Over on The Huffington Post, Deborah Jiang Stein asks whether a Buddhist skateboarding monk is “a contradiction or a product of the modern age.” She’s referring to the image of a monk on a caster board at Mount Emei that sparked criticism in China (“Monks should seek quietness and riding a skateboard is such a contradictory thing to Buddhist life”) and humorous applause elsewhere (“What could be a better example of the middle way than balancing on a skateboard?”). You’ve probably already seen this news pop up on the Buddhist blogs (like here, here, here and here). The contradictory aspect of this episode isn’t the monk, but rather the Buddhist community—as evidenced by the range of reactions that appear online.
The criticism here stems from misplaced perceptions of monkhood. As a spokesperson for the skateboarding* monk’s temple put it: “People get their impressions from TV or movies, where monks are praying all day long, without any motivation or desire […] But these days monks also enjoy sports like badminton, table tennis and skateboarding in the spare time, as well as praying. They even use the internet and mobile phones to promote Buddhism. This is not contradictory to Buddhism but actually is part of the Buddhist spirit.”
As modern Buddhists practicing an ancient religion, the contradiction blossoms when we expect ourselves to be modern, but our religion ancient. Especially our religious institutions—temples, artwork, monks and nuns. This disconnect between our perceptions and the reality of monasticism, as Ajahn Sujato discusses, is partly rooted in the limited contact that many Buddhists have with the monastic life. Separated by a wall of customs and tradition, we project unrealistic Buddhist ideals onto the shaven head and saffron robes. We hold monks to be the living embodiment of our Buddhist ideals—even when we might not have a solid understanding of what those ideals should be. For those of us who romanticize the monkhood as the epitome of asceticism and solitude, a monk on a skateboard runs headlong into our fantasies. Ajahn Sujato urges us to break down the barrier we maintain between ourselves and monastics—even for those of us who visit temple all the time, it is in our own best interest (not to mention the broader interest of contemporary Buddhism) to challenge our own ideas of what it means to be a monk or nun.
*A commenter on Shambhala SunSpace was quick to point out that the board in question is a caster board and not a skateboard. It’s an important distinction, but one that may seem trivial to many readers. I chose to stick with “skateboard” here to reflect the wording used elsewhere on the web. The intention is that while this wording is inaccurate, the perceptions and sentiments addressed remain the same.