Thursday, May 19, 2011

To be or not to be: The choice that the monks don’t have

A Novice Monk
The monk body in Bhutan is a revered institution. At the height of its power, it dictated everything from the religious to the political life of the country. Senior monks assumed political posts. Druk Desi Umze Tenzin Drugay, the first head of the first formal political set-up of a united Bhutan was, not surprisingly, a monk. Before him it was the great Zhabdrung who actually built the dual system of governance for the country. He, too, was a monk.  In fact, the monk body (sangha) as we know it now is his legacy. The first Bhutanese Dratshang was established at Chagri Dorjedhen in 1621 which was subsequently shifted to the Punthang Dewa Chengpoi Phodrang in Punakha.

The Zhung Dratshang was established to serve the spiritual needs of the country. However, it enjoyed great influence on the country’s temporal affairs. Senior bureaucrats were either former or current members of the Dratshang. It could not have been any other way. The only educated people were the monks and, so, they were the best equipped. Even well into the reign of the hereditary monarchs, the monks continued to have a big say on every matter that concerned the country.

But things have changed since then. Today the monks often end up cutting a sorry picture. Opening its door to the outside world required Bhutan to do almost all its most important businesses in a global language that is English. So, a typical monk’s field of study nowadays doesn’t get him anywhere. It is a harsh reality that the monks are waking up to. The world around them has changed but very little has been done to prepare them for this virtual upheaval.

There is not a great deal the monks have been prepared to do except to cater to the people’s ritual needs. So, a monk gets so little to live on. And while other people can always bank on their children to see them through in their old age, a monk has no such hope. It ends up becoming a great irony when the very epitome of detachment, that the monks are, learn to become misers. They have to save everything they possibly can even to practice detachment and undergo the mandatory retreat cycles.

The monks are indeed a maligned lot. While their scholarship is limited to mere liturgical gurgitations, they are expected to be the receptacles and manifestation of the Buddha’s way of life as expounded in the monumental array of his teachings. A state monk spends most of his waking hours, as indeed most of his sleeping time, engaged in propitiation rituals for the wellbeing of the state and the people. The monk body in Punakha and the other state establishments spend months on end without sleep and rest performing endless streams of rituals followed by the performance of excruciating ritual dances, taking in their stride all the toll that such stoicism will naturally take on the body and the soul. It is conveniently forgotten that monks are human too, like any of us.  Nobody really cares about the deprivation of choice that the monks are subjected to early in their lives and the veritable sacrificial specimens that are made of them. Instead we take heart in taking pot shots at the degeneration they have brought about. Little do we realize that the monks thus raised on deprivation and pacification are more likely disillusioned with the show of values whose incidental victims they are.   

As such, every boy who are made novice are doomed. But, one cannot discount the institutional compulsions that being the best face of a Buddhist nation entails and the damages they do. While the patronage is bare minimum, monks have to cope with the administrative and management burden of being an extension of the state machinery. They are also made parochial in the interest of the state which perpetuate its own myth and make the Dratshang the face of this myth. They mould the monks within this narrow framework until such a time when the monks thus subjected end up becoming an odd cross between reverential stooges of this agenda and unwitting rebels who have flings of their own with the worldly indulgences that are so much a part of all those around them, including their lay compatriots who, uncluttered by institutional obligations, make a killing themselves selling the Buddha and his ideas abroad.

It thus comes as some relief that the government has finally waken up to this unfortunate reality. What is more, senior monks are leading this revolution  which will enable our trodden state monks to finally come to terms with the fast changing world. 
This is a breakaway from the past when religious heads shunned policy (srid byus) works as a way of hoodwinking people.

We cannot possibly expect the enlightenment that the Buddha displayed from our monks with their minimal knowledge and exposure. So it would do well to afford them a chance to be included in the overall scheme of things for greatness comes when one does things out of freewill just as the Buddha was willing to forgo all his princely luxury for an ascetic austerity. At a time when each of us find ourselves in spiritual nightmares, the least we can do is to encourage those who want to and who can do something about it. It will be good to have some of us above the level of petty squabbles, daily grinds and be able to be content with themselves in the land of GNH. It would be a fitting tribute to the founder of the nation, the great Zhabdrung who established the Dratshang as an upholder of the essence, culture and tradition of the Palden Drukpa and for which purpose, the Dratshang has thus far remained faithfully true.

1 comment:

  1. Wonderfully written. And very true. I like the way you put it. Keep it up.