‘Living like a monk’ means something very different in regions where Buddhist monasteries exist than it does in the West. When asked what monkhood means, many people from the West would probably answer that a monk is a religious figure who takes a vow of poverty and of solitude, who lives apart from the public in secluded communities. Any understanding of monkhood generally comes from their interaction with or education regarding the Catholic Church. In the media, however, Buddhist monks occasionally make appearances and cause Westerners to scratch their heads in confusion. The Western understanding of Buddhist monks and monkhood becomes unclear and confused by what monks are seen doing and by what the public expects them to do, and is further complicated by the example of monkhood provided by Oriental Monk figures, in particular by His Holiness, the Dalai Lama.
The figure of the Oriental Monk has been used to describe the Dalai Lama numerous times in literature and in the media, especially by Jane Iwamura, who wrote Virtual Orientalism: Asian Religions and American Popular Culture about Americans’ fascination with Eastern spirituality and spiritual leaders, in addition to writing the first chapter of Religion and Popular Culture in America, entitled “The Oriental Monk in American Popular Culture.” In this chapter, she identifies religious figures such as gurus, sages, and swamis as potential Oriental Monk figures; the Oriental Monk is characterized by his spiritual commitment, a calm and peaceful, often wise, character, and his Asian appearance, including both his face and dress.
In class, several examples of Oriental Monk figures were discussed, including Kumaré, Amma, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, and the Dalai Lama. Ignoring different definitions of authenticity, the figures each amassed a Western following. The Dalai Lama most likely boasts the largest following; his Twitter page currently has 8,185,989 followers.
He is perhaps the most well known monk in the media today, and he represents one significant example of how Westerners come to understand monks and monkhood. The wisdom of using the Dalai Lama as one’s basis for understanding monkhood is called into question when you consider how different his life is compared to the lives of other Buddhist monks. Very few other Buddhist monks, for example, can say that CBS interviewed them about their personal lives.
The article “Dalai Lama’s Weakness for Beautiful Women,” found on Huffington Post and based on an interview from CBS, is an interesting example of what Westerners find curious about the Dalai Lama. The interview, conducted by CBS host Norah O’Donnell, was focused mainly on the Chinese government’s changing attitude, but time was still taken to ask the Dalai Lama a few other, more personal questions. The questions, which ranged from alcohol and tobacco use to his weakness for beautiful women, were not ones that any other world leader would generally be asked, as they had very little relevance for the Dalai Lama’s role as the leader of Tibetan Buddhism. The questions reveal how curious Westerners are about the nature of being a monk. It seemed as if the questions were asked so that viewers could say, ‘He is a monk, but he still does [blank].’ Identifying women as the Dalai Lama’s weakness makes him more relatable to Westerners, and demonstrates his humility and honesty. He is, in his own words, “‘a simple Buddhist monk – no more, no less,’” and this video and accompanying article demonstrates what Westerners find interesting about Buddhist monks (“Dalai Lama’s Weakness”).
In addition to the questions being revealing of what Westerners are curious about, the commentary by the news anchors following the interview segment reveals a different opinion about monks and monkhood. The tone of the news anchors borders on condescending or mocking with regard to the Dalai Lama’s comments about what he considers to be the purpose of monkhood, or Buddhism and life in general: the time spent cultivating one’s mind through thoughtful meditation. The purpose of meditation is not always enlightenment; for Buddhists, the path to enlightenment is part of enlightenment, so cultivating one’s mind through meditation and thoughtfulness is important. The news anchors’ reaction to the Dalai Lama’s emphasis on the cultivation of his mind does not necessarily represent a wide-spread opinion in the West; however, even without making that generalization, one can use their reaction as an example of the different ways in which Westerners may react to Buddhist monks.
Another example of how Westerners interact with Buddhism can be found in the article written by Rupert Arrowsmith for CNN, entitled “Being a monk in Myanmar: Personal transformation in a changing country.” Arrowsmith describes monkhood as “a revolving door,” saying that temporarily joining a monastery was a normal occurrence in Myanmar, and would typically last for around nine days. This detail, in itself, is strange for many Westerners, who see monkhood as a long-term decision. He describes how his days spent at the monastery revolved around “practical techniques for uncovering the hidden workings of the mind.” CNN is careful to cite the opinions contained within the article as being solely Arrowsmith’s, but his observations seem to simply report the differences he saw between his time in the monastery in 2002 compared to 2013. Economic changes for Myanmar, he says, brought economic changes to the monastery. From this article, Westerners learn that monasteries depend on donations for financial stability; the state of the monastery is not always a choice. With donations and investments, monasteries do not always choose to continue living with an ascetic lifestyle (Arrowsmith). This idea may confuse some Westerners, if they think that members of monasteries take vows of poverty. The media often chooses to emphasize situations where monks are seen living extravagantly, or in a way that is considered extravagant for a monk.
An article found on Huffington Post entitled “Buddhist Monks Caught On Youtube in Private Jet Criticized in Thailand for Lavish Behavior” encapsulates the way Westerners think monks should behave. It also shows that Westerners are not the only ones who feel that monks are meant to live simply and without extravagance. The author describes what monks in Thailand are being reprimanded for, and goes on to describe how the monks are not the only ones who are at fault in this situation. The people who donated the lavish possessions to the monasteries did so despite it being unnecessary, and despite it going against the lifestyle chosen by the monks. It demonstrates a lack of respect for their choices, if not a lack of understanding. The Buddha’s life informed the way Buddhist monks live today, choosing simple, uncluttered lives to minimize the suffering that comes from everything in this life. Without this understanding of and an appreciation for Buddhism and Buddhist monkhood, supporters of monasteries may be the cause of confusion in the media in regards to the behavior exhibited by monks.
When the media is not criticizing monks for being un-monk-like, they are commending them for their work to end poverty and educate the population around them. This portrayal of monks is similar to the way that Oriental Monk figures are portrayed: Westerners like to see monks interacting with members of their society, sharing the rare Eastern wisdom that Westerners think they possess. The articles, “Tibetan monks bring Buddhism to El Camino students,” and “A Bridge Between Western Science and Eastern Faith,” both address interactions between Buddhist monks and Western students. The article about El Camino students takes a less enthusiastic tone while reporting that monks were brought in to teach a seventh grade history class, but does not explain any further than to say that it was good for the students to learn about another culture. The other article, from the New York Times, addresses the challenges facing a group of monks and scientists attempting to connect science and spirituality. It seems to come to the conclusion that science has many answers; what Buddhism offers, however, goes beyond what science can explain. Uniting, or reconciling, the two is necessary, because, according to the Dalai Lama, “‘[the] two things separately are not complete’” (Severson).
The articles addressed within this analysis represent only a small fraction of how Western media covers Buddhism and Buddhist monks. Emphasis seems to be placed either on how monks are not behaving the way Westerners believe that monks should, or on monks who seem to be representative of the Oriental Monk figure. The media portrayal of monks is at best inconsistent, and at worst the implications of an unclear or incomplete portrayal of monkhood leads to assumptions and ignorance in the general population.
Arrowsmith, Rupert. “Being a Monk in Myanmar: Personal Transformation in a Changing Country.” CNN. Cable News Network, 14 Oct. 2013. Web. 23 Nov. 2013. <http://www.cnn.com/2013/10/14/world/asia/myanmar-buddhist-monk-retreat-experience/index.html?sr=sharebar_twitter>.
“Dalai Lama’s Weakness For Beautiful Women.” The Huffington Post. TheHuffingtonPost.com, 22 Oct. 2013. Web. 1 Dec. 2013. <http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/10/22/dalai-lama-weakness-beautiful-women_n_4142525.html>.
Doksone, Thanyarat. “Tibetan Monks Bring Buddhism to El Camino Students.” Tibetan Monks Bring Buddhism to El Camino Students. The Santa Maria Sun, 23 Oct. 2013. Web. 1 Dec. 2013. <http://www.santamariasun.com/school-scene/10591/tibetan-monks-bring-buddhism-to-el-camino-students/>.
His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama. N.d. Web. 1 Dec. 2013. <http://www.dalailama.com/>.
Iwamura, Jane N. “The Oriental Monk in American Popular Culture.” Religion and Popular Culture in America. 1st ed. N.p.: University of California, 2005. Print. (Accessed online: http://blog.aklandlaw.com/JaneIwamuraOrientalMonk.pdf.)
Raushenbush, Paul Brandeis. “Buddhist Monks Caught On YouTube In Private Jet Criticized In Thailand For Lavish Behavior (VIDEO).” The Huffington Post. TheHuffingtonPost.com, 17 June 2013. Web. 1 Dec. 2013. <http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/06/17/thai-buddhist-youtube-private-jet_n_3452699.html?utm_hp_ref=buddhism>.
Severson, Kim. “A Bridge Between Western Science and Eastern Faith.” The New York Times. The New York Times Company, 11 Oct. 2013. Web. 1 Dec. 2013. <http://www.nytimes.com/2013/10/12/us/seeking-a-bridge-between-western-science-and-eastern-faith-with-the-Dalai-Lama.html?hp&_r=1&>.