Tuesday, January 27, 2009

The Elephant Man

There is a particular approach to the Dhamma which I call Flat-Earth Buddhism. FEB goes like this. If the Jatakas say there is a rabbit in the moon then there is a rabbit in the moon. If the sutta says that the Buddha flew from the Vulture's Peak to the Bamboo Grove then he did fly from the Vulture's Peak to the Bamboo Grove. If the Vinaya says that a monk or nun should squat while urinating then monks and nuns must squat while urinating. The mantra of FEB is 'As it was in the beginning it shall be now and forever more.' Sometimes I am on the receiving end of FEB. For example, just recently I had the opportunity to see again David Lynch's wonderful 1980 film The Elephant Man. It moved me as much as it did the first time I saw it. In the course of conversation with a group of Buddhists from Malaysia I happened to mention this and I couldn’t help notice that the temperature in the room suddenly dropped by about 25 degrees. Eyes were averted, throats were cleared and the silence was deafening. Finally one of the group, appointing himself spokesman, said, 'Bhante, are monks allowed to watch films?' Although grammatically this was a question it was actually a reproach. And of course the spokesman was right in one sense; but only right from the point of view of FEB. I could have indulged in a bit of one-upmanship and pointed out that there is no mention of films in the Vinaya and therefore I had not broken any rule. But I wasn’t in the mood. Technically, the theater was quite highly developed at the time of the Buddha although the subject matter of the material presented was far less elevated and was probably mainly what we would call vaudeville. But that was then! This is now! Things have changed! Today theater, whether on stage or screen, can be intellectually, morally and spiritually uplifting (although it often isn’t). It can challenge us to think, it can transmit important ideas, it can motivate us to act and change things for the better. Seeing a good film is little different from reading a good book. The Elephant Man would be a good example of this. Based on Sir Fredrick Treres' The Elephant Man and Other Reminiscences and Ashley Montagu's superb The Elephant Man - A Study in Human Dignity the film is the best commentary I know on Dhammapada 262-3, 'If someone is jealous, selfish or dishonest, they are unattractive despite their eloquence or good features. But the person who is purged of such things and is free from hatred, it is he or she who is really beautiful.'


Vasile Andreica said...

the letter kills, the spirit gives life.

Anonymous said...

I must say I disagree with you here. If we start adapting the Vinaya to suit our own preferences so that we can follow our personal desires, then where will we end up? Then we might as well ignore the Vinaya rules altogether.

There is a that says you should not indulge in entertainment: singing, dancing etc. Modern day entertainments such as movies and the Internet must be included in that rule. I love movies myself and I agree that there might be movies that directs your mind in a wholesome direction, but on the whole such entertainments must be given up in ordained life.

Well, let's see, what else in the Vinaya is totally outdated...I know...celibacy! That was then, this in now. Now all people indulge in sex constantly with anyone...let's adapt that rule to our modern day and age and allow sexual indulgence for ordained men and women. Right?

I think the Vinaya should be preserved. Some adjustments must be made, and are being made in most modern day communities, but the spirit of the Vinaya must remain true. The Vinaya is a guideline that is there as an aid in ordained life. Not indulging in entertainment simplifies your life and aids your meditation. Honestly, who wants Steven Segal to pop up when you practice mindfulness of breathing?

Holy crap Bhante! I have given myself away - I am a FEB Buddhist! Now excuse me...I must go and squat :)

Anandajoti said...

Dear indigoblue,

Presumably you would agree that monks can read books - but as we all know there are porno books as well as porno films --- equally there are Dhamma books and Dhamma films. The media is surely not the issue, but what is done with it.

At my temple we regularly show videos of all sorts, ones directly concerned with Dhamma, and others that simply help people form a better, more informed opinion about issues, which I as a monk and Buddhist feel are important, like the effects of war, vegetarianism, and education.

We always use the material as a basis for an intelligent discussion on the issues raised, and up and till now I have never heard one negative criticism about this temple activity. Some of the videos we have shown can be accessed from this page: http://www.bodhilankarama.net/Videos/Videos.htm

I am, by the way, a strict vinaya monk, but I do not see this as a Vinaya issue, nor can I see anything wrong is using the various means at our disposal to convey the Dhamma to people, indeed with the internet we are able to give the Dhamma for free to anyone who can access a computer and can reach thousands of people instead of scores.

konchog said...

indigoblue: The Buddha himself said that the major rules must remain the same (eg, celibacy) but that the minor rules could be kept or not as the Dharma passed on to other times and cultures. I'm a fully ordained monk and I just watched an episode of the BBC's 'Planet Earth.' It was highly entertaining and even included Snow Petrels getting it on. Did I break a vow? No. The spirit of the Vinaya is this: if you seek to do something out of ordinary desire, or for no good spiritual purpose, it should be left alone. Otherwise, big whoop. I love nature documentaries because I get to know the full scope of samsara as we experience it on Earth and I can develop compassion. I suspect Bhante's motives are similar.

Letter of the Law Vinaya can sometimes be bizarre, such as Burmese monks who have shown up at our (Tibetan) temple and lit up cigarettes! This is, of course, because the Buddha never mentioned smoking, but we found it foul and rude and not at all in keeping with another prime directive of the Vinaya, that of not diminishing the faith of lay people.

Also, please consider a more respectful tone with someone who has upheld the Vinaya as long as Dhammika has.

Anonymous said...

"Also, please consider a more respectful tone with someone who has upheld the Vinaya as long as Dhammika has."

I can assure you that my comment was not intended as any disrespect towards Bhante and I'd be surprised if he interpreted it as such :)

Virgin Man said...

Dear friends,

I think the rule that you should not indulge in movie is major rule. It underlines Buddhist view of entertainment. However, every rule has exception i.e "unless one is sick". This rule has exception too i.e "unless movie has more education values than entertainment"

It depends on your wisdom to see where the exception should be applied.

Virgin Man said...

Dear Bhante,

Could you do some investigation about how Buddhism doctrine (especially the Vinaya) should change according to technology and modern development? Sometime it's confusing for us laypeople to decide how flexibility that we could stretch the rule without breaking it. I think Buddhism should be a living tradition and be constantly updated to keep up with modern time.

David (TheDhamma.com) said...

Interesting discussion. I tend to lean toward the opinion that some movies are okay, in this modern world, not because the 'Vinaya is outdated' (it is not), but rather, like the Venerable mentions, some movies today are documentaries, are educational, or have Dhammic overtones to them.

I have created a topic for discussion on this, in case this discussion gets lost under new blog articles; here:


If the link does not show, copy and paste.

Unknown said...

What are movies to us today, were the Jataka tales to the Buddhist then. In the Jataka tales there is even a version of the Ramayana.

Since we are on the topic on movies, check out The Fountain:


It's quite extreme in the Buddhist symbols that it uses, but definatly one for the modern Jataka collections! ;-)

Ser Ming said...

I think in short it simply means what can be done is up to the monks. If they feel that it's okay, then it is.

In Singapore, there are monks who own landed properties and driving luxurious cars, I'm sure they find that it is okay with the Buddha.

There's no one to do check and balance on the monks these days anyway.

Shravasti Dhammika said...

Dear Indigoblue, the Vinaya says that a monk should not travel in a vehicle (yana) unless he is sick (Vin.I,191) and a vehicle is defined as 'a cart, carriage, wagon, palanquin, sedan chair', etc. (Vin.IV,339). The modern equivalent would be a bicycle, car, bus, train and probably a plane too. Happy walking! The reality is that the practice of the Vinaya has not been 'strict' since a generation or two after the Buddha. Minor rules (the parajaka and several sanghadisesa) have been either 'creatively' interpreted or more usually just ignored since the earliest days. Perhaps next time you walk from wherever you are to Singapore we could discuss the history of the Vinaya in more detail.

Dear Konchog, I did not detect any disrespect in Indigoblue's comments and wouldn’t have taken it too bad if there had have been. I thought it was warming up a bit in Mongolia!

Dear Virgin Man (interesting name) I think there is no cause for confusion. The four parajaka and several sanghadisesa pertain to morality, the rest of the monastic rules are rules of training or of etiquette. The five Precepts are rules of morality, the eight and ten Precepts are rules of training. Training rules can be (AND ALWAYS HAVE BEEN) adjusted according to the training environment and etiquette is culturally specific. I honestly cannot see that the parajaka or the five Precepts are in need of revision - they seem to me to be fundamental and universally applicable. That's not to say that they are always easy to practice or that we aren't sometimes presented with moral dilemmas. But the wisdom and mindfulness we develop as we practice Dhamma will hopefully prevent us giving in to temptation or expedience when we have to make hard choices, and help us take the best course when dealing with a dilemma.

Dear David, In Catholic monasticism they sometimes talk about 'aridity' by which they mean that a monk's faith, interest, enthusiasm and focus withers and he just 'goes through the actions.' In the Vinaya it's called 'living the holy life dissatisfied' (anabhirato brahmacariyam carati). I find this sort of thing very common in Theravadin monasticism and yet I have never heard the issue discussed, which is probably why it is so common. All the Western monks I know who disrobed did so either because they were having problems with sex (70%) or because of aridity (30%); the first often has a part to play in creating the second. All those I know who could be described as 'happy monks' have some hobby, some interest or some secondary goal outside meditation and following the Vinaya. One lovely monk I know in Sri Lanka enjoys binding books (and he's very good at it), another is fascinated by plants, yet another does a bit of painting and sketching. I know a monk who calls himself Indigoblue who will be taking up walking soon. My particular interests are history (Indian and Buddhist), art (Indian and Buddhist) and more recently, botany. Where such hobbies and interests do not take one's attention from practice they are very good for you - they keep the mind fresh and alive, they stave off routineization. So while I agree that 'documentaries' are good, sometimes a little light entertainment is okay too.

Anonymous said...


As I am sure you know, riding a vehicle in the days of the Buddha was something only reserved for the very rich. Furthermore all vehicles was powered either by humans or by animals. The true reason Buddha said monks should not ride in vehicles was in order to avoid that they indulged themselves in luxury and didn't cause suffering for the living beings pulling these vehicles. These days we must travel by vehicles. We have little choice. But if we must ride in a car we should make sure it's a plain car (rather a Volvo than a Ferrari).

Entertainment however... sorry. Here we do have a choice. I really see no need for ordained persons to watch movies for pleasure or read fancy novels that depict ideas about samsaric romance and sexuality. But this is my interpretation...maybe I am too strict in it. It doesn't matter, for me it simplifies my life and makes my meditation practice better to avoid such things as much as possible.

Bhante, next time I am on thudong around asia (on foot of course - FEB as I am) I will be sure to swing by so that you can lecture me on the Vinaya :D

With Metta

David (TheDhamma.com) said...


Good point about the aridity. As a lay person, it can be easy to forget about that.

Pretty much any film can be seen as Dhammic as nearly every screen play has some morale to the story. Many years ago there was a movie called 'Groundhog Day' starring Bill Murray. I read in Gary Gach's book that this was a 'Dharmic' movie. At first I wondered how that could be, but then remembered the repeating of the same day was like samsara; repeating it ad nauseum until he 'got it right.'

You forgot one more great hobby you have: Writing. Your writings have taught hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions. Sadhu!

Shravasti Dhammika said...

Dear Indigoblue,
I just re-read the rule and can see nothing indicating concern for draft animals or luxuriousness and I doubt that the average bullock cart was a 'luxury' vehicle. I find references to them being used to transport jars of sugar, grain and cloth. Nonetheless, should you ever come this way you would be most welcome. I'll happily arrange your accommodation, less happily massage your feet (and very unhappily hide my DVD player).

Nyiti (Gabor) said...

Flat-Earth-Buddhism? well-coined! :)