Good Man vs. Good Monk: Broken Buddha Revisited
I. Good Man vs. Good Monk
The adoption of the ascetic idea requires a firm faith in spiritual happiness and as firm a despair of material life. Its wide prevalence in a society bespeaks not only the acuteness of its religious consciousness but also considerable social distress. In practice, the ranks of the mendicants are filled not merely by ardent religious souls but in the main by those whom despair of material life has driven into vagrant beggary. —one of my favorite quotes by G. C. Pande
Several years ago, not long after I returned to America from Burma, an American friend in Marin County was introducing me to a few connections in the western Dhamma circuit, because of course who you know tends to be more important than what you know. So anyway, he invited over to meet me a little fellow who introduced himself as one of the world’s leading authorities on Burma/Myanmar who had been to Burma twenty-something times, pretty much in the same breath as he gave his name. He was obviously proud of the fact that the US government had consulted with him in the past over various Burmese matters. He didn’t speak the language and evidently understood little about Burmese Theravada Buddhism, but no matter—he clearly derived a sense of importance and self-worth from his perceived status and authority, and so he held forth on Burma for some time, despite the fact that I had just come from there after living there for about twenty years.
This fellow eventually began explaining to us about some “good, progressive monks” that he had met in Burma and the USA: one ran a school for children, one ran an orphanage, one protested against the Burmese military government, and one was involved in some sort of fundraising…with no mention at all of these “good” monks actually practicing Theravada Buddhism. No mention at all of any of them practicing meditation, being strict in their discipline, or otherwise following the teachings of Buddha for the sake of attaining enlightenment in this very life. The visitor showed us a photo of the monk who protested against the Burmese government standing with George W. Bush on the White House lawn, and told us a tragic story of how this monk was a refugee in America but could not live at a Burmese monastery in the USA because the Burmese government could punish any of the Burmese monks there if they ever returned to Burma. So, tragically, this “good” monk was required to work at a golf course to make a living and eventually dropped out of the monkhood. When I asked why he didn’t just stay at a Thai or Cambodian monastery, the authority on Burma was unable to answer, and apparently had never considered this. But to me it was fairly evident that this “good, progressive monk” was really a rather lax, not very serious monk who was more interested in political activism than he was in practicing Buddhist monasticism.
So, tactless howitzer that I am, I pointed out to our authority on Burma that these “progressive” monks he was describing may have been good people, but they very probably weren’t good monks. They weren’t practicing Buddhism in accordance with the Pali texts, but rather were acting like laypeople in their social activism. Even running an orphanage, though benevolent, is better managed by a layman than by a religious renunciant. The authority on Burma was outraged at being challenged in his supposed field of expertise, and left in a huff after insisting that being philanthropic and progressive was more important for a monk than actually practicing Buddhist monasticism. The man who introduced us, and whose house we were in, later told me that he thought the guy might actually physically assault me, he was so outraged by my remarks. But he didn’t attack me physically, and anyway I probably could have defended myself pretty easily if he had.
I mention this little drama from real life because it seems quite a few people really don’t “get” the idea that a good person can be a bad monk, and possibly a bad person might even be a good monk, at least in some respects. Maybe it will be easier to understand if I avoid monks for awhile and talk about doctors. Let’s say there is a doctor, a physician, who is a wonderful person. He runs an orphanage and a school in his spare time, is a scout master besides, donates generously to help the poor and for other good causes, and has a kind word for everyone. He’s a veritable peach of a guy. BUT, his patients don’t get better. They often get much worse. When it comes to actually practicing medicine, he’s incompetent. Many of his patients die, and one of the only reasons he’s not sued into bankruptcy for malpractice is that he’s such a nice, friendly person that people don’t want to sue him or get him into trouble. Well, it seems fairly obvious that Dr. So and So is a good man, but not a good doctor. There is a difference.
The fact is that most Asian Theravada Buddhist monks are like the good doctor, very nice people but really pathetic excuses for bhikkhus, if one judges them by the standards established in the Pali texts themselves. They really do tend to be good people, very friendly and open-hearted, generally speaking, but they just aren’t all that interested in striving for enlightenment, or even in following the rules of monastic discipline. They like to take it easy, conform to what the other monks are doing, and satisfy themselves with the idea of getting a good rebirth for next time.
I’m not trying to pick on Burmese monks here. Sri Lankan monks may be even worse, on average, than the Burmese. Thai monks tend to be stricter in their monastic discipline, but they meditate less and are much less inclined to study the texts. (Some Burmese monks, despite their very lax practice of Dhamma or Vinaya, nevertheless become phenomenal, if completely dogmatic, scholars; and of course there are always a small minority of monks who are saintly, very strict, and/or genuine meditation masters.) I’m not trying to pick on Theravada here either; but for the sake of semi-brevity I won’t seriously consider at present all the sloppy members of other religious systems like Mahayana or Christianity. The thing is that any advanced spiritual system, especially long after the death of its founder, is bound to consist mostly of relatively non-advanced practitioners, assuming that they practice at all.
I am reminded of the distinction between good man and good monk pretty much on a daily basis, living at a Burmese meditation center with very little actual meditation being practiced. Any meditation here is purely optional, and there is no group meditation schedule, and no retreats, despite the place’s designation as a “meditation center.” I don’t hang out much with the other monks here, and mostly just mind my own business, and I really don’t want to badmouth them because, as I’ve already suggested, they do seem to be genuinely good people, despite the rather lax monastic practice. The venerable abbot especially has a good heart and seems to love me like a favorite nephew, having participated in my ordination ceremony and having been one of my first teachers almost thirty years ago. But even he is more of a follower than a leader, and conforms to what other monks around him are doing. There is one monk who stays here sometimes that I may use as an example. He often walks around the monastery compound wearing rubber boots, a sweatshirt, and a floppy hat, yelling and singing, and is seemingly incapable or just unwilling to comport himself quietly. He really does seem incapable, considering that he is continually bursting out in loud exclamations for no obvious reason. The last time he returned from a trip (after more than a week, during the rains retreat, although that’s a different story), he immediately entered the shrine room, picked up the little daughter of one of the visiting laypeople, and was dancing around the room with her, loudly exclaiming. But again, on the other hand, he really is a good guy as far as I can tell, despite any shortcomings as an ordained renunciant. For example of all the monks who live here he’s the one who likes the dogs and cats the most and is most happy about feeding and petting them.
Now, there’s nothing inherently evil or immoral with regard to clomping around in rubber boots and a floppy hat yelling and singing, or dancing with a little girl, or for that matter using money and eating dinner, which quite a few Burmese monks also indulge in. Nevertheless this kind of behavior is certainly not the way Buddhist monks are supposed to behave. It is sad to me that, although I’m not nearly as strict as I was in my youthful days of wild-eyed semi-fanatical Beginner’s Mind, I still have a reputation for being unusually strict, and am sometimes held up as an example of a “good monk” or “the real deal,” though I don’t really consider myself to be one. I am glad, and a little humbled, to meet a monk who is practicing more strictly than I am, though it doesn’t happen very often. Usually such a monk is a Sayadaw meditation master visiting from Asia. I rarely meet western monks, though quite a lot of them are probably stricter than me, at least with regard to regular meditation practice and general good manners.
(I’ve mentioned before that approximately 98% of Burmese monks openly handle money and do much of their own shopping, and make little if any effort to keep their precepts conscientiously, whereas maybe 50% of western monks are this lax. This is due largely to the facts that they have to be more committed to go against their own culture and peer group to become a monk in the first place, and they are not quite so likely to be unquestioning dogmatists and conformists. Though there are some of those among westerners too.)
Before I move on I should openly admit one thing: to be a really good monk and live the way the Pali texts say one should live, is extremely difficult, and most people, including most monks, just can’t do it. And to become fully enlightened in this very life is even rarer, and a virtual miracle.
II. Good Monk vs. Good Man
I have seen people behave badly with great morality and I note every day that integrity has no need of rules. —Albert Camus
Getting back to the idea that good men can be bad monks, I would say that to some degree the opposite is also true: a bad man, or at least a gruff, surly, and rudely insensitive one, can be a good monk. It does happen that some crotchety despiser of the human race becomes a strictly practicing conscientious religious hermit, sort of like some of those dour, rigidly strict English Puritans and Scottish Presbyterians a few hundred years ago. At the very least such misanthropic yet conscientious monks may be opposed to light-heartedness and self-righteously despise the sloppy religionists who surround them. In my strictest days I occasionally behaved very badly in my efforts to be a good monk, and I’ve heard plenty of case histories involving others.
One such horror story that comes to mind concerns a young western monk in Sri Lanka many years ago. He was attending some sort of ceremony, in which many monks were present and many more laypeople were offering requisites to the monks. Each monk was receiving a bag of stuff, mainly the usual soap, towels, and toothpaste, but each bag also contained a packet of milk powder, which is not allowable for a monk to use after noon. If this young strict monk had understood Vinaya better he could have simply determined, silently, that he wouldn’t use the milk powder as food for himself. He could feed it to a cat or give it to a monastery attendant, or some such, without breaking any rule; or at the very least he could politely request that the milk be removed from the bag before it was offered to him. But instead, when the bag was respectfully offered to him, he slapped it out of the offerer’s hands and straight up into the air, no doubt mortifying many at the ceremony, Sangha and laity alike, by his grotesquely bad manners. But it is likely that he was trying to be a good monk at the time, and was very probably stricter in his practice than most or all of the Sinhalese monks who accepted the powdered milk in the afternoon.
Another version of a bad person, or just an unskillful and foolish one, being a relatively good monk, at least in some respects, is the legendary Devadatta, the Buddhist version of Judas Iscariot, who was a master meditator and had attained formidable psychic powers as a result, but nevertheless allegedly attempted to murder the Buddha, and also caused the first schism in the Buddhist Order (partly by demanding greater strictness for monks), and is now reportedly roasting in the lowest pit of hell.
Even many people considered to be genuine saints have been very difficult for others to get along with, or, in other words, they were prudish jerks. A Catholic priest once told me an old Catholic maxim, namely that when one monk at a monastery becomes a saint, all the other monks become martyrs. Mahatma Gandhi is a well-known example of a relatively saintly person who could be a real pain in the neck—just read his autobiography and see for yourself. Getting closer to home, Ajahn Mun of Thailand was notoriously ferocious, as was Mahasi U Pandita of Burma.
Anyway, as I’ve discussed before more than once on this blog, this non-correlation of a person being morally good and that same person doing a good job certainly applies to professions other than religious ones, for example it obviously applies in the realm of politics. Good leaders or statesmen are not always good people, with Mr. Trump hardly even being a case in point, regardless of all the anti-Trump hysteria accusing him of being some kind of monster, despite America’s much improved economic prosperity. Famous leaders like Julius Caesar, Constantine the Great, Frederick the Great, and Napoleon could be called warmongers at the very least, as they were all quite willing to spill the blood of tens of thousands of their fellow countrymen for the sake of their own glorification, or at least the glorious furtherance of their political aims.
I may as well include Mr. Trump in this issue however, since some leftists and globalists are accusing him of being immoral, a bad man—and therefore unqualified to be President. Compare him with Angela Merkel, more moral and compassionate than him perhaps, but arguably the most destructive person to European civilization since Hitler or Stalin. The late Roman Emperor Honorius is an even more blatant example of a morally upstanding head of state who led his nation to ruin; he was a very devout Christian and very keen on morality; he allegedly was married twice, with both wives dying as virgins; if I remember correctly he was the Emperor who compassionately outlawed gladiatorial combat, and was more concerned with raising ornamental poultry than with defending Rome against the marauding Visigoths who eventually sacked the Eternal City and established their own kingdom in Gaul. As I wrote in a previous post, most really great political leaders are ruthless narcissists willing to spill some blood, not saints.
So anyway, yeah, Theravada is very corrupt, almost vestigial perhaps, if compared with what it was originally intended to be, as described in the Pali texts, and some sort of reform would be a good thing. Even so, replacing renunciation and asceticism with lukewarm secularism, and liberally injecting cultural Marxism into an ancient spiritual system, are really NOT an improvement. A progressive monk is not necessarily a good monk, regardless of how woke, inclusive, and feminized he is.
What would be very nice is a return to the archaic spirit of the Sutta Nipāta, or something equally inspired and inspiring. Early Buddhism was largely a result of widespread social unrest and despair; times of prosperity and peace lead to complacency, lukewarmness, and decline, with times of profound unease inspiring spiritual rebirth in a society. Hard times make strong men, not only outwardly but inwardly. This fiery crucible of strong men may be coming soon to a theater near you. I suppose if there really is a need for it, it will arise; a religious renaissance may come only when the masses of the west, or maybe even just the thinkers, are plunged into bleak despair and existential uncertainty. In all likelihood this will be a result, directly or indirectly, of current irrational leftist policies like open borders and socialism. But if you read this blog regularly you already know that last part.