Thursday, 9 May 2019

Invisible Monk

I normally turn to one of several online public-domain graphics services to illustrate these posts. But figure this: on most or all of them, if you search for "monk", virtually every image will be Buddhist.

Some are Hindu, a decided few are Jain or Taoist, but almost none are Christian.

Take Unsplash. Its very generously free photographs are of such Condé-Nast quality that I rarely use them myself, this being a dirt-floored hermit blog, but click on that hyperlink. See how many of its monks are Christian.

And Unsplash is not an egregious case. Though the most widely-used service – Wikimedia Commons – does somewhat better, if you subtract historical depictions you'll find that its Christian orders still score well behind those of Asian origin.

Which renders me thoughtful. What's at work here? Is it the natural ambivalence of people in Christian-dominated societies to the Church? Or do we view Christian monastics as anachronistic – as indeed many Asians view their Buddhist counterparts? Or is it the common delusion that Asian religions are less hypocritical than Abrahamic ones?

It might simply be that Asian travel is hipper among trendy young Westerners, so the photos they take tend to depict Asian subjects.

Or maybe it's those flaming orange, red, and yellow vestments most Buddhist monks wear. Perhaps they're just more photogenic than the typical earth-toned Christian habit. 'Course that wouldn't explain why snapshots of Zenners, in their black, brown, or grey okesa, outnumber those of Catholics.

One way or the other, I think this is related to the Buddhist statuary often encountered in Western gardens and sitting rooms. But it's not just exoticism; Christian monks have become almost as novel to us in these times, particularly since they rarely go abroad in uniform these days.

Yet somehow they don't command the same mystique. When you consider all the old-school Christian cœnobites still afoot in the Mediterranean countries and Eastern Europe and Latin America, it's astonishing how few make it into our stock photos.

I'm convinced that somewhere in there is a fundamental misconception about the nature and reality of Buddhist monasticism.

Because the fact is, life and practice in Christian and Buddhist monasteries is astonishingly similar.

(Photo of Zen master Seung Sahn uncharacteristically outnumbered by the brothers of Our Lady of Gethsemani courtesy of ZM Dae Gak [Robert Genther] and Wikimedia Commons.)
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