Friday, April 18, 2014

Robbing the Gonpa

A disturbing phenomenon that I've seen all too often out here is the interaction (*cough*flirtation*cough*) between foreign women and monks.

Before I get into this and make a few people angry, let me explain a little bit about monastic vows.

All over the Buddhist world, monastic vows are not life long vows. They can be, but they don't have to be. Some places are more loose about this than others, but it's an issue of culture, not doctrine. For example, in Thailand, virtually all men will become monks for a short period of time to gain experience and create merit, and then stop being monks. They may resume being monks later in life. It is not considered shameful or embarrassing to be a monk for only a short period of time. A few people remain monks for life.

In Tibet being a monk tends to be more permanent, but this is culture, not doctrine. If a monk decides to no longer be a monk, he only needs to go to his teacher and return his vows. If there is no breaking of vows, there is no sin and no shame. There may be some cultural embarrassment.

Here's a key point, monks vows include no sex. And for those who are curious, this includes ANY orifice. ANY (Nasal sex? Not okay...but that's wrong on SO many different levels.)

I'm pretty sure that just about anyone who comes into Tibetan communities knows that monks are celibate. Westerners really don't have an excuse because monks and nuns in the Christian tradition are also celibate! And yet we still get fishing for monks.

In my experience, there is a disproportionately higher number of females volunteering in Tibetan communities than males, and actually more female converts to Tibetan Buddhists than males. I know this is especially true in the Kagyu school, but that's another discussion for another time.

It is very popular to volunteer as an English teacher to Tibetan monks, in fact it the number of volunteers in monastic institutions is (in my experience) disproportionately high, but again: another discussion for another time.. I have been invited on several times and have occasionally tutored Tibetan monks in English, although it's not most of what I do.

Young women who are aware of the monastic vows should try to respect them, keeping an appropriate distance when working with monks, both physically and emotionally. This can relate to clothing, how one leans over a desk in a classroom, how close you sit to a monk friend, or the topics you talk about. The biggest thing, I've found, is putting up the mental block that says "Monks are off limits." Women should think of monks like their brother. Good friend, fine. But the idea of a monk as a romantic partner should be as abhorrent as the idea of sleeping with your brother.  Would you flash your cleavage at your brother?  I'm not saying wear a black plastic bag over your body, but use common sense about respect in religious places.  You would expect the same sort of behavior when working with conservative Jews or Muslims or Catholic monks etc.

Now, I don't want to put all the responsibility on the ladies here, and good monks will also purposely try to keep their distance. But, the reason I put more responsibility on the women in this one is that many of these monks don't have any close contact with women at all, especially not western women. Rumors about western women abound. And some monks who are less firm in their vows, and the occasional "bad monk" might want to take advantage of this. Yes, that would be their fault, but ladies, let's not encourage!

The real issue isn't the unintentional signals, or cultural differences in ideas of modesty.  The real issue is the number of women who romanticize monks and look for a monk boyfriend. They view the monks as this image of Tibet; this fetishized image of perfect, serene compassion. And heck, who doesn't want a guy who has taken vows of compassion, kindness, and so on? And so they purposely go to work with monks and flirt with them, looking for one to take home. In some people's mind, the monk is the ultimate trophy husband.  I remember one woman telling me that I should find a monk (current, NOT ex-monk) because they make the best boyfriends. They don't consider the immense cultural taboo, or the sheer level of sin from a Buddhist standpoint.

This is one of the ultimate taboos in Tibetan Buddhism. One of the greatest sins is (for a monk) disrobing or (for the woman) causing a monk to disrobe via broken vows. It is causing a person to break a vow that was made to the three Jewels of Buddhism, the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha, in the presence of one's lama. To break this sort of vow, or cause someone to, is pretty much the ultimate sin.

The taboo is so great that it can cause complete ostracization from the Tibetan community.

Some people would argue that it's about love or something like that. No, it's not. If two people fall in love, there are steps that can be taken for the relationship to be "kosher" so to speak. This is specifically about people (usually western women) targeting a completely off-limit demographic with no respect whatsoever for the cultural and religious boundaries and repercussions.

It's like a person who specifically follows and flirts only with married people, trying to make them cheat on their spouse. And to make matters worse ONLY flirts with married people BECAUSE they are married. Does that sound wrong? It does to most people.

Why? Because a person has made a vow to remain faithful and not cheat on their spouse and specifically targeting them and trying to get them to break this vow would be wrong.

Shouldn't the same logic apply to monks?

Why are these women going after monks? Do they think some of the holy is going to rub off on them?  They want to fulfill their Tibet fetish by literally sexually fetishizing the orientalist view of Tibetans equaling monks.

Now, let's be clear. What is the proper way of doing things?

First, if a woman is working in a monastery or in close proximity, she tries to keep an appropriate distance. The monks should do the same. Friendship is fine, romance is not.

However, sometimes romance happens. If it does, both members of the couple should consider the vows of the monk. The monk then has a choice; create distance, or if he believes he cannot maintain his vows, go to his teacher and return his vows.

After he has returned his vows, he is a lay person like any other and may pursue romantic relationships as such.

Choosing to return one's vows is part of the rights afforded to a monk. Although there may be cultural embarrassment, there is no shame or sin in this.

But robbing the Gonpa? Stop. Just stop. 

1 comment:

  1. OK, I have something to say about this. I live in a religious community (not Buddhist) where women are constantly told they have to dress modestly to keep the men from temptation. The old idea of a seductive woman leading a man to sin is as old as Homer's sirens, calling men to their deaths. For the most part, it isn't true.

    The monks are adult men. They might not have sexual experience, but they are capable of giving consent, which is a two-way street. Fetishing the monks also means that assuming they are all holy men who would only break under the most trying of circumstances when in fact, they are people like everyone else, with their own sexual drives. If they were raised in a monastery since a young age, and went through puberty there, they might reach adulthold and realize they don't like the lifestyle that has been chosen for them, but not have the abilities/courage/resources to leave.

    When I was working at the Lha Institute, a vounteer coordinator told me that one-on-one teaching sessions had been banned for monks. When I asked why, he said, "Naughty monks!" I was in an English conversation class and I asked a young man in secular clothes what he did, and he said he was a monk. When I asked why he wasn't in robes if he was a monk (I was very naive - and rude), he smiled but didn't answer. His friend, who had better English, told me it was because he was doing non-monk things and didn't want to get caught.

    Monks who are interested in broadening their horizons but not totally abandoning their whole lifestyle congregate in areas filled with Western volunteers. The men-to-women ratio is better and the volunteers are young and single. Not all of them have bad intentions, or maybe we could even look at a young monk who has been cooped up in a gompa all his life and is unhappy and looking for something else as not being bad in any sense. He is just trying to find happiness. Their desires, if they have them, are legitimate.

    I find it hard to imagine that these monks are getting jumped by monk-hungry women. They're monks - they know the rules. They know they're not supposed to be alone with women, out drinking with women, doing the things that would lead to an intimate relationship. Even if they did stumble into something, they would probably have the ability to shut it down by says, "No thanks - I'm a monk."

    If the relationship is consensual, that means both sides have agreed, however temporarily, on something. If it's a sin that monks are having sex with Western women, then that's on the monks. There's always going to be women in the world who are not respectful of cultural boundaries and sexually aggressive, but that doesn't mean that the word "No" ceases to exist.


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