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.