Monk Phenomenology? or: Breakdancing Monks: They’re Just Like Us

Rupert Gethin expounds at length on the symbiotic relationship between Buddhist monks/nuns and the laity on whom they depend for alms, in return for dharma, as part of the Vinayas, roughly equivalent to Roman Catholic monastic orders’ “rule of life.” In summation, “The lifestyle of the Buddhist monk is thus founded on a relationship of trust between himself and his supporters. In accepting lay support in the form of robes, food, and lodgings, the monk enters into a kind of social contract; it becomes his responsibility to live in a certain way, namely to live the holy or spiritual life (brahmacarya) to the best of his ability” (Gethin 94). The Vinayas are designed this way; every restriction serves a purpose, either to necessitate that monastics stay in contact with the world of laypeople (rather than wandering in isolation as ascetics) or to earn that trust through good behavior. What he leaves up for pondering in his focus on structure, and what intrigues me about the concept of life within the sangha, is a detailed exploration of how the Vinayas affect the way this relationship of trust feels for the monastics themselves.

We know, for instance, that “Theravadin monks wear orange or brown robes, while the monks of East Asia wear grey or black robes, and the monks of Tibet wear maroon robes” (Gethin 88). No matter their color, these robes serve as an obvious visible marker of difference, of set-apartness, from the laity. To put on robes is to other oneself. This very material act not only represents a spiritual commitment but causes a spiritual change in state: from one side of the monastic/lay divide to the other. To behave in ways that counter, or appear to counter, the Vinayas while simultaneously using the robe to mark oneself as a monk or nun is to play with the divide and in fact to trouble the line between self and other.

In the viral video we watched in class, the breakdancers are not actually monks, but performers wearing monks’ robes. This subverts the relationship of trust in a whole new way. The gimmick that has attracted more than 400,000 YouTube viewers relies on more than the element of surprise. One watches the monks dance, all the while half-wondering: are they allowed to do that? Does drawing this type of spectacle mean that they are violating their own rules for living and tapping out of the symbiotic relationship? On the other hand, does their engagement with breakdancing make them too much like the laity, bringing the relationship uncomfortably close?

Of course, that video positions the “monks” in a relationship with a far different laity than the one(s) of whom Gethin speaks: the American public. Orientalism and hip hop culture collide and perhaps completely overshadow the exchange between those who give alms and those who further dharma. Another, much longer, paper could be written about the two different racialized “others” being put into conversation in a piece of street theater for a presumed white US audience.


YouTube channel Daily Videos and Clips. “KNARF® New York / MCA DAY Breakdancing Buddhist Monks.” Uploaded May 6, 2014.

Gethin, Rupert. The Foundations of Buddhism. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.

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2 Responses to Monk Phenomenology? or: Breakdancing Monks: They’re Just Like Us

  1. Emma says:

    I thought that this line of your post was particularly striking and well-stated: “To behave in ways that counter, or appear to counter, the Vinayas while simultaneously using the robe to mark oneself as a monk or nun is to play with the divide and in fact to trouble the line between self and other.” You are touching on some very large themes and questions in this post–you briefly mention Orientalism and the possibility of performing certain identities for a Western audience, for example (which as you say would be a great topic for a whole paper).
    I’m not sure yet what all of the greater implications of breakdancing or otherwise “misbehaving” monastics (or robed laity) are, but I’m particularly interested because of the monks and nuns that we spent time with on the Tibetan Studies in India program. At our New Year’s Party, for example, our nun friends swapped their robes for pajamas and danced with us once their teachers and elders went home; and I’m told that one year there was a breakdancing nun. At the time, we were all surprised, because we had been told that they weren’t allowed to dance–but their dancing didn’t break down any of the respect that their fellow lay students had for them as monastics, nor did it seem like any of the nuns were concerned about this.
    Again, I’m not sure what all of this implies on a greater scale yet–but maybe it is just evidence that the trust and respect between the laity and the sangha can coexist with a certain amount of boundary-troubling on the part of the monastics.

  2. Marie says:

    You make some important observations in the beginning part of your post: the radical lifestyle/aesthetic differences between lay people and nuns/monks, yet their crucial similarity being their practice and belief of Buddhism (this is what makes them bound to one another). However I’m curious to know a bit more about how you connect this notion to the relationship between the break dancers and their public audience. You mention it at the very end and I’d love to see this fleshed out! It seems like it could be a fascinating comparison.

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