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Barbara O'Brien

Monks Behaving Badly

By May 18, 2012

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In western popular culture Buddhist monks often are depicted as unflappably serene, wise, and really, really nice. So it might be jarring to hear about Buddhist monks behaving very badly. But, in fact, sometimes they do behave very badly.

Recently Korea was scandalized by a video showing Jogye monks drinking and playing high-stakes poker. Jogye is a Korean school of Zen. It is alleged that two monks also paid for prostitutes. The order has denied that allegation and has filed a libel suit against the Wall Street Journal, where the allegation first appeared.

Jogye has not denied the gambling (illegal outside a casino) and drinking, however. Needless to say, a number of precepts were broken here. Six leaders of Jogye have resigned.

Yesterday in Alabama a monk was charged with murdering another monk in a fight over food. Keep in mind that the accused monk deserves the presumption of innocence, and it's entirely possible the police arrested the wrong man. All we know for certain is that a monk was found beaten to death in Wat Buddharaksa Temple in Mobile County.

The accused monk also had been behaving strangely, refusing to speak and isolating himself. It's possible he had some kind of psychiatric illness.

Awhile back I wrote about charges of sexual abuse in U.S. Theravada temples. One monk who (according to DNA evidence) impregnated an adolescent girl in a Chicago-area temple was arrested in Anchorage, Alaska, where he had been working as a dishwasher.

Obviously we don't want to make judgments about all monks because of the bad behavior of the few. My larger concern is that so often when someone's unrealistically romantic notions of Buddhism and Buddhist monks come crashing to earth, the result is what I call Michael Jerryson Syndrome. Sufferers of MJS begin as besotted romantics, and then when disillusioned flip to the opposite extreme and rage against Buddhism as an evil that must be exposed. Neither extreme is skillful.

The truth is that all kinds of people become monks, often for less than spiritually pure reasons. In much of Asia Buddhist monks enjoy high social status and authority, for example, which can be very tempting perks. And nobody becomes unflappably serene just by shaving his head and putting on a robe.

May 18, 2012 at 10:23 am
(1) Mila says:

Criticizing Buddhism as a whole for the presence of less-than-perfect monks, nuns & lay practitioners is like criticizing a hospital for the presence of sick & injured people.

Those who are already enlightened — who have already realized their perfect health — would have no reason to enter such a path.

The situation is a bit different, of course, for those who are serving as Buddhist Teachers. In the same way that one would hope that a hospital’s doctors & nurses are themselves relatively healthy, so it is that Teachers are legitimately held to higher standards of behavior — since presumably they’ve already gone further than most in the direction of spiritual “health,” which allows them to skillfully guide others ….

May 18, 2012 at 10:53 am
(2) Jacky says:

It is no surprise that there are bad monks. There are many good people and bad people in this world. There are many good Christians and Priests. There are also many bad ones as well. This has been occurring for over hundreds of years, people will still believe what they want to leave. Everything will be okay.

May 18, 2012 at 11:11 am
(3) Mila says:

Hi Jacky,

I agree that everything is, fundamentally, perfect. (From the perspective of “ultimate reality,” if you will.)

In terms of “relative reality” — rather than saying there are “good people” and “bad people,” from a Buddhist perspective I feel it might be more accurate to say that there are “skillful actions” and “unskillful actions” — which in no way augment or detract from the “inherent perfection” of it all :)

May 18, 2012 at 9:30 pm
(4) Shi Faxing says:

I feel like sharing a great discourse by Venerable Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche:

(The English-speaker is Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche)

At the beginning they recited the 《Heart Sutra》and verses to pay homage to Manjushri Bodhisattva in Chinese.

Metta to all!

May 18, 2012 at 9:51 pm
(5) Yeshe says:

I’ve been a monk for a year and a half, and preparation beforehand. I’ve found that you’ve really got to have your feet on the ground to keep monk’s vows, and then it’s very satisfying. It is a beautiful thing when monks, and nuns, can enjoy the freedom of practicing Vinaya on the spiritual path of awakening, and love and compassion.

May 19, 2012 at 12:55 am
(6) Hein says:

in the beginning when i encountered Buddhism i also had romantic notions about being a monk
i even lived at a nearby temple for a week like a monk and still think that perhaps at my age i should consider becoming one
my fear is that i might fall into unskillful conduct and thus ‘waste everybodies’ including mine own time and effort
when becoming a monk/nun in old age one migght be less incline to ‘give in’ to the ‘storm of the senses’, i think

May 19, 2012 at 1:14 am
(7) Hein says:

the greatest motivation for to become a monk would be to able to spend more time and effort to practice and to help other people.
In that sense i think monasticsm still remain a lofty and noble ideal to pursue.
In everyday life, i know, one should also be able to practice Buddhism – like Vimalakirti – with the same effort, but the distractions are to many.
My principal distractions are Beautiful Distraction (my wife), my job, good food and drinks (not too much, but i do like a good wine and some beers…nothing stronger). What i like about Ch’an/Zen retreats is that for a time one can practice in an environment conducive to deeping one’s practice and help in one’s transformation.
Why not for the rest of one’s life, once you have fullfil your obligations to society, family etc?

May 19, 2012 at 2:53 pm
(8) Machig says:

This poem by Ellen Bass comes to mind ….


Bad things are going to happen.
Your tomatoes will grow a fungus
and your cat will get run over.
Someone will leave the bag with the ice cream
melting in the car and throw
your blue cashmere sweater in the drier.
Your husband will sleep
with a girl your daughter’s age, her breasts spilling
out of her blouse. Or your wife
will remember she’s a lesbian
and leave you for the woman next door. The other cat –
the one you never really liked — will contract a disease
that requires you to pry open its feverish mouth
every four hours for a month.
Your parents will die.
No matter how many vitamins you take,
how much Pilates, you’ll lose your keys,
your hair and your memory. If your daughter
doesn’t plug her heart
into every live socket she passes,
you’ll come home to find your son has emptied
your refrigerator, dragged it to the curb,
and called the used appliance store for a pick up — drug money.
There’s a Buddhist story of a woman chased by a tiger.
When she comes to a cliff, she sees a sturdy vine
and climbs half way down. But there’s also a tiger below.
And two mice — one white, one black — scurry out
and begin to gnaw at the vine. At this point
she notices a wild strawberry growing from a crevice.
She looks up, down, at the mice.
Then she eats the strawberry.
So here’s the view, the breeze, the pulse
in your throat. Your wallet will be stolen, you’ll get fat,
slip on the bathroom tiles of a foreign hotel
and crack your hip. You’ll be lonely.
Oh taste how sweet and tart
the red juice is, how the tiny seeds
crunch between your teeth.

– Ellen Bass

May 19, 2012 at 8:55 pm
(9) Bevirtual says:

I love the poem. To the point of the naughty monks. They are people with human frailties. We should not hold revere them any more than we should revere any man or deity. Even Buddha himself did not want to be worshiped as some sects do.
The reality of Buddhism lies in the essence that is the inter-related oneness. We tend to separate ourselves from our greatness which is a potential in as all. So too exist the potential for badness.

May 20, 2012 at 9:20 am
(10) Lee says:

I too love the poem … soo true!
My rasberry patch will be wonderful this year.

May 20, 2012 at 12:52 pm
(11) Paul UK says:

It seems the Sangha has always had monks/nuns with less than wholesome intentions, this was sometimes a problem even during Lord Buddhas lifetime, and human nature being much the same now as it was then I dont see the situation changing anytime soon.
However, it`s often quite easy to notice that many teachers seem to loose the plot at time … so, if a Monk/Nun is breaking the Vinaya, disregarding Bodhisattva Vows or breaking Vajrayana Samaya, the YES (referring to a previous blog) they should be criticized & persistent misdemeanors made public (and referring to another previous blog) e.g. M. Roach.

Personally, I think the Theravadin ideal of a spiritual friend/guide is a better model for the west. The Guru/Lama ideal does not really exist in our culture anymore & is open to abuse, from Tibetans as well as Westerners. Maybe ?

May 21, 2012 at 11:24 am
(12) Barbara O'Brien says:

Paul — some of the worst abuse appears to be happening in Theravada temples, so I can’t see that Theravada has a better idea for avoiding abuse. I occasionally hear of sexual abuse of women by Theravada monks in Asia also, not just Chicago, and given the extremely patriarchal nature of southeast Asia one suspects that what is reported really is the tip of the iceberg. I assume the “bad apples” are a minority, but my hunch is that protecting the abusers and keeping incidents hushed up is a long-standing pattern that will someday blow up into a big deal. Think Catholic altar boys.

I think what’s really going to make a difference is the empowerment of women. If even half of what Ive been told went on in the 1960s and 1970s is true, there already has been a huge difference in the culture of American Zen. I credit the growing number of women Zen teachers; the “boy’s club” has been thoroughly infiltrated.

May 21, 2012 at 3:01 am
(13) Paul UK says:

Another point (maybe a future blog) is “crazy wisdom”

In the past a lost of errant “spiritual masters” have used the crazy wisdom excuse, but if in the west it often means sex, alcohol/drugs, wealth & power … this is NOT crazy wisdom, such a person would be able to drink a couple of bottles of whisky & still be sober, if given a lot of money is likely to pee on it & then through it on a fire & will have their most beautiful disciples cleaning toilets & the cesspit & most of them dont care a fcuk about power; in stark contrast to what we usually see !

Yes, they tend to be consistently eccentric, but not rude & destructive & only extreme in their actions when circumstances are warranted.

This problem also exists in the east as well, as very dangerous dharma method.

May 22, 2012 at 5:52 am
(14) Paul UK says:

It`s the Theravadin model of a spiritual guide that I was really refering to, but yes agreed, abuse happens in Theravadin circles as well.

May 22, 2012 at 9:32 am
(15) Barbara O'Brien says:

It`s the Theravadin model of a spiritual guide that I was really refering to,

The traditional Zen student-teacher relationship is, I believe, closer to the Theravadin “spiritual guide” model than the Vajrayana guru-disciple model.

May 22, 2012 at 3:49 pm
(16) NellaLou says:

“Michael Jerryson Syndrome”

Lovely! It’s becoming quite a trend of late.

May 23, 2012 at 2:06 pm
(17) Alfred says:

Buddha said, “Take the precepts as your teacher.” He didn’t appoint any successor, but strongly believed that those who practise good deeds will lead the rest to the righteous path. He had foreseen, if not everything, but many many things.

If the monks or nuns appear to be immoral or having some misconducts, just bring them for prosecution. Highlighting the case will also leave an effect as a detergent or warning. The beautiful thing is that, Buddhism embraces peace, with open heart and open mind.

Anything can happen under the sun. What is more beautiful is that, we are thought to have wisdom to handle things in our lives.

May 23, 2012 at 5:00 pm
(18) Colin says:

“The ultimate authority must always rest with the individual’s own reason and critical analysis.” – HH the Dalai Lama

May 24, 2012 at 4:54 pm
(19) Rev. Sunantho Bhikshu says:

Dear all, Namaste!
I am a western theravada monk, ordained in Thailand and I have travelled to many Asian countries during these 7 years that I´ve been a monk. We, monks, are people, we are humans and not some kind of movie characters that are shown on videos in the west… As humans, there are good and bad people.
Some people become monks to scape from starvation and poverty, some are just left in the temples by their parents who cannot afford taking care of them and yes, there are real monks that have found in the Buddha´s Teachings a real way of life!
Bad monks in the Sangha has never been something new – Devadatta, the well known Buddha´s cousin, brother in law and friend from childhood was ordained as a monk just to cause harm to the Buddha and give the Sangha a bad name… More than once, he even tried to kill the Buddha!
May all of you be well and protected!

भन्ते सुनन्थो भिक्षु

May 24, 2012 at 6:17 pm
(20) Billy Wetherington says:

We are human beings first. We have problems even if we take the vows.

May 24, 2012 at 6:45 pm
(21) Margot-deepa Slater says:

That’s what happens when the populous creates gurus and puts them on pedestals; expecting perfection and hanging on every word and action. It is what it is. How do any of us learn, by experiencing. There will be little tests, some we will fail and fall. Others we will learn something valuable and life enhancing and step up. Life is a process.

I have found minding my own business to be an on-going full time job.
That is, attending to, mending and patching and healing the things in my life which need attention. We are all on a journey. It is as it is.

May 24, 2012 at 7:45 pm
(22) rdo says:

I have a hard time dealing with “holier than thou” monks. They are always criticizing temple etiquette even when it is to the point of overkill. They often end up being tattle tellers to the Lamas and thus try to amass sangha power. I am thinking of one in particular who was ordained a couple years ago. She really gets on my nerves. On the other hand, my Buddha conscious tells me to treat as my teacher. In giving instructions about the intricacies of temple etiquette and preparation for the lama and visiting monks and lamas, she is helping from making embarrassing mistakes in front of them. So, my part is to let her and even my enemies teach me patience and good instruction and forget about my ego.

May 24, 2012 at 10:52 pm
(23) Tom Ward says:

The very human “bad” behavior of the relatively few monks in the article only reinforces admiration for the majority of monks and nuns that follow the disciplines of Buddhism and joyfully contribute to our society.

May 25, 2012 at 2:31 am
(24) Ellen Steadman says:

Reference the monk who possibly has a psychiatric illness – Perhaps it is time that ‘religious teachers’ [ including Buddhist and all other 'religions ] have basic psychology training included in their curriculi, to enable them to identify problems of this nature before anyone gets hurt or even killed. I have come across quite a few incidents where people that are obviously mentally unstable are not being treated because they have defined their delusions as ‘religious experience’

May 25, 2012 at 8:37 am
(25) Fred says:

Evam me suttam.

With respect – If the Dhamma is a refuge, then the Dhammapada, for me, is the very center of that safest of places. In reading it, it becomes clear that from the very beginning, the struggle to liberate oneself from “the bonds of Mara” were an ongoing, daily concern. In the “pairs”, for example:
“Whoever being depraved, devoid of self-control and truthfulness, should don the monk’s yellow robe,
He surely is not worthy of that robe”…
But whosoever is purged of depravity, well-established in virtue, and filled with self-control and truthfulness,
He indeed is worthy of the yellow robe….
The struggle against rampant emotions and temptation is a pervasive theme in the suttas of the Dhammapada, one which remains with us until, I think, until we (hopefully) attain enlightenment.

Again, with respect, it seems to me to be fruitless to lay the blame for bad behavior more at the doorstep of one school or another – it echoes back, I think, to the ancient enmity between “Mahayana and Hinayana”; rather, I think, we can learn from the ancients, “connect” across the centuries to their struggle against the very same evils we face today, and let them guide us along the Noble Eightfold Path…

May 25, 2012 at 9:51 am
(26) George Deane says:

Buddhists are normally enjoined to desist from criticizing, being judgmental and showing compassion to others. I depart from such tradition. There are times when not criticizing hides a problem only to resurface subsequently in a more lethal form.

I have noted over the years and in several Buddhist traditions that monks have been ordained much too too easily and with little or no vetting process. This is especially true with regard to young people whose life long commitment to such a life is totally untested and questionable. I feel that no one should be allowed to enter this committed life style without an “apprenticeship” period during which he must prove to himself and to others that this is his true vocation.

By “going easy” on bad behavior condemns us to see more of the same and with greater frequency.

May 25, 2012 at 10:15 am
(27) Phra Ajahn Bill says:

I will have to go along with Rev. Sunantho Bhikshu. I’ve been a Theravada monk 5 years this July. I ordained in Thailand. I’ve seen some bad monks but mostly some really good monks who are trying hard to stay that way. It’s not easy unless your living in the forest in a hut by yourself. This busy world has a way of corrupting. One of the problems is the West has a different viewpoint on monks, Mostly, we’re here for ourselves. Which is not a Western concept. We’re not preachers or ministers. Most of us have no training to be councilers or teachers. The majority of monks I see have very little schooling. Basically were here to fight our own demons and if we can accomplish that, then just maybe, maybe we can help others.

May 26, 2012 at 2:34 am
(28) Dolma says:

A nun is betetr then a munk. We have no problems in the middle. But if we play and are the munk, no christian or islam fanatic person will accept us. Dalai Lama just attacked in Huy Belgium. Here keys stolen by a palestinian who does not want me to give his keys for the houseowner her worker. You see where it goes! Fanatism is never good. He only gives keys to men! tsjoek tsjoek!
Suppose i did not change my keys! Suppose i was in Huy! All these persons were this week in danger. But i live in this country and the dalai lama not. I have problems without stopping here. Even the government here someone called cruel and corrupt(an american lady). So what now?

May 27, 2012 at 11:20 am
(29) mickey says:

I believe, after struggling with this for 12 years, that my path is to skillfully maintain one foot in relative truth and the other in absolute truth. “Bad” monks present an opportunity for us, as we realize monks and nuns are human beings. We all have pure Buddha nature, eh? So instead of trying to figure out the way the monks are, ask yourself why a kind Universe brought you this opportunity to deepen your understanding and living of Dharma.

July 5, 2012 at 11:06 pm
(30) Dave says:

How can we criticize these beings? When we meditate and reflect….we see ourselves. We learn from the Sangha even if we disagree on major issues. Since non of us have attained enlightenment…we ought not cast stones.We love these family members even more and try to help them before such undesireable occurances.

However, I do believe wholeheartedly that beings should be held accountable for their actions. If we dont make mistakes…we are unable to learn from them.

August 12, 2012 at 8:10 pm
(31) Jason Jones says:

I personally knew the monk that was killed by another monk here in alabma. Your article is slander! Ajahn Chaiwat is the man you have slandered. Shame on you. He was my teacher and the monk that killed him is a very sick man. Buddhism and all organized religon have their faults because they are human creations but you have slandered my teachers memory. He would forgive you and so will I. You should look for the peace in all things. I feel sorry for you.
I have never commented on this article. I guess no one wants to here from someone that was a student of the dead monk. Pity

August 13, 2012 at 7:00 am
(32) Barbara O'Brien says:

Jason — I’m sorry you can’t read, but I said nothing whatsoever about the monk who was slaughtered, except that he was slaughtered. I can’t imagine where you are seeing “slander.” I suggest you take an adult education course in remedial reading, or perhaps get psychological counseling.

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