There Are Good Monks And There Are Bad Monks

A long time ago, in what seems like another life, I sat at a temple in Chiang Mai, Thailand chatting with a young monk. The experience was part of an initiative called “Monk Chat”, offered at several Buddhist temples around Thailand’s northern urban darling. The city’s novice monks––the young, and effectively in-training monks––sit with interested participants and answer their questions about Buddhism, existence, Thai culture, a monk’s life, street food––anything a person wants to ask about. Many novice monks are students simultaneously assuming the life and values of a monk as they make their way through university. The Monk Chat program is an opportunity for them to practice English. I think the government provides some sort of academic subsidy for it, but I’m not sure.

It’s pretty cool actually because during that first visit to Thailand, I always thought that monks didn’t speak. I thought they sat all day and meditated, still and silent. But during the four months I lived there (the first time), way back in 2013, I was out for a modest splunk one day up in the country’s northern hills near a place called Soppong. I spotted a monk, sitting in a cave as monks do in our common image of them, and he was smoking a joint. I couldn’t help but stare, though I tried to hide my shock. Aren’t monks supposed to live the ascetic life––no smoke, no speak, no sex? But alas, there he was, looking quite tranced out, perched peacefully in what appeared to be a makeshift home. He wore the quintessential bright orange robe that adorns all monks in Thailand, which is why I knew he wasn’t just some random guy peacing out.

I had a slightly different view of monks after that encounter. Not good or bad, just not what I expected. So I took the Monk Chat as an opportunity to ask about monks smoking pot and doing other eyebrow-raising things. The monk I chatted with––I can’t remember his name––was quite young, maybe 17 or 18, and he had a sunny, unblemished face and bright eyes. I could tell he enjoyed the program and he spoke English well.

“Are monks allowed to smoke pot and do other drugs?” I asked, “and if so, what other parts of the epicurean world is he permitted access to?” (So I didn’t really use the word “epicurean” with him because I’m not a snob like that, I’m just summing up the gist of what I said for the masses––meaning my modest readership, of course).

“Yes, some monks smoke pot,” he said. “Some monks also drink and have sex and gamble and do bad things.”

“But I don’t understand,” I replied. “Don’t monks have to take an oath or something?”

He smiled, a little chuckle lit his eyes as he looked at me, and like a parent to a child, said, “Colleen, just like people, there are good monks and there are bad monks.”

Awesome answer. Simply stated and wrapped up like a FedEx package––or a burrito (if you’re hungry while reading this, we’ll opt for the burrito). Really, how can you possibly pick that conclusion apart? He’s absolutely right. There are two kinds of people in the world: good and bad (some are a bit gray but they’re mostly undecided). And it turns out there are two kinds of monks in the world too. We know there are two kinds of priests, and there are definitely two kinds of drunks. Perhaps all species can fit into such tidy binaries?

But two things niggled at me. The first was that he distinguished between monks and people, as though monks aren’t people. The second, and the reason I sat down and opened my laptop tonight to write after already having spent the whole day long writing was his assertion that smoking pot makes a monk “bad”. I get what he means. By rule of Tradition, a monk makes a vow to live an ascetic life, with austere self-governance over his innate worldly desires, namely for sex, drugs, and alcohol and other indulgences of the hedonistic sphere. A monk smoking pot is clearly breaking the rules, which, according to this novice monk whose name I can’t remember, makes him innately bad.

Before I get into it, I’m going to go ahead a state firmly that I’m not in any way comparing myself to a monk. But I discovered some parallels when I think about the ways I’ve implemented self-discipline throughout my life for keeping with the person I want to be and the goals I want to achieve. Sometimes, I’ve created and maintained rigid thoughts and behaviours for the sake of discipline itself––I’m good at self-control (until I’m not). So good that I’ve orchestrated several situations in my life just for the sake of “testing” myself without actually knowing that’s what I was doing. (The psyche is strange. The ego plays tricks. The battle is something to behold when we finally catch it).

Here’s an activity: compile a mental list of all your self-identified admirable traits and see if there aren’t a few strange ones. If you’ve made it through a few decades you’ve surely recognized some already. 

Self-discipline by way of random restrictions, unnecessarily hard work, and silly routines were a kind of martyrdom I created as a pleasure-seeking mechanism. We might call this masochism on the extreme end of the spectrum, and I think there’s a degree of that in all of us. It’s partly ego, partly social conditioning, partly a need to reign ourselves in, partly an upbringing that positions worry as a means to express and reflect love. But whatever it was, it was mine by unconscious choice, and I didn’t realize that I had a codependent relationship with control. In my mind, it contributed to who I was. Testing myself made me stronger, scaffolded my integrity, and made me get shit done

Except it also hindered my freedom, the freedom that is doled out to every single one of us from the time we’re born to the time we die. The freedom that allows us to create our own pleasant experience every day, in every moment, without guilt. So why did I deny myself that brand of freedom? Lack of trust. I couldn’t trust that I wouldn’t always choose the instant gratification option over the delayed gratification one. I couldn’t trust that I wouldn’t stuff the whole cake in my face so it was better to eat none at all. I couldn’t trust that I could do “bad” things and still be a good person. I couldn’t even trust that I could let a few things slide and still be good.

My friend Joe pointed this out to me this past summer during a hike in the wooded wonder of the Pacific Northwest during our long-overdue reunion. (I actually met Cat and Joe during that first visit to Chiang Mai when I participated in the monk chat). As we walked, I dribbled out my semi-regular string of mild complaints about something that was happening in my life at the time, which I burped to a close with, “well, whatever happens, it’ll be a good test for me, and that’s always a good thing.”

Joe responded in his Joe-like way, “what I think is most interesting is why you always feel the need to test yourself,” he said, “don’t you ever get tired of that? What exactly are you testing yourself for?”

I took pause. I had to. He got me. I didn’t actually know what I was testing myself for. For proving I was a good person? For upping my ego a bit more? For setting up a rewards and punishment system I could align with my own self-image at a given time? Yep, I knew I could do it (self-fulfilling reward), or I knew I’d fuck it up (self-fulfilling punishment). Was it to guarantee myself an answer when I didn’t have one? A way to maintain control to spite my deep discomfort in any situation that felt unmanageable or uncertain? Was it to ensure I would recognize myself even when I was really angry?

A lot of self-psychoanalysis happened that afternoon, and admittedly, lots of afternoons and early mornings before and thereafter too. I read an excerpt from somewhere the other day that caught me and I thought, yes, yes, yes, this is what I’m feeling. It was this: 

“Self-love is the work ethic behind what you do for yourself, regardless of how you feel about yourself in a given moment.” (unknown)

My immediate interpretation of that statement aligned perfectly with that self-disciplinary approach I routinely take in many aspects of my life. With the authoritarian who steps in with her tip-tappy shoes, takes the toys away, and with sharp hands, doles out sugar-free porridge instead of Froot Loops. But in reassessing that quote, I think I misunderstood what the word “work” really means in that particular statement because after a few reads and some wistful pondering, I understood it quite differently.

To me, that work ethic means that sometimes I can make allowances that go against the self-created rigid order of things in my life. Not because I want to break rules or sabotage myself, but because I trust myself to stay committed to who I am and who I want to be while also still enjoying life and its material pleasures. I don’t have to be consistent, just committed, and they’re not the same thing. 

The “work” is the continuous coming back to that center part of myself that knows what’s okay and what’s not. She doesn’t have a strap and a sharp voice. I like to imagine her with a wand and a warble that chirps out reminders of the commitments I made to myself. Sometimes she encourages me to take rest when the woman with the strap wants to GET SHIT DONE. And I like that about her. She’s not my inherent laziness as I once thought trying to prevent me from being ambitious so she could sit back and be all like I told you so. She’s not vicious or manipulative, how can anyone with a wand and a warble be malicious? Sometimes she sits back, chuffed up and smirky because she already knows that I know, and she’s just waiting for me to realize it, all those variations of it that come up in a given life. 

I write about this deeply personal interaction because of the prominent cultural discourse that surrounds this idea of self-care, particularly for women. As a woman now “into” her forties, I’m at a stage that Erikson coins the conflict between generativity and stagnation. This phase offers a social task in which a person commits to either realizing her life’s work and getting on with it or gets trapped in a low self-esteem and is unable to affect change. Clarissa Pinkola Estes also offers a similar thought in this passage from Women Who Run With The Wolves (best book ever): 

“There is a time in our lives, usually in mid-life, when a woman has to make a decision––possibly the most important decision of her future life––and that is, whether to be bitter or not. Women often come to this point in their late thirties or early forties. They are at a point where they are full up to their ears with everything and they’ve “had it” and “the last straw has broken the camel’s back” and they’re “pissed off and pooped out.” 

That riddled-with-resentment, fed-up feeling is the debris accumulated over a lifetime of ignoring the inner voice, the one that knows. She isn’t the one that says have that extra glass of wine, you deserve it! when you know that you’re going to feel like crap for it, or––just buy it, treat yourself! when your bank balance clearly doesn’t agree, or even, forget about it, do it tomorrow! for the third time that week. She also isn’t the one that says stay, it’s scary out there, when every bone in your body says go.

No, she says things like, honey, that doesn’t sound like you, why don’t we deal with what’s really going on? She’s the voice of intuitive confrontation, not advice. And she encourages the little things that matter too, like getting the dishes done before bed to gift myself a tidy kitchen the next morning. 

Real, honest self-care is about owning our shit today so we can conquer (gently) new ground tomorrow. We don’t need to test ourselves because we trust ourselves enough to handle whatever situations we encounter. Real self-care doesn’t involve rules, it involves commitment. And most importantly, it doesn’t involve anyone but yourself so you can go ahead and let everyone else off the hook for not being you when you’re not meeting your own expectations. 

There’s no bad monk/good monk. There’s no bad girl or good girl. There is psychic deliverance, popcorn once in a while, and a hangover when we deserve it. There is self-care that intuitively watches over and coaches us with an ever-so-gentle tap of her wand. 


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