If you go to the bookstore and browse through the section on Buddhism, you will find numerous books discussing the Buddha’s teachings, or the ‘dharma.’ You will see commentaries on the Diamond Sutra, the Lotus Sutra and other famous Buddhist works. You will also notice various histories of Buddhism and its spread through Asia and now through the West. But you probably won’t find any books discussing Buddhism today; you won’t come across any books written about how Buddhism functions in day- to- day life in Asia.
I find that interesting and the subject is one that should be investigated by someone with knowledge of Buddhism, East Asian cultures, history, and language. I’ve been living in Southeast Asia for almost three years now and Buddhism is in the news frequently, though not for good reasons. Indeed, whenever I see a story in the local news with the word ‘monk’ or ‘temple’ in the headline, I know I am going to be reading about a scandal.
The scandals usually involve a monk being caught doing something not very ‘monk-like’, such as being the first in line to buy a new Iphone, driving around in fancy cars with 300 dollar sunglasses or having sex with students. In the age of the smartphone camera and youtube, monks are being caught doing this stuff with more and more regularity. In the old days, they didn’t have to worry as much about being exposed.
Growing up in the West and being reared in a Christian household, I developed a rather cynical attitude toward religion at a young age. As I got older and read more deeply into the history of the Catholic Church with the Inquisition, the witch burnings, the genocide of Native Americans and the rest, my cynicism only grew. Like many young spiritual seekers, I imagined Eastern religions to be somehow less tainted than Christianity. Certainly, there are no comparable stories of Buddhists burning ‘heretics’ at the stake, or Hindus marching across foreign lands with invading armies trying to convert non-believers.
Yet, the longer I am in Asia, the less pronounced the differences appear to me between Eastern and Western religions and Buddhism is just as tainted with corruption as any other organization, religious or otherwise. Despite their obvious doctrinal differences, all religions appear to function at a basic level of control. In the West, Christianity has always been used to control and manipulate the masses. In the East, Buddhism performs that role.
Buddhism is classified as a ‘religion.’ It is considered one of the world’s ‘major religions.’ When people fill out census forms, they are given the choice to check the ‘Buddhist’ box under religion. Yet, any Buddhist monk, religious studies professor or anyone who has simply studied Buddhism for just a few hours will tell you that it is most definitely NOT a religion, at least not in the way scholars have typically defined the term. There are no gods or goddesses to worship, no elaborate rituals, no angels. Buddhism is a way of understanding the world and human suffering. It offers a precise psychological method and system for training the mind through meditation to escape suffering. So, Buddhism has been around for 2,500 years and its practitioners are still calling it a ‘religion’ when they know better. What’s the reason? Here’s my guess: a religion attracts adherents and followers. A ‘meditative system’ or a ‘teaching of the causes of human suffering’ doesn’t sound as important. People need a religion. It makes them feel good.
Classifying your organization as a religion also has numerous other benefits, mostly financial. Churches pay NO taxes. I am not as familiar with how Buddhist temples operate in Asian countries, but I strongly suspect they play the religion card to avoid taxes and raise money in the same way that Christian churches do in the West.
Well, the temples must be doing something right in the money game they are playing because they are indeed rich. Don’t be fooled by the shaven-headed monk in orange robes you see on the street with his begging bowl. That’s just for show. He is not an accurate representation of how much money these temples really have. How do the temples get the money to buy so much valuable real estate on which to construct their ostentatious structures? Where does the money to build solid gold Buddhas and golden domes come from? Where did that monk get the money to buy a brand new iPhone 5? The answer is, of course, from the poor people who willingly donate their hard-earned money to the temples, in exchange for ‘blessings’ from the monks. It’s a scam.
Buddhism is a huge business in Asia, especially in Southeast Asia. There are hundreds of thousands of temples sitting on prime land and collecting money to build ever grander Buddhist statues and domes. Many of the temples simply whore themselves out to tourists, selling tacky souvenirs and allowing vendors within the temple walls. Many have neon lights, fluorescent lights and televisions. They resemble amusement parks more than they do temples.
I wonder how many Buddhist statues are made in factories every year and sold to tourists? Millions? If all that is not vulgar enough, what’s really depressing is that the Buddha shouldn’t even be worshipped. Buddhists should not be placing Buddha statues on their altars to pray to. The Buddha stated clearly, “I am not a god. I’m just a normal man like yourselves who discovered some fundamental truths about the human condition.” However, so strong is the human disposition to deify our heroes that we’ve made him into a god. Again, the abbots and monks know this, yet they allow the commoners to come to their temples, prostrate themselves, burn incense, and pray to the Buddha. I’ve read a number of interviews with monks who try to explain away why they allow this, and it’s hilarious to see the logical and verbal contortions they wrap themselves in to justify their actions. If you read carefully between the lines, what they’re really saying is this: ‘the poor and the peasants are simpletons. They don’t know any better. They either can’t or don’t read and will never understand the inner, deeper teachings of Buddhism. So, we give them something to worship, tell them to lead a pure life and send them on their way. ‘ But not before taking some of their money, of course. It’s a rather cynical stance, would’t you say?
The fact that Buddhism has been able to penetrate so deeply into so many different Asian cultures shows that it has great flexibility and adaptability. But I submit that while many will say this is one of its strengths, it really demonstrates that Buddhism has a weak foundation. Notice how easily Buddhism has rolled with modernity. Smart phones and other electronic gizmos, neon lights, television, whatever. Buddhism absorbs it all and tells its followers that they can be a consumerist, a capitalist, a communist -even a Christian or Muslim!- and still be a Buddhist. In reality, it demands little from its adherents. In contrast to this, we can point to Islam where the imams at least have strong criticisms of modernity and urge their followers to hold onto tradition.
I was in Singapore recently and I bumped into a young monk at a museum. He was strolling around taking selfies with his nice camera and selfie stick. Huh? What do they teach in the temples these days? Isn’t there anything about letting go of the ego and moving our concentration away from egoic concerns?
Buddhism has also tried to attach itself to various movements over the years in a desperate attempt to stay relevant. For example, in the 1990s, there was a push by various Buddhist leaders to claim that Buddhism was really a ‘nature religion.’ You know, eco-groovy. They found some obscure quotations by the Buddha saying we should all love the animals or something, and voila! Seriously. Go back and look through back issues of Tricycle magazine from the 1990s.
Some might say that countries with a strong Buddhist influence are more peaceful and the people more gentle. Is that really the case? Thailand is 95 percent Buddhist and many young boys go through a period of training in temples. Are the Thai people generally more honest, moral, and peaceful than anyone else? Look at the amount of corruption and criminal gang activity throughout the country and you will have your answer. Thailand is currently being ruled by a military junta. The Buddhist leaders in Thailand don’t seem to have a problem with that. Of course they don’t want to step on many toes, as they might have some privileges stripped.
Some argue that Buddhism, with its emphasis on the acceptance of suffering, is a perfect religion to keep the poor and downtrodden in their place and was set up for just that purpose. I don’t know. It’s possible. The Buddha said, “Life is Suffering.” If you take that to heart and don’t go beyond it to analyze the subtleties of the teachings, you might interpret it to mean, ‘Don’t protest. Accept my oppression.’
The bottom line is that you don’t need the ‘religion’ of Buddhism to study the dharma. All you need is a copy of the Diamond Sutra, some determination, and perhaps a few companions to share your discoveries with when you practice meditation. The monks don’t have any magical powers. Many are outright charlatans are many more are corrupt.