Children should always have an opportunity to enjoy the diversity and profundity of religious experience. Yet the actual acceptance of the Buddha-Dharma and a life of practice requires an element of individual initiative and free will, as indicated in the Kalama Sutta. The Buddha’s advice not to automatically accept a teaching and to do so only when it has been personally validated implies that a mature mind is necessary. To consciously embark on a spiritual path during childhood is therefore extremely difficult.
However, committing children to a lifetime of monastic study, self-denial, and meditation in a monastery is a common occurrence in many traditionally Buddhist societies. To “go forth” and renounce life as a householder is not something to be undertaken lightly. Monasticism is restrictive and for life (the Theravada tradition does allow for short-term monastic sojourns, but these tend to be for mature laypeople). Hours of meditation every day, focused study on dense subjects, and the sublimation of sensual cravings are not pursuits to be accepted without deep reflection.
Some young people, of course, do feel a calling to become monks or nuns. There is a trope in Chinese literature in which the heroic son or daughter leaves the household to pursue their monastic calling despite the protestations of their parents. Implicit here is the ideal of extraordinarily gifted young people who are the exception rather than the norm. By contrast, in Southeast Asia and the Tibetan Buddhist regions of the Himalayas, boys have long been sent to monasteries en masse.
Family poverty or the lack of alternative opportunities for education are common reasons for sending one’s sons to a monastery. These boys are usually not asked how they feel about a lifetime pledge to celibate monasticism and are ordained without consideration of their personalities, temperaments, or inclinations. Free will and critical agency, which the Buddha saw as crucial, are not priorities. It is precisely for this reason that poverty or other social or economic problems are dangerous motivations for ordaining.
The social, emotional, and sexual repercussions for children involuntarily placed in a strict, celibate institution are becoming ever harder to conceal. A recent spate of scandals has laid bare the reality that a lack of guidance and a culture of silence are failing an increasing number of young monastics who are insufficiently prepared, either intellectually or emotionally, to weather the trials of lifelong monastic practice.
Since 2009, Bhutan has reported a spike in STDs at dratshangs (monastic schools), where monks are supposed to be concentrating on gaining insight and disassociating from sensual desires. According to a 2013 report in Kuensel Online, an English-language Bhutanese website, STDs are even on the rise among boys as young as 12, to the extent that condom distribution to monasteries has been made an official government policy. This is an explicit recognition that even the basic monastic requirement of celibacy is not being upheld and that unsafe, uninformed sex is occurring.
“Such things must have occurred because our children, who usually come from poor families, are ignorant about such things,” said Tashi Geley, a health and religion coordinator for the schools. They also come from families shattered by divorce, are orphaned, or were chosen by their parents for the monastery specifically because they were not physically able. Often, their parents do not visit them. These are the worst possible reasons to ordain a boy, who is likely scared or bitter and longing for comfort and, in the throes of growing up, companionship.
In many Bhutanese monasteries, little thought is given to the mental and physical stresses caused by prolonged meditation, sedentary living, and the pressure of passing monastic examinations while grappling with health problems—specifically, according to the Royal Insurance Corporation’s records for 2012, diabetes, hypertension, heart disease, kidney failure, gallstones, gastritis, tuberculosis, appendicitis, and the need for prosthetics. Overcrowded conditions, a lack of recreational facilities, and poor hygiene are symptoms of a cultural paradigm in which monasteries are treated like orphanages and poorhouses, which they are not equipped to be.
The same Kuensel Online report noted that some monasteries had 6 to 15 children sleeping in one room, and that monastics as an overall demographic reported only 24.9 healthy days in a month, the lowest of the country’s occupational groups (and 5.1 sick days per month, the highest). Central monastic officials argue that things have improved, but these problems remain reasons why many Bhutanese monks and nuns between the ages of 15 and 25 need to visit psychiatrists, as highlighted by Vishal Arora of Religion News Service in The Washington Post.
Adele Wilde-Blavatsky, writing in Elephant Journal on 7 June 2013, accused Tibetan monastic institutions of remaining silent about the outright abuse of junior monks by their older masters. Kalu Rinpoche is one of the few who went public with allegations of sexual abuse by unnamed elders during his childhood in October 2011. With some of these unnamed elders being complicit in abuse, young monks are left with nowhere to turn—unable to share their vulnerabilities with those they should be able to trust most.
Sanghas beyond the Tibetan Buddhist world are not immune to such problems either. For example, Thailand has been grappling with a spate of incidents of monks engaged in sexual activity, drunkenness, gambling, and the accumulation of material wealth. There have always been misbehaving monks, but such cases are becoming more common and public. Nevertheless, Arbat, a recent film containing several controversial scenes, including one of a monk kissing a woman, was banned by Thailand’s Ministry of Culture before the scenes were cut and the film renamed Apatti (the title refers to monks who have broken their precepts and try to cover it up, but then reap the karmic consequences). “The movie has some scenes that will destroy Buddhism. If it is shown, people’s faith in Buddhism will deteriorate,” a spokesman for the National Office of Buddhism told AFP before the edits. (Al Jazeera) Unfortunately, this loss of faith is already setting in to some degree, with the customary veneration accorded to monastics giving way to severe disillusionment, especially in traditional communities.
While this state of affairs deserves critique, with the phenomenon of sending young children to monasteries being so deeply embedded within cultures such as Thailand or Bhutan, there are no quick or easy answers. Finding solutions and compromises will be a long and difficult process, but it is also clear that young monastics, cloistered from their families and society, need more than condoms. They are to be respected for their monastic status, certainly, but they are also human, with real problems and vulnerabilities that need to be addressed.
Thailand bans film over depictions of Buddhist monks (Al Jazeera)
Thailand’s tainted robes (Al Jazeera)
Monks need better health care (Kuensel Online)
Bhutan seeks to curb sexual diseases among Buddhist monks (The Washington Post)
What Lies Beneath the Robes: Are Buddhist Monasteries Suitable Places for Children? (Elephant Journal)