Unlike these earlier waves of immigrants, however, the Cambodians arrived as refugees, fleeing a Khmer Rouge regime responsible for killing as many as 2.5 million people. The city they settled in, once a booming center of textile manufacturing, had long since seen its mills go dark. Assimilation for Cambodian immigrants was a decades-long struggle. Their community was plagued by gang violence, drugs, unemployment, and the lingering cultural trauma of genocide. More recent years, though, have been kinder.

The community is clustered in a neighborhood called the Lower Highlands, where signs written in Khmer line a gritty business district of shops and restaurants that’s sometimes referred to as Cambodia Town. Yet the people who live in the area have lately become quite assertive in joining the rest of the city and the wider world. Jumping into the bare-knuckle, clannish slugfest that is Lowell politics, they’ve elected two Cambodians to the city council since 1999, and may vote to send a third there next month. Today, Lowell is home to as many as 35,000 Cambodians, a third of the city’s population and the second-largest such community in the country, behind only the one in Long Beach, California.

The Cambodians who arrived 30 years ago as refugees, in other words, are now integrated into the fabric of Lowell. And so in 2011, they announced a plan to build a gleaming house of worship to herald their arrival, much as the immigrant communities before them had erected churches and synagogues. The Vatt Khmer Lowell would be built in a style reminiscent of Angkor Wat, the 900-year-old temple complex that is Cambodia’s most famous monument. The brainchild of an organization called the Community of Khmer Buddhist Monks, the $10 million temple would be a gleaming white structure on stilts, its scalloped stupa—a pagoda-like tower—rising over a forest clearing near the Merrimack River. It would serve as a place of worship, a monastery for monks from Cambodia and other countries, and a cultural center for Khmer arts, history, and language. Perhaps most important, though rarely spoken of in non-Cambodian circles, was the hope that the temple would also help unite an immigrant community with a history of ugly feuding.

lowell monk sex video scandal

An artist’s rendering of the proposed temple, which was to be built in the style of Angkor Wat, Cambodia’s most famous monument.

Lowell’s Community of Khmer Buddhist Monks, known as the CKBM, established a board to oversee its temple project, and selected one of its members, the highly regarded Buddhist scholar Nhem Kimteng, to join the executive committee. Among a number of other board members was Maya Men, a CKBM volunteer who had moved to the city a couple of years earlier from Providence. Men told me that her passion for the project in Lowell stemmed from a treatment of “special herbs” that the CKBM’s head monk, the Venerable Sao Khon, had used to heal her after she was diagnosed with cancer in 2008 and given just months to live. After that, she told me, “I promised myself if I have energy, anything, I would help the temple.”

To round out the board, the CKBM recruited professionals and other Cambodians from outside the insular religious community. Emerging as a leader of this faction was a charismatic financial consultant and fledgling politician named Sam Meas. From the outset, Meas told me, he recognized a kind of cultural disconnect on the board. Practices he’d learned in the business world seemed lost on the CKBM monks. “I had to explain taking minutes,” he said. “They didn’t have their books in order.” Still, he, Maya Men, and the prominent community leader Samkhann Khoeun presented a united front when they sat down for a video-recorded interview with the editor of the Lowell Sun to explain the project and solicit support from the general public. “With respect to transparency,” Meas told the editor, glancing at his colleagues on his left and right, “we’ll be documenting everything that’s coming in and going out.” Meas would later tell me that his interest in the temple “was selfish in a way. I want to make Cambodian Americans proud of what we have. We don’t have a Cambodian school, we don’t have a cultural center to teach the Cambodian-American culture.” The temple, he said, would be more than a place of worship, it would be a symbol of unity.

Instead, nearly three years after it was first conceptualized, the project has reopened old wounds and ripped Lowell’s Cambodian community apart. Lawsuits have been filed with sordid allegations of financial improprieties involving CKBM and, most shocking, videotaped sexual hijinks involving a monk. Far from making an emergent community proud, the temple has so far been a source of outrage and embarrassment for the city’s Cambodians.

 

The CKBM was founded in 1994 by the Venerable Sao Khon, who was born in a village near Ankgor Wat in 1934. Wiry and intense, Khon has traveled the world as a leading figure in the Engaged Buddhism movement, which applies the principles of the religion to promote human rights and social justice. Khon started the CKBM in an effort to create a national network of Cambodian temples and a hierarchy of monks—a kind of Buddhist Vatican. The precise number of CKBM temples is not known, but there are a handful in the region. And when plans for the Vatt Khmer Lowell were announced in early 2011, it was envisioned as the largest and finest Buddhist temple in the country.

lowell monk sex video scandal

Maya Men (left) was accused of having sex with a monk. “If this happens in Cambodia,” said Sovann Khon (right), “the monk and the lady could be dead.” (Photograph by Mark Fleming)

To make that vision a reality, the group was going to have to raise $10 million. Maya Men, who is in her mid-forties, was charged with leading the temple’s fundraising drive, and by all accounts, she has done a fine job. A “money tree” ceremony she organized raised more than $128,000, an unheard-of amount for a single day, and she was also responsible for overseeing a program that sought to raise even more money by charging $100 each for 84,000 ceramic Buddhas to be engraved with donors’ names and placed on permanent display in the temple.

With fundraising under way in the summer of 2011, the CKBM settled on a location for the temple, 12 acres situated a quarter-mile from the north bank of the Merrimack River, and entered into negotiations with the owner, the wealthy property manager and developer Richard Boyle. The monks were so excited that in September, even before the deal was finalized, they and their lay associates began clearing brush and dragging branches to a fire pit. Sambath Soum, a member of the temple project’s development executive committee, told me that the experience was profoundly moving. “It reminded me of back in Cambodia,” he said. “It brought back memories of the camp on the border. This is how we escaped the war. We cut down trees and made a camp, made an open pit fire. This brought people together…. It would be a new temple.”

Before long, however, city inspectors showed up and cited the group for clearing trees, having a fire pit, and erecting a tent without permits. In fact, it was growing increasingly clear that doing anything at all on the site, let alone building a massive temple, was going to be complicated. The land was a wetland, densely covered by red maple, white pine, blueberry bushes, and ferns, and it was well within the city’s floodplain. Adding to the problems, the residents’ association in the mostly white, middle-class neighborhood of Pawtucketville had grown alarmed by the project. The plans for the site were going to have to be approved by the state Department of Environmental Protection and endorsed by the local conservation commission, which was sympathetic to the concerns of the neighbors.

The CKBM, aware of what lay ahead, hired two well-connected local attorneys, Arthur Sullivan and the former state Senator Steven Panagiotakos, to work on the $1.25 million purchase of the land. Typically, the buyers of such a challenging piece of real estate seek some provision to ensure that the agreed-upon price is due only if they’re able to get the permits they’re after. But Sullivan told me that no such provision was included in the deal, and that the CKBM seemed eager to get the whole thing done. The transaction was finalized in December 2011, and included a notable wrinkle. Boyle, the seller, lent the CKBM the money to buy his land, and required just a $50,000 down payment. Boyle’s right-hand man, a lawyer named James Boumil, told me that Boyle has long been in the business of financing his real estate deals, including other ones in the Cambodian community. Not long after the land deal was finalized, Boumil began representing the monks as well. He insisted that the permitting issues have been overblown by critics of the CKBM project. “It’sall politics,” he said.

 

Whatever the questions about the permitting, the Cambodian community remained united behind the temple—with the exception of one faction that was well acquainted with the Venerable Sao Khon and his CKBM: his downstairs neighbors. For more than a decade, Khon and his congregation had maintained their headquarters in the Trairatanaram Temple in North Chelmsford, a three-story clapboard building near the western edge of Lowell. In 1999, Khon had the deed to the building transferred to the CKBM, a maneuver that set off a seven-year legal battle with the temple’s board. The building was ultimately divided into an “upstairs group”—the CKBM—and a “downstairs group,” the Trairatanaram board.

Thel Sar, a lay leader of the downstairs group, no longer uses the honorific when he refers to Khon, who is 79. “He’s like a gangster monk,” Sar, who is a probation officer, told me.

The upstairs group has lay leaders of its own, including Rithy Uong, the first Cambodian American to serve on the Lowell City Council, and a local Democratic power broker. They claimed to police that Dararith Ung, of the downstairs group, had spent more than $20,000 of the temple’s funds on personal expenses. (Speaking to the Lowell Sun, the downstairs temple claimed the money was a loan, and would be paid back.) In 1992, Ung became the first Cambodian police officer in Lowell, but he was kicked off the force in 2008 for making false statements to a superior officer and neglect of duty. Ung told me that his dismissal stemmed mostly from a personality conflict with the chief.

These men don’t spend a great deal of time at the temple, which is regularly occupied by the monks of the two congregations and their respective volunteers, usually older women who prepare the daily meals. They tend to avoid the politics of the place, but members of the downstairs congregation say they couldn’t help but notice when Maya Men started coming to the temple around 2009. She seemed to come and go as she pleased at the CKBM monastery, while they, in keeping with Buddhist dogma, avoided eye contact with the monks. Soon there was whispering about the relationship between Men and the monks, including the Venerable Sao Khon.

In October 2011, the downstairs congregation renewed the lawsuit against the upstairs group, and included a complaint originally filed with the state Attorney General’s Office that includes a scattershot of grievances. “It is believed she [Men] maintains a romantic relationship with Sao Khon (a monk),” the complaint to the AG stated, “and that she assists with the control of these monies and likely involved [sic] in the misappropriation of funds.”

 

Sam Meas, who is 41, lives in Haverhill, about half an hour to the north of Lowell. In 2010, he became the first Cambodian American to ever run for Congress. He was trounced in the Republican primary, but carries himself with an air of infectious confidence. Though Meas sat on the board overseeing the CKBM’s temple project, he didn’t begin involving himself in its day-to-day activities until he started to hear complaints from vendors claiming that they hadn’t been paid by the CKBM.

Meas told me that when he asked to see the group’s books, he was rebuffed by Maya Men. Finally, Samkhann Khoeun—who’d recruited Meas to serve on the board in the first place—showed him some of the records, and what Meas saw troubled him. He told me that there were multiple credit cards in the name of the Venerable Sao Khon, and that Men kept cash stored in two safes. Soon after, Meas learned that Men had moved into a house she’d bought not far from the temple site. How, he wondered, could a woman with no job, who acknowledged that she was on disability, afford the $250,000 home? The property, it turned out, had been purchased in the names of Men’s 21-year-old son and her nephew, with a mortgage provided by Richard Boyle. As for the $50,000 down payment, Men said, no temple money was used in the purchase.

Meas told me that he demanded an independent audit of the CKBM books, but that Kheoun refused to submit to one. In August 2012, Meas authored an “options of last resort” document. Agree to the audit, he wrote, or he would go to the press and the state Attorney General’s Office. “Our financial book must be open and transparent so that we can instill the trust and faith in the vision and goals of CKBM and collectively can raise the money to build our Vatt Khmer Lowell,” Meas wrote in an email to several of the board and committee members. Meas and Khon crossed paths not long after. “He called me a devil,” Meas told me, “and said I shouldn’t be coming here and creating a revolution. For a monk to say that—his words, his actions, the way he pointed his finger. It impugned my integrity, my principles.”

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.)

lowell monk sex video scandal

In September, a CKBM temple fundraiser drew demonstrators. (Photograph by Mark Fleming)

Just as was alleged in the email that appeared days after the sex video, Men accuses Cheng Leang of making the video. She told me that the Venerable Sao Khon had provided Leang with $5,000 worth of video equipment, to document CKBM events. Men, whose first language is Khmer, told me that she doesn’t care about the stares she gets these days around town. “I been through a lot of difficulty in my life, go through divorce, escape, running before get to freedom in this country,” she said. “This is not the first for me, getting attacked. We don’t want to fight our own people, for what? We escaped from the war.” But that didn’t mean she was going to just accept what happened without fighting back, she said. “If somebody take picture of your naked body and send out to the world, you feel the same thing,” she said. “I do a lot of meditation first before I decide this.”

Men insisted that she never had any inappropriate contact with the Venerable Sao Khon. Referring specifically to the allegations of Sankim, the former CKBM driver, she laughed. “It’s not true,” she said. “People can say anything they want. Let them come to court and testify. This is just talk.”

Men’s suit alleges that Cheng Leang made the recording and that he and another monk left it at a shop owned by Sovann Khon, a wedding photographer who is also being sued by Men and who is not related to the Venerable Sao Khon. When I asked Khon about that version of events, he told me that Leang entered his shop in late March and showed him the video. He said the monk told him that he was upset about what was going on at the temple, then left without giving him the video or a copy of it. Khon insisted that he’d played no part in distributing the DVD, but said that he, too, was troubled by it. “This is life and death,” he told me. “If this happens in Cambodia, the monk and the lady could be dead. But in this country, we have the law. Still they ruin our culture and tradition. People may not believe anymore.”

 

On May 1 of this year, Cheng Leang sat in his saffron monk’s robe in the witness stand of a Lowell Superior Court chamber. James Boumil acknowledged Leang’s Fifth Amendment right not to incriminate himself, and then hurled the question: “Who made the tape?”

But before Leang could answer Boumil’s question, the judge, Christine McEvoy, advised him that it would be best to have his own attorney. Leang, who speaks fluent English, had come prepared with a 13-page document titled “Humble Request to Dismiss the Case,” but owing to the judge’s warning, he opted not to read it. I later reviewed a copy of the letter, which Leang filed with the court. In it he denied the charges in Men’s suit, and wrote that he had considered Men his “big sister.” She handled nearly every detail of his life at the temple, including his immigration documents. When the sex video surfaced, according to Leang’s letter, he, Kimteng, and Men met with the Venerable Sao Khon to strategize how best to explain it to “the Khmer community at large.”

After that, Leang wrote, Men had him fly to Los Angeles and stay at a temple there. In the letter, Leang seemed to struggle with the question of why Men would include him in the conspiracy. He speculated that the suit was Men’s way of getting rid of him. “Will they deport me back to Cambodia and never let me come back to serve my beloved Buddhist Khmer Americans in the ‘Land of the Free and Home of the Brave’ ever again?”

Leang’s letter was his last statement on the case. By all accounts, Leang is still in town—but there are conflicting reports of whether he has rejoined the CKBM fold. Repeated attempts to contact him were unsuccessful. If he did make the recordings, his motives are unclear. The audio recordings, which have received much less attention than the sex video, capture a series of conversations between a man and a woman who appear to be Leang and Men—they refer to each other by name. The audio creates the impression that Men had a relationship with Leang that was both intimate and stormy.

“You’re hurting me…You know that I suffer a lot,” the woman says at one point. The man says, “Stop being mad.”

Much of the time the woman is lashing out. “You hang up on me one more time,” the woman says, “there’s going to be big problem.” Later she says, “When I first did your paperwork when you first came to the United States, you remember what I say?” Then she switches to Khmer: “I said whichever monk that hurts the Buddhist monk community, I will be the one who steps on his throat.”

 

The CKBM continues to promote the temple project. Samkhann Khoeun regularly reminds the viewers of his show on Lowell’s community-access television channel that some people still owe money for Buddha statues. But the CKBM faces a daunting task in raising the $10 million. Since the sex-video scandal, attendance at its events has reportedly dropped off precipitously.

Meanwhile, some of the men targeted in the lawsuit have joined with local artists and professionals to form a new group, the Khmer Cultural Council. The group’s goal is to promote a Cambodian-American identity that goes beyond religion and the old political divisions. The KCC hopes to provide a counterpoint to the CKBM, and Sam Meas says it has plans for a cultural center and temple of its own in Lowell.

On September 1, the CKBM staged one of its first public events for the Vatt Khmer in months. The turnout, about 200 people, was respectable enough, but the event, which marked the arrival and dedication of the first 1,250 Buddha statues, underscored just how far the CKBM has to go to make its temple a reality. By that time, there were supposed to have been orders for 21,000 of the 84,000 Buddhas.

Across the street, the KCC held a demonstration. “We want to deprive them of the potential opportunity to scam people,” Meas said. “A lot of the victims of the Khmer Rouge, they don’t like confrontation. The CKBM were hoping that we’d just go away and people would forget. But we’re not going away. Anytime there’s a religious event, a fundraiser, we’ll be there.”

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