Teaching Cambodian Buddhist monks is mostly the same as teaching Cambodian children. There are less discipline problems and the monks can’t play games—even educational ones. Also, because I am a woman, I can’t touch the monks. I was told that physical contact between monks and women is strictly illegal. I’m not sure if this is a Cambodian law or a Buddhist law. This is at least a Theravadin Buddhism rule and though Cambodian Buddhism is not strictly Theravadin, there are close ties. And Buddhism is the state religion, so it may be both Cambodian and Cambodian Buddhist. Regardless, this rule has little effect on my interactions with the monks. Really the only difference is that, unlike with the children, the monks’ correct answers are not rewarded with high fives.
When I was warned about touching my monk students, I was also told the etiological myth explaining why there are not female monks. The story is that there used to be female monks. At that time there was one who was breathtakingly beautiful. This was before monks shaved their heads and her hair was exquisitely long and elegant—her best feature. One day some male monks came upon her praying. On this day they were struck by her beauty and each raped her. After, when they returned to the pagoda, the ground opened up and swallowed them, as soon as they stepped foot inside. Therefore women are not allowed to be monks. The moral of the story, as I was told, is that monks must remain chaste and men cannot control themselves so women cannot be monks. The consequence of female monks is that male monks are swallowed by the ground.
Not as I interpret the story. The consequence of rape in the story is being swallowed by the ground, not the absence of female monks. As the story was told to me, the male monks’s responsibility was entirely erased and the fault was put on the woman. This kind of rape apology—that women need to change their behavior so that men are not tempted—is not new and has been dismantled in many places by many people. I do not need to repeat that argument. I am used to hearing this rape-apologist argument within Islam—about burkas especially. I am used to hearing this argument within conservative Christian and Jewish sects where women are encouraged to dress modestly. But it is not something that is widely associated with Buddhism. At least not in the west where Buddhism is widely considered a peaceful, meditative practice.
Honestly, I was not surprised to hear that women cannot touch monks, but I was surprised to hear the graphic reasoning behind the ban. I was equally surprised to hear the explanation why monks can’t eat human flesh. (I was surprised that these monks could eat meat at all, believing that monks were universally vegetarian. Cambodian monks, it turns out, can eat meat.) I was told that monks can eat any meat but tiger, snake, and human. (Does human flesh even need to be on the list?) For both tiger and snake the story is that a monk killed and ate one. Then while he was sleeping the dead animal’s partner hunted down the monk and killed him in revenge. As for cannibalism, the reasoning is that human flesh is the most delicious meat there is and if a monk ever eats even a bite he will succumb to any violent means in order to eat more. Monks cannot eat human flesh because once they do they will literally murder to have more.
I am not trying to denigrate Buddhism—nor Islam, Christianity, and Judaism for that matter. Far from it. I am not condemning male monks or women who choose to wear burkas or otherwise dress conservatively. I’m trying to understand why Buddhism has a reputation as a peaceful religion when Buddhist extremists are as violent as any extremists—take Myanmar for example. There are Buddhists who do good things and Buddhists who do bad things. There are Buddhists who do both. Why has this peaceful reputation persisted when peaceful Christians, Muslims, and Jews have such a hard time overcoming the narrative of their violent brethren?