It was January 2009. I was travelling alone in a bus from Thimphu to Phuntsholing on my way to Rangjung in Trashigang to participate in a writers’ workshop organized by Curriculum and Professional Support Division (CAPSD) of the Ministry of Education. I had a friend waiting for me at Phuntsholing in the evening. So I had nothing much to worry about. In the morning, my wife dropped me at the bus station, got me to my seat and left. Soon somebody came in and sat next to me without talking even a single word. So I wasn’t sure whether that person was a girl or a guy. I wanted to strike a conversation with this person hoping that I might be able to get some help on the way especially while going for lunch, but he/she wouldn’t talk. The bus slowly pulled out of the station and started to move.
As the bus sped on, I tried to figure out if my seat-mate was a girl or a guy so that I could start the conversation accordingly. When I bent down to adjust my shoes, I noticed that the cloth this person was wearing was a long robe covering the legs. I thought the person was a girl but still I wasn’t sure. So at one point, I managed to ask a general question “Where are you going la?” and that was enough to get us into a long conversation that made us familiar. I immediately figured out that he was a guy but I was still wondering about his long dress. When we stopped for lunch, he not only helped me go to the hotel and get my food, but he had even cleared my bill by the time I came out of the toilet after my lunch. I was left with no option but to thank him for the treat.
As we continued our journey, we talked about various subjects. He was a very friendly and nice person to talk to. I then asked if he was doing any job or business but he refused to tell me the answer. He told me he was not doing anything. But I kept asking the same question again and again wondering he must be doing something for a living. Then with a sense of great hesitation, he told me he was a monk and that he was living in a monastery in Nepal. He had come home on vacation and now he was on his way to Buddha Gaya in India on pilgrimage. He further told me that with so many monks getting into conflict with law and indulging in things that bring disgrace to the society, he sometimes even hesitates to call himself a monk. It was probably for this reason that he took sometime to tell me he was a monk.
I analyzed his response later and realized that to some extent, he was right. In Bhutan, there was a time when the monks took their title with great pride and honor as they proved to be the most disciplined and learned people in the society. They were well respected for their wisdom and disciplined lifestyle. Since the monastic education system in Bhutan started centuries earlier than the modern education system, the monks became the first educated people in our society. For years, they actively participated in the decision-making processes of the government and ruled us with their wisdom and knowledge. But today, these values and respect are fading away as many monks are found to be drifting away from the disciplines and principles of true monkhood. It’s no more a surprise now when people say a monk has been convicted for vandalizing Chortens or smuggling the antiquities from the ancient temples/monasteries. We often hear of monks indulging in gang fights, rape or drug abuse/smuggling. Although such developments are part of the rapid globalization and as ordinary human beings, we all are equally vulnerable to such ills no matter whether we are monks or laymen, we have been conditioned to believe that monks are slightly above us and that they should be able to remain clean. But some of them have failed to meet our expectations and hence, they have been losing the respect they had been enjoying before.
I know there are some monks who do not even seem to deserve the robe they wear. It’s not uncommon to see them often going after married women, abusing girls or indulging in other illegal acts. A female friend of mine told me that when she was travelling from Thimphu to Bumthang in a public bus with her daughter last year, all the passengers were literarily paralyzed with shame as a small group of monks travelling in the same bus openly talked about sex and teased the girls in the bus. It seems they were not even hesitant to talk openly about girls’ breasts and other things in the public. It was a total disgrace to the sacred robe they were wearing. My friend told me it was the most uncomfortable journey she had ever had in her life. Today, people say that a group of monks appears more dangerous than a group of ordinary boys with tattoos.
But having said so, I am not saying all the monks are same. There are still many monks who deserve our full respect and admiration. They still remain true to the meaning of Buddha’s teachings and practices of Buddhism. A few bad incidents should not, of course, represent the entire picture of monastic life. But I also feel if we let these few bad incidents continue, they can one day pollute and corrupt the entire monastic institution. So it’s high time we realize this and find ways to remind our honorable monks to always remain on track.
The above article is not intended to offend anybody. I hope our religious personalities would take it positively. This is just my personal reflection based on some stories and personal experiences.