Are Monks Wiser Than Laymen?


Indeed, not easy to guide is a dogmatist who is setting before him a contrived view. Claiming the Good to be there, in what he is dependent upon, he is a proclaimer of “purity” who has seen “reality” there.  —from the Mahāviyūha Sutta, or “The Great Discourse on Tactical Deployment”


     I tend to write about what has been on my mind lately. For example if I read a good book I may write a post on it; and if I read a really excellent one I may write multiple posts on that one book, as I did with The Trickster and the Paranormal. Also things come up, which I think about, and since I think about them, and since they have some bearing on this blog, I write about them. This post is like that. I’ve been having some peculiar interactions with a strange monk who once even asserted that I was bound for hell just because I criticized him, a monk; and so I have engaged in some contemplation of the situation. It has led to me writing about the idea: Are monks really wiser than unordained persons?

     I was a monk myself for thirty years, and of course I have met with many other monks. Some were saintly and wise, as far as I could tell, and some were drones, crooks, and/or buffoons. With regard to monks from traditionally Theravada Buddhist nations (since I’m referring mainly to Buddhist bhikkhus and not Christians or any other sorts of monk), probably most of them do not have a genuine spiritual calling; that is, most of them are not striving for enlightenment, nor do they feel any significant desire to do so. One of my main teachers as a junior monk told me that he became a monk because of disillusionment with worldly life after his girlfriend broke up with him. Another one of my early teachers explained that, being a poor village boy otherwise destined to become a subsistence farmer, he mainly wanted to live an easy and peaceful life. Both of these were relatively serious monks though, even though they may have been ordained for not quite so serious reasons. But many just want fame and honor, or a free (monastic) education and upward social mobility, and many were sent as children to a monastery by poor parents with too many mouths to feed, and the monks ordained from childhood know of no other way to live than being a lax bhikkhu in a lax monastery. Some are just lazy and don’t want to work for a living, or don’t like girls much and want a socially acceptable reason not to be married, and some are just plain nutty, as are a fair amount of “foreign” monks from non-Buddhist cultures. I heard of one American monk who ordained, according to his own testimony, in order to break a crack cocaine habit. He also had an eating disorder like anorexia. Almost needless to say, he didn’t last very long in robes.

     The thing is, though, according to my own experience, that although there are quite a lot of corrupt monks there are very few really evil ones. (Monastic predators on Buddhist females or boys appear to be very rare in Burma, though I have heard that they are less rare in Thailand.) Even a bad monk is usually not a bad person; he’s usually a relatively friendly, relatively “nice” person spinelessly conforming with the corrupter side of a Buddhist tradition, following along with other lax monks. The general run of ordained Buddhist monks, wisdom-wise, varies from mediocre to genuinely saintly. I suppose I should give a few examples.

     Once when I was senior monk at a forest monastery a young Burmese monk came and asked permission to stay there. Most monks in that part of Burma were very lax, for example they handled money without compunction, so I grilled him a little about his practice. When I told him there were lots of crooked monks out there he heartily agreed, and gave me a heartfelt speech about how that was the reason he wanted to come live near me. He was totally disgusted with crooked monks who don’t follow the rules and don’t meditate—who don’t practice in accordance with Dhamma and Vinaya—and he considered my monastery to be pretty much his only hope for being a serious, proper monk. He seemed genuinely moved emotionally when telling me this, and I let him stay. After a few weeks he left abruptly and took some monastery property with him, including a large laminated poster showing human anatomy: bones, muscles, internal organs and so forth; and after he was gone I was informed that he was swindling money from some local villagers on some made-up pretext of needing an operation. In his case I suspect that he was at least as nutty as he was crooked.

     Another example is one of the most famous monks in Burma, whose name I won’t divulge just in case any of his devotees happen to be reading this, and in order not to make trouble by bashing one of the most famous monks in Burma. The man gives very popular Dhamma talks, although he charges exorbitant fees for them. He goes around demanding money from faithful Buddhists, ostensibly for charitable works like hospitals, although he lives at a very high standard of living. He’s essentially a corporate CEO in monk robes. Once when I was in Japan this monk also spent some time there. First off he flew there during the rains retreat, during which time monks aren’t supposed to travel, though that is relatively trivial for Burmese monks. He told his Burmese supporters before arriving in Japan that he needed a first class air ticket to Japan, and when he got there he demanded $7000 dollars from his supporters there. Then he asked for a first class ticket to America, and after he arrived there he called the Japanese supporters and informed them that he needed another $7000. This was his normal modus operandi. He does give learned Dhamma talks though.

     As I have observed before, monks from non-Buddhist cultures tend to be more serious about practicing correctly than monks born into a rather lax tradition. Such “foreign” monks have to go against their own culture, often alienating their friends and even their family, for the sake of practicing Dhamma as intensely as they can manage, for the sake of attaining Enlightenment. But still, because Buddhism is a fringe element of non-Buddhist cultures, it attracts a lot of fringe people, including not only eccentrics but really confused individuals, and sometimes mentally ill ones.

     For example I was once acquainted with a Chinese Malaysian monk who was VERY confused. He would come to my living quarters and then stand in silence with his back turned to me until I would ask him what he wanted. Then he would turn around, face me, and ask something about getting help for getting his visa renewed, or ask some strange off the wall question about some aspect of Buddhist dogma that he was nowhere near to understanding. He was sincere and tried to be a good monk, but he was also at least a little bit nutty. I have no idea what has become of him. I could give lots of such examples, but I should move on before this post becomes too long.

     An intriguing phenomenon that I have seen a number of times is the religious fanatic who may display symptoms of wisdom AND foolishness at the very same time. At the low end of the spectrum is a person like the “God Warrior” who became somewhat of a meme on television when I was in Burma and oblivious to western pop culture. My father’s mother was also somewhat of a Bible-thumping Christian God Warrior, though not quite as fanatical as the one on TV. Such fanatics certainly can be found in any religion, including Buddhism. They narrow-mindedly cling to the idea that they have found the One True Way to heaven, or liberation, or enlightenment, and consider anyone who deviates from their One True Way to be lost heathens, possibly even enemies. They tend not to see many of their own character flaws that are obvious to everyone around them, and they are very self-righteous. This is really quite common, though I am thankful that they do not form the majority of the human race. They can be found not only in religion but in politics also, even in science. Or rather I should say that politics, or science, or whatever it is becomes their fanatical religion.

     As William James observed in an early chapter of his classic The Varieties of Religious Experience, many people considered to be saints would be considered mentally dysfunctional by modern psychological standards. Many medieval saints, like the 13th-century Saint Gertrude, or even the very advanced Saint Teresa of Avila, could be considered rather psychotic, due to their continual visions and hearing of voices, let alone their singleminded focus on religion. So foolishness of a sort and wisdom of a sort can walk hand in hand, which rather complicates matters. I have met at least a few Buddhist monks of this sort as well, and in fact in my younger days I went through my own phase of wild-eyed zealotry. A certain amount of fanaticism may be necessary to drive one all the way to the Goal, at least in some cases. The fanaticism would be one of the last “defilements” to be shed.

     Any monk diligently striving for Enlightenment is pretty much of necessity going to have more wisdom than the average person, even if they are occasionally raving zealots or seers of religious visions. It may be that the strange monk who has been hounding me from time to time over the past year or so is one of these. I don’t know; but I do suspect that he isn’t a total fool, as he does seem to take Dhamma very seriously. Though of course that is no guarantee of great wisdom. Submitting more than twenty comments to a single blog post, most of them scolding or derogatory, is not exactly a wise course of action. He has been banned again, so you do not see most of his recent sermons and tirades.

     This all leads, directly or indirectly, to the question that is the title of this post. And my conclusion, in part, is this: Monks, due to their acknowledgement of what they consider to be the Buddha’s teaching, and their acknowledgement of the importance of virtue, and their efforts to cultivate wisdom, are on average going to be wiser than the average person. Monasticism just for starters weeds out the most hedonistic, unrestrained, and criminal elements and the ones too benighted and confused to give a damn about reality or truth. So the answer to the title question is yes, on average, monks are wiser than laymen. But this certainly does not mean that any monk in particular is wiser than any layman in particular. It’s just a matter of statistics.

     Let’s say that a monk is a thousand times more likely to become enlightened than a layman—setting aside partisan claims that only monks can attain enlightenment, or that only believers in (state your religion here) have any hope of avoiding darkness and hell—even so, there may be ten thousand laypeople for every monastic in this world. So let’s go with the wild guess that 1) a monk is a thousand times more likely to become enlightened, and 2) there are ten thousand times more laypeople than monks. Well, there would still be ten times as many enlightened laypeople as enlightened monks. For various reasons, monasticism is not well suited to some people who otherwise are on the path of wisdom and virtue. Some people thrive under difficulty, it compels them to strive harder, and being a layman, especially nowadays, can be much more difficult than living in a peaceful monastery. Monks have fewer distractions, but they also have fewer challenges; and for some, fewness of challenges is less important than fewness of distractions. Mindfulness especially can be practiced under almost any circumstance.

     It is true, I think, that the practice of jhana is much more difficult for laypeople, because calming the mind to crystal-clear silence requires VERY few distractions. But the path of mindfulness is still there for laypeople even if they can’t sit in a state of perfect tranquillity, and I am fairly sure that fourth jhana is not really necessary for enlightenment, though if it can be mastered it is a very great help. But then again, even most monks never attain jhana. And many who think they have have just hypnotized themselves and can’t tell the difference.



Comments

  1. I can imagine that Buddhist monasticism in particular attracts a lot of foreign crazy people. It's not exactly a "normal" way of life. Of course, this shouldn't apply to every monk. Still, I've noticed that it also attracts a lot of weird people.

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  2. Your description of various types of monks could apply to people in general. Some are crazy, some are evil, most just want to be left alone. Apart from this, I wonder if wisdom has less to do with seeking some higher state called "enlightenment" than with navigating thru life while causing as little damage-suffering as possible. The five precepts provide the best roadmap, after all. Who can follow them better, monk or lay, in all honesty? In moments of anger, we've all wished some other person ill, breaking Precept #1, for example.

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    1. The spectrum for monks is rather different than for laypeople, largely because monks have passed through a filter, removing almost all of the coarser and less moral types.

      Personally I consider the main criterion for judging wisdom to be happiness or serenity. A miserable monk is less wise than a contented layperson.

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    2. Good points, I must admit. But misery and contentment are transitory states. Nobody is truly wise except for Buddha.

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    3. The highest happiness and contentment would be enlightenment.

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  3. It appears that a certain Samana has begun submitting comments anonymously to circumvent his ban due to his lack of self-restraint. I suggest that said Samana stop behaving dishonestly, if not through attempting to hide his identity then by making obviously, foolishly false accusations. And leave your sneering pidgin English comments on my YouTube channel where they will at least help with the algorithm.

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    1. >bad monks are not bad people
      Why then did Buddha call them "the greatest of thieves"? They are literally the WORST people. To torture, rape, kill, eat and genocide humanity is one thing, but to defile the Aryan Brotherhood is even worse. Please evil ones, seriously don't do the Heinous Grevious by defiling the Sangha Brotherhood. Disrobe non-humans and homos, reveal the occult, and let Men do thier Business.

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  4. Why doesn't the so called Sangha do it's job and purge the lax monks? You write as if lax monkdom is not a serious issue. Laypeople are suffering and dying to give monks the requisites and need the monks as a spiritual refuge. Then monks stuff the gifts in the attic and say they aren't allowed to give it away, and do idol worship. Pathetic, like a warrior that doesn't take battle seriously and just gives up and gets a ton of people killed. Lax monks should be roughly defrocked.

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    1. First of all, nobody has the authority to defrock a bhikkhu but the bhikkhu himself. A monk cannot be kicked out by the Sangha. He can be censured or ostracized, but that is very difficult when MOST monks are lax. When I say that a bad monk is not necessarily a bad person, I am referring to monks who handle money, eat food that is not properly offered, etc., which accounts for MOST of them. They are following a cultural tradition like western Christians do. How many Christians gather not up their treasures upon the earth? But still many of them are good people. They're simply conforming with the majority. I agree though, that if 90% of the lax monks ceased to be monks it would be MUCH better for the Sangha.

      Seriously, I am unaware of laypeople "suffering and dying" to support monks. And the texts assert that there is much merit even in giving to a lax monk, a fellow layperson, or even an animal.

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    2. >>>"And the texts assert that there is much merit even in giving to a lax monk, >>>a fellow layperson, or even an animal."

      This reminds me of the Christian concept of giving charity regardless of the merit of the recipient. What is the proper name for this charitable view in both Christianity and Buddhism?

      I have seen Christians continually give money to pan handling drug addicts in a particular neighborhood while the residents that live there get upset seeing it as non-residents creating a feeding frenzy of crime and addicts in their neighborhood that draws more crime in. The money suppliers donating to the panhandlers basically reply that the "karma" of what the person does with the money is not theirs, they are just offering a hand to another human with no regard for what becomes of it...even if that 5 bucks supplies the final hit of meth that kills them.

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    3. MN 142 Dakkhiṇāvibhaṅga Sutta (The Analysis of Giving).
      https://suttafriends.org/sutta/mn142/
      DMR: the virtue of the ideal Sangha is that they are "worthy of gifts." Compare this to an unworthy beggar, (over whom hirelings rage that they don't slave also). It's compared to sowing seeds in better or worse soil. In certain soil/environments the seeds will bear more fruit. Also, as for general etiquette in Sutta/Vinaya it's advised to not tell others to not give, and also to beg only for oneself (not to beg for others). A gift is given whenever someone is inspired to do so, and is basically the opposite of money (commanding others to do or give something). The monk therefore becomes a body built out of giving (from letting go), rather than control (money), and (with sila), ought to gain purified Indriya.

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  5. Those laymen who say that soul deniers are possessed by Mara are the wisest. Monks who worship Mara by saying there is no soul are the worst.

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    1. No, not only are they not wise, but they are borderline liars, as they are utterly reckless and careless with regard to the truth. Theravada Buddhist tradition, and pretty much ALL orthodox traditions including Mahayana, deny not only the soul but ANY INDIVIDUAL SELF WHATSOEVER, any intrinsically real self-existence. According to ancient tradition the Buddha's second discourse after his enlightenment, which caused the enlightenment of his first five disciples, was the Discourse on the Mark of No Self. I continue to be amazed that it is only western "Buddhists" that I have seen who not only deny Anatta but do so vehemently and fanatically. And to call anyone who disagrees with your disagreement with basic Dhamma a Mara worshiper is fanatical and foolish.

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    2. Been A While!……..March 11, 2022 at 10:07 PM

      If there is no individual self whatsoever then there can be no free will and everything is determined - no?

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    3. Free will AND mechanistic determinism are both rejected by the Pali Suttas, which is an issue I've discussed more than once. Free will is a paradox, considering that even for soul believers it is logically impossible. Part of the situation is that the entire phenomenal universe is lacking in intrinsic self-existence, and all of our perceptions are conditioned by delusion or ignorance. It may be that the ability to choose one's course in life, to the extent that we aren't just meat robots, is based on the paradoxes which arise through recursion, or the mind being aware of itself.

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    4. Been a While!…..March 12, 2022 at 7:21 PM

      Yes, I understand that answer - That’s the best explanation of the situation I have ever come across - thank you.

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    5. MN60 - Buddha explains how directed sustained effort is real and has results (e.g. playing an instrument, one really can learn some control over it:)
      https://amitabhabuddha.wordpress.com/2011/04/19/majjhima-nikaya-60-apannaka-sutta-the-incontrovertible-teaching/
      Anattalakkhana:
      "If the body and possessions were self, they would not be prone to affliction, and one could say "let my body be this way and let it not be that way."
      IT'S THAT OUR CONTROL IS TEMPORARY, DEPENDENT UPON IMPERMANENT CONDITIONS. Translation: beware that what you do for your money/influence is not a mockery, after your spending power/authority is done and gone!
      KAMMA IS CETANA (INTENTION). one falls hier ones choices: your present sense organs (indriya), that feel, literally are your old choices.(kamma).
      CONSCIOUSNESS IS DEPENDENTLY ARISEN.
      Just as a fire is known dependent upon the fuel it burns on, similarly consciousness is dependently arisen, e.g. tire (rubber fire) vs. fragrant hardwood fire. Nibbana is extinction of the fire, without Nibbana its upto you to make and keep your fire nice and clean (i.e. goto Heaven). On the other hand, words like "stealing",,"rape", "oppression" ,"indoctrination", "fraud" and "deception" exist since those actions are NOT our own kamma and violate/contradict our own will, and the general will of any higher loftier and superior loka. Remember that any reason serves a tyrant's tyranny. The oppressor would blame one for bleeding after stabbing them, and is never sorry. To forgive the oppressor who is not sorry, is HATING it's future victims. Asuras are gods also, and punish crime hard, while Deva simply run away to thier paradise ethno-deva-state.

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    6. Venerable Paññobhāsa,

      Can one really take contentment or happiness as the measure of wisdom? I cannot meditate my chronic headaches or stomach pain away, and my conviction that sex defiles does not diminish my desire for it. It seems to me that the, "mind over matter" view implicitly assumes the (ultimate) unreality of the external world.

      If I don't have a soul or a substantial self - if nothing in me is imperishable - then there is nothing to liberate from samsara. No me - no egoism, no you - no altruism.

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    7. The cessation of delusion (moha) is the same enlightenment as the cessation of unhappiness (dukkha). Wisdom and freedom from suffering go hand in hand. Anyone claiming to be wise who is continually angry, stressed, irritated, worried, sad, etc. is fooling somebody. Chronic headaches and stomach pain are just that: pain. Pain is merely a physical feeling in this sense, and suffering is the desire for the pain to stop.

      As for no self, the Mahayanists would agree with your statement that there is nothing to liberate. From a more Theravadin point of view what is "liberated" or rather what ceases is the stream of volitional mental states, namely karma/kamma.

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    8. Venerable Paññobhāsa,

      I think I understand the distinction you have drawn between pain and suffering, but I question whether anyone is really entirely indifferent to his own pain. I can say that I have endured headaches, stomach trouble, and unsatisfied lust for so long that they have become 'background' elements of my mental landscape rather than central concerns (most of the time, anyway). I guess that qualifies as progress?

      Schopenhauer comes to mind as someone who was both deeply insightful and less than happy. How can someone have clear insight into this universe and not feel sadness?

      I'm stuck on the point of the existence or non-existence of the self. I don't understand why there should be distinct streams of mental states at all if there aren't sharply demarcated selves.

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    9. I think it was Shakespeare who said "There never was philosopher who could endure the toothache patiently." Some kinds of pain are easier to endure than others. Some people, like athletes or bar brawlers or mountain climbers (let alone masochists), even LIKE pain, to some degree. A grueling workout for example, or one's lover biting and scratching in the heat of passion.

      An enlightened sage would look at the universe and see everything as a manifestation of God, or infinity, or perfection, or at worst would see the phenomenal world as an illusion. It is not ultimately real, so the sadness would be like sadness at seeing a tragedy performed at a theater. King Lear is both a tragedy and a masterpiece.

      Ultimately even the stream of mental momentum is conditioned and conditional, and thus not ultimately real.

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    10. If I recall correctly, Nietzsche characterized Goethe's worldview as a sort of cheerful fatalism, the conviction that, "Only in the totality is the part redeemed".

      Speaking of Fritz, I greatly enjoyed reading your post on him. It seems to me - as a layman - that Nietzsche did not dispute the accuracy of the Tathagata's description of conditioned existence.

      Nietzsche seems to have been someone for whom belief in higher/other worlds was basically impossible. His superman sounds almost like some of the more martial/regal descriptions of the Tathagata.

      That said, my image of the historical Buddha was formed by reading Evola's Doctrine of Awakening. I now think that Evola wanted to create a sort of samurai Buddhism for a new pan-European elite.

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  6. Excellent article and strange I came across it.
    I watched a re-run of a dhamma talk from an older british monk at my local temple. Without warning he goes on a hot headed rant about how persons not getting vaccinated from Covid 19 are "science deniers" and seemed to get very agitated.
    As an amateur layman I have no business denying his ability to teach dhamma and knowledge but I certainly questioned whether or not he possessed wisdom. Would you say that is fair? Thanks, Rob

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    1. I suppose the hot headed rant more than the mask indoctrination would be considered a lack of wisdom from the orthodox Buddhist point of view.

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