Walking down the dirt road in Namchi, I hear a car barreling up behind me at breakneck speed. Hopping out of the way, it passes in a cloud of dust. It’s filled with young monks. American rock ‘n roll blares on the radio. One of them has rolled the sleeves of his robe up to show off well-sculpted shoulders and arms. As they pass, he leans out the window with a beatific smile and gives me a thumbs up just as the car turns up the road to the monastery.
In a land where the hills are steeped with Buddhism, I’ve had to let go of this idea that monks are somehow more serene or spiritual than the rest of us. Last week in Gangtok, I saw two of them haggling over the price of a television. Another morning I passed one pissing on a bush. Even when I visited the sacred Enchay Monastery, the spot blessed by the notorious flying monk, Lama Drupthob Karpo, from the living quarters I heard men cheering a cricket match on TV.
A few years ago in Thailand I remember watching a brawl between two young monks on the temples steps. One sect was heading up, the other going down, when one monk flipped the other off. It ended in a fist fight with the older monks pulling the two hot-headed youths apart.
Watching the daily lives of monks has been both entertaining and illuminating. My image of monks as sequestered, spending their days in prayer and meditation doesn’t fit. And sometimes it’s the ordinary people who seem to be taking the path more seriously. Shopkeepers count rosary beads. People on the street chant mantras under their breath. I like the sheer humanity of people going about their daily lives with a dash of spirituality thrown in. It’s a good reminder for me, Buddhist slacker that I am, that we’re all only human with our many flaws and our moments of grace, doing the best we can.