Why Most Bhikkhus are So BORING
Take up one idea. Make that one idea your life — think of it, dream of it, live on that idea...This is the way to success. —Swami Vivekananda
In my Question and Answer videos I am occasionally asked my opinion of some Theravada Buddhist monk who gives talks on YouTube, and I tend to answer that I only very rarely watch monks on YouTube for the simple reason that I find them boring. Also I can say that almost the only times that I was positively bored as a monk was when I was required to sit through a Dhamma talk given by some other monk. Many others have remarked on this phenomenon, namely that monks tend to be boring human beings. (Even monks in World of Warcraft are notorious for being boring, as I learned from doing a search on boring monks in general, though that is a different matter.) Why is this? Why should dedicated spiritual warriors, most of them, be so damned boring? As I see it, there are two main reasons.
First of all, Theravada Buddhism is itself kind of boring. I freely admit this. Those of you who have read the Pali texts have probably noticed that the texts themselves are composed in a very dry, repetitive style; and Theravada has been, throughout history, a very conservative system that strongly discourages independent thought. Because of its conservatism—and it really is commendable that Theravada Buddhists try very hard to stick to what the historical Buddha originally taught—Theravada has become largely dogmatic, with monks simply repeating the same doctrines, in pretty much the same way, as others. Burmese laypeople will look askance at a monk, especially if he is a foreigner, if he describes Dhamma in ways that they have not heard twenty times before. If you describe some aspect of Buddhist philosophy in a way that differs significantly from the words in the Pali texts, even if you are describing it correctly, just in different words, many dogmatic Buddhists will consider you to be a heretic, an ignoramus, or a fool. I remember a Burmese layman criticizing one of my favorite Burmese sayadaws, venerable MahaMyaing Sayadaw U Jotika, because he sometimes explains Dhamma in terms of western psychology. I pointed out that many people with western educations and cultural conditioning can understand things better if an idea is couched in terms of a paradigm with which they are familiar…but that apparently wasn’t good enough.
I remember when I occasionally stayed at a Burmese monastery in California a Sinhalese monk from a Sinhalese monastery used to come for visits. He was less dogmatic than the exemplary type of Burmese monk, and he would sometimes come to discuss Dhamma with me because my understanding was not so dogmatic—at least I was capable of framing old ideas in newer words. He would sometimes good-naturedly complain that the abbot of the place was no fun to talk to about Buddhist philosophy because he was absolutely addicted to Abhidhamma: every explanation he gave had to be couched in terms of orthodox Abhidhamma philosophy.
So venerable bhikkhus will give Dhamma talks about the same subjects in pretty much the same words, usually with a more or less deadpan tone, though even a jovial one can be just as boring. The more devout and well-read monks tend to adhere to dogmas that eventually get stale after one hears essentially the same thing twenty times. And the less intelligent ones who don’t know the texts very well may simply sit in front of a group of meditators and ramble in a way that is hard to follow. (I’ve sat through a few of these, mainly in the west where scholastic standards for monks are not very high, and it can be painful if not actually boring.) But a dry set of scriptures and a dogmatic atmosphere are not the only reason why most bhikkhus are boring.
(Before getting any farther with this I will point out that I’m referring mainly to the speaking and teaching style of most bhikkhus. Many of them have led interesting lives, and have interesting ideas, especially the western ones who walked on the fringe of society even before they became bhikkhus. Monks from traditional Buddhist cultures, though, tend not to be very imaginative—in fact, as I’ve already mentioned, unbridled imagination is discouraged in Theravada Buddhism. But even some of them may have wild stories of being bitten by giant centipedes or dealing with strange shamans or sorcerers.)
Now consider this: What sort of person is likely to spend his life in seclusion and spend hours every day watching his breath go in and out of his nostrils? The probable answer: A BORING person. A monk is supposed to avoid stimulation, including the company of rascals. He is supposed to avoid worldly thoughts and also sensual ones. He restrains his senses, lives in silence and seclusion (though he may go to the Dhamma Hall every morning and evening to meditate, chant, and/or hear a boring sermon), and tries to avoid making any more new karma than is necessary…and all of this is not particularly exciting. I remember reading a book, long ago, called What the Buddha Never Taught, about a fellow who lived for a time at Wat Pah Nanachat in Thailand, and at one point he remarked that the monks there appeared to be trying to bore themselves out of existence.
This is not extremely far from the truth. In a karmic sense a monk is trying to fade out, to stop making waves sufficiently that he can cease to exist as a human or any other kind of samsaric being. And it is primarily men with weak drives and not a whole lot of vitality who prosper in the monastic life: a man of strong passions and an open mind may find himself climbing the walls of his cave or cell if he tries to stifle those passions or exercise that open mind. So we wind up with extremely mild-mannered, bland men who are striving to become even more extremely mild-mannered and bland, and are striving eventually to stop engaging in volitional acts altogether.
I have to admit, the ancient Indian idea of fading out of worldly existence through radical renunciation, seclusion, and self-restraint does make sense, and I strove along those lines for many years. The subtlety and clarity of the mental states attainable through intensive meditation may be very exhilarating and even life-changing; but those are inward and personal, and may be untellable to others. One who has attained such states may still be boring, though with serenity and clarity in his eyes. He may not be boring internally, but externally he may be just another dogmatic avoider of karma with clear eyes looking downwards.
So I consider it somewhat unfortunate that Theravada, and the professional followers of Theravada, can be so dry. The spiritual philosophy itself is invaluable, so it is unfortunate for us modern (or postmodern) westerners that the philosophy has as a vehicle a compositional style that is dry as dust throughout much of it, and that it results in followers who prefer dogmatism to genuine inspiration.
My advice to people interested in Theravada Buddhist Dhamma is that they soldier through the boring parts of the Suttas as a kind of exercise in self-discipline, and not stray into the trap of western leftist and anti-traditionalist revisionism, which is too likely to filter out genuine Dhamma in order to replace it with leftist political talking points. (The queering of Buddhism anyone? Or how about mindfulness of white privilege practice?) Also I would recommend seeking out the relatively few monks who are learned and strict practitioners yet who retain a spark or two of originality and inspiration. The problem, though: Too much originality leads to HERESY, or simply to ideas that are irrelevant to the Goal of disappearing from this world.
Well said. Glad that you do not advocate "Dhamma talks" on irrelevant, wordly issues, that are not linked to and guided by the four Noble Truths. Yes, sparks of true genuine thought would be needed. When they come, they often come from enlightened speakers, I believe.ReplyDelete
"True genuine thought" must not mean that it is claiming to invent the wheel.
Yes Mr. Panno you should definitively take a look at Hillside Hermitage. The Ajahn go back to the suttas in a fresh style. He was kicked out of his monastery, now he started a little group, so not boring at all. He reminds a bit Nanavira Thera. This is the second time I recommend it to you ;)Delete
I was wondering if you're familiar with Hillside Hermitage. Their style is very different from the usual Dhamma talks.ReplyDelete
I've heard of it but know almost nothing about the place, or who lives there.Delete
They have a youtube channel and I find their approach the most insteresting by far. Maybe you'd like to check it out. This is an interesting one: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vq8kSiewfqYDelete
Great read. Many of the Western monks seem to be dry rationalists as well, so often they disregard Theravada's rich cosmology, and thereby make the ethos of Theravada much more drab than it really is. Buddhism falls squarly into the Indo-European tradition. To understand the profundity of what the Buddha taught, one needs to live in the 10,000 world system the Buddha described, not the world of Descartes.ReplyDelete
I'm curious what you think of the monks at Clear Mountain Monastery? Not quite as edgy as Hillside Hermitage, but I think good. This is their YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/@ClearMountainMonasteryReplyDelete