The never-ending adventures of a travel writer in Vietnam, Cambodia, New Zealand and throughout the Asia-Pacific region.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Monking Around

I passed a couple of Buddhist monks on the Phu Hai bridge today, on my way into Phan Thiet. I've seen them before. It's rare to see monks walking on foot any more--let alone barefoot--and in their traditional, tattered orange robes. Rare because monks usually ride nice new motorbikes and newer, more "stylish" robes. Of course many of them are supposedly not even monks at all. Vietnam has an epidemic of fake monks, who go around with bald heads and robes, trying to cheat people or prey upon their traditional good will toward monks.

It's hard to tell real ones from fake ones though. This month I've seen more monks than I can remember ever seeing before. They go door to door asking for money, selling soap and incense, or marketing for their customized prayer/chanting services to bless homes and businesses (for profit). Seems to be quite a profitable business. I often hear western neo-Buddhists and Buddha-philes lament that Vietnamese Buddhism is somehow inauthentic in its idiosyncrasies, particularly when compared to Thailand, Cambodia and of course Tibet. Of course this would seem to be a rather biting insult to Vietnamese Buddhists, but then I'm not sure its an accurate assessment. I've heard these inconsistencies, and others--like the monk's tendencies to act as shamanists, with practices and beliefs inconsistent with the tenants of classic Buddhism--are part of Buddhism in every country.

A few weeks ago, one of the top open tour companies operating in Mui Ne (I am omitting their name) took in a rogue monk. Apparently taking in a monk is supposed to bring good luck. Why anyone would want to bring in a rogue clergyman of any religion is beyond me. The fact that they are unaccountable to anyone would seem to be an obvious warning sign. This monk helped around the office and facilities for a few days but became increasingly bossy. Eventually the owner was pulled aside by the employees who complained the monk was going from room to room, pressuring the male employees for sex--saying if they didn't perform, he would tell the boss to fire them (the monk assumed his clergy status made him untouchable). However, when all the male employees complained, it was obvious to the owner why this monk was not living in a pagoda with his colleagues. The owner promptly sent him packing. I guess Buddhists have their own sex scandals too.

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