What other words come to mind when you hear the word ‘monk’?

meditation… peace… enlightenment… compassion… kindness… mystical…  

This would have been my answer a few years ago, and at least the first five of the list are still clinging, but they are now mingling with other words such as; cell phone, Mercedes Benz, demonstration, 18 year old Scotch…

I don’t know about the rest of us, but having not been exposed to monks until the latest phase of my life, I realize now that I had romanticized, exaggerated, and archetypal ideals of monks that only a handful of monks in the world could probably ever accomplish. The greatest thing I’ve learned about monks since moving to Korea is what we all have in common; they are human.

Of course the life style and teachings monks are deservedly privileged with are ideal for attaining higher consciousness (and the knowledge of there being nothing to attain), it’s still a long, trying path. Putting on robes and showing your scalp doesn’t place you very far along it. I must admit, the monks I’ve associated with have been most of the kindest people I’ve met, and I believe that is a testament to the teachings and diligent practice they follow. There also seems to be a social veil that has been refreshingly lifted when talking to monks. Yes, they have their own rules and social structures, and follow strict hierarchies, but things like shame and embarrassment, and other obstacles of the ego we bound ourselves with can be put down. I’m saying this because the rest of what I will say is not intended as negativity towards monks (until six months ago I was very close to becoming one), it is just to breakdown the dualistic illusion that I personally held and may have been sharing with others.

Unfortunately as I keep meeting, keep conversing, keep learning, I start to see a lot of the same things we all struggle through. The monk I previously wrote about in “What’s This?” probably spends as much time at city hall protesting as he does at his temple. The monk who runs the temple around the corner is of a Japanese sect, allowing him to have a family. They aren’t on speaking terms anymore because the other monk’s daughter is selling barbecued pork (along with a whole line of others ) right in front of his temple. He’s trying to stop it but it’s too big of a tourist attraction.  It wouldn’t be unreasonable to move them down at least a hundred meters further from his grounds though.

When I lived in Daegu, I used to visit DongWhaSa at least monthly. In one of my earlier visits, I walked down to a heritage behind the car park to find a carved, white stone Buddha. A monk came out to greet me and I pointed to the picture in the pamphlet I had and he led me to the shrine and opened the doors for me. There was the beautiful carving before me and the first thing he did was grab a big shinny apple off the shrine and hand it to me. I pointed to the apple and back to the statue trying to suggest that this apple wasn’t meant for me. He shrugged his shoulders and pushed my hand up to my mouth so much to say, “Somebodies gotta eat it and it’s not going to be the statue!” I showed him my camera and he motioned me gestures of encouragement. When I ran out of angles, I came out and he invited me and three young Koreans into his room for tea. He didn’t speak English and I hardly knew a phrase of Korean but the only difficult part was sitting on the hard floor with my legs crossed. He spoke for about an hour to the Koreans and it seemed interesting enough and he would occasionally fill my tea cup with a large grin. At one point, one of the girls cell phones rang and she dashed her hand into her pocket and quickly turned it off with red cheeks and a big apology.I could tell he told he it was OK, then looked at me with a grin more full of mischief then tea. None of us could keep from laughing about five minutes later when another phone rang and he calmly pulled a white cell phone from the pocket of his grey robes. I used to find it amusing to see monks on cell phones when it was a novelty. From the reaction of the Koreans with me, it was just as funny for them, although it may have been the situation. Or it may be that it’s only been the last three years or so that it’s became more common for monks to have cell phones. I’ve hardly met a monk who doesn’t carry one now. I’ve also heard many foreigners in Korea asking why monks need cell phones, but why does anyone need a cell phone? People aren’t aware of the Buddha’s teaching’s on possession. If I’m not mistaken, the emphasis is on non-attachment, not rejection of possession. Buddha’s way was the middle path and rejection is just the opposite extreme of attachment.

So have a cell phone, just don’t get too upset when it falls into the river. It’s not entirely rare, either, to walk through the woods for a few kilometers to a temple and have the first building you see be a car garage with a couple luxury vehicles parked inside. In defence, I’ve been told that it’s the expectation of the laypeople to see the head monk of the temple in a nice, expensive car, so this is more an attribute of being Korean than an element of Buddhism.


None of these things would be particularly interesting, if it weren’t for my perception that monks should be a certain way, and even now most of these stories would be very interesting if they were to happen again. Even two weeks ago when I was offered a Korean specialty seaweed soup, I was only mildly surprised that it was full of beef, mostly because of all the times I’ve eaten it, this was the first time I’d seen it with meat added. I had already eaten various forms of flesh with monks about a dozen times. Once again, it’s just a reminder that we are all human, just some of us are perhaps a bit ahead in the game.


4 responses »

  1. Joseph!

    So nice to see you posting. I missed you!

    Great ideas Joseph, and amazingly, I was walking around my apartment this morning thinking a similar thought; that we are all human, and we are going disappoint and get disappointed along the way. So I thought, we might as well take it easy, and that applies to the monks. Steven Wright’s philosophical comic short on life, “One Soldier” comes to mind more and more.

    In Korea I have had all the same surprises in observing monks. And while on one level, the ego-level–it bothers me, on another, the deeper one, the juingong level, I have no problem with them living lives as we do, and in fact, I think it would be an improvement if the lot of them just lived like you and I, but with stricter morals, practices, and values. That’s not to say we cannot have morals and values and practices like theirs, but if they are to be examples for us, why not let them live the full range of challenges we do?

    In looking at the monks I know, I see a lot of–if not the same–attitudes, reactions, interests, feelings, tendencies, and over-all general human emotions and behavior as exhibited in the rest of us. It is subtle, but I see it, and discern it from what they tell me. They just force themselves (as the case may or may not be by varying degrees) into a harder lifestyle, which if they master, eventually makes their lives easier in some ways–insofar as there are automatically fewer options, distractions, and problems for them–something necessary I guess to facilitate their peace of mind, and thus their ability to set an example and to help us as the case may be.
    I was really put off a bit–a bit, I emphasize, yet succinctly so–by The Mercedes Benz at a temple we know of for shuttling the head monk around. But then, I was not as adept as i imagine I am now in understanding the practice (or was I just less accepting of Koreans?). And I will always wonder a bit about that.

    I have a very sensible, well educated, intelligent and compassionate friend who simply do not accept it at all. I accept it, seeing that lessons come–and thus can instruct us–from familiar and unfamiliar sources, and from “normal” and “abnormal” conditions. But for me–and I agree with you–some of what we experience here is Korean, and some of what we experience is Buddhist, and some of it is a mix, which when I think about it, takes me back to my core question about religion; does it transcend culture, and thus, does it really change us, make us higher, or deeper, or better, and I guess the answer will always be, sometimes.

    Some Muslims will always want to die for Allah. Some Christians will always preach fire and brimstone and have violent tendencies toward abortion doctors, some Buddhists will eat meat, protest, and drive around in fancy cars. It only matters if we want it too. They are human like like you and I.

    Have a great day. Oh, and thanks for the post, I love reading your writing man.

  2. Hi,

    Great to see you writing again Joseph. Thank you. It’s interesting stuff.

    The two contries I know best (outside of the UK) are Thailand and Korea, and the same problems seem to exist in both in regard to monks.

    In Thailand you see monks smoking cigarettes in the street, paying huge wads of cash for amulets at the amulet market, shopping in the department stores for DVDs, eating meat everyday (they simply aren’t vegetarian at all here) and so on. But of course a lot of the monks you see are not full-time monks. They are just fellas doing a month’s stint to gain good merit.

    However, there have also been high-profile cases of abbots going to girlie bars, and high-ranking corruption at all levels of the monkhood. Plus, like in Korea, political intrigue, etc etc

    It’s both shocking (‘but these are meant to be monks!’) and yet also exactly what you’d expect. Think of the priesthood in a highly Catholic country 100 years ago. Same thing. Huge respect from the laypeople, plus too much money, plus too close to politcal power, equals rotten corrution.

    That seems to be changing in the church now. Perhaps because the priesthood lost credibility and are fighting to regain it. Same with the monkhood. In a very real sense their ability to be corrupt depends upon the support they get from the laypeople. That’s why, I’m sure, the Buddha insisted on the alms bowl – it makes for direct accountability. As more and more laypeople get put off by the corruption, the less they’ll support the temples.

    And remember, you don’t need to be a monk to be a Buddhist, you don’t need to be a monk to make progress on the spiritual path, you don’t need to be a monk to complete that path. I terms of Christianity I’ve always liked the Quakers, who insist on no clergy, and in terms of Buddhism, I love the old idea of the Pure Land associations in which Pure Land laypeople came together to chant Amida Buddha’s name outside of the temple institution.

    However, it is also worth bearing in mind that thanks to the monkhood we do still have the Buddha’s teaching today and, for those that are serious, the monkhood offers a chance to devote oneself to the Dharma full-time for a life-time. Seen in this way, the monk owes every bit as much gratitude to the community that allows him to maintain his position as the community owes him for holding onto the Dharma on their behalf.

    I personally know some great monks. Phrae Pandit Bikkhu here in Bangkok is the very core of the LittleBang Sangha and, without his tireless work, access to English language teachings in Bangkok would be almost impossibe. And, of course, I don’t need to mention Chong Go Sunim in Seoul. A monk I know we both owe a good deal of gratitude to.

    Both my examples are of non-ethnically-Asian monks of course, because – sharing the same language and cultural background etc – these are the monks I know best. But I’m 100% positive that if I spoke Thai or Korean I’d know a good many more fine monks. I’m off to listen to a Thai monk tomorrow in translation, and last week I listened to the teachings of a a Sunim at the Hanmaum centre in Bangkok and, though I didn’t understand a word, could see the depth of learning and wisdom and compassion she was passing on.

    The stories of corruption and the sight of corruption in monks is shocking but is not, thankfully, the whole story. I’m sure that the laypeole who financially support the temples, who literally fill the alms bowls in the case of Thailand, are able to see which temples take their task seriously and offer their support in accordance. It’s a balancing act, but one that’s been in play for over 2,500 years and one which, at this point in history, is seeing the dharma spread to whole new areas of the world.

    In that context the mutual obligations of monks (and now, more than ever, thank goodness, nuns) and laypeople are throw into ever greater relief. The temples need the support of the layfollowers, but also needs the valid criticism as expressed through a great post like yours, and we need the efforts and support of those who are able to take on the tasks and duties of the robe.

    All the best,


  3. Hey guys~

    Thank you so much for your responses, you both filled in the great gaps that I wasn’t entirely certain I could cover.

    Carl, your blog looks great, I like the pattern and how it moves as you scroll.

    Marcus, even though my trips to Bangkok have only been for 3-4 weeks, your blog is making me really nostalgic as though it had been my home.

    Thank you for being in touch and speaking so kindly, and as I said, filling in my gaps. ^^

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