Humanizing Buddhist Monks

—- University must be one of the few academic institutions on Earth where you can see significant portions of the student body wearing either miniskirts or the thick gray robes of Korean Buddhist monks, but now that everyone’s on vacation the campus is dead and all but a few stragglers have scurried away into their alcoves throughout the rest of the half-peninsula. I was working in the library today for two very short, very precious hours on the best part of my book, perhaps, indeed, the only good part at all, which deals with describing the riches-to-rags-to-middle-class journey of my wife’s family, when a nearby monk got a call on her cellphone. At once the silent study room exploded with the chants of Korean Buddhism, as well as that telltale sign of ancient far eastern spirituality—the moktak, or wooden fish. After an instant the bald monk, with five o’clock shadow shadowing the whole of her corrugated scalp, silenced her incredibly loud electronic device.

This was a remarkable moment for several reasons, the most notable being the fact that there is indeed at least one Korean who does not use KPOP to damage the ears of anyone who happens to be nearby whenever he or she receives a phone call. This Korean chose to abuse everyone with a different musical tradition, instead.

Some readers might be surprised to know that there are monks with cellphones, and if there were more tourists around they would probably be snapping photos of the monks doing normal-people stuff—like driving cars, taking pictures with digital cameras, eating meat, what have you—rather than sitting around and chanting or meditating, which is all that monks are supposed to do.

During the last week at the university I met two monks who did not fit the bill, the monk bill, the preconceived notion westerners have about Buddhist monks—that they are serene, deeply spiritual people, joyfully penniless and incapable of harm or hypocrisy. The first was a former investment banker, apparently very successful, who told me he still had enough money sloshing around to take a break from the relentless and (frankly unbearably cold and snowless) South Korean winter to visit a friend in Hawaii. Another monk, written about in a previous post, wrote an academic paper in English about how normal people should act more like monks in order to conserve natural resources and help fight climate change, and then promptly set off for some kind of meeting in California on the next day. Combine all of this with the sudden realization that the Dalai Lama is not the most perfectly moral man ever—brought to me courtesy of Christopher Hitchens—and we have something resembling the humanization of a religion which would appear to be fairly tame in comparison to the bloodthirsty Muslims, the deranged Christians, and the greedy Jews who populate America, though I suspect it only looks that way because non-Richard Gere American Buddhists seem to be so rare.

Next up: The Jains!

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2 thoughts on “Humanizing Buddhist Monks

  1. Luna says:

    I can’t always tell with you whether you actually believe that it’s cool to say that Muslims are bloodthirsty, Christians deranged and Jews greedy. Given the inclusion of the last in the list, I have to assume it is meant as a joke, but then I’m baffled by your consistently admiring invocation of Hitchens, who has written with conviction that the first two in your list are spot-on.

    Unless you think that Hitchens was engaged in some sort of cosmic joke in his writing… otherwise, I’m just confused.

    Is the revelation that there are Buddhist monks who engage in hypocritical behavior? That merely putting on a habit and institutionally ascribing to a religion does not necessitate a significant moral stance on anything? That some people who identify as Buddhist are worldly, some who identify as Muslim are bloodthirsty, some who identify as Christian deranged?

    You’re a smart writer, but if you want to be a smart writer about the human condition I’d suggest invoking someone a little smarter as your basis for talking about religion. Either that or I’m being curmudgeonly and not understanding the humor here.

    • hiddenconnections says:

      I was really talking more about how the monks are human beings who do not always line up with the ideal; at the same time, thanks to Christopher Hitchens, I learned that the Dalai Lama possesses views on sexuality that are just as bizarre as any extremist from any belief system, in addition to supporting the Indian nuclear program, and that came as a surprise to me because no one ever criticizes that man and I had always thought he was some kind of saint.

      I appreciate Christopher Hitchens (certain parts rather than the whole) but I’ve encountered annoyingly militant atheists who adore him, all the while acting just as mindless and fanatical as the people they criticize. One recently told me that the Bible was a fairytale, and I was actually offended even though I think of myself as a relatively moderate agnostic.

      I don’t believe anything that I said there about Muslims, Christians, or Jews, either, and my point was that there are a number of generalizations or widespread perspectives about these people—Buddhists are peaceful and holy and perfect, while the other groups are deranged in different ways—which tend to vanish as soon as you actually spend some time with them.

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