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…