On Nov. 23, 2014, a sea of 10,000 saffron-robed monks, from 323 temples in Thailand’s restive Deep South, descended on Bangkok. They collected alms and chanted prayers. But the reason for their visit is dark.

Collecting alms is normally a daily activity for monks — except in the South. A conflict with religious undercurrents, between Muslim rebels and largely Buddhist government forces, has been simmering for more than a decade, and monks are sometimes a target of attacks. That’s why they came to Bangkok: to collect alms en masse. This was the fourth year of the event.

But even accepting donations has become controversial as the monkhood itself comes under scrutiny. Abbots have been accused of embezzlement; others have broken rules prohibiting the accumulation of wealth and association with women. Some say the organizer of the ceremony, the Wat Phra Dhammakaya, a 1,000-acre enclave on the outskirts of Bangkok, is more a commercial venture than a benevolent organization.

Scandal, conflict and politics aside, 10,000 orange monks is a sight to behold, and the message of merit making was clear.