Humanizing Buddhist Monks

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Dongguk 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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