Feminization

One cannot help but notice how much time Theravadin monks spend in the company of females. There are good reasons for this. Like the monks themselves, many middle and upper class Asian women have little to do. These ladies will hover around the table as monks eat, fussing over them and occasionally pointing to particular dishes and suggesting that the monk try that because she prepared it especially for him. Ask for a glass of orange juice and they will lovingly put three spoons of sugar in it instead of the usual one. Reach for the water bottle and they will rush up and unscrew the top for you. Wipe your mouth with the paper napkin and it will be immediately whisked away and be replaced by a new one. They cut the fruit into small bite-sized cubes and put a toothpick in each so that the monks can eat it with ease. In Burma they actually peel the grapes for the monks. I am not joking, this is absolutely true! Years of this sort of female pampering combined with few duties and constant adulation has a devastating effect on a male.

Like spoiled children, many Theravadin monks end up having a marked preoccupation with their health. The cupboards in the monks’ rooms are cluttered with aspirins, balms, various creams and bottles of vitamin tablets, and the cupboards in the danasalas are stocked with jars of fortified drinks and supplements. Elderly ladies are always inquiring about monks’ health and any suggestion that he has ‘a slight headache’ or that he’s ‘feeling a bit poorly this morning’ will initiate yet another round of anxious medicine buying. It is quite difficult to stave off all the female attention. Saying that you would like to do this yourself or that you already have enough of that will be met with either a disappointed look or unrelenting insistence. Last time I was in Burma I found the food so rich that on several occasions I decided to fast for a day. When I didn’t come to the danasala in one place where I was staying, a contingent of very formidable matrons came to see what was wrong. ‘Are you sick venerable sir?’ ‘No, I’ve decided just not to eat today.’ Eyes popped open, jaws drop with disbelief, and then the breaking down process commenced. ‘How about having just a little?’ ‘No thanks. I’d really like to give my stomach a rest.’ ‘Have some fruit then. You must keep your strength up.’ ‘No, it’s quite okay.’ ‘Then what about some soup’? ‘No, I’m having nothing today’ etc. etc. etc. In this instance I held my ground and the matrons went off shaking their heads with a combination of bewilderment and admiration. But it is easy to give in when one is assailed with this kind of thing day after day. It is hard to blame monks for allowing themselves to be overindulged, devotees can be very persistent. It is equally hard to blame lay people; for centuries this is what Theravada has taught them to do. Both are caught up in a vicious circle. Each spoils the other.

I’m not sure what the unconscious motivation behind all this female pampering and fussing is but it is probably not a healthy one. Certainly it has tended to make many monks soft and effete so that they are unable or unwilling to deal with the knocks and blows of ordinary life. Thanissaro claims that certain Vinaya rules are meant to shield monks from cares ‘that are most burdensome to a sensitive mind.’ I can’t help feeling that notions like this have encouraged monks to see themselves and to be seen by others as precious creatures for whom any responsibilities, duties, pressure or work would upset their dainty contemplations, endanger their fragile virtues and hurt their delicate constitutions. Just how delicate monks are considered is well illustrated by what happens on public transport. In most other places in the world males stand up and gives their seats to pregnant women and elderly ladies. In Theravadin lands everyone; pregnant women and elderly ladies included, get up for the monks. How different we have become from the courageous and compassionate Buddha who went into the lonely forest to confront Angulimala (M.II,98). What a chasm there is between us and the brave and determined Punna who went to teach in the Sunaparanta country despite knowing the dangers involved (M.III,267).

Of course some monks try to break free from the life of pampering and go to the forest where they can live as the monks of old did. But people believe they will get even more merit if they give to a meditating monk and so it will not be long before they seek him out and begin to shower him with gifts and adulation again. I well recall my stay at beautiful forest hermitage in Karanbhagala in the south of Sri Lanka. Every day three or four bus and truck loads of devotees would come just to feed the five monks living there. The tables groaned with rich food, the store rooms were crammed to capacity with soap, towels, pillows, umbrellas, robes, etc. They, like other sincere monks, try their best to maintain their life of simplicity but it is a constant struggle, and they have more than they can use, more than they need, even more than they can store up. The devotees could keep some of their abundance and give it to charity, but they would get only meager merit from this and so they don’t. The monks could share some of their excess with the many dirt poor people in the area, but if they did the donors would be far from happy. And so, like it or not, even sincere monks end up with more and more. The phenomenon is to be seen all over the Theravada world. The better the monk, the more attention he receives, the more likely he is to become soft, spoiled and surrounded by luxuries.