BRC News

Wayward monks and misbehaving priests

You may have seen these headlines in the newspapers a while ago. The priests belonged to the Legion of Christ, which is centred in the Vatican. They had been up to the kind of tricks priests have been committing for centuries: sexually abusing seminarians and altar boys and fathering children with vulnerable women.  Nothing new there. There were major scandals in the USA and Ireland some years ago when it was revealed that this type of misconduct had been wide-spread for decades.

In the 17th century, a devastating earthquake in Lisbon was explained as proof that God was angry with his wicked priests.  That’s why the tall steeples of the churches were the first to collapse in the quake. The Buddhist monks belonged to South Korea’s largest Order, the Jogye sect.  Video footage showed them raising hell, playing high-stakes poker, drinking and smoking at a gathering in a luxury hotel to commemorate a fellow monk’s memorial service.  That was a religious wake with a difference all right.

The Buddha had to deal with these challenges 25 centuries ago.  

Discipline was not an issue with his first five disciples; they were seasoned yogis who already lived an exemplary life.  But he clearly knew that the problem of maintaining decorum and discipline amongst his monks would become more pronounced as his order grew and attracted novices. So, as monks misbehaved, a gathering was called at which the Buddha would say something like: “what do you think, monks, was this behavior by Devadatta (or whoever) dignified and in keeping with my teachings or not?” If they agreed, an amendment to a rule of behaviour would be made or a new one added.  Eventually, there would be 270 odd such Vinaya Patimokkha rules. These took some 20 years to be codified. To this day, Buddhist monks and nuns undertake to live by these rules.

 Most rules were pertinent, such as that you could only beg one meal a day from the neighbouring community, which you had to eat before noon. You would not want to be seen as a glutton and become a burden on the society that supported you. Other rules seem trivial, such as how many layers of leather you were allowed to have as soles under your sandals.  But even those type of rules were changed during the Buddha’s time when some monks complained that one layer of leather was not enough when you had to walk on rocky surfaces.  

A crisis arose a century after the Buddha’s death when his senior monks called a meeting to discuss what the Buddha had meant when he said that the Order could change the minor rules, but not the major ones – without specifying exactly which were minor and which major.  Maybe he thought he could leave that safely to the senior monks to decide as time went on.  This is in keeping with his teachings on Impermanence.  He clearly never intended his teachings or the Vinaya to last, unchanged, forever, everywhere.  But the Elders played safe and decreed that all Patimokkha rules would be enshrined as major. 

But what will your ancestors think?  

 Are we wise enough, 2500 years later, to pronounce on what was and what was not the intention of the Buddha and adapt it to our times?  It seems not. Buddhism is still shackled to outdated Vinaya, particularly in the rules applying to nuns.  Feminism is dealing with that at this very moment. When Buddhism moved to other parts of the world a few hundred years after the Buddha’s death, like China and Tibet, with different social customs and expectations, monks trying to adhere to the traditional Indian Vinaya were bound to come up against resistance and disapproval from the locals.

Begging for your food, for instance, was frowned upon as undignified for an able-bodied young man who could just as easily grow his own food.  And why did this fine-looking chap want to remain celibate?  Would this not displease his ancestors? But celibacy was a major rule.  Or was it?  Some Tibetan lamas are married.  So, what about those Korean monks?  Well, one of the most fundamental Patimokkha rules prohibits taking intoxicating drugs or drinks. This is, of course, because partaking of these substances clouds the mind and is likely to make you reckless and unmindful of what you say and do.  As, indeed, they did.  In fact, this is enshrined in the Buddha’s Eight-fold Path and Precepts and therefore applies equally to lay people.  That is clear then: you don’t derange your mind with drinks or drugs: a Major Rule.

So - what do randy Catholic priests and drunk, gambling Buddhist monks have in common?  

The fragile human mind, surely.  No matter how many Commandments, Precepts and Vinaya edicts you promise to adhere to, our passions and desires lie in wait to act out at any opportunity or unguarded moment. The Buddha pointed this out too. Long before Freud, he taught that repression and suppression of our most basic, unconscious instincts need to be mindfully watched as they seep into our conscious life because that is where they tend to manifest as asavas (“pollutions”) which express themselves in unwholesome thoughts and unskillful speech and behavior – such as these Buddhist monks and Christian priests demonstrated.

Therefore, maybe, there is no need to worry about major or minor rules.  Common sense will tell you which is which.  Maybe this is what the Buddha expected us to do all along.  Better watch out, though, for falling steeples and pagodas.  Just in case….