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. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WaE1ASWlbBY
Gethin, Rupert. The Foundations of Buddhism. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.