I overheard my friends discussing whether Buddhism is now being ruled by money. A monk intervened and said, “GyalseyZhiwalha said the role of wealth will be indispensible to everyone…”
This took me back momentarily to my village. I remember a wealthy man in my village who would sponsor and conduct rituals of reading kanjur at KhiniLhakhang during ChoktrulDawa every year.
I had long planned to conduct a ritual called tordog this year because the year of snake is compatible (thuensum) among the members of my family. We believe that conducting tordog will obstruct or ward off any harm that will come to us.
As the 15th day approached, I mobilised a group of monks with the help of my uncle. The head monk asked what rituals we wanted exactly. I told my uncle I would like to devote the first day to drolmayudog, second day to chodtsho and the third day to tordog.
Then the head monk told us that we would have to pay him and all the monks Nu 3,500 each for the tordog ritual. My uncle and I decided to go with it. Only much later did I understand the implications of conducting religious rituals like this in Thimphu.
I found out that my uncle had run into debt of Nu 30,000 conducting such rituals every year. That shocked me and I began to think about it. A silent trend is emerging, more so in the urban areas than anywhere.
Buddhism may not be unique but it is a practical religion, I thought. At the core of it lies the idea of promoting peace, happiness and welfare of all sentient beings. “Religion provides clearer picture of how humans act in relation to the unseen beings and powers that lie behind the realm of directly experienced reality.” (Keesing&Strathern, 1998).
Rituals occupy an important place in Buddhism and Bhutanese society, and culture and the role of monks is indispensible. Through my interaction with Buddhist figures, I understood that Buddhism has no price tag at all. Anything that is paid to the monks is out of gratitude for the services they render us. If services of monks had price tags, it would have by now gone out of the roof.
What was asked of me and my uncle was a small amount. In the olden days in my village, monks would go for annual alms round every winter. Villagers, however poor they were, gave the monks whatever little they had. “Let hunger strike us but it is not right to deny monks alms,” elders used to tell us.
Today, monks are seen approaching only the wealthier and richer patrons in urban areas. And they do not go back to their village. With sponsorships come obligations. The priest-patron relationship has long existed in our culture. The while, in the villages, there is shortage of monks. Money indeed rules over spirituality.
In urban areas, monks have teamed up into groups consisting of all the essentials they require for conducting rituals right from choepon to head lama. And, of course, they have price tag for almost every ritual. The reason why monks are migrating and seeking enlightenment in the cityscapes is because of wealthy patrons.
But, back to Nu 3,500 a monk. I accepted that thinking that it may be a standard charge they ask. A friend of mine told me that monks today charge a little more than national daily wage. May be ‘financial’ self-sufficiency is what the modern monks are required to practise. GyalseyZhiwalha had seen it coming. Wealth is today indispensible to everyone, even to the monks.
One reason for them to put price tags seems to be that the tradition of alms giving is slowly dying. I have seen people giving alms but not without verbal some abuse. The results of 2010 GNH survey, conducted by the Centre for Bhutan Studies and GNH Research, shows that 63.08% of the respondents said Bhutanese in general in the last few years have become more compassionate. Conversely, 87% of the respondents said that Bhutanese have become more concerned with material wealth, and 51% said Bhutanese increasingly becoming selfish.
While there can be many interpretations to it, I think economic development has played a large part. Besides bringing about improved living standards, it has also brought along paramountcy of “individualism”. People in urban areas think that they live on their own and don’t have to depend on anyone. Everything one does is for oneself. The reality today is this: In Thimphu, neighbours do not know each other. The world of interdependence, which is an important aspect that Buddhism espouses, is fast fading.
I think it is because of this reason the monks are forced to resort to price tagging. I know most of them do it to make a modest living. But in doing so, they are robbing the sacredness Buddhism. A day might come, and very soon, when common people will not be able to pay the monk for the rituals they need to do. Performing rituals will then be confined only to the rich and wealthy sections of the society. This trend is now slowing drifting to the villages making life difficult for the villagers.
As a Buddhist, it is not at all my intention to demean or desecrate Buddhism and monks. I am not a practising Buddhist, but I have always held high regard and appreciation for this noble profession because I myself come from a religious family. My father is a monk. Moreover, I have learnt that not all people will have the fate of joining this noble profession and institution even if one wished for so earnestly. I am reminded of what Buddha said to his disciples, “Even if my disciples are not able to live up to the sacred vows they have taken, no one can match them.”
It is, I think, because of the danger of this practice His Holiness the Je Khenpo foresaw and issued a religious edict commanding that any religious service the monks render will not have to be reciprocated in cash. This came at a right time when dharma today is slowing losing significance.
Rituals should not have price tags. It is when religion becomes pricy that people will begin losing faith.
Tshering Phuntsho is a researcher with Centre for Bhutan Studies and GNH Research. Views expressed herein are writer’s own and do not in any way reflect the views of the office he is associated with.