Friday, August 17, 2012

Monastic Communities

Buddhist monastic communities are still very much alive in Vietnam, though the numbers of young monks have dwindled rapidly from their heyday twenty years ago when Vietnam was desperately poor and entering a monastic institution was seen as a guarantee of a comfortable and predictable life. Now that Vietnam has well and truly entered the consumer age young people are less willing to embrace a life of renunciation, celibacy and physical hardship in exchange for predictable food and quality education. 

The Baby Buddha, Tinh Xa Trung Tam, Ho Chi Minh City

And because the predominant form of Buddhism in Vietnam is Mahayana, there is none of the temporary ordination that you see in neighbouring countries like Cambodia and Laos, which swells the ranks of monks quite deceptively with young men and makes for all those charming pictures of monks that people take back home after their holidays. 

Monk blessing people, Battambang, Cambodia

In the Vietnamese tradition you take the monks’ robes for life, so young men take the decision a good deal more seriously. 

The internet has been abuzz for the past week or so with stories of a gang of Buddhist monks in Korea caught on camera drinking, smoking and gambling. It would be extremely naive to think that such things don’t go on in Vietnam. Of course they do. Drinking is completely verboten, but back in the 90s I knew young monks who consumed beer at parties. When I questioned them about this, they maintained that the ban was on strong forms of liquor like vodka and whiskey. Beer, they maintained, was only a mild intoxicant and so not technically wrong. Absolute nonsense, of course, but it was a common deception. 

In the 80s and 90s I would say that most monks in Vietnam smoked, though I have noticed that in recent years this is increasingly frowned upon, and many of my old monastic companions have given up for the sake of propriety. The disapproval of lay people had simply grown too strong. I can honestly say I have never witnessed monks gambling. I think that gambling is such a real and ever-present social problem in Vietnam, one which regularly destroyed the lives of the people they ministered to, that they were not capable of giving it any kind of saffron-wash. 

One sees now, more and more often, clips of Buddhist monks on Youtube doing inappropriate things, like dancing, staring down women’s blouses or even, in the case of one Thai monk, vouging. Of course, these things are all forbidden by the Vinaya, the enormous code of ethical conduct for monks devised by the Buddha many centuries ago.  This is a fascinating document, going into the detail t hat it does about what monks should or shouldn’t do. The list is exhaustive and seemingly random – most scholars assume it was created in reaction to infringements by monks living in the Buddha’s day, or the complaints of scandalised lay people. 

And so it is that rules exist forbidding monks, for example, to climb trees, or to roll rice up in balls and throw it into their mouths, or to eat with an “mmmph mmmph” sound. So extensive is the list of forbidden activities in the Vinaya that it is almost impossible for any human being to uphold them all, and most monks don’t even try. The Buddha himself knew this, and said that if a monk could abide consistently by every rule established he would be immediately enlightened. Suffice to say that enlightenment among monks is still pretty thin on the ground.

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