Materialism, Violence and Monks

Materialism is widely decried as a negative trait, something that stains us as people and harms our society.  Buddhism is not alone in teaching that materialism is undesirable; all major religions and philosophies arrive at the same conclusion.  The Buddhist take is that materialism fosters a sense of attachment to something in the material realm.  Since the underlying principle of Buddhism is that of impermanence – all things are transitory – that sense of attachment can only create suffering in the long run.


Of course, it is one thing to look at materialism from a philosophical perspective and quite another to avoid being materialistic!  I greatly admire the saffron-robed monks whom you see on the streets and around the temples here in Thailand.  They take a vow of poverty and generally live very simple lives.

As with any religion, of course, there are those who do not seem to follow the teachings as closely as they might.  At a recent trip to MBK, a bazaar-like mall with hundreds of little stalls, I was surprised to see a few monks shopping.  At a bookstore, one monk was handing money from his wallet to the female cashier – a double no-no in Buddhist teachings!

Of course, there is some question whether these “monks” are actual monks.  I know that when traveling in Singapore and KL I have seen saffron-robed monks who are collecting cash alms on the streets.  Again, a no-no.  It seems that there is not a mechanism in place to authenticate those who claim to be monks.

Negative Depictions of Monks

In a related issue, there is a movie finally coming out here in Thailand called Nak Prok (“Shadow of the Naga”) that will serve as a test case for Thailand’s new film rating system.  You see, one thing Thailand’s censors (officially known as the Ministry of Culture) particularly don’t like, it is the negative depiction of Buddhism.  (Thanks to Wise Kwai for writing about this.)

Consider the case of Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Syndromes and a Century, which was heavily censored because of scenes showing, among other things, a monk playing a guitar.  (Yet another no-no in the rules that monks must follow.)  The full-length, uncensored version of the movie has never shown in Thailand nor is it available on DVD.

Nak Prok takes things to an even higher level.  The film made its premier at the Toronto Int’l Film Festival in 2008 but has been sitting on a shelf here in Thailand ever since.  The story is about a gang of thieves who bury their loot on the grounds of a monastery.  When they return to dig it up a few years later, they discover that a temple has been build on top of it.  They ordain as monks – forcing the head monk at gunpoint to ordain them – in order to recover the loot.

The film depicts monks holding guns, a gun being held to the head of the senior monk, and the thieves behave in unseemly ways while in monks’ robes, including raping a woman.  If this film doesn’t push the censors’ buttons, what will?

(Sorry, no English subtitles but I think you’ll get the gist of it anyhow!)

Actually, it looks like an interesting and emotionally-charged movie.  We’ll see if it gets the highest restriction – restricting audiences below the age of 20 – or if it gets banned outright.  We take our depiction of religion very seriously here, as you can tell.

In fact, it occurs to me as writing this that the Ministry of Culture may very well choose to censor this entry!  Let’s hope not…

0 thoughts on “Materialism, Violence and Monks

  1. Hmmm….movie about Thai monks, that’ll be interesting. I have seen numerous monks shopping for mobile phones at the MBK mall as well! Most Thais will spend a small period of time during their lives being a monk to make good merit, that’s what my friend did too.

  2. @marc11864 – Technically, smoking is okay because it doesn’t impair the senses like drugs or alcohol.  It does seem strange, though, doesn’t it?@CurryPuffy – Yes, most young Thai men will ordain as a novice for a period of a few days, a week or even a few months in order to earn merit for their parents.  Most of the monks I see shopping (and not just for mobile phones!) don’t strike me as novices who are short-timers.  They look like they’ve pretty much settled in to the role.@yang1815 – The metal alms bowl is a feature here, too, but for collecting food.  According to Buddha’s teachings, monks aren’t supposed to handle money.@murisopsis – I’ll keep up on it and share any updates.

  3. Interesting. Does the Ministry of Culture scan the internet for postings to censor?I’m involved with shows that come out of Asia through the US. I’ve seen the Shaolin Monks come through several times now; sometimes at the beginning of their tour, sometimes at the end. In the beginning, they feel very pure. In the end, I see them again, and they’ve been influenced heavily by western culture, walking around with iPods and such, and behaving differently than they did at the beginning.The older I get, the more I think we need to rein ourselves back a bit more.

  4. @TheCheshireGrins – Not a lot but they all seem to be ones by young independent Thai filmmakers who have things to say about society, politics, etc.  Several of our best indie filmmakers’ best works have never been shown in the country.@arenadi – The Ministry employs several dozen people whose sole job is to look for content that is inappropriate and to knock it down.  Agreed that reining ourselves in would be a good thing.  Was listening to a recent podcast of the Diane Rhem show about money and frugality in these times and I sincerely hope that people are taking a second look at the consumerist habits we’ve all learned.  Perhaps if we all bought a little less and lived a little more within our means, things would be better.@ElusiveWords – True of every faith and denomination, I think.@CurryPuffy – Can’t speak to the attractiveness issue but they generally aren’t the twenty-somethings who are in there for a few weeks or months.

  5. Gosh! that seemed so powerful. Every one was acting so well.  Many years ago, the Indian Film Industry also had a big problem with the censoring of movies that had topics similar to this.

  6. Wow, the plot of the movie sounds really interesting. Too bad I missed it at TIFF. I guess the problem with monks, just like any other religion is that you have the corrupt ones. We just need to find those spiritual leaders who speak to us on an individual basis. Regarding materialism, I think Ajahn Brahm would probably say that we need to acknowledge our materialistic wants and keep them in check…so long as they don’t get us to the point of doing “bad” things like those men in the movie.

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