The January 19, 2012 Japan Times story “Matchmaking service gives Buddhist monks a boost in dating market”describes efforts being made by some Buddhist sects here to ensure that all their temples are provided with monks and that there are enough monks to sustain their sects without having to integrate with other Buddhist sects to survive. Usually the leadership of temples passes within families, from monks to their sons. But the convention is under threat by a growing lack of interest in religion, a lack of willingness of women to marry into and live a temple lifestyle and a resulting inability to procreate sufficiently.
I can’t help but think that there must be a better word to apply to male Buddhist religious than “monk.” If there isn’t, then perhaps we ought to make one, because in English “monk” denotes a man living in a separated religious community and abiding by vows - especially of poverty, obedience, chastity, humility - in pursuit of spiritual purification through the self-discipline of asceticism, study, worship and service. Not for his own good but for the good of all mankind. Instead, Japanese Buddhist monks seem to live a life of indulgence which does not earn my respect. Matchmaking for monks, for instance, sounds more than ridiculous. What kind of spiritual self-discipline are they showing me? Publicly enduring a frigid New Year’s purification bath (“Spiritual Swim” front page photograph on January 9th) doesn’t recommend anything to me. When I first came to Japan I toured temples in Kamakuraand was interested to see the monk’s cottage there, with the monk’s satellite dish on the roof, his Mercedes Benz out front, and his wife hanging up his laundry out back. I thought, “What kind of monk has a wife, a car and a satellite dish? He doesn’t drink alcohol and smoke tobacco too, does he?” Later I learned that they do. I know it’s a lingering bit of culture shock, and that maybe I ought to learn a new definition of “monk” to match the culture here. But, instead, so long as we are using that word, then I am still of the opinion that Japanese culture ought to learn a new definition of “monk.”
Japanese Buddhist monks live a life of indulgence that does not earn my respect.
The explanation of Buddhist monks’ indulging habits, of course, is that Buddhism has a totally different take on the sin and guilt package. It lacks a distinct doctrine of the Depravity of Man due to a Fall from Grace. In other words, we are not irretrievably bad. The world and everything in it is good, and it is good not to mention natural to partake of everything in the world, even to drunken excess. Certainly mankind is depraved in the Buddhist view. But our depravity stems from ego-driven desires that divorce us from a proper spiritual life (recognition of the unity of Brahma) and relationship to the world around us. It does not stem from a flawed design to begin with. Judgment, guilt and punishment are more typically Western hang-ups, hence the emphasis in Western monasticism of asceticismrather than estheticism.