Lessons Learned while Teaching Buddhist Monks

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Posted on September 9th, 2013 | Filed under Popular Culture, Social Issues, Theology
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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?

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9 Responses to “Lessons Learned while Teaching Buddhist Monks”

  1. Barbara says:

    First, the business about not touching women is in the Pali Vinaya-pitaka, or the rules for monastic orders as followed in Theravada Buddhism. Anyone with even a rudimentary knowledge of Theravada monasticism would know this. Whether it is also Cambodian law I do not know.

    Second, the real reason there are no fully ordained women in many Theravada countries, besides culturally induced sexism, is that the Vinaya provides that fully ordained women must be present at the ordination of women, and since there are no fully ordained women any more, women are not ordained. Some orders have tried to get around this by borrowing Mahayana nuns for the ceremony, but the patriarchs in charge aren’t having it. This is a big splashy controversy in Asian Buddhism, and it surprises me you don’t know anything about it.

    Third, the historical Buddha himself doesn’t appear to have been vegetarian. The Vinaya provides that monks who beg for food must eat whatever they are given, and if they receive meat they are to eat the meat. They don’t have a choice about it; they have to eat it. The exceptions are that they must refuse the meat if they believe the animal was slaughtered specifically to feed monks. Also, the ten types of meat specifically forbidden under any circumstance are that of humans, elephants, horses, dogs, snakes, lions, tigers, leopards, bears and hyenas. Why you think that is significant I cannot imagine.

    I find it offensive that you compare educating adult monks to educating children. I also find it offensive that you would presume to teach Theravada monks without bothering to make an effort to learn anything about Theravada monsticism first. Instead of wondering about Buddhism, I suggest you take some time to reflect on your own ignorance and bigotry.

    • Brad says:

      A little harsh there, Barbara. Ignorance is one thing; to allege bigotry is another.

    • Wendy Webber says:

      Barbara, first I would like to clear up some confusion. I was not comparing teaching children to teaching adults. I was comparing teaching children to teaching children monks. I should have been clearer on that point. Also I should have been more clear about under what circumstances I found myself teaching Buddhist monks. I was in Cambodia with a humanist organization and we were in Cambodia to teach children English with a school for underprivileged children. Because the school does not have much money a local pagoda has offered the use of some of their buildings for classrooms. In exchange the school offers English classes to the young monks as well. I was not there with the purpose of teaching Buddhist monks, but I found myself teaching them nonetheless. And I am glad I did. I am ecstatic that humanists were partnering with Buddhists to help Christian and Buddhist students. I admit that I am not an expert on Buddhism and was relaying the experience of meeting a tradition that I do not know as well as I would like. I included my assumptions and prejudices in the piece because that it the truth of my experience. As for the information I relayed about Buddhism, these were stories and explanations I was told by Cambodian Buddhists when I asked them to relieve my ignorance. The information they gave me is part of the truth of their experience. I belief that telling our stories—flaws and all—is an important part of the interfaith/interbelief endeavor.

      • Barbara says:

        Wendy, I’m sorry to come across as harsh, but your post really struck me as arrogant. The monks are giving you child-level answers to your questions, not “the truth of their experience.” Thai Buddhism is far more sophisticated and subtle to be explained in a few words. Your questions amount to walking up to Stephen Hawking and asking “What is this quantum physics thing, anyway?” It’s boorish.

        It’s also part of Buddhist tradition to give answers appropriate to the questioner. So when you ask childlike questions you get childlike answers, which is what is happening to you. Your questions are telling them that you know absolutely nothing about their tradition and lack the respect to make an effort to learn even basic things on your own.

        It’s rude, especially coming from a westerner. Parts of the history of western colonization and Christian proselytizing in Asia are horrific. There’s a long history of westerners arrogantly trashing their cultures and traditions, including their religions. A little respect and modesty would go a long way.

        The Pali Vinaya-pitaka (rules for the monastic orders as followed in Theravada Buddhism) has not only been translated into English, but there are prominent western-born English-speaking monk- scholars who have written commentaries about them. And a lot of this is available on the web (see, for example, http://www.accesstoinsight.org). With just a little knowledge, you’d get much more interesting and complex answers that might eventually lead to a real dialogue, instead of just the same old white person demanding that the simple brown natives explain everything to her.

        For example, right now and until mid-October Theravadin monastics are observing Vassa, the “rains retreat” that is sometimes compared to Lent. You might ask them what they do differently during Vassa, or what the experience of Vassa is like for them. It’s still a beginner-level question, but it shows respect, and it might cause them to open up just a little and reveal a little of the truth of their experience.

  2. Ellie says:

    Wendy,
    I did not think that your article was bigoted. I applaud you for putting your observations out into the public, and asking questions about those observations. Are you pursuing the answers to some of the questions that you asked? Are you seeking a deeper understanding of those that practice Buddhism? If yes, then you are on the right track, please don’t let anyone discourage you from it.
    It is true that religion is often stereotyped one way in the United States, and those stereotypes are not always true of the religious followers. Buddhism is fortunate in that it is often perceived as peaceful while other religions are perceived as hateful. This forum should be a safe place for those of us in this field to discuss those stereotypes. Thank you for bringing this discussion to the table. I hope that those of us who profess a faith can acknowledge the truths the stereotypes are based on, as well as talk about how our personal practices might debunk those stereotypes.

    • Wendy Webber says:

      Thank you Ellie. I am pursing answers to my questions. My decision to post this piece was part of the search. While I was in Cambodia I had many conversations about Buddhism and religion in general, but I am not ending that education now that I am no longer in that country. No way. Also thank you for turning me on to Joshua Eaton’s essay. I am so sorry for the circumstances that inspired him to write, but I appreciate his thoughtful and honest meditation on Buddhism and violence.

  3. Daniel Lee says:

    I am a devout Theravada Buddhist and there seems to be some disparity between the things I am taught and the things you were told.
    The “lady monk” was not raped by male monks. She was meditating in the forest alone and some men who were foraging saw here and raped her. Buddha then pardoned her from the sexual act as she clearly played no active part in the rape.
    I agreed that there is sexism in some Buddhist culture. I hear about it all the time but that has to do with the culture of the area you observe.

  4. Wendy Webber says:

    Daniel,

    I can only report the story I was told. I was told this story by a practicing Theravada Buddhist in Cambodia. That is the story as he knows it and as he tells it. I have no doubt that the story you related is the story that is part of the tradition as you know it. So, the question I have, not necessarily to you, is why do these two versions exist? What are the circumstances that caused the divergence? More importantly, what effect does the inclusion of this story in this man’s worldview have on his relationships with women? How widespread is this version?

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Wendy received a Masters of Arts in Religion from Yale Divinity School where her studies were focused on interbelief dialogue and cooperation. She recently completed a year with Pathfinders Project—a humanist, international service trip sponsored by Foundation Beyond Belief. Currently she is the Volunteer Committee Coordinator with Yale Humanist Community. In addition to State of Formation her writing can be found at NonProphet Status, Applied Sentience, and her blog, The Interbelief Blog.


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