Paivan Vannabutr: Thailand’s celebrity monk relinquishes his robes to rub shoulders with the stars

Photo from Facebook page “ไพรวัลย์ วรรณบุตร”

Paivan Vannabutr, who was once known as Phra Maha Paivan, looks set to become the first former Thai monk to become even more famous after giving up his saffron robes. Just a few days after becoming a layman, he was hired to endorse at least one product online.

On December 4, his Facebook following soared above 3.2 million – a big jump from the 2.6 million followers he had one day earlier when he gave up his robes.

Quick-witted, sharp-tongued, knowledgeable and humorous, this 30-year-old has what it takes to fly high in the secular world.

Who is Paivan?

Born on October 2, 1991, to construction workers in Chanthaburi province, Paivan spent his childhood in poverty. His parents could not afford to cover his secondary schooling, so he moved to a temple in Sukhothai province at the age of 12 and ordained as a novice monk.

He reached Scholar Level 7 in Pali at the tender age of 18 and later moved to Wat Soithong in Bangkok to further his studies. In Bangkok, he became the first novice monk from Sukhothai to achieve Scholar Level 9 in Pali – equivalent to a bachelor’s degree.

At age 20, Paivan ordained as Phra Maha Paivan under the auspices of the king.

He then went on to receive a master’s degree in Buddhism from Mahachulalongkornrajavidyalaya University and another in law from Ramkhamhaeng University. He is currently pursuing a doctorate in peace studies at Mahachulalongkornrajavidyalaya University.

The young man first stepped into the spotlight about five years ago, when a digital TV station invited him to join its talk shows. His speeches and sermons caught the public’s attention because they were easy to understand. He won more fans when he started delivering help to communities affected by the COVID-19 crisis, using donations he had been given.

Why did he leave monkhood?

In a Facebook Live session in late October, Phra Maha Paivan tearfully told his audience that his behavior may affect the promotion of Wat Soithong’s acting abbot, Phra Ratchapanyasutee.

“Phra Ratchapanyasutee is like my father and teacher. If my presence here causes him trouble, I am ready to give up monkhood,” he said.

A senior monk saw Phra Maha Paivan’s threat to leave monkhood as a negotiating tactic, though other monks said he did not have any problems with anyone at the temple.

However, it is thought he may have been pressured to leave monkhood after an investigation was launched by Buddhist authorities. Though nobody can pinpoint exactly what this probe was about, many suspect it had something to do with his frequent Facebook Live talks.

Another reason for his decision to quit as a monk was his mother’s illness. Phra Maha Paivan said he wants to hug his mother and look after her as she battles cancer. As part of their vow of celibacy, Buddhist monks must not come into close contact with people of the opposite sex, even if they are related.

Questions about Phra Maha Paivan

Questions were first raised about the young monk when Top News published an online report claiming Phra Maha Paivan had accumulated hundreds of millions of baht during his time in the monkhood.

Later, prominent activist Srisuwan Janya – dubbed Thailand’s “complainer-in-chief” – issued a statement advising the monk to leave the wealth he had accumulated to the temple as the donations had been given to a devout disciple of Lord Buddha, not a former monk.

Phra Maha Paivan spoke up to say the report was inaccurate, prompting Top News to issue a public apology. He also pointed out that according to law, no monk is required to leave funds he may have collected to the temple upon disrobement.

Life as a layman

Now known as Paivan, the former monk is apparently doing very well as a layman. His Facebook posts over the past few days show him rubbing shoulders with celebrities and enjoying late-night meals, even grilled meat.

Buddhist monks are not allowed to consume solid food after 12pm.

He has also started exploiting his online popularity, saying he has a large number of followers and is ready to work as a promoter for interested brands.

While he is keen to start earning a living as a layman, he has declared that he will not get involved in politics.

Another celebrity monk from Wat Soithong, Phra Maha Sompong, meanwhile has announced that he will disrobe on Jan 2. This monk earlier tagged along with Phra Maha Paivan’s Facebook Live talks.

By Thai PBS World’s General Desk


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